Darkness in Glaring Sunlight
Earworms are songs that stick in your head. Midland, Texas, is my eyeworm. Cultivating a noir sensibility means looking keenly into dark, bleak, and dangerous settings: the back alleys of New York (Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder), the fetid underbelly of Chicago (Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski), the dreary winters of Boston (Robert Parker’s Spenser, who grew up in Laramie, Wyoming—a little known fact about fiction), or the fog-shrouded streets of San Francisco (if this was good enough for Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade it’s good enough for my C.V. Riley).
But what about Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer who cracked cases and skulls in sunny Los Angeles or even more brightly, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee who solves murders in Fort Lauderdale, Florida? Sometimes there is little difference between intense light and deep shadow—both assault one’s senses and make it difficult to see. Maybe this explains why the lurid glare of Midland won’t leave my imagination.
I spent several days in this archetypal Texas locale in early May, when temperatures were only in the low 100s and the sun was merely searing, rather than hellish. West Texas is an expanse of thorny mesquite (flourishing thanks to overgrazing and fire suppression), punctuated by roughneck-ruled oil wells tapping into 300 million years of Carboniferous decay. Midland’s dusty downtown is grim, with windblown refuse scattering between characterless office buildings. The neighborhoods qualify for landscaping hospice. The people were kind, generous and defensive about their environment. Theirs is not a pretty place but they contend that there is beauty if one is patient and perceptive (like appreciating the Peruvian Inca Orchid, a breed of dog that challenges our cultural sense of what a dog should look like).
Perhaps the best word for Midland is grit. I can imagine a gravelly noir tale with a pulverulent plot unfolding across arenaceous acres in a sabulous city filled with calculous characters and their raspy repartee (I expanded my vocabulary for this alliterative description).
At the writing workshop hosted by the Sibley Nature Center, I had participants express their sense of place via a haiku (the well-known 5-7-5 syllabic formula) and a cinquain (a 2-4-6-8-2 pattern). Here are mine:
Mr. Rogers Goes Rogue
Our grateful neighbors:
rats, roaches, bed bugs, pigeons,
and, of course, mesquite.
cactus, pump jacks, pipelines.
But harsh lands and mean places need not