THESE DAYS, the word “noir” has become all but meaningless as a signifier. Overused and diluted, it is little more than a marketing term. It’s easy to forget that the classic era of what is now called noir fiction and film reflected a very particular time in our history. Sometimes it takes an artist from outside to hold up a mirror to this country’s complicated past, exposing its darkest, most uncomfortable secrets.

That’s exactly what acclaimed Scottish poet Robin Robertson (The Wrecking Light, Sailing the Forest) has done in The Long Take: A Noir Narrative. The ambitious book-length poem, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is the story of one very damaged World War II veteran struggling to stay sane with the memories of what he’s seen and done in the war. Set during the years 1946–1955, it also captures the United States at a pivotal period, one that would determine the course the country would follow for generations to come.

Postwar prosperity led to massive population growth, a burgeoning car culture, interstate travel, and the spread of suburban sprawl. Underneath the wholesome Norman Rockwell facade, of course, the country seethed with racial and sexual inequality, anticommunist paranoia, and repressive social mores. Writers such as David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes were beginning to expose the dark underbelly of the “American Dream,” often pursuing their own personal demons on the page. Filmmakers influenced by the stylized shadow play of German Expressionism explored themes of crime, sex, corruption, and psychosis, appropriate entertainment for a generation returning from the horrors of war.

While the percentage of the millions of returning war veterans who actually saw serious combat was relatively small (one in 16, according to some estimates), many of those who did came back with deep physical and mental scars. Any real understanding of what is now (somewhat tepidly) called post-traumatic stress disorder was of course decades in the future, and the socially accepted remedy was often self-medication and silence.

Robertson’s protagonist Walker (we never learn his first name) is a veteran of the war in Europe, where he served with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, participated in the D-Day landings, and witnessed death and brutality up close and personal. His experiences in the war have profoundly changed him. After he comes home, Walker finds that he is unable to resume his old life in Cape Breton, with its constancy and tradition. In alternating flashbacks, Robertson describes the lush, natural world of Walker’s homeland, with its elemental cycle based on the seasons and tides. Walker cannot let his family, including the girlfriend he left behind, witness his dissolution.

He heads to New York City in search of anonymity and reinvention. Robertson’s virtuosity is at its crisp, unpretentious best as he describes the black-and-white duality of Manhattan, a stark contrast to the warm earth tones of Nova Scotia. Walker is pursued by his own shadow side, awakened during the war, which threatens to overwhelm him at every page. He is both attracted and repulsed by his own depths. Told in a series of cinematic scalpel cuts, the poem advances in shafts of imagery and narrative, darkness and light, and the effect is a perfectly realized marriage of form and subject matter.

He walked for hours —
following the glow
in the sky uptown he’d been told
was the lights of Times Square —
his shadow moving with him
below the streetlamps: dense, tight,
very black and sharp, foreshortened, but already
starting to lengthen as he goes, attenuating
to a weak stain. Then back in
under another streetlight, shadow
darkening again, clean and hard.
Who he really is, or was,
lies somewhere in between.

Walker finds himself disoriented and unmoored by the city, “[s]ea-sick from the gridded streets,” and he naturally gravitates toward the sea, finding work on the docks. He reads Hammett and watches crime films, such as Out of the Past, which present a fallen worldview that makes sense to him. The jarring noise of the city during the daytime keeps him on edge, so he seeks solace in the night.

A dropped crate or a child’s shout, or car
backfiring, and he’s in France again,
that taste in his mouth. Coins. Cordite. Blood.

Walker stumbles upon a film crew in the process of shooting a movie, and he meets German-born director Robert Siodmak in New York working on a new film, Cry of the City. Their brief conversation proves to be a pivotal experience. Siodmak tells the young man to look him up in Los Angeles should he ever make his way out west. This plants a seed in Walker’s mind, and it isn’t long before he decides to strike out for California.

As we cut ahead to 1948: Los Angeles is undergoing a period of great upheaval. Construction on the freeway interchange north of downtown has begun, and large segments of the old city have been marked for demolition. The widespread adoption of the automobile is changing society quickly, and the streetcars of the previous generation are disappearing fast. Captain William Parker is on the rise and will soon become chief of the LAPD. The Cold War is underway and anticommunist panic has begun to reach a fever pitch, with city boosters red-baiting proponents of affordable housing projects in an attempt to rid the city of “urban blight.”

