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Greg Rappleye

Homer, Faulkner, Noir


"Oh, you are odd, I see."
     Ino to Odysseus, Book V, The Odyssey

How the modern noir resembles the ancient noir.
The war is over. Odysseus, adrift since leaving
Calypso, on his way home. Lost in a storm,
he is visited by Ino, former mortal,
now a minor goddess, who, like a Hollywood starlet,
has changed her name, in this case
because her husband was a murderer.
Donít ask. The myths are so complex.
Anyway, she lands on his raft
in the form of a gannet. Odd enough,
even in those ancient days when a seabird might
land on a raft, sweet tangle in her beak
(which becomes a magic cloak), and begin
talking, like a smart-aleck waitress
in a desert roadhouse. But Ino speaks the words
so quietly, Homer barely writes them.
Of every translation Iíve read, only Rouse
nurses them from the text. Even Odysseus
isnít sure what she says, hesitates,
is seen by Poseidon before he can escape,
and the poem goes on, dark and inexplicable,

like the pilot to The Big Sleep,
Faulkner brought in by Howard Hawks
to make some sense of it, to "punch it up,"
and Faulkner makes it better, but more confusing,
until Hawks, watching the final cut, despairs,
and tells Faulkner, who is on his way to
Rowan Oak, to write one more scene and
heíll bring back the stars (Bogart & Bacall)
to film it. And he will, time and again, trying
starlet after starlet in the sceneís crucial role,
until Patricia Clarke finally gets it right: It is night
outside a shed in the desert. Marlowe fires his gun,
the smoke licking the fender of his Ford
coupe. Sapped from behind and cut,
we see him, coming to, captive of Eddie Marsís
wife, who needs to know what Howard Hawks canít
figure out: What has Eddie Mars done and what
is his link to Sean Regan? So Marlowe tells her
Your husband is a murderer, and she slaps him,
hard, and walks out of the room. Sheís all right,
Marlowe says, rubbing his cheek, I like her.

And so does Faulkner, who finishes the scene
at 3 a.m., on the Missouri Pacific
just west of Memphis. He takes a last sip
of bourbon and branch water, kisses the script
for luck, shoves it into an envelope
and shambles out to find the porter, a man,
shiny and black, who slides around the club car
like St. Elmoís fire. Faulkner tells him
to mail the envelope at the next stop
and hands him a silver dollar. Yes, sir,
the porter says, and at Memphis
steps off the train, drops the packet
into the box, turns and flips
the silver dollar, a coin so heavy and slow
he counts the spinsófive, six, seven, then snaps it
from the air, the back of his black hand
beginning to sweat, shining brighter than
the coin it covers. Across the platform, a soldier
lights a smoke and mumbles something
vile, because he is drunk and because
a black man isnít supposed to have a silver dollar
in the State of Tennessee. What did he say?
The porter misses a step, his skin beginning to burn,
then shakes it off, laughs and gets back on the train.
It is 1946. The war is over. It is the cusp of
the Postmodern Era. The porter knows it is
all aboard this train that is leaving, all aboard
this train that is going home.

 

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