A READING LIFE
A writer who went down into darkness
Five or six times in a life, you come across a book that sends electric shocks skittering and scorching through the whole of you and radically alters the way in which you perceive the world. There's a great deal of talk about books changing lives. The mass of people are as likely to have their lives changed by a doughnut as by a book. But it does occur.
In 1990, as usual, I was reviewing for a number of periodicals; books arrived daily by the boxful. It became my habit, as I headed out for afternoon coffee, to select a book at random from the stack and take it along.
One day I happened to pick up the unprepossessing trade paperback of a thriller by Derek Raymond titled ''I Was Dora Suarez." And for three or four hours, I was. Not only youthful Dora Suarez, who lived and died horribly. I was also taken deeply into the mind of the nameless detective from ''the Factory" who, reading Suarez's journal and following her trail through tangled London streets, sets out first to solve, then to avenge her murder. And from the first page I was plunged into the mind -- terrifyingly into the mind -- of the murderer himself. His thoughts and feelings became as real to me as the chair upon which I sit now, writing this.
I put down the book, stunned. I was sitting outside, and suddenly, quite ordinary traffic along Camp Bowie Boulevard seemed fraught with meaning. Street lamps came on, dim and trembling in early twilight. I realized that this novel now aslumber on the bistro table before me had carved its way into me the way relentless pain etches itself indelibly upon the body.
Derek Raymond was the pseudonymn adopted by Robert Cook, a well-born Englishman who spent a great portion of his life in France. Turning his back on Eton and all his class implied, he worked for years at whatever menial jobs or scams came to him, writing all the while, learning the secret life of London the way a cabdriver must learn its streets. Soon enough he took the crime novel to heart, taking as his subject the dispossessed and faceless, society's rejects: alcoholics, abused women, prostitutes, petty criminals swarming like pilot fish in the wake of sharks. His life's work culminated in the four ''Factory" novels now seen as clear landmarks in British fiction: ''He Died With His Eyes Open," ''The Devil's Home on Leave," ''How the Dead Live," ''I Was Dora Suarez."
Raymond recognized the last as his great achievement. In his autobiography, ''The Hidden Files," he charted, as writer, much the same seismic response I had experienced as reader.
''Writing 'Suarez' broke me; I see that now. I don't mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. . . . If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up."
''What is remarkable about 'I Was Dora Suarez' has nothing to do with literature at all; what is remarkable about it is that in its own way and by its own route it struggles after the same message as Christ. . . . The writing of 'Suarez,' though plunging me into evil, became the cause of my seeking to purge what was evil in myself. . . . 'Suarez' was my atonement for fifty years' indifference to the miserable state of this world; it was a terrible journey through my own guilt, and through the guilt of others."
Obviously this is strong stuff, not meant for all. Graphic depictions of violence, coprophagy, necrophilia, and mutilation -- all are part and parcel. But anyone professing interest in literature truly written from the edge of the human experience, anyone wondering at the limits of the crime novel and of literature itself, must confront this extraordinary novel.
He or she will not have an easy time of it. ''The Hidden Files" was published only in the United Kingdom. Almost all the novels are out of print here in the States.
Meanwhile, Raymond occupies much the same position in England as does Jean-Patrick Manchette in France. Manchette salvaged the French crime novel from the bog of police procedurals and colorful tales of Pigalle lowlife into which it had sunk. ''The crime novel," he claimed, ''is the great moral literature of our time." For Manchette and his followers, the crime novel became not mere entertainment, but a means to strip bare and underscore society's failures. Raymond, godfather of the new UK crime novel, who despite his many years in the French language always spoke of the noir novel as the ''black" novel, was in full accord. The black novel shows that the world is never what we in ignorance and denial claim it to be, never what we adamantly insist it is to others and ourselves.
''The black novel . . . describes men and women whom circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed. It deals with the question of turning a small, frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle -- the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfillable, and where defeat is certain."
The black novelist's characters, those of ''I Was Dora Suarez" primary among them, forever step from rented rooms and wretched tenements ''into the vile psychic weather outside their front doors where everything and everyone has been been flattened by a pitiless rain that falls from the souls of the people out there," theirs included.
Novels like ''I Was Dora Suarez," Cormac McCarthy's ''Blood Meridian," and Poppy Z. Brite's ''Exquisite Corpse" bring us in one hand that rain and in the other a shelter against it. There's no question that our highest literature can deal with a young woman's decision to marry, with a young academic's coming of age, or with four decades in a car dealer's life. But also, eventually, it must deal with a guard's offhand remark at Auschwitz: ''Hier ist kein Warum."
There is no why here.
The trade paperback of James Sallis's novel ''Ghost of a Flea" and his translations from French, Spanish and Russian poetry, ''My Tongue in Other Cheeks," are just out; two novels and a story collection are forthcoming.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.