Monday, December 3, 2007

Christopher Goffard

If I had not already read Christopher Goffard's debut novel Snitch Jacket, Sarah Weinman's recent Los Angeles Times review would have nudged me to put it atop my To Read list. "Snitch Jacket is a wonder of sentences that sing," Weinman writes, adding that "the story is artfully told, with shifts between action and first-person narration that are almost seamless." Her bottom line: "we can't help looking forward to what comes next from this talented writer's mind and pen."

Goffard graciously replied to a few questions I put to him (via email) last month:

Zeringue: Publishers Weekly's rave review of Snitch Jacket concluded: "Goffard's prose shimmers with intelligence and humor, and he has a keen ear for telling detail. Fans of such cultish neo-noir scribes such as Charlie Huston and Duane Swierczynski will be richly rewarded." I certainly agree with the first sentence. And while the second sentence is technically accurate -- I'm a big fan of those two writers and I felt richly rewarded by your book -- they aren't the first two authors that came to my mind in that context. Which two writers would you plug into that sentence?

Goffard: It's funny to hear the names of the writers my work is drawing comparisons to, most of whom -- Charlie Huston and Duane Swierczynski, John Ridley and James Crumley -- I'd actually never read, though I'm starting to read and enjoy some of them now. I think if your reading tastes incline to James Ellroy or DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little or the work of Harry Crews, you'll enjoy a book like Snitch Jacket.

Zeringue: Someone tagged Snitch Jacket as "literary noir," which seems accurate enough to me. Of novels of the last few years, the so-called literary novel that I thought of when reading Snitch Jacket was Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics. (She gets a lot of her pop from active verbs while your adjectives sizzle, and you both have suspiciously unreliable narrators.) As for the noir cousins that came to mind, I give you John Ridley's pulp fiction: like you, he has pathetic losers at the center of the story. Of course, these connections are highly idiosyncratic, and I would be surprised if anyone else thought of your book as Pessl crossed with Ridley. Do you have your own equation -- [literary novel] crossed with [noir novel] -- for Snitch Jacket?

Goffard: I have to admit, the terms "literary noir" or "literary crime novel" embarass me a little bit, because a writer who goes around saying "I've written literature here," as opposed to "I've written a book," is exhibiting some serious hubris and is asking for a beat-down. I think the tags are useful only insofar as they alert readers to what's in store -- that Snitch Jacket's not what a lot of people now consider a crime book, the kind with two-sentence paragraphs and two-page chapters that you read at the beach while you're slathering lotion on your kids and trying to keep them from running into the water. I mean, you'll have to pay a little bit of attention. Because the publishing industry loves pigeonholes and encourages these ersatz distinctions, I think some readers are caught off-balance. Genre folks say, "Gee, this isn't the pace I'm used to," and readers of so-called literary books say, "Gee, what are all these lowlifes doing in a book with pretty sentences?" I'm encouraged by books like George Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Gerald Kersh's Night and the City and Chesterton's Father Brown stories, which have crime trappings but transcend them in wild and unexpected ways.

Zeringue: Were you conscious of any connections between your own vocation as a newspaper reporter and that of your protagonist, Benny Bunt, the snitch? That is, you and your fictional creation are both paid to shine light into activities that others would prefer to keep hidden. Of course, that's not to equate your motives or profession with Benny's activities....

Goffard: Well, there's a book by Janet Malcolm called The Journalist and the Murderer which begins: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness." Now, I think that vastly overstates the case. I think you can do the job ethically and without damaging the subjects whose trust you happen to win. But there's an element of salesmanship in the profession that sometimes borders on the smarmy, on a used-car pitch, and it's uncomfortable to see when it happens. But I came to think of Benny as a broader metaphor for writers in general, that dangerous breed who listen very closely to the people around them, coax out all kinds of heart-meat stuff, and then use the material to hustle out a living.
Read more about Snitch Jacket, and learn about what Goffard was reading in late August 2007.

The Page 99 Test: Snitch Jacket.

--Marshal Zeringue