Friday, April 24, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Sympathy for
the Devil,” by Kent Anderson

(Editor’s note: It’s milestone time, folks. Believe it or not, this is the 50th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from John Shannon, author of the new detective thriller Palos Verdes Blue, his 11th novel featuring Jack Liffey, a writer turned finder of lost children and other displaced souls in Los Angeles. To read an interview with Shannon, click here. January Magazine’s review of a previous Liffey novel, The Dark Streets, can be found here.)

One day in 1988, in a London bookstore, I was browsing for a crime novel. What I stumbled on was Kent Anderson’s Sympathy for the Devil. I bought it because an acknowledgment inside mentioned James Crumley, the great--now late--Montana crime writer, but little did I expect the fiendish trap waiting for me in that book. When I dipped into it on the underground going home, I was suddenly stuck fast in a chilling no-pest-strip of horror that has never let me go to this day. When I finish books, I date them on the last page, out of some inexplicably daffy banality, and my fallen-to-bits copy of Sympathy has 12 separate dates on its last page.

Sergeant Hanson is the central character in this amazing novel. And as with most noir heroes, he’s caught between worlds, between one life gone and another not yet found--aimless, a bit violent, headstrong in high school in Middle America, with nothing else to do but beat the draft by enlisting. This noir hero reads Yeats on his long-range patrols, from a paperback that has become warped to the shape of his leg, but he is no ineffectual idealist, yearning to be back “in the world.” Sympathy is not your standard Vietnam novel, following its protagonist along that predictable high-strung arc from starry-eyed recruit to stone-bitter vet, wearing a hapless humanitarianism on its sleeve.

In fact, halfway through this story, Hanson does his best to come home after serving just a single tour. But when he gets here, he can only loop off into inarticulate rages against the girlfriends and other civilians who remain innocent of his brittle world, beating them up almost at random.

In ’Nam, Hanson becomes a Green Beret and falls hard for the God of War. He and his pals are helplessly in love with the heady power of it all, like any 18-year-olds given heavy weapons. “Hanson inhaled and smelt gunpowder and sweet blood,” writes Anderson. “He could taste it on the backs of his eyeballs. He felt as if he had aligned himself with the fault lines beneath the earth. He could point his finger and tracers would appear. His gestures set off explosions.”

War, like sin in many other noirs, always has a terrible dark attraction. Hanson’s pals Quinn and Silver are truly brutal, trained to be marauders in a land they don’t even want to understand. Hanson stands only an inch back from this abyss of massive violation, but it’s a crucial inch. He enjoys war in the way Kurtz must have enjoyed his depredations in the Congo, sucked in by a lunatic logic and a vanity that couldn’t be denied.

And--the heart of this particular darkness--Hanson forces us to share in his enjoyment. He seduces us with the cruel humor and camaraderie and expertise of his killcraft. Sympathy for the Devil is, paradoxically, often a very funny book, and the humor is a weapon in your seduction. Like it or not, you come to participate in a profane universe, with all its hellish moral ambiguity.

And then, in an unspeakably apocalyptic ending, unlike anything in all literature, Anderson turns all this mad logic against you in a nihilist ordeal of such power that comedy and tragedy flow into one another, and you can only watch numbly as your values float away facedown in the river. It’s like being bought off by someone truly evil, coming to accept the horror of your corruption, and then having your corrupter turn and mock you for it.

* * *
Let me try to come at my fascination with Kent Anderson’s chilling dark novel in another way. There is a ragged little subset of noir literature that I find I enjoy more than most other writing. It seems to me to be the harsh breath of the modern world--and I apologize in advance if it also seems to be largely a male preserve. Names: Raymond Chandler, the early Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers), the early Richard Ford (especially the magnificent and regrettably overlooked The Ultimate Good Luck.)

These books are morally serious, hard-edged and unsentimental, dealing with silences and disappointments and inner strength. And rage. Often, but not always, they are minimalist in form. The harsh outpost is full of magnificent spare dialogue out of Hemingway and Chandler, usually crisp and indirect, description that is often witty and vivid, shocking with its abrupt concrete metaphors. More names: John Gregory Dunne (True Confessions), Conrad himself, some Graham Greene. None of these writers live exclusively in the dangerous noir outpost, out there among the Picts and wild men who paint themselves blue. But most of the writers I’ve just mentioned have paid their dues out there and know that the world is not benign, not easy, not pacific and above all probably not redeemable in any grand fashion. Down these mean tales men and women must go who are not themselves mean.

It’s a noble, existential calling. Out on the frontier, our surrogate adventurers have to face the ugly and cruel every day, and every day they have to reinvent human decency, out of nothing. It’s a bleak vision, of course, and the characters are often too willing to settle for less rather than more. Sometimes it’s enough for them simply to know that decency might have been, but wasn’t.

Hanson patrols that frontier for us, as witty and vivid and cocky as any of the others, and though he never finds anything to plug the God-sized hole in the world, he offers a Hanson-sized presence.

I sent author Anderson a mash note some years ago, because I liked his book so much, and we ended up swapping novels and becoming friends. He told me of rare “sightings” friends had made of his book on store shelves here and there across the country, and of his fantasy (oh-so common to many novelists) that the publisher had a conveyor belt that ran from the warehouse straight to the shredder.

His first reviewers had mistaken the book for one of those lobotomized war fantasies that come in noxious sequels--The Butcher, Number 23. “Morally repugnant,” one review had said. I suppose it was not all that surprising, given Sympathy for the Devil’s unflinching gaze at the dark megalomaniac attractions of power, but this weirdly aberrant reading consigned Anderson’s first novel to a numbing hell of forgettable bloodlust fiction. Just as that same attitude would have nudged James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and Jim Thompson to the identical margins.

These reviewers couldn’t have made it through to the end of this noir classic. I won’t give away the bone-chilling details that mark the implosion of Hanson’s universe, but there’s no way to mistake it for a loony “feel-good” shoot-’em-up. Of course, on the other hand, whenever we actually meet, I’m very cautious with Anderson. After all, he actually was a Green Beret sent out on Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols, and I can never be quite sure he won’t punch my lights out when he learns I was an antiwar activist.


Jon said...

Thanks for the post. I'm a big Jim Thompson fan, and this book sounds like it's right up my alley.

Craig said...

I've got this book and Anderson's Night Dogs waiting on my to-be-read shelf. I think they just moved up a few steps. Excellent review and I love your books, too.

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend "Night Dogs".

Anyone know if this author is still writing? Or even alive? I haven't been able to find anything about what hes done in the last 10 years.

Anonymous said...

Kent Anderson is now living in Santa Fe, NM and is in the process of writing a new book.

Unknown said...

sympathy for the devil is one my all time favourites. i too, bought it in a bookshop in england (although to be fair, i live here!) in 1991.

i really enjoyed night dogs too, and am thrilled to hear he is writing another book.

Andy Sexton said...

This is my favourite book of all time. The pathos of the story is hypnotic. I have read it again and again over the years and my copy is from 1988 with the rice paddy cover with head and helicopter montage. I am waiting for it to be released to Kindle so I can keep my original book as it is.

Anonymous said...

When I was 16 I found "Sympathy for the devil" at a richmond city book give away, stamped "This Book has been DISCARDED by Richmond City Library" For years I could only make it halfway before I was over my head but finally in my late twenties I pick it back up and was rocked when I finished. Many readings later, it still gets me. For a civilian, it's about as close to an explanation of war, killing and Pals as it gets. My book is hardback first addition and the "Discarded" stamped on it seems so sad yet perfect. Like the war dogs that guard the perimeter, killed in action or put down by the hands that made them. Regardless, they not coming home