Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
I’m guessing it would have been 1976, graduate school, and a seminar in the American 1930s, history, literature, political thought, economics, and culture, the latter the more encompassing word in that list. I thought to make an argument that “nascent” to American Literature during that decade was the emergence of tough-guy literature, and that such was an American original literary genre. I was prepared to defend myself in that seminar against arguments that if I professed an enthusiasm for tough-guy novels, well, as a scholar I lacked seriousness and mistook literature for entertainment.
I argued, however, that when Philip Marlowe says in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye that “I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars. . .” such writing is as deeply existential as anything written by Hemingway—and perhaps better. Even in his best moments, Hemingway could never “type” a line like “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Or, “The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.” Or, one of my favorites: “She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.”
Who was this Hemingway guy after all except “[a] guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you believe it must be good.” To which the big man adds, “That must take a hell of a long time.”
Philip Marlowe, guilty of insubordination, or as Marlowe himself put it, “talking back,” and likely no patience for Hemingway’s walking wounded.
But apart from enjoying such writing, I was interested in making the argument that the tough-guy is the embodiment of American Stoicism and although such has never truly been articulated as congenial to American Philosophy at large, as in, say, pragmatism, stoic philosophy’s presence is remarkable. Thus if tough-guy literature is a unique American literary genre the argument is supported by American Stoic Philosophy.
The tough-guy’s reincarnation, if there is such is a thing, abounds today in Rapp, Reacher, Robicheaux, Davenport, McGee of course (if a bit dated), Bosch, and Quinn Colson, Ace Atkins’ southern tough-guy; his The Redeemers is the fifth in what are now installments.
Colson is, as might be expected, a stoic man with a tough-guy history: former United States Army Ranger, a veteran of Afghanistan, whose father was a Hollywood stuntman and womanizer. He’s recovering from a break-up with the beautiful Tibbehah county coroner and undertaker Ophelia Bundren, proof enough that Atkins has read not only Shakespeare but Faulkner and enjoys literary suggestiveness.
In this manner, too: Colson’s sister, Caddy, is back on drugs in a Memphis slum. Her boyfriend, a Christian preacher, has also been murdered. There’s some exposition here, in other words, where issues and themes in a previous Colson novel, The Forsaken, are background for The Redeemers. Faulkner did much the same.
And it’s Mississippi politics: Following his service, Colson has returned to his home town of Jericho and become sheriff.
His stoic purpose?
To make safe the lives of the people he loves most; Jericho is at a crossroad: corruption, drugs, increasing disorder, everything insidious, a cancer on the moral soul of Jericho, Mississippi, county seat of Tibbehah County.
Crime boss Johnny Stagg whose behind-the-scenes maneuverings have led to Colson’s being voted out of his job as county sheriff. Stagg’s replacement is Rusty Wise, “a thick-bodied little cuss with bright red hair and fleshy red cheeks.”
Stagg’s right-hand man is an ex-military soldier of fortune named Ringold whose job is “to protect Johnny’s old ass when the bullets [start] to fly.” Ringold has proven his worth and now works with Stagg helping to run the Rebel Truck Stop and the ladies next door at the Booby Trap:
“How’d it go last night? Stagg said. “Any trouble?”
“Smooth night,” Ringold said. “We had a couple of kids up from State that kept on getting onstage….”
“Them Bulldogs don’t have no respect for strippers.”
“Ole Miss kids are just as bad,” Ringold said. “They just tip better.”
“Yeah,” Stagg said. “But God bless them Rebels. Those boys will call a naked woman ma’am.”
There are, though, worries about Rusty Wise, the new sheriff. Stagg whispers to Ringold that “‘Rusty Wise ain’t the man I thought he was.'”
“How so?” Ringold asks.
“I tried to be friendly and he want on and got uppity….Started talking about integrity.”
“Doesn’t the man sell insurance?”
“Exactly what I’m talking about here.”
There’s some humor, of course, a wink maybe, a rueful nod, but it’s also the depravity of human nature in all its roiling diversity.
Out stoic tough-guy, Quinn Colson, opposes this diversity less by enforcing justice and more by enforcing his own idea of right. But by imposing punishment, it’s clear he hasn’t gone rogue so much as he’s beholding to an authority larger than himself even if that authority is his own sense of justice and his own sense of right.
It’s a characteristic of tough-guys who are not, by the way, white knights. In each case, they remain within the bounds of their own code but with less and less regard for the details of an established hierarchy which is another name for bureaucracy. They make good libertarians.
Are these tough-guys tortured and conflicted?
Well, yes, but only to a degree, as would anyone witness to every day’s feast day of fools. On New Year’s Eve, there’s an outrageous break-in at the home of Larry Cobb, the local lumber baron. Using a backhoe, the thieves smash through one side of Cobb’s palatial home and lift out a 500-pound safe. Apart from the cash and jewelry, the safe holds a ledger recording a long list of payoffs and kickbacks involving Cobb and Stagg.
There are archetypes here of course, even in the movies: Chuck Norris comes to mind about whom memes abound: When Chuck slices onions the onions cry. It’s more likely fair to suggest that the tough-guy is stoic and never whiney, guided less by his passions and more by a reasoned calm while carrying himself with a wariness. The tough-guy’s gaze is unalloyed. If Quinn Colson is stone-faced, however, it doesn’t mean he’s stone-hearted; he’s a man of honor by instinct without a thought about it.
Raymond Chandler once said it best: The tough-guy “will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.” In The Redeemers, Johnny Stagg comes to know that best.
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