Friday 2 December 2022

I'm rich. Who the hell wants to be happy?

The Long Goodbye (Philip Marlowe, #6) I once knew a man who was an alcoholic. He was intellectually brilliant, literally a rocket scientist. When sober and not hungover he was charming, but under the influence of booze he became nasty, unreasonable and incapable of work. Why do I mention this? Well, I've just finished reading Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye in which there are at least three alcoholic characters.

Drinking and drunkenness pervade the book. Right at the beginning, Philip Marlowe meets Terry Lennox when the latter is "drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith." Lennox is an ex-soldier, the unhappy husband of a wealthy wife; "I’m rich. Who the hell wants to be happy?". The two men strike up a friendship over the next few months, drinking gimlets in a local bar until one night Lennox needs to leave town.

Later in the story Marlowe helps a writer named Roger Wade, another unhappy husband, this one struggling to finish his latest book. When he's drunk he's "‘Horrible. Bright and hard and cruel. He thinks he is being witty when he is only being nasty." Wade suffers black-outs, or he's off with the fairies on addictive medication.

The third alcoholic is of course Marlowe himself. Much like Lennox and Wade, he has become a man who doesn't seem to care about anything and has nothing to live for.

The Long Goodbye, then, is dark, filled with fatalism, addiction and corruption. There's plenty of shocking violence too, often perpetrated by the cops who are bullish and corrupt. The wealthy people who aren't addicts are bored and engaged in extramarital sex with their "Idle Valley" neighbours. None of them are likeable.

In spite of this I enjoyed it. It's narrated by Marlowe himself in the same fast style as The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. According to the book's Wikipedia page, Chandler himself reckoned it "my best book", and of the ones I've read, I reluctantly agree. The Big Sleep is fine as an introduction to the hard-bitten Marlowe, and The Long Goodbye shares with the first in the series the characters of a powerful father and wayward daughters. Farewell My Lovely is full of fantastic descriptions and is more lighthearted. They both reflect Chandler's excellent education. In the later book there's a nod to the detective's Elizabethan namesake Christopher Marlowe, a jibe referencing Gustave Flaubert "that makes you an intellectual, a critic, a savant of the literary world", and criticism of Khachaturian's violin concerto like "working in a tractor factory... a loose fan belt." The Long Goodbye has serious themes and fewer wonderful descriptions, although they do still shine through; "The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back."

At the end I wanted some sort of redemption, but how could there be? Like "Scott Fitzgerald... the best drunken writer since Coleridge, who took dope", there was only the recognition that Chandler, himself an alcoholic, had somehow written a masterpiece.

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