This is the city that awaits Walker. After arriving at Union Station, he begins to explore the streets on foot. He sleeps in movie theaters and ultimately gets a voucher for the dilapidated Panama Hotel near Skid Row. There he meets an African-American World War II combat vet named Billy Idaho, who introduces him to a group of dispossessed veterans. Like Walker, they’ve come home psychologically (and often, physically) handicapped by the war. They are largely abandoned by the country they fought to serve. Idaho expresses the view felt by many of the minority vets.

“You know something …
The war made sense at the time:
all in black and white, good and evil, they said.
We came back to something different
— those who came back at all —
every place full of people, all chasing something,
but no jobs for us, the guys who fought, y’know,
fought for freedom.”

Walker takes his new friend’s words to heart and vows to do what he can for his comrades on Skid Row. He soon applies for work as a reporter for a local newspaper, where he impresses the editor-in-chief by announcing that he is interested in writing about American cities and “[h]ow they fail.” Walker starts out as a cub reporter tackling general interest assignments for the City Desk. He hits the streets of Los Angeles with two fellow reporters, driving around town chasing down story leads. One day the three men visit a massive construction site to take some pictures. The sound of the machinery and explosives are too much for Walker, and he ends up huddled in the car with his hands clapped over his ears.

Over the next few years, Walker sets himself up in an apartment in Bunker Hill, halfway up the track of the infamous Angel’s Flight streetcar. He writes various pieces for the paper, including the occasional film review, but he soon sets his sights on a larger subject — the homeless. Even after his short time in Los Angeles, he recognizes the score — the glittering facade rotten at its core. He sees the progress and renewal for what it is: a building boom meant to benefit privileged white Americans. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the city are walled-off ghettoes. As his editor observes: “We won the war, but we’re living like we lost it.”

As the year 1950 draws to a close, the newspaper agrees to send Walker up to San Francisco to work as a stringer. His assignment is to report on the destitute population there. Walker finds it much the same as in Los Angeles, dominated by war veterans. During his time in the city, Walker befriends Walter Friedlander, head of the Social Welfare department at UC Berkeley. The professor discusses the disastrous consequences of mental health reform and expresses his fear of the increasingly nationalistic tenor of public discourse, as exemplified by Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, which is gaining momentum.

“McCarthyism is fascism. Exactly the same. Propaganda and lies,
opening divisions, fueling fear, paranoia. Just like the thirties:
a state of emergency, followed by fascism, followed by war.
You’ve just defeated Hitler.
Can’t anyone see you’ve made another, all of your own?”

In one of the poem’s most revealing scenes, Walker comes upon a traveling carnival. Beyond the midway, the carousel and the concession stand, he discovers the tent containing the freaks — the pinhead, the midgets, and above all, the geek in the cage — “the man with the horrors, / waiting to eat the heads off chickens / for a bed of wet straw and a pint of rye.” It is a knowing wink to William Lindsay Gresham’s masterful Nightmare Alley, which shares many of the themes that Robertson explores. But even the geek doesn’t disturb Walker as much as the hall of mirrors. “It’s the worst thing in the world,” he says, “catching sight of yourself.”

By 1953, Walker has returned to Los Angeles, and the city has changed for the worse. There’s been a dramatic increase in mob violence, larger portions of Bunker Hill have been leveled to become parking lots. Meanwhile, the country itself seems to be coming apart at the seams. Walker reads about the murder of Emmett Till, and of a courageous young woman named Rosa Parks. The films coming out of Hollywood reflect the volatile atmosphere. Walker recognizes the newly released Robert Aldrich film Kiss Me Deadly as a “movie about now — that lethal combination of curiosity and greed.”

As the poem continues, we begin to witness the disintegration of Walker’s precarious mental state. Robertson fills in the gaps in his wartime experience, and what emerges is a truly horrifying narrative. The hot summer cityscape of Los Angeles starts to morph with Walker’s memories of the surreal carnage he survived on the beach in Normandy. The destruction of Bunker Hill, which displaced many poor, older residents, becomes the smoldering ruins of French villages as Walker’s regiment passes through the devastated countryside. The dark secret that Walker has kept inside will remain hidden no longer as Robertson, with extraordinary compassion, guides us through to the final pages.

Like Charles Reznikoff’s incomparable Testimony, the only real antecedent that comes to mind, this is a book that is meant to be read quickly and reread slowly. An incredible work of poetic imagination, historical scholarship, and an insightful look at how we got to where we are now … Oh, and it’s about as noir it gets.

¤

Patrick Millikin is a freelance writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona.