Ben Whitmer is an immensely talented and dangerous new voice in the landscape of American Noir. His first novel, Pike, published by Switchblade Press takes a stark view of the Rust Belt, a meaty stew of violence and depravity with haunting images of urban desolation depicted in raw, hard-nosed prose. His second book, a work of nonfiction about the country duo, the Louvin Brothers, is equally harrowing and deranged. Whitmer stopped by to talk to Noir Nation, we found him to be not only a hell of a writer but a polymath, holding forth on everything from crime fiction, country music, Herman Melville and Teddy Roosevelt: the enjoyment was all ours, just as it will be all yours should you pick up one of Whitmer’s books.
Noir Nation: It says in your bio on Pike you were a petty thief at one time. Please elaborate for our gossip-loving fans.
Whitmer: Heh. That was teenage stuff, mainly. I spent my high school years in a small town in Southern Ohio that was home to a private college. A nice enough place, but to a teenage kid who’d grown up with outhouses and only occasional electricity it looked like a bunch of rich kids playing bohemian. We used to rob ‘em of everything we could. Beer, drugs, music, photography equipment, everything. We’d also break into buildings on campus, take what we wanted, and trash the rest. I was a lousy thief. Got busted for it twice, but was lucky enough to never get in any real trouble. Thanks, in large part, to the kindness of the folks we were robbing. The import of which managed to escape me at the time, but hasn’t since.
I was a pretty good-sized little shit. It came to a head when I was eighteen. By that time I’d dropped out of high school, been (rightfully) kicked out of my house, and was crashing in an abandoned dormitory. But then I got hit with a couple of tumors, neurofibromas, that put me out of commission for a long while. I got to have a good old-fashioned nineteenth century convalescence. It was the best thing that could have happened t me. Though I’d always had a half-ass notion of being a writer, that’s where I started thinking about how to do it. Reading seriously, practicing sentences, shit like that.
Noir Nation: I know for a fact you read Herman Melville. Can you please tell Noir Nation fans what in the Hell a noir crime writer is doing reading Melville and what do you think the rest of us can learn from the author of such challenging novels as Moby Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man?
Whitmer: Man, I’m obsessed with Melville. He was one of those I read not too long after that convalescence, and my interest in him hasn’t even slightly dimmed. I‘ve spent 12 years and counting on Euro-American representations of American Indians and the rhetoric of extermination thanks to Melville, and then, just last week, I found myself launching into what looks like a whole new angle with fucking Schopenhauer. And that, too, to get a better read on Melville.
To me it’s the wildness, the fearlessness, the inclusiveness. You feel like the whole world of books is in Moby Dick, with the references, the pastiche-work, the lifting of sources. And all in service of exactly what he wants to say. He could not write falsely, and no matter how pessimistic or strange his worldview grew, he couldn’t help but portray it. To me, that’s it. That’s what makes the writing game the only worthwhile game.
I’m coming back to him, too. I’m in the middle of a move, and since most of my books are packed, I downloaded the complete works of Conrad, Melville, and Poe on my Kindle. Thinking I’m gonna be spending the next couple years patching holes in what I missed and rereading the rest. Right now I’m on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym on the recommendation of a friend, and it’s just brilliant.
Noir Nation: Most of our readers know you as the author of the bleak and superb noir novel Pike, but you also wrote a follow up book of non fiction called Satan is Real, can you tell us about this book?
Whitmer: Satan Is Real is a book I co-wrote with Charlie Louvin who was one half of the Louvin Brothers. They were a blood harmony act in the middle of the last century, known for their bleak gospels and murder ballads. Charlie was the straight-laced brother in the group, while Ira, who died in 1965, was a thorough hell-raiser. He fought pretty much everyone, cussed out Elvis, was shot six times by his wife, died young. The book is a memoir of their time together, and hopefully captures some of their life and relationship.
