Thursday, October 4, 2012

YA Noir: Teenage Wasteland Lit

One of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made in reading lately is an increase of roman noir elements in Young Adult (YA) novels. Although they’re lacking in the familiar femme fatale theme commonly used in noir, these books nevertheless play the same old themes – crime, paranoia, and soul-wrenching guilt - once mined by such noir masters as Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Cornell Woolrich.

If someone can lay claim to being the originator of this style it would be S.E. Hinton, author of teen classics The Outsiders, Rumblefish, and That Was Then, This Is Now. Rumble Fish was a cool movie that looked a lot like Robert Frank’s The Americans and had Mickey Rourke perfecting his Richard Hell impersonation with Tom Waits doing a Pop’s Chocklit Shoppe routine, whilst listening to Wall Of Voodoo and The Police jamming on the soundtrack…very new wave…totally Eighties. Then there’s the book.

S.E. Hinton writes more like a noir writer than a YA one, complete with flashbacks, delusional madness and death. Her uncanny ability to get into a teenage boy’s mind and do so with intensive insight is nothing short of remarkable.

Rumble Fish was written in the Seventies so I imagine more of a burned-out Motorcycle Boy fried by too many Boones Farm empties, dozens of Testors glue tubes, and scratchy Steppenwolf records. Whichever spin you put on Rumble Fish it’s one of the best tomes in the Teenage Wasteland bookshelf.

That Was Then, This Is Now is a coming of age story that's equal parts "The Hustler", "Rumble Fish" and the Jack Kerouac-Neal Cassady bromance legends. Two punks grow up = one goes straight, the other gets crookeder, the story's been told many times before. But S.E. Hinton gives it a fresh spin setting it in Vietnam War-era hippiedom so you get psychedelic painted Volkswagen buses and Roger Corman-style drug den crash pads. As is the case in all noir books everything explodes at the end because hip kids never win and squares always spin.

Another major voice in YA noir is the late Robert Cormier, whose tales of teenage despair are even darker, so much so that several of his books have been banned from school libraries for their bleak vision of youth gone mad. His most famous work was The Chocolate War, but my favorite work of his is Tenderness.

Tenderness might well be the pinnacle of YA Noir with Robert Cormier holding court as its master. An amazing work, it's the story of a lovesick teen runaway who stalks an unrepentant teenage serial killer with dreamboat looks after he's sprung from juvie. Ironically they met several years previously when she caught him nuzzling a girl who was about to be his next kill.

Cormier's work is extremely dark and complex. You don't need to be a pimple popper to dig this genius murder story, in fact, calling Cormier a YA writer is a lot like calling Cornell Woolrich a crime writer. Also recommended is a strange novel called Heroes, about a teenage war veteran (in by 16, out by 18) with a disfigured face who returns to his hometown stalking the pro-war motivational speaker that talked him into enlisting and stole his girlfriend in the process, with the intention of killing him. Crazy as hell!

More famous examples of the YA Noir genre would be Paranoid Park written by Blake Nelson and directed into a motion picture by Gus Van Sant. Paranoid Park is a brilliant YA noir about a skater boi from the 'burbs who accidentally kills a security guard at a railyard. The murder ironically creates a rite of passage making him question his existence, his values and everyone in his orbit. Tightly written with no room for chaff, this is the best noir I've read in ages and could teach those fedora wearing old farts a thing or two.

Also well known is Mysterious Skin written by Scott Heim and made into a motion picture by Gregg Araki. A flawed masterpiece that continuously treaded on fragile territory, sometimes making it through the high wire act and other times falling ass over elbows into the circus net below. The fragile territory is child molestation by a Little League coach with the aftermath as told by two different boys: Brian, who grows up somewhat asexual obsessed with UFOs and aliens, and Neil, a promiscuous teen hustler.

There's something kind of weird about calling a book like this beautiful but there are passages that are downright poetic and gorgeous. It's just that there are parts that will trouble many, like the fact that Neil the Hustler had homosexual urges prior to his molestation, so it's implied somewhat that he "wanted it". Maybe Mr. Heim thought this urge would somehow take him off the hook -but the whole idea is so shaky.

I actually bought right into the whole story until the last three pages when it's revealed that both boys engaged in a certain activity that no 8-year old would agree to without collapsing into spasms of hilarious laughter. The fact that it's told in such a drop dead serious and manipulative fashion - with Christmas carolers singing in the background, even! - turned the whole ending into an unintentional parody. It’s still a great book and worthy of your attention.

Older, less popular examples of YA Noir would be “Giveaway” by Steve Fisher, an absolutely brilliant Fifties noir about a teen runaway in Hollywood who falls in with an aging hustler, her daughter, and countless Vaudeville burnouts working the TV quiz show circuit.

“Giveaway” recalls Horace McCoy at his finest in depicting small-time chiselers seeking fame and fortune at the lowest rung in Hollywood. Corruption in the game show biz is in large supply here, too. The book's ironically timely in this age of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and all the other migraine contest shows.

You’ll have fun guessing the thinly fictionalized locations in the book like Clifton’s Cafeteria, RKO/Desilu Studios, Sy Devore, Wallich's Music City, and the Hollywood-Highland Rexall Drugs. I’d say this is the best Steve Fisher novel, way better than “I Wake Up Screaming”. Highly recommended.

Then there’s The Fourth Angel by John Rechy, the toughest book about teenagers ever written. A pack of outcast teens dare each other to play vicious games with strangers they brutalize and degrade in a haunted house. The sexual lines are crossed and double-crossed by them. John Rechy outdid "City of Night" with this one, and that's saying a Hell of a lot!

While teen despair is nothing new these books serve up something extra-intense and daring to the show, and I don’t mean a bunch of B-movie vampires and werewolves falling in love. There’s a depth and maturity to these characters and the story they tell that’ll frighten all the grown-ups, case in point Mr. Cormier’s struggle to even get his books available to his audience. When literature poses that much of a threat to American society then it’s more vital and subversive than any punk rock record ever cranked out.


Busy Gal said...

I better catch up on my reading. I remember when YA was reading "Freckled and Fourteen", and other books where teenage girls pine for the wrong guy. This is hardcore I must hit the library and catch up.

Busy Gal said...

I just finished Tenderness. I though young adult was Freckled and Fourteen. This book was the most depraved story I ever read. Thank you for turning me on the this author.