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Jeff Simon: The smartest beach read of the year

There is, at this stage, probably nothing to be done. America has effectively sold its most avid cultural consumers on the myth that in summer their brains turn into applesauce.

That's because those in the position of selling things discovered decades ago that dumbing things down is an easier way to get people to buy things than going off your head about how smart your products are. Hence, the idea that America hungers for beach reads between book covers and summer blockbusters at the megaplex.

I'd never claim I'm immune to all this. I'm certainly happy to watch a dumb summer action movie if it's good (and some are). And on summer vacations I've always made a habit of taking with me big, wildly readable books that fancy folks in the professoriat and the literary rackets are now apt to refer to as "readerly texts." I started doing it the summer I read "Lonesome Dove" in a rented house full of Twain first editions on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution and I never stopped.

The wonderful truth for this – and any other summer – is that none of us has to dumb down nearly as much as our politics have. On Friday, a summer sci-fi blockbuster full of action is opening that is both very far from stupid and loaded with human compassion and moral subtlety. It's "War for the Planet of the Apes," the latest movie in a series that has been going on almost as long as the James Bond movies.

What I really want to tell you about is how I spent my summer vacation as a reader – in particular, two of the books I read. I discovered years ago on my way to visit family in Los Angeles that the best ways to amuse myself on the plane rides were reading compellingly readable books. It's remarkable how many books are perfectly sized to be finished in one sitting on a plane (or a couple, if you're changing planes).

This summer I couldn't have picked better. I took with me the Library of America's newest edition of Ross Macdonald's "Four Later Novels" (908 pages, $40). The Library of America is, by widespread acclaim, the most distinguished publisher we have in the United States – a nonprofit and dedicated to keeping American literary masterworks in print with nearly uniform editions that are both easy to read and comfortable to hold in your hands.

They began with one volume containing Herman Melville's  "Typee," "Omoo" and "Mardi" in 1982 and another of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Tales and Sketches." It has grown 35 years later into the publishers of one recent volume of Susan Sontag's "Later Essays" and another of "The Diaries of John Quincy Adams."

These are among the reigning royalty in the battle to smarten up America, not dumb it down. They wouldn't be caught dead doing that.

Funny thing, though – the editor-in-chief of the operation is Geoffrey O'Brien, a poet, historian and critic with a long-established love of American detective novels, especially of the hard-boiled variety. Consequently, LOA has published a large number of its classics from the likes of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis and Elmore Leonard, as well as "Nightmare Alley" and a couple of fat volumes of "Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s."

In 1981, just before the LOA got into full swing, O'Brien merrily published "Hard Boiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir." (Which got the book's name from a French publishing series called "Series Noir.")

The latest, fat anthology of four Ross Macdonald novels has given us the novels that caused screenwriter William Goldman ("The Princess Bride," "All the President's Men," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") to call Macdonald the creator of "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American" and sublime short story master Eudora Welty, who subsequently became a friend, to call Macdonald "a more serious and complex writer than Hammet and Chandler ever were." The novel Goldman liked so much was "The Goodbye Look" and Welty's favorite was "The Underground Man."

No argument from me. People would argue about that years ago, but seldom now. Welty is right about Hammet and Chandler. I'll always have a weakness for Chandler's tough guy disgust and accompanying sentimentality in his Philip Marlowe novels. What O'Brien wrote about him three decades ago is this "the special appeal of Ross Macdonald's books to some may have been that he offered a non-violent liberal humanist detective in sharp contrast to bloodthirsty hit men."

In an amazing 21st-century piece that appeared in "A New Literary History of America" by crime novelist Walter Mosley – the creator of Easy Rawlins – Mosley wrote "hard boiled is a state of being, not a state any sane tourist would want to" live through "on holiday." Which, of course, makes reading about it on holiday so seductive and so powerful in confirming one's temporary comfort.

Author Walter Mosley calls America "a hardboiled nation."

Even so, I was as captivated by the compassionate truth in Macdonald's final two masterworks "The Goodbye Look" and "The Underground Man" as I've seldom been by any hard-boiled masterwork, even Chandler's.

Here's what Mosley says about the appeal of hard-boiled fiction: "From our prisons to our ghettos, from our boardrooms to the Oval Office, from gangsta rap to the Patriot Act, America is a hardboiled nation. To have faith is to be a fool. To expect justice is to expect tyranny. To rally round the flag is to support the torture of human beings while reading our children the Constitution and watching sitcoms about cranky old white men and their beautiful, young and scantily clad wives – and girlfriends."

Macdonald – whose real name was Kenneth Millar – took all that decades ago to places haunted by pain and compassion, places no doubt marked by the sad life of his own daughter. During one teenage disappearance, Millar and his mystery-writing wife made a plea on TV for her return.

The most terrible irony of all is that is that this writer, who was as haunted by memory and the past as any American writer ever was, died of Alzheimer's disease.

A hard-boiled American life indeed.


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