It was an incredible experience. I’m a big fan of country and western music, and I got to sit on Charlie’s back porch, smoke cigarettes, and listen to him spin these tales of himself and folks like Johnny Cash. And HarperCollins, they actually paid me for it. I’d never done anything like it, and it just kind of landed in my lap, but there was no way in hell I could’ve passed it up if I wanted to.
Noir Nation: When you hear the word “noir” what first comes to your mind and why?
Whitmer: I usually start by thinking of what Dennis Lehane said, that noir is working-class tragedy. That doesn’t mean I know what the hell tragedy is, of course, but that’s usually where I begin. That said, I think the best of noir, like the best of all fiction, doesn’t really know what it is. Or even when it does, it can’t help but take a safety pin and pick at the nerve strings of its own system.
The reason I dig noir is that it seems like one of the few places left you can write about the things I find interesting. Class, race, one’s relationship with the broader society, freedom, prison and punishment, violence, lonesomeness, the never-ending repercussions of the past, etc. I’m not saying I write about any of that well, of course, but that’s the stuff that interests me.
Noir Nation: Your novel Pike is being translated into French. The French loved Poe, Jimi Hendrix, and Scott Wolven, before our fellow Americans appreciated our homegrown talent. Why do you think the Gauls have a good nose for aesthetic style, or not? (feel free to disagree)
Whitmer: I’ve never been to France, so everything I say is going to be completely full of shit. But with that disclaimer, I get the sense the French take books more seriously than we do. I mean, here you’re pretty much only considered a successful writer if you’ve got a movie deal going and/or you’re selling out in Costco. The idea of being successful by virtue of having written a good book sounds kind of ridiculous in the States. Hell, most folks won’t even allow that there’s a such thing as good and bad books — which always weirds me out, in that no one would dispense with that distinction for anything else, from coffee to toilet paper.
Which, I’d guess, means that maybe the French have a better nose for aesthetic style because it’s something they care about? And, largely, we don’t? Of course, that’s a huge generalization, and there’s exceptions and variations all over the place, but I get the feeling that here in the States, folks just aren’t very interested in such things. And maybe they still are in France.
That’s only my answer when talking about folks like Poe and Wolven, though. I sure as hell don’t put myself in their class. I’d love it if folks liked Pike in France, but I don’t expect much. The fact that Oliver Gallmeister saw enough in the book to translate it just makes me happy enough by itself.
Noir Nation: (skip this if you haven’t read Simenon) Here at Noir Nation we promote an international cadre of noir writers, a few of our editors (myself included) are big fans of the Frenchman, Georges Simenon, especially his Roman Durs. Are there any foreign crime authors whose work has inspired you?
Whitmer: Haven’t read Simenon. So, skipped.
Noir Nation: Pike is a bleak novel of rust belt ugliness, depredation and predatory lust. In a lot of ways it is a book the pushes the boundaries of human decency while keeping the reader reeling with some very fine, raw, literary prose not unlike Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Was there any particular book in your mind that inspired you to write Pike?
Whitmer: I’ll bet I answer this differently every time I’m asked it, but there’s two of them, really. The main book was William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume history of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. My wife and daughter bought it for me on Christmas just about the time I was beginning Pike, and it was in the back of my mind all the way through. I didn’t agree with all of it. I thought he was dead wrong on his claim that John Brown’s actions weren’t justified, for one thing. But I couldn’t get the thing out of my head. In a way, that was the question that kept playing itself out for me in Pike: when is violence justified? Of course, that’s too big a question to be answered in any novel, but I got to ask it in a couple of ways that interested me.
The other that set me off was Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I was interested in the way he played with the myths and ideas of border crossing, and the way those borders expand. The way they include the borders between town and country, for instance. And borders between periods in our history. The disappearance of the cowboy way of life being the obvious one.
Noir Nation: You’re also a Western History enthusiast. Could you tell us about your Teddy Roosevelt project and why that is going to upset a lot of conservative, churchgoing TR fans?
