There is something that catches in your throat or makes the hair on your neck crawl when a really great comedy noir scene leaps off the movie screen. Of course, the interest and willingness to plumb the depths of societal taboos like death, depression, mutilation, insanity and disease and to create humor from them takes a special kind of writer; one who sees the world in a very particular way. In part, that is what makes comedy noir work. It is the writer's fearless exploration of the vulgar and the forbidden in order to provoke both discomfort and amusement in the reader, generally at the same exact moment.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
"Black humor," a term coined by the French surrealist theoretician André Breton in 1935, was based on the work of Jonathan Swift, often credited with being the originator of black humor or gallows humor. Over the years, however, this type of satire has drifted into the contemporary zeitgeist through the work of Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, and early films like Dr. Strangelove and television programs like M*A*S*H set the stage for today's cultural indulgences into the cauldron of noir comedy.
Clearly James Dempsey is one of those writers. In his novel, Murphy's American Dream, Dempsey captains his adventure with one of the most degenerate, yet oddly charming, characters to ever walk across the electronic page. Dempsey's A.A.A. Murphy has no filter to prevent him from doing nasty deeds, things that nearly everyone would never have the courage or bad judgment to do. Murphy, however, does them with relish even when he suspects his actions will get him into never-ending trouble.
THIRSTY was fortunate to catch-up with James Dempsey recently at this home near Worcester, Massachusetts to discuss the comedy noir genre and his novel.
THIRSTY: Your novel, Murphy's American Dream, seems like a mating of The Big Lebowski with Pulp Fiction seasoned with a pinch of Being John Malkovich. How did such an archetypal character like Murphy come about?
JAMES DEMPSEY: I've always been fascinated by characters who are repellent in their acts and yet somehow likeable or understandable or even admirable, who invoke our sympathies despite everything. Othello, Iago, Raskolnikov, Don Juan, Humbert Humbert come to mind, as well as the cinematic characters you mention. Murphy cares about little but his own appetites and his own survival in a world he doesn't fully understand. He is without loyalty to people, to a country, even to his own blood. I wanted to see if I could make such a person also someone you would like to share a pint or two with. Such characters are popular, I believe, because the human animal will always be driven, at least in part, by selfishness. We all know this, but many of our societal manners are predicated on the denial of this. That's not to say selfishness is good, as some aver. But we can't pretend it doesn't exist, either. Nor does a thing's being "natural" make it healthy or moral. Arsenic is natural.
THIRSTY: Considering the scope of your literary interests, what drew you to the comedy noir genre?
JAMES DEMPSEY: You talk of Swift, and I've always loved his work because he could mash together the most unlikely of elements. Gulliver's Travels is travel writing, science fiction, dystopian fiction, satire, and other genres. Swift's poetry can go from pastoral elegance to the utterly crude in the turn of a line. He seems despairing of the human race, but, like Vonnegut, is determined to have fun with his literary studies of humanity. I like that kind of cheerful pessimism. I am also greatly enamored of the mock-epic, very popular during the time of Swift, and an unlikely coupling of genres that is similar to the comedy noir.
THIRSTY: Why do you think people are perpetually fascinated with noir stories, especially those tinged with satire?
JAMES DEMPSEY: Satire assumes two persons (at least) in each of us: the person we want to show to the world, the good, much-loved humane saint that we believe ourselves to be, and the snarling, ugly little incubus that sees nothing but unfairness in how the world treats it. I think of the satirist as the man who comes to pump out your septic tank, walking through your beautiful, leafy, flower-studded backyard to open your septic tank and release the stink of your excrement. Satire is a great tool for unseating the pompous and the self-righteous, but it's not just the toffs and the bigwigs that need a dose of satire. We could all use a little humbling.
THIRSTY: Were you influenced by any particular writer in the comedy noir genre or was Murphy's American Dream conceived solely in the dark recesses of your mind?
JAMES DEMPSEY: Aristophanes, Juvenal, Chaucer, Henryson, J.P. Donleavy, Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, Anthony Burgess—I enjoy these writers hugely, and I wouldn't be surprised if Murphy has a strand or two of the DNA from some of their characters.
THIRSTY: As an instructor at a university in writing and English literature, where do you see the comedy noir genre in the literary canon?
JAMES DEMPSEY: When a genre is getting tired, humor is often brought in to revivify it. Look at the horror genre, for instance, and what the movie Sean of the Dead did for zombies. The original strength of noir was in its willingness to show the darkness there is in existence, the ability of the human creature to do bad things to its fellow beings. But after overuse and a period of time this idea loses steam, and is reduced to mere style, to a formula. The addition of comedy does not necessarily lighten the material, but it encourages us to be both shocked and amused by what we see. This isn't completely comfortable for the reader/viewer. I'm thinking of the scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy in which the psychopath is stuffing the body of the woman he just killed into a potato sack. It's funny, but this bringing together of a murder victim and a lowly food staple is also horrifying. Murphy isn't a psychopath, of course. He's a sociopath, perhaps. But a rather likeable one.
THIRSTY: Will we see another book about Murphy?
JAMES DEMPSEY: It is already under way. Murphy is too much fun to stay away from for too long.