In a recent installment of this series, I wrote that noir novels often revolve around one doomed character, and I described some of the different types of misfortunate protagonists. A sub-type of lead character in these books (and movies of the kind, for that matter) is the person who once seemed to have everything going for him or her, but who has hit rock bottom.
Ralph Cotter, the narrator and main character of Horace McCoy’s noir gem Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948), is such a guy. A former Phi Beta Kappa scholar with blue blood in his veins, Cotter is now a hoodlum. Something else I wrote in that other piece is that we readers tend to cheer for the ill-fated characters in noir novels, even if we know they’re really no damn good. But Cotter is one guy who would challenge Mother Teresa to feel any compassion for him. He is an amoral man who feels no loyalty to anyone.
In the book’s first chapter, in which Cotter is breaking out of a prison farm, he shoots and kills his partner and lets everyone believe the cops got the guy—and the man happens to be the brother of Cotter’s girlfriend on the outside, who happens to be the person who orchestrated Cotter’s illegal release from the hell of the prison. As a free man, Cotter shows himself to be no more loyal to the girl than he was to her brother, and the same goes for anyone else he gets mixed up with—Cotter with his nihilistic, self-centered perspective doesn’t have a care for any of them, except the consideration of how they might help him along.
Cotter is far from alone in being the only unethical person in the story, though. The entire tale revolves around a backstabbing, I-can-screw-you-over-one-better-than-you-just-did-me, chess match Cotter and his associates get into with some crooked cops. Once out of the prison, Cotter and a team of thieves stage a heist of a local business. Two cops, one of them the resident police inspector, get tipped off to who was behind the job, and they close in on Cotter and his girl (Holiday is her name). But the fuzz don’t want to arrest the pair—oh, no, they just want the loot, and then for the two to beat it out of town and not return.
Now this is where Cotter uses some of that brainpower that got him on the path to scholarly glory. Instead of taking the next bus to Wherever, he convinces the cops to come back to see him, during which time he tells them that if they let him and his gang stick around, they will pull an even bigger job, and the cops can look forward to a cut from that sizable booty. And he records the police showing themselves to be complicit in this plan, then uses those recordings as leverage to make the inspector and his partner his protection as he schemes for bigger criminal grandeur.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which Time magazine called “One of the nastiest novels ever published in this country,” and which Kirkus Reviews predicted would be “quarantined from libraries,” is indeed brutal. Its utter lack of sentimentality and its unflinching rawness in depicting scenes of sex and violence, makes of it hard-boiled purity. Check out the following passage involving Cotter and Holiday, who can never keep their hands off each other. They’re always either slapping each other around or going at it like rabbits:
Her eyes narrowed a little and she took off the green-checkered coat and flung it over her shoulder with a cheap theatricality. Then with both hands she ripped off the shirt, pitching it, underhanded, into my face. I caught a fast faint flavor of woman-smell, and when I got the shirt from in front of my eyes she was unzippering her skirt, which she let fall to the floor. She wore no brassiere. She yanked at the top button of her shorts and kicked them clear over the bed. Then she moved a couple of steps in front of me, standing spreadlegged, her hands on her hips.
“Tell me that again,” she said. “Tell me you won’t be seeing me any more after tonight.”
I stood up slowly and slapped her across the face. Her mouth popped open and then it closed and she fell across the bed, sobbing. I trembled then and the color of it was pink turning to red, and I fell across the bed, having the thought as I fell across the bed that she was right, she was absolutely right.
“Look”—I said, reaching to turn her over. “Look . . . ”
She swallowed the rest of what I was trying to say, banging her mouth against mine, gnawing at my lips and dragging her hands across my bare shoulders. I could feel my skin piling up under her nails, and in the bathroom I could hear the water still running in the wash basin. . .
