There is a curious (and admittedly, mostly made-up) film noir subgenre I've taken to calling "picaresque noir." It consists of crime stories that don't stay in one place for too long and feel more episodic and stitched together than short and sweet. Plug novels such as Jean-Patrick Manchette's "3 To Kill," David Goodis' "Down There," and Chester Himes' "Cotton Comes To Harlem" and movies such as Nicolas Ray's "They Live By Night," Robert Alrich's "Kiss Me Deadly," and Jean Luc-Godard's "Pierrot Le Fou" into the picaresque noir category. All of them are crime tales that take the scenic route toward the inevitable, mostly tragic ending they're staring at in the distance, too in love with atmosphere and its characters to take 'em out in a more straightforward manner.
Elliot Chaze's "Black Wings Has My Angel," a cult novel from 1953 reissued last month by New York Review Books Classics, is primed, picaresque noir—a crime novel that feels like something more or maybe just something else altogether. In the introduction to this edition, smarmy neo-noirist Barry Gifford says "Black Wings Has My Angel" is "an astonishingly well-written literary novel that just happened to be about (or roundabout) a crime." There's also Chaze's poetic prose which although Hemingway-derived ends up somewhere else and reads more like if Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler fused into one tragically romantic purveyor of pulp.
When you just describe the plot of "Black Wings Has My Angel" it doesn't seem like much: Tim Sunblade (not his real name), a prison escapee turned grifter with a class-conscious chip on his shoulder, meets a witty cynical prostitute, Virginia, and they end up hanging out with each other and enter into a complicated, codependent though deeply felt romance that gets more complicated and codependent once they rob an armored truck for $89,000. Standard noir stuff for sure, but Chaze goes about it all so obliquely: The heist, for example, comes more than halfway through the book and it's prefaced by Sunblade and Virginia embedding themselves in the town, with flashes of the suburban life they fake their way through and scenes at the factory job Sunblade works in the meantime that involve an affair and one guy getting his hand chopped off, probably not by accident.
Chaze also gives Sunblade a life beyond the novel, atypical of drifting noir like this (it's Virginia that remains the mystery) and it complicates him greatly. He is alternately a rube and hard-assed antihero who went to a fancy college, who suffers from a head injury he got in World War II, which explains though doesn't explain away why he is who he is. He's a character more reminiscent of J.D. Salinger's Seymour Glass than the rogue males of noir. And because Sunblade's voice is so clear and resonant even if most of the time he's talking bullshit, and his alienation so precise, it also recalls Salinger's Holden Caulfield: Sunblade hates the Colorado suburbanites he and Virginia encounter because they're so boring; he hates the New Orleans bohemians that all fuck each other for fun because they're just so open-minded; and he hates the upper-class tweed-jacket wearers from his alma mater for obvious reasons. He also loves Virginia unabashedly and unhealthily. He is a bit of an idealist.
Virginia, meanwhile, an upper-class young woman slumming it as a prostitute, unwinds the femme fatale and does away with so much of the misogynistic B.S. that powers noir. She's smarter than Sunblade but here, that isn't just one more example of how cunning and cruel women are (as is the case in most noir when it deigns to be mildly enlightened). And when we first meet her, a bellhop knocks on Sunblade's door and presents her ("Here she is," he tells Sunblade coldly) which sets Sunblade's narration off, all doting about how beautiful she is and all the rest: "Her eyes were a lavender-gray and her hair was light creamy gold and springy-looking, hugging her head in curves rather than absolute curls." There's about 40 more words of that before Virginia chimes in, pulling Sunblade out of his reverie, reminding him to tip the bellboy ("For God's sake give him his dollar," she says) so they can get down to business. It might even be Chaze mocking his own doting prose. Virginia's smarter than the book she's in, perhaps. None of that will save her though.
It's as if Virginia were assigned a role in some screwball comedy but got distracted on the way there because this moody brutal book seemed like more fun. At one point, Virginia delivers a brilliant monologue about the problems with "gentlemen" that seems to have caves of meaning and experience behind it: "They say to themselves one fine morning: 'What can I be that's no trouble at all and that doesn't amount to a damn thing, but yet will make everyone look up to me?' The answer's simple: Be a gentleman." And as everything goes wrong and some kind of existential dread nags the two, Virginia becomes more acutely aware and mature. And Sunblade blames it all on the money and how women change when they get money and blah blah blah. Virginia understands that cash only exacerbated her ennui.
Crime stories are always about something else, though—mostly capitalism, duh—and at its core, "Black Wings Has My Angel" is a love story, especially once you accept that a "love story" only implicitly means a "functional" romance and that really just means a conventionally dysfunctional one anyway. The number of times Sunblade says he loves Virginia is an ongoing joke in the story—Virginia likes Sunblade a lot too, she may even love him, but she knows what's what—and the number of times they rip each other off or the number of times Sunblade thinks about murdering her or the number of times Virginia runs out with another guy are, well, about the same as the number of times they do something romantic like ski in the woods or get good and drunk together, but it's a love story. It's about dedication and two people who care a whole lot about each other for better and worse. "Black Wings Has My Angel" is a lot of things, too many things maybe, but it isn't cynical, you can say that much.