There can be some significant genre blur between neo-noir/crime fiction and horror fiction; noir by its very definition is dark, and when it plumbs the most extreme depths of murder and the evil in the human psyche, it’s inherently horrific. Nicholas Kaufmann wrote a good essay on hardboiled horror that discusses the intersections of the genres in more detail.
I’ve been reading more noir fiction not specifically aimed at horror readers in order to get a better grip on the genre. One book I read recently on the recommendation of a friend was Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford.
Wild at Heart is the first in a series of novels about Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune’s misadventures in the South. It’s a neo-noir that gained even more popularity after David Lynch’s 1990 film adaptation. This short novel is written in tight, vignette-like chapters, and there’s much to admire in the colorful, crisp prose.
[Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault follows]
However, Gifford switches from third person subjective narration in Chapter Two (“Wild at Heart”) to third person objective in Chapter Three (“Uncle Pooch”) and in doing so made a misstep that kicked me out of the novel, nearly for good. In Chapter Two, we spend a little time inside Lula’s head: “Society, such as it was, thought Lula, was certainly no worse off with Bob Ray Lemon eliminated from it.” (Gifford 5).
In the “Uncle Pooch” chapter, Lula tells Sailor about being raped by Pooch (a friend of her parents), and the scene would have come off much better if Gifford had continued with the third person subjective narration to give us some of her thoughts. But he stays out of her head. And to me, that felt like a cop-out on Gifford’s part and came across as if he didn’t really want to have to imagine what rape might be like from the standpoint of the victim. Consequently, her rape story felt like a cheap attempt to make her character more complex and sympathetic; I could imagine Gifford re-reading his first chapter and thinking, “Crap, she’s a bimbo! Gotta fix that!”
I don’t object to rape in fiction per se; it’s an all too common part of the human experience and omitting it would be unrealistic. I’ve used it in my own stories, but I have done my best to avoid using it as a cheap emotional push button or element of titillation. I was the same age as Lula when the book was published, and I am quite familiar with the breadth and depth of Southern rape culture. When I was 18, I realized that every girl and woman I knew well had been sexually assaulted in some way, usually before they were out of their teens. Not some of them; not most of them; all of them. None reported their assaults to the police or even their parents because it was never the “right” kind of rape. The women and girls I knew just quietly swallowed the trauma and continued with their lives. Because what else could they do?
So, it’s completely plausible that a family friend could rape Lula without report or consequence. It’s plausible that Lula would downplay the memory in order to live with it: “I mean he raped me and all, but I guess there’s all different kinds of rapes. I didn’t exactly want him to do it but I suppose once it started it didn’t seem all that terrible.” (Gifford 12)
But it’s not plausible that Lula would be okay with Sailor – who’s supposed to be a decent guy at his core – getting turned on by her rape story:
“So how’d he finally nail you? Right there in the kitchen?”
Lula put down her hairbrush and looked in at Sailor. He was lying there naked and he had an erection.
“Does my tellin’ you about this get you off?” she said. “Is that why you want to hear it?”
Sailor laughed. “I can’t help it happenin’, sweetheart. Did he do it more than once?” (Gifford 12)
At that point, I would have expected her to jam her hairbrush in Sailor’s eye socket or at least throw his sorry ass out of bed. And she doesn’t. She doesn’t even seem to get upset; her tears at the end of the chapter feel like a tacked-on afterthought rather than a genuinely poignant character moment.
Why doesn’t she get angry? What is she thinking staying with a guy who would get a hard-on when she reveals a traumatic personal story? This is where I really needed to be let in on some of her thoughts to find the scene believable and to feel that Gifford isn’t just using her rape as a combination of easy tragedy and titillation.
A few chapters in, Gifford ups the titillation in “The Difference” as Sailor regales Lula with his story of his first time making out with a girl, and she counters with her story of getting an abortion as a teenager (Gifford 24-25), and in the chapter after that, “Dixie Peach”, Sailor tells Lula of losing his virginity to a hooker in Mexico at 15 and then having anonymous sex with a girl at a party. Lula’s apparently titillated by his story (Gifford 29) and it seems the reader is supposed to be, too. The tone of these later chapters isn’t significantly different from the tone of “Uncle Pooch”; in the world of Sailor and Lula, most rape is merely a kind of unfortunate surprise sex: a little sad, yes, but also kinda hot. In a later chapter, Dalceda tells Lula’s mother about having sex with her partner Louis in his sleep:
“Last night I come into the bedroom and Louis is sleepin’, but he’s got this big ol’ hard-on. Well, big for Louis, anyway. So climb over him and take it out of his pajama bottoms and stick it in me.”
“Dal!” Marietta squealed. “You’re lyin’!”
“How else am I gonna get him to do it?” (Gifford 118)
We never know what Louis thinks of the incident. But if the scene had involved a male character jovially relating that he got fed up and decided to just “stick it in” a sleeping female partner who had been refusing sex with him, that would seem like rape to most readers. As a reader and writer, I tire of the narrative that men are always glad for sex, consensual or not, and can’t be raped.
The ickiness of this aspect of Gifford’s storytelling might not have bothered me quite so much if I hadn’t recently read Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution. Saterstrom’s Southern gothic portrays far more instances of rape, but it’s treated as the kind of soul-crumbling, dehumanizing trauma that it is in real life. I wish that Gifford had handled his portrayal of rape with more deftness.
Gifford, Barry. Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Print
Saterstrom, Selah. The Pink Institution: A Novel. Minneapolis: Coffee House, 2004. Print.
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