All the tough stuff notwithstanding, there are other elements to this book that make it such a keeper. Colorful characters appear at every turn, and bounce off Cotter in ways that enrich the tale. There’s a former doctor turned mystic spiritualist who now leads a robe-and-sandals crowd who follow the discipline of Cosmic Consciousness. A captivatingly beautiful and enigmatic young woman, who likes to floor the pedal of her luxury car on the open road, is both the daughter of a local bigwig and assistant to the guru. A bent lawyer who has bizarre tastes in home furnishings and whose houseboy is an aloof yet dangerous guy called Highness, is both friend and foe of all the local cops. And Holiday, a typical yet believable moll, knows how to use her body to get what she needs, and never seems to get tired of proving she has this control.
Then there’s Cotter himself, about as odd a bird as you’ll come across. Cotter thinks nothing of double-crossing (even killing) his associates, he will cheat on Holiday in a second (not that she’s exactly the model of loyalty), people to him are just there to be used for personal gain (or for target practice if they cross him) . . . yet he is deeply disturbed by things like poor table manners, gets irked when Highness doesn’t open car doors for his master and guests, bristles when the crooked lawyer doesn’t help Holiday into her chair when they’re all out for drinks and dancing (keep in mind that he spends about half the novel slapping and punching Holiday around) . . . and he personally offends me by calling the concoction of bourbon and Coca-Cola “depraved” (that happens to be my alcoholic potion of choice, Mis-ter Cotter!).
So, yeah, Cotter’s kind of a jerk. But, as is gradually revealed in a nicely suspenseful way over the course of the story, he has his reasons for walking around with a chip (boulder is more like it) on his shoulder. He’s got demons, big ones, and some of the worst kind: family demons. There are some beautifully written passages in the book, wherein McCoy goes inside Cotter’s head and shows him battling with these ghosts at the same time that he’s wrangling with the cops, Holiday, and the others he has to contend with as he seeks to pull off the big heist that will finally bring him enough loot so that he can hole up in a nice residence and take a break from the world.
Horace McCoy is better known for his bleak depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which was made into the Sydney Pollack-directed film starring Jane Fonda. That’s a fine read, as is McCoy’s similarly themed I Should Have Stayed Home. But for the noir buff, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is where McCoy had his most significant literary moment.
Some of the best passages in the book are the ones in which Cotter’s thoughts reveal the story behind his family troubles. But to run any of those here would be to spoil the suspense for readers. Instead, we’ll close with a different kind of scene within Cotter’s noggin. By this point in the story, those ghosts that haunt Cotter have started to catch up with him and he is showing signs of unraveling. As he waits for the lovely, quirky girl outside the mystic’s gathering place, a song on the radio causes Cotter to recall his college days:
I was sitting in her car in front of the house, not quite in front of the house, down the street a little, under the limbs of a bread-fruit tree which reached far out beyond the kerbing, listening to a Berigan record, waiting for her to come out. The meditation had been over for ten minutes more or less, and the disciples had left, some walking, some riding; but the lights were still on in the house and on the sign in the yard. There was no sight of the girl with the white face and the black hair. The Berigan record ended, and another one started, and after a subtle eight-bar introduction that whispered to my memory, an idiot announcer announced that this was Mugsy Spanier’s “I’ve Found a New Baby,” as if those trumpet inflections and great vibrato needed additional identification. But you simpleton, you loud fool, why call it Mugsy’s record, peerless as he is? Can you not also hear the phrases of Tesch leaping at you, and the rattle of the incomparable Condon’s banjo, and the wail of Mezz’s tenor sax, inspired as always, and the piano of Sullivan, the King, graciously in the background? And who else, who else? Krupa for one and somebody else and somebody else – once I had known, but that was a long time ago, in ’28. Pinky Lee had discovered that record, Pinky Lee who loved jazz and Spalding dancing shoes; and his room at the frat house, second floor rear, had shook and trembled to its beat until I, at last convinced of its aphrodisiacal magic, swiped it and traded it to the girl who waited on tables at The Mecca, the girl from Morgantown . . .
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and various things about books, music, and film. His articles on crime fiction books and authors have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Crimeculture, Paperback Parade, and Mulholland Books. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books and CDs.