Whitmer: Well, if I do my job right, I hope it’ll upset ‘em. TR’s the kind of character you can’t make up. In some ways he’s the quintessential American confidence man, right? This asthmatic, near-sighted, old money gentleman who manages to somehow ensconce himself in the public consciousness as an outdoorsman against all evidence. Of course, almost all his time in the actual wilderness was spent with a good guide to make sure he didn’t get himself killed, but that hasn’t even slowed his self-perpetuated legend.
Then there’s the really weird stuff. Like the racial theories in The Winning of the West, which are insane enough that Hitler seems to have cribbed portions of them for Mein Kampf. And are made all the more frightening by Roosevelt’s taking US Indian Policy on the road as Foreign Policy. And his drumming up an entire war just so he could kill a man in combat. And his having written his first wife entirely out of his own autobiography.
He is, in other words, endless fascinating. But not for the reasons most Roosevelt enthusiasts would give. For me, it’s his charlatanism (Twain), his ominous jingoism (James), and the intense depth of his own belief in scientific racism which guided his sense of history and policy. He’s irresistible, and I feel like everything else I’ve been doing has been aiming at this project. Building up the tool set I’ll need to pull it off. If I can pull it off. I’m more than a little nervous.
Noir Nation: What book do think of as the first important work of “crime fiction” in American and why?
Whitmer: I think it’s further back than we’d like to admit. In fact, I think a lot of what we see in crime fiction can be traced to our frontier fiction. Literary historian Richard Slotkin does an awful good job of making that case in his book, The Fatal Environment, and I’ve always thought it made sense. The tropes are, in many ways, the same: encroaching savagery, regeneration through violence, clear-eyed pragmatism when it comes to dealing with evil, spiritual transfer by blood, all that shit.
A good example is that most clichéd of crime fiction narratives, wherein a gentleman comes home to find his family massacred and is set on a path of righteous vengeance. That one’s everywhere, from the Punisher comics to Death Wish, and it comes directly from the old Indian Hating stories written by the likes of Judge James Hall. Usually while making the argument that the only solution to the so-called “Indian Problem” is complete extermination. It’s transparent enough that Herman Melville deconstructed it in The Confidence Man more than a hundred years ago, and, yet, we don’t seem to be able to stop telling it.
So, maybe, if I had to choose, I’d begin with Robert Montgomery Bird’s genocidal epic Nick of the Woods. There were others prior, sure — and better afterwards. But that’s the one in which, to me, all the elements of blood, race, and class fantasy coalesce perfectly.
Noir Nation: You’re writing a new novel that is a Colorado noir. What themes are you exploring in your Mile High setting that are different form those of your Rust Belt, Pike? Or is it as simple as same kind of bastards, different setting?
Whitmer: There’s two answers here, really. The first is that both books are about characters who ain’t exactly winning, and it’s been my experience, anyway, that once you’re away from the coasts there’s an awful lot of commonality between the people who’re broke. That doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable, of course, no more than well-off folks in New York and Los Angeles. But thanks to our new global economy, most of the folks in this country are taking it from some variation of the same broomstick.
That said, maybe it’s just me, but the West is still its own special entity. And no matter how much the people living in it try to fuck it up and homogenize it, there’s still the landscape, and there’s still the space. And I think that affects people. Also, given the strength of Western mythology there’s this great everpresent tension between authenticity and the lack thereof. It’s omnipresent in the West, everywhere from the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West to pow wows and rodeos. From time to time I wear cowboy boots in homage to it.
Also, the history of extermination campaigns and ethnic cleansing is fresher, and is still being played out in ways that tend to get ignored back East. If you’re of Euro-American extraction, it makes it a little harder to be comfortable with your own presence — at least if you’ve got the intellectual curiosity God gave a stump. It makes for a different kind of character, I think.
Noir Nation: When you sit on your porch in Appalachia or the Crimea years from now sipping some Peach moonshine, what do you have hope to have accomplished or wrought on the face of American fiction?
Whitmer: Man, I’m easy. I’d just like to have kept myself interested right up to the end.