“Philosophically noir” – Green Sun by Kent Anderson

We met Hanson, the central character of Green Sun, in Kent Anderson’s first novel, Sympathy for the Devil. It is possibly the most honest novel to be written about the Vietnam War (and the closest literature came to Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon). Hanson is as indestructible as Rambo, he despises the War but knows that he is just too good at killing to be in any danger, he is “doomed to survive.” About 15 years later (following Hanson’s appearance as a cop in Night Dogs) Hanson is a policeman in Oakland, “a soldier on the street now.”

Oakland is another war zone. “Everybody in Oakland was an ex-con, it seemed like some nights, or they soon would be,” run by the local drug-dealer, Felix, and where the law is an alternative form of military power: “Even the cops were just another gang out there… In the end, organized and superior brutality was what allowed them to enforce the laws of another country.” In the classic noir tradition Hanson meets an attractive troubled woman and a young innocent who needs protection.

Like a James Crumley (or George Pelecanos) novel, Green Sun doesn’t follow a formula, it is philosophically noir. In Anderson’s fictional world the police are largely useless, there’s no need for evidence, everyone is guilty, and criminals are free to do what they want until they encounter someone capable of greater violence. As Hanson points out, “on the street, whoever takes the most pain wins, simple as that.” That is also the philosophy of the Rocky movies; Anderson shares Sylvester Stallone’s preference for taciturn, thoughtful heroes.

As a policeman Hanson is reminiscent of the Captain in Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Both spend repetitive, seemingly hopeless, days dealing with the criminal and the desperate. Indeed, Anderson’s writing often has the same rhythm of Algren’s, and they share a tough-guy poeticism: “It’s always late at night in the radio room, always late down there in the basement where the twenty-four-hour clock glows like the moon.” This is as much an existential novel as any of Algren’s. Anderson’s focus is on cops and criminals, Hanson “thought of himself as already dead, and that’s how he looked at everyone else too,” in a world where all have “been born doomed.”

The pleasures of Green Sun are those of the best crime writing, rhythmic descriptions of the urban landscape as observed from inside Hanson’s police car, the heroic moral ambivalence and the depth Hanson has acquired as a character in this his third novel.

Any Cop?: Kent Anderson should be better known (especially for Sympathy for the Devil). Green Sun could be either the ideal introduction to his writing or a novel as intelligently honest and unflinchingly perceptive as Anderson’s previous novels.

 

James Doyle

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