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Days of Smoke by Woody Haut – Review

May 18, 2018

Woody Haut has long traversed the mean streets of noir, first as a distinguished critic and scholar of the subject, and latterly with the publication of his debut novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime in 2015.  As a storyteller, Haut offers a rich sense of atmosphere, period and narrative. His latest novel, Days of Smoke, is a semi-autobiographical tale. Days of Smoke, in many ways maps out how Haut was introduced to the great noir theme of alienation through his personal experiences as a young man in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Cry For a Nickel was set in LA in 1960: a year the noir reader will recognise as classic territory, with the Hat Squad at war with the local Underworld, crime reporters negotiating the blurred lines that separated the LAPD from the Mob, and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood disguising an extremely sordid underbelly. With the quasi-sequel Days of Smoke, the setting is still LA but the time is June 1968. In critical terms, this time-shift marks the transition from film noir to neo-noir where both crime films and hardboiled fiction evolved stylistically to parallel societal changes. Much of the hidden tensions of the 1950s had come boiling over the surface by this point. Hollywood’s power has been denuded. Radical groups are running amok. Civil society is in freefall with race riots at home and an unpopular war abroad.

Connie Myles is a twenty-one-year-old woman working at the draft board. It’s ironic employment for someone who, as the opening line candidly states, ‘hated the fucking war’. One day, accompanied by his father Abe (the main protagonist of Cry For a Nickel), Mike Howard walks in to declare himself a conscientious objector. Mike doesn’t stand a chance against the swaggering chauvinists who are Connie’s colleagues. Men who, upon rejecting Mike’s pacifism, ‘were ebullient, like they were high on something, like they had just done their bit to defeat the enemy, like one more dope-smoking, draft-dodging loser had been beaten down and the country was, for the time being, in safe hands.’ Disgusted by the system, and determined to help Mike through one small act of defiance, Connie steals his file. This sparks a chain reaction of bizarre, gripping and violent events, loosely tied together in the best tradition of Elmore Leonard, which includes the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and a brutal double homicide reminiscent of the Manson Family murders. For much of the novel, Mike can only stand back and watch, such as when Kennedy is shot dead in the Ambassador hotel with a gun that, ironically for a peacenik, had once been in Mike’s possession:

Bobby lay on his back, a pool of blood forming behind his head.

Mike could hear people screaming.

They killed him.

Not again.

They killed him.

Who killed him?

Others had been shot as well.

Who?

How many?

No one knew.

‘They’ seems quite revealing in this instance, suggesting both the chaos in the immediacy of the moment and the paranoia of characters caught in webs of conspiracies. Who killed him? ‘They’ killed Bobby just as They killed Jack. Are ‘They’ the CIA, the Mafia, lone gunmen or is just everyone pitted against each in this world as Nixon cultivates his Silent Majority.

Having recently worked with Woody Haut on a book about James Ellroy I was informed by the author to expect an Ellrovian influence in Days of Smoke, and it’s visible when Mike meets right-wing nut, or agent provocateur if you prefer, Jonathan, who goes by the name of Juan as he thinks masquerading as a Cuban right-winger would be the fastest way to make people hate him. Juan developed anti-social tendencies after his mother was murdered. He describes dressing up as a Nazi to agitate Jewish students at the school he attends, Fairfax High, which readers might recognise as being based on Ellroy’s own deranged behaviour when he attended Fairfax. Ellroy’s actions led to the future Demon Dog of American Literature being expelled, and it must be a notorious chapter of the school’s history as Fairfax do not list Ellroy as one of their alumni, even though they do list other notable students who dropped out such as Demi Moore. But while Haut is covering similar territory to Ellroy, both thematically and from memory and experience, Haut views conspiracies as less coordinated than the crimes committed by Ellroy’s unholy trinity of Mob/Intelligence Services/Cuban exiles. Ellroy created a secret history in which everything connects, partly through J. Edgar Hoover’s massive archive of classified files. Haut’s approach is less structuralist, not as grandiose and perhaps less contrived than Ellroy’s. There are some very satisfying plot twists in Days of Smoke, but the characters are caught as much in noir fatalism as they are in the military-industrial complex. This to me was the biggest achievement of the novel, to merge Ellroy’s institutional corruption with the individual despair of David Goodis. As Ron Slate identifies in his review of the novel, the central premise of Days of Smoke is rooted in autobiography: ‘In 1968, Woody Haut appeared at the office of the Pasadena draft board to reestablish his status as a conscientious objector.’ In comparing Haut’s experiences of the Sixties with Ellroy’s it is possible to read them as opposite poles of thought – one left-wing the other right-leaning – and yet more drawn to each other in their critique of authoritarianism than at first apparent. Ellroy had his first brush with the military in 1965. He volunteered for the US Army, his father having forbidden him to join the Marine Corps as Ellroy ‘might have gone to Vietnam and got my ass shot’. After taking an instant dislike to army life, Ellroy faked a nervous breakdown in order to be discharged, thus permanently avoiding the Vietnam War. By the time Haut was registering as a conscientious objector, a path that would take him to London which would become his home from where he would write his seminal studies of the genre, Ellroy was drifting between homelessness, crime and several stints in the LA County Jail. Both authors’ different paths would lead them into becoming expert noir practitioners, as Mike says of Juan, ‘(he) had more than his share of misfortunes, which had turned him into the person he now was, that this right-wing thing was just a guise, a way of separating himself from others, allowing him to become someone different, that the death of his mother was the beginning of a process that simply allowed him to shed one skin for another, though what he was today might not necessarily be who he would become tomorrow.’

Days of Smoke is a crime novel set in a decade teetering on the brink of revolution. The reader knows how the history will play out, but there are still plenty of surprises in the narrative and, not to mention, some insightful parallels with the current fractious political climate. In forging a new noir style out of political history, personal experience and his encyclopedic knowledge of noir, Woody Haut has crafted a modern classic in the genre. Not to be missed.

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