Monday, January 09, 2012

Book: Nightwork, by Irwin Shaw (1975)

For an entire generation of authors, the name Irwin Shaw is one to conjure with. In his memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman calls him “my great writing hero, the man who changed my life.” Shaw’s short stories, among them “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” made his reputation, and his novel Rich Man, Poor Man became a television event in the 1970s.

Yet when a friend told me about the impact Shaw’s Nightwork had on him as a young man, I realized how little of Shaw’s work is now in print. I couldn’t even get a copy of the book at the library. Genre authors who never achieved a fraction of Shaw’s critical or commercial success live on in eBook form, while at present no Shaw titles are available on the Kindle.

Nightwork’s protagonist is Douglas Grimes, a onetime pilot grounded by a medical condition who toils as a desk clerk in a Manhattan flophouse. A man dies in the hotel, leaving $100,000 in cash in his room. Grimes takes the money and the opportunity to begin anew in Europe.

But Grimes is no Tom Ripley. He’s a fundamentally decent person dealt a lousy hand, making him initially unprepared for a life on the run. “If you wanted to figure out what your future was going to be, you had to have a firm grip on your past.” That means seeking help from an old college friend and his respectable older brother. Both men express jealousy at Grimes’s windfall, a willingness to chuck it all and abandon their prestigious jobs and families. It’s the beginning of Grimes’s education on how money changes one’s existence. His luck turns now that he doesn’t need it. He can’t help parlaying his ill-gotten gains into more green any more than he can stop falling into bed with “women of glamour and unexpected availability,” to quote a sterling example of the book jacket writer’s art.

On the continent, Grimes falls in with an unlikely mentor: Miles Fabian, a self-invented bon vivant. As he tutors Grimes in the art of living well, pulling him into a world of skiing in St. Moritz and shady art deals, investing in thoroughbreds and arty porn films, Fabian lays out a philosophy mercenary in its logic:

My intention has always been to try to avoid joining the ranks of the victims. As far as I could ever see, the people who avoided being victims had at least one thing in common. Money.

I like money ... but I am rather bored by the process of accumulating it and am deeply bored by most of the people who spend the best part of their lives doing so. My feeling about the world of money is that it is like a loosely guarded city which should be raided sporadically by outsiders, noncitizens, like me, who aren’t bound by any of its law or moral pretensions.

To get the most pleasure out of money, it is best not to have to think about it most of the time. Not to have to keep on making it, with your own efforts or your own luck.

Fabian’s greatest gift to Grimes is teaching him the attitude of affluence, that knowing what to order and how to order it is enough to get by. He prescribes a course in the classics, telling his student not to worry if he doesn’t understand them at first. “You eventually cross a threshold of emotion – mostly just by looking.” Grimes, to his amazement, begins developing his own standards and sensibilities.

Nightwork was written in the shadow of Watergate. References to Nixon’s crimes abound, and there’s a pervasive mood of disillusionment, that the game has been rigged against everyone, even the riggers. Shaw sees the future in that instant, a world where the appearance of knowledge would be valued over knowledge itself.

But in our uneasy time, when most of us hardly know where we stand, cannot say with confidence whether we are rising or falling, advancing or retreating, whether we are loved or hated, despised or adored, aplomb attains, at least for people like myself, a primary importance.

Whatever Miles Fabian may have lacked, he had aplomb.

Goldman called Shaw “one of the great American stylists,” praising the “simplicity of his storytelling.” Nightwork is a deceptively breezy book, full of easy sex and easier money in fabulous locales. That apparent effortlessness only makes the cynicism at its core more chilling and, if anything, more relevant. If someone wanted to bring Shaw back to the masses – what say you, Hard Case Crime? – Nightwork would be an excellent place to start.

Here’s a terrific, contentious Paris Review interview with Shaw that kicks off with a great Hemingway story.