A hardboiled novel about a hardboiled novelist. A main character who is a hard man, who has the last name Hardman. Might as well just get straight to the point, huh?
Get to the point David Karp did with this no-frills novel from 1953. Originally published by Lion Books (who, in their short run over the late ‘40s to mid-‘50s also issued titles by the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Day Keene), Hardman is the kind of raw, unsentimental book that thrills the noir-loving set.
That main character’s full name is Jack Hardman. He comes up as a streetwise New York kid, whose parents don’t give a damn about him, and who’s often in trouble with authority figures. As a very young man, he gets pulled in for a statutory rape charge. The judge who hears the case sees some potential in Hardman’s character and sentences him to probation, under his own watch. The judge reads some ultra-realistic writings Hardman does, where he describes the brutal lifestyle he has led to that point, including depictions of the grim people and places therein, and the judge believes he has a potential writer under his care. The judge shows Hardman’s scribblings to a friend of his who is a professional in the publishing world. This man agrees that Hardman is meant to be an author, then off goes the story.
Fast forward some number of years, and Hardman is now a wildly successful writer. His books are not of such literary quality that he’s likely to win any awards or receive critical acclaim, meanwhile, they’re salacious enough that his publisher and literary agency are always on the verge of being sued by some kind of decency-protecting organization. But the books sell in large numbers to a loyal audience always ready to pounce on his next release. Hardman allows no distractions while he’s writing his godless novels, will even turn down the offer of some steamy nookie from his best ladyfriend when he’s at work on a book. He doesn’t do revisions and generally doesn’t read any of his own works after he turns them in. He is a fierce man who focuses clearly on what he wants at a given moment.
Hardman is a bully. People are just objects to him, to be used if they serve a purpose, to be ignored or abused otherwise. Throughout the story, he terrorizes and brutalizes innocent bystanders unlucky enough to cross his hedonistic path. Some of his most viciously boorish antics take place at the office of his literary agent, who happens to be a childhood “friend” (the quotes are needed there because it’s a huge stretch to say that Hardman is a friend to anybody).
At one point, Hardman plows through his agent’s client registry and demands that the agent kick to the curb every writer on the list whose books are not selling in vast numbers. As the agency’s leading money-maker, he can make these kinds of demands. His agent has no choice but to follow Hardman’s orders, writing Dear John letters to those struggling writers, including a few fragile souls to whom he is especially sympathetic.
Here is the book’s third person narrator following Hardman’s agent’s thoughts as he reflects on the predicament of representing the monster:
Green put his head in his hands and felt sick. He had sired a wolf, nourished it, encouraged it, watched it grow and then begun to understand that the wolf was growing more and more vicious, sicker and stronger at the same time, slavering, red-eyed and enormous, and that he had become the captive lover of the wolf.
And here are some thoughts from Hardman’s head, as expressed by the narrator, which illustrate his outlook:
. . . He felt something wet on his face and he noticed that the rain was falling in the darkness – on the park, on the face of the building and into the window. He went to the window and clung to it, looking at the rain, briefly lit by the lights from the building, small slender arrows that glistened in their fall for a moment and disappeared into the blackness below. They kept coming and coming and coming, inexhaustibly. No end to them. The endless belt of rain. It fell, stopped, and then ghostily evaporated and drifted upwards, borne on warm air to hide and wait for another night, another moment when the world needed rain. Creepy stuff, rain. You couldn’t destroy it. Perhaps the same rain drops were falling on his face as fell on the face of Caesar or Christ or Moses or their monkey relatives. The same drops, ancient, ancient drops, older than man, older than the animals, the birds, the plants, older than the rocks. Hideously, weirdly old rain so that you were washed with the ghostly traces of the dinosaur’s dropping, the urine of giant lizards, the sweat of Cain’s armpits after the first murder. Hardman grinned. Drunk stuff. The ideas that came out of a bottle.
Karp (1922-99), who also wrote under the pseudonyms Wallace Ware and Adam Singer, takes no pains to evoke sympathy for Hardman from his readers. If anything, he seems to delight in portraying his protagonist as being thoroughly devoid of basic humanity. You can’t even call Hardman an anti-hero, because there’s just not a friggin’ heroic thing about him, not even in an ironic way. But it’s this unflinching lack of romanticism that makes the novel such an ass-kicking classic of noir.
Hardman seems to be having his conscience-free way in life. But there are two things that come along to challenge his mean-spirited dominance. One is a woman with whom he becomes romantically entangled: a high-society lady who’s not afraid of anybody, Hardman included, and who makes it clear from the outset that if he tries to push her around he will be sent away lovesick (if not stabbed with a fireplace poker). The other situation that threatens Hardman is unbeknown to him, at least initially: his agent and an interested editor, knowing that both the Postal Service and a Senate subcommittee are considering taking action against the content of Hardman’s novels, devise a scheme as to what to do with their author’s latest manuscript, in light of the impending punishments.
I’ll let readers new to the book find out for themselves what becomes of Hardman’s love life, and of his agent’s and editor’s plot regarding the content of his new book. And I’ll close with a passage that reveals Hardman’s thoughts about respected literature:
“How many books are there in the world?” Hardman thought, running his finger along the backs of one shelf-ful. All those scribblers, scrawny, sickly, pale clerks, mystical farmers, political schemers of a hundred countries and a thousand eras in history. They wrote and they wrote and they wrote, by quill, by pencil, by handcut printing blocks like the mad poet Blake, by typewriter. They wrote in cellars and attics, in Paris and Rome and New York and San Francisco and Moscow. The eternal writing, the eternal putting down of one word after another, shadowy heroines and ghostly villains and the echo of voices that never existed, speaking words that never really were spoken, piling ghostly corpse upon corpse, sin upon sin, act upon act when, actually, there had never been murder, never been a body, or a sin, or an act. The pathetic idiots who worshipped Sherlock Holmes, investing a ghost with a home, putting clothes in his closets, rosin on a violin bow, a meerschaum pipe on the mantel – the lunacy of wanting to believe what isn’t so.
“It isn’t so,” Hardman whispered aloud to the books, “all of you bastards know it isn’t so. It doesn’t exist. It never did. It has no reality. It came out of your heads and your balls and wanting it to be so. But it wasn’t. It never was. It couldn’t be. Not the greatest one of you bastards could say here – here’s the hair of a louse and produce it so that it could be seen, so that it was. Not even the finest hair of the smallest louse in creation!”
Leading image via the amazing Cover Browser.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.