KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE by Horace McCoy
Reviewed by Mike Dennis
Where do you begin with a novel like Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye? Horace McCoy’s 1948 noir journey through an unusual criminal mind is at once spellbinding and aggravating.
Spellbinding because it’s an intense, hard look at a very different kind of criminal, and because it’s supposedly the granddaddy of all first-person-criminal novels, eventually bringing Jim Thompson face to face with his own hellish visions.
Aggravating because it’s not as easy a read as one might wish. You’re in for a slog through long, forbidding paragraphs and lots and lots of casual, throwaway conversation among the characters.
But beyond all this, the meat of the novel is as noir as it gets.
Paul Murphy, aka Ralph Cotter, is incarcerated on a prison farm, picking cantaloupes. The first two paragraphs, which take up the first two pages, deal with the overpowering odor in the barracks of “seventy-two unwashed men” and how it triggers a sense memory from his long-ago youth. These memories, we soon learn, are always with him, and they’re troubling.
With the help of Holiday and Jinx, two confederates on the outside, Murphy escapes and the three of them make their way to an unnamed city. Holiday is the woman in Murphy’s life. She sees to his every need, and usually lounges around naked under an open bathrobe. Jinx is straight out of the Hollywood School for Sidekicks.
Anyway, before you can say “all points bulletin”, Murphy is completely set up in the new city. He has a place to live, money in his pocket, access to a car, and a few shady contacts. Pretty soon, he’s plotting another job, this one a supermarket robbery. It doesn’t come off smoothly, and this brings on a sequence of events that lead up to a very choppy ending.
The ending notwithstanding, the novel moves right along as we follow Murphy through his odyssey of newfound freedom. One of the stops he makes along the way is the company of a bewitching beauty, Margaret Dobson. You just know that his involvement with her will come to no good.
What makes Murphy unique is that he’s a highly educated criminal. He’s a Phi Beta Kappa, in fact, and he takes an extremely dim view of the average stickup man. For him, people like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson are beneath contempt, nothing more than mouth-breathing Neanderthals who happened to make a few lucky scores before getting themselves killed.
He also sees himself as far above the man on the street. There’s a telling passage in which he’s riding a bus, during which he observes that people who habitually ride buses are “cheap, common, appalling people, the kind a war, happily, destroys”.
Moreover, when he’s not slapping Holiday around or pissing off crooked cops, he’s tossing out words like propliopithecustian and integument and at least a half-dozen others just like them.
I told you it was a tough read.