When you truly put yourself face to face with a piece of art, it will interrogate you as surely as you might flatter yourself to think that you have interrogated it, because unlike an ordinary crime, a work of art is never finished. No matter how complete it might appear to the world at large, when a writer confronts a book or a painting or a song, nothing is settled and anything can happen. You can make the work new, or it can leave you exposed in all your stupidity on your own page.
It’s all in the tone, which for Sante means a quiet, calm, forceful attempt to get inside those people, places, artifacts, and memories that attract him, with a commitment to the subject at hand that is as passionate as it is modest. There is no hyperbole, or critical hysteria: there is no panic in the face of the writer’s inability to make a melody, an image, or a patch of words give up its secrets. Modesty is part of what it means to be hard-boiled: an acceptance that some secrets will never be given up. The tone comes out of empathy, on the one hand–empathy for the perpetrator, the artist or the art work, the person or the act remembered–and it produces respect, for the reader, for the person who has to be brought into the story, the writer making his own story unfamiliar to himself in order to open it up to others. “Everything seemed possible then,” Sante writes of how Bob Dylan, in his book Chronicles, Volume 1, situates himself early in his career, but Sante doesn’t rest with the cliché, which is to say he doesn’t insult either Dylan or his reader with it. He redeems the cliché, returns it to real speech, by making it speak: “Everything seemed possible then; no options had been used up and nothing had yet been sacrificed.”
The tone demands incisiveness and concision, a sense of what to leave in and what to leave out, as with Sante’s startling argument that the blues–“the now-familiar three-line verse, with its AAB rhyme scheme and its line length of five stressed syllables”–was invented, by a single person, on a certain day, in a certain place. There is a sociological setting that makes the notion seem ordinary–“The origin of the blues occurred close to our time, within a historical corridor that makes it possible to place it among the early manifestations of modernism–between the automobile and the airplane, and not long after the movies, radio transmission, and cylinder recordings”–a setting that only seems sociological, because it is in fact moving toward a setting where sociology cannot go. If the invention of the blues took place on the broad, visible terrain of modern technology, it also, Sante says, appeared, and in an uncanny sense remained, “in an inaccessible back street of history, so that we don’t know who or when or how or why, just that it happened.” And then, with an economy and a cold eye worthy of Twain, or Hemingway, or Chandler, a story: “The very success of the invention must also have mitigated against anyone knowing who was responsible. Even if a front-porch guitarist was responsible, rather than an itinerant songster, it is easy to imagine that within twenty-four hours a dozen people had taken up the style, a hundred inside of a week, a thousand in the first month. By then only ten people would have remembered who came up with it, and nine of them weren’t talking.”
“It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing,” as Hemingway had Jake Barnes say in The Sun Also Rises, putting the phrase into the air: Sante’s story is unbearable, because like him you are there and you aren’t. You can’t be and you can’t not be. The detective never has to be more hard-boiled than in the moment when he realizes, like Jake Gittes at the end of Chinatown, that he will never solve the case, never bring the perpetrator home. The modesty is patent; the passionate critic walks away from his own mystery. The suspense is itself mysterious. As the critic walks away, the suspense doubles, moving from the suspense that gathers around an event that, like a planet beyond Pluto, can be inferred but not seen, to the greater suspense that attends the realization that a true event is defined precisely by its unpredictability: if the invention of the blues occurred once, in a certain place, at a certain time, it might as likely have never occurred at all. And then neither you or the writer who is telling the story would be who you are. Just as the existence of the blues and the self is patent, everything goes up in smoke.
The balance of modesty and suspense that creates the hard-boiled face carries Sante through his adventures in these pages; keeping that balance, he can take you to strange places, and pull the ground from right under your feet. I saw him do it once, on a night when many writers and musicians had come together to perform American ballads–the musicians to play and sing them, and the writers to read what they’d written about them. Luc Sante read a shortened version of the piece that appears here as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.”
Sante began with the night that, in New Orleans in 1902, on a bandstand in a hot, stinking dancehall, someone heard what he thought he heard Buddy Bolden say–and then, somehow, weaving a spell of facts over the course of no more than ten minutes, Sante high-jacked everything–Bolden, his band, the building in which they were playing, the audience to whom Sante was reading, the building in which they were sitting–into the sky. There were other memorable readings that night, from Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Vowell, John Rockwell, and Paul Berman, and shining performances, from “Omie Wise” by Bob Neuwirth and Jenni Muldaur to “Ode to Billie Joe” by Rosanne Cash to “Volver, Volver” by Perla Batalla to “Barbara Allen” by Terre Roche and Madigan. But there was no moment that was greeted by the shock, and then the earthquake of an ovation, that followed Sante’s last words. He was able to hold that hard-boiled tone without its ever breaking: speaking modestly, as if nothing were happening, the suspense built invisibly, so that it was only with the last word that anyone realized that from beginning to end everything was at stake, and all of that is in these pages.
Introduction to Luc Sante’s Kill All Your Darlings, Yeti Publishing, 2007