ISBN 978-1-952419-51-5 336 pages $20.00
“I have this overpowering sense that the guys at the top are faking it, all of it, and never really lived at all. I think I saw the vanguard of the empty guys back when I was still a college boy—guys who knew a little and liked to pat each other on the back. . . . But they were the advance party for the concept guys, the ones who made all the self-important, flatulent, derivative crap.”
Alec feels that everything—his past, the rudiments of civil society, the country itself—have slipped away and now he needs to make some sense of things, and finally do something. Alec Carton, a fifty-eight-year-old jazz musician whose wife has just been shot and killed by an angry investor in the office of a financial corporation, leaves San Francisco for Brooklyn, his birthplace, after he reads a story in The Times about his cousin, Ben Gossett. Ben has also been shot by the police after depositing the frozen body of his mother on the front desk at his local Con-Ed office, her power having been turned off for nonpayment—in the middle of winter right before Christmas.
Larry Kearney was Born in Brooklyn, New York. He moved to San Francisco in ’64 and became involved with the group of poets centered around North Beach and generally and inaccurately described as the San Francisco Renaissance—Spicer, MacInnis, Duerden, Duncan, Brautigan, Stanley, Blaser, Kyger, Meltzer, Hirschman et al. His closest friends in poetry were Jack Spicer and Richard Duerden, and Spicer’s insistence on being willing to, and capable of, saying what the poem wants to say when it wants to say it, endures for him as a working definition—poetry as the whole of the real—the seen and unseen, heard and unheard—the voices of the haunted living and the unsuccessfully dead. He currently lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Mouron-sur-Yonne, France.
Class Warfare challenges readers, survivors of the Sixties and Trump, to differentiate between outsider traditions for righting wrongs, between personal revenge and the vigilante justice vengeance offers. Kearney’s narrator, 58 years old in 1996, remembering his high school friends: “We were American Pragmatists and we took it as a fact there was no reason at all not to do what needed to be done when it needed to be done.” In the mid-Fifties, Ed Abbey defended his Masters thesis on the morality of violence in anarchy and subsequently wrote The Brave Cowboy. After January 6, 2021, such concepts have lost their popular appeal for Americans. We have cut open the wasp nest in winter and discovered activity. Kearney reminds us, and we need reminding as more of the meritocracy gets exposed, it is no longer the American century. When a drunk Carton tries to pull a Sonny Rollins on the bridge, he and his horn get rousted for “public nuisance.” For most of us, it never was our century.
On Class Warfare
Back when it was called the “American Century,” Raymond Chandler’s first publications were hopelessly romantic poems, and there was that detective novel that Robert Duncan typed for Jack Spicer so it could be buried without a name about the time Spicer initiated Larry Kearney into the San Francisco poetry scene. So it does not shock for Kearney to reveal himself, on the heels of the publication of the 300-page Selected Poems, Volume 1, as the author of a murder novel. While Class Warfare does not originate in Raymond Chandler’s fiction, or finish what Spicer started with the posthumously entitled Tower of Babel, Kearney’s novel continues their underground resistance against (his narrator recalls Jack Kerouac’s term) the “anemic masquereaux.” “All my life,” the narrator bemoans,
I’ve worked outside the lines and now I find that there are cold-eyed assholes who want to be perceived the same way, to invent romantic pasts for themselves. They want to pretend they were Beats. For God’s sake…I heard a guy talking in a financial district bar in San Francisco…how he’s sorry he never got to meet Kerouac because he thought they were a lot alike, you know. “There were some wild days for me.”
Fake cowboys who’d sprung up out of graduate schools everywhere
These faux tough guys win and lose, and win again, more power, money, and privilege than even Chandler could have imagined in America. Kearney has the villain Tom Buchanan, CEO at Caritas and Caritas (he misreads “Caritas” for Joyce’s claritas), unapologetically explain he never intended to hurt the powerless poor: “The market goes its way and you can help it work or you can fucking slow it down to nothing. This isn’t choice, this is going with how things are. The market couldn’t care less about your delicate feelings. Man proposes, God disposes. That’s Alexander Pope…The market is the rule book for human life. The market is how God operates in the world.” But an old woman has frozen to death in her apartment when she cannot pay her utility bill because her pension fund has been legally stolen by Buchanan. Yep, Daisy’s husband--Tom Buchanan shares his name, as in a Jim Jarmusch film, with the Fitzgerald character. “When Tom Buchanan read The Great Gatsby in community college, he thought the other Tom Buchanan was pretty much right on. He knew Nick Carraway didn’t approve of him, but Nick Carraway didn’t understand much. A lot of moral this and that, but what was Buchanan supposed to do? …Gatsby was just another loser.” Buchanan’s term paper mukbang had received publication in the humanities department’s annual. BTW, Buchanan also misattributes Thomas à Kempis’ motto, from The Imitation of Christ, for Pope. This is the bloodless bastard that Alec Carton must kill. The dead woman was the mother of a boyhood buddy; the “class” in this warfare indicates Carton’s acute awareness of the volatility of social status as well as revisiting his early school days. Class Warfare is the apocalyptic version of the growing-up-in-New York theme Larry Kearney perfected in Power & Misery, another novel recently released.
Alec Carton narrates Kearney’s murder novel. Carton is not a cartoon version of Philip Marlowe—both characters are constituted by Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder.” In passages when he isn’t being hard-boiled, he reveals he has been bookish since childhood, and enjoys a quiet reputation for his alto sax. To my ear, the narrator’s voice honors Marlowe’s vernacular in a welcome way, like a talented pianist covering a Sonny Clark song. (“…I’m a musician and I hate the non-lyric, plodding, traditional sensibility. So when what I say is awkward, well, understand I don’t have to say it that way—I’m just trying to be simple and complete, but from way out there.”) Every year of the 30 years I taught Big Sleep I wished Marlowe could be literary, or at least something better than he is in his masquerade as the “fairy” rare book buyer. In Chandler’s masterpiece, books seem to emanate from the gay LA culture we must not speak about and a dark world of underground pornography; i.e., they are alien to Marlowe. (Gershon Legman and Judith Freman cannot delete Laverne Terrace or the bookstore scene.) And Spicer makes John James Ralston’s sexual identity one of the novel’s unsolved mysteries. The portrait of police detective Nick Radice is the road out of Chandler’s gayphobia. Alec Carton’s many easy references to popular songs and classic Hollywood movies make a pleasing refrain that works something like the cultureless Marlowe’s barrage of figures of speech the reader comes to anticipate. On a single unpretentious page, Kearney has Carton refer to a Randolph Scott western, a painting by Gaugain, and Fritz Lang! Also, keep in mind, Kearney can sling the timely simile with the master, too:
He looks at me funny, like somebody’s changed the channel during the Super Bowl.
After a couple of hours in [a theme bar], I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck full of old copies of Rolling Stone.
If Carton’s voice is Chandler, his prose style is John Fante. There is never the banality of suspense we suffer for Patricia Highsmith’s endings. Kearney has his narrator soaring into the romantic skies only to spot his prey and dive for the kill.
Heard Les Paul play Over the Rainbow one night at Fat Tuesday’s and I couldn’t figure, never could with Les, where the shimmer came from. He wasn’t a guy with that kind of heart, not so you could see it, anyway, and word was he’d treated his wife like shit. But there he was with his arm pegged with steel to hold it in place for the picking and this castle of dream aspirations just rising all around him as if there were another world and he had one foot in it.