Kenneth Fearing was so determinedly an artist of an avant-garde sensibility that even his most conventional work is marked by some unusual stylistic and structural devices. His concern for the innovative worked against his instinctive gift for constructing an elaborate but ultimately rigorously clear and logical mystery story, and his desire to provide a sympathetic perspective for all of his major characters tended to limit the depth of the central character in each of his novels. At the same time, Fearing’s inclination to see events from a consciously unconventional stance contributed to his ability to capture the distinctive psychological ethos surrounding his characters, and this permitted him to portray his protagonists as versions of the modernist rebel/hero wavering on a fault line between legal and criminal behavior.
Fearing’s life as an artist anticipated the drift into bohemian patterns of living pursued on a widespread if temporary basis in the 1960’s, but although most would-be dropouts in the 1960’s went fairly quickly from an extreme radicalism back to a standard job and its concomitant demands, Fearing managed to combine relatively conventional employment with a sustained commitment to his avant-garde artistic credo. While supporting himself as a copywriter, publicist, and editorial writer for several New York newspapers, he wrote poetry steadily, beginning with a Carl Sandburg-influenced voice of the proletariat but gradually shifting toward the style of E. E. Cummings, a neighbor in Greenwich Village. Fearing was published in Ezra Pound’s magazine Exiles in the mid-1920’s and found his true voice and subject in the reproduction of the moods and rhythms of life in his vision of the city as a great urban wasteland. Described by Rexroth as “rhetorical, denunciatory, agitational in intent,” his poems were designed to express the feelings of a normally mute and ignored underclass and are “immersed in the lingo of the mass culture.” The world of many of Fearing’s poems is the world of the desperate, nighttime streets of Manhattan, a setting of lurking violence, driven inhabitants, and a crazed kind of energy flow that made life exciting if uncertain.
By the time Fearing began to write crime fiction in the 1940’s, his empathy for the underdog, his command of the language of the street-corner cynic, and his belief that artistic expression was an important means of establishing value in a chaotic world had all been fairly well developed in his poetry. Latent in his work was a real contempt for middle-American society and organizations, a deep suspicion about the efficacy of the system of criminal justice operating in New York, and a fascination with the psychology of a man under severe stress.
To explore these motifs further, Fearing realized that he would have to work in an area that gave him the opportunity to develop some of the ideas that he had been asserting in his poetry; because he had already been writing short stories for popular magazines, the extension to a novel was not that great a departure from his previous efforts. Even so, Fearing may have felt more confident handling short narratives, for in his first novel, The Hospital, he created a discontinuous narrative style that became a kind of signature. Each chapter in The Hospital is presented in a first-person voice by a different character. In addition, influenced by the literary experiments of other contemporary poets, Fearing distorted conventional chronology by setting the entire novel at approximately three o’clock in the afternoon.
The repetition of action from different points of view is inherently cinematic and may have accounted for the two successful adaptations of his best novel, The Big Clock. It is also an excellent method for building suspense, as tension accumulates with each successive variation of the core action. The hour around which the action pivots is also the moment when crises in the lives of all the principal characters reach a point of climax. Although some sympathy for each character is dissipated by the continual shift in narrative focus, the Zolaesque sense of gritty, realistic detail and the language that one critic likened to a “staccato prose poem” made the novel generally successful. In spite of some adverse critical commentary (to which Fearing responded by portraying several critics and literary careerists as dilettantes in his 1941 novel Dagger of the Mind), Fearing continued to use a multiple narrative scheme in all of his work.
Paradoxically, although the presentation of narrative action from each character’s point of view is supposed to evoke some understanding for everyone’s motives, its effect in Fearing’s work is actually to undercut sympathy for all the characters; the reader is kept at a distance from the field of action because none of the characters matters that much. The “objectivity” offered as a virtue is actually the bogus impartiality of an observer who conceals his position so totally that commitment is absent in a moral crisis that demands an individual response. According to Rexroth, Fearing was convinced that “Western civilization was already dead on its feet, a walking corpse bled of all value,” and the appearance of authorial diffidence undercut the response he intended. That is particularly true in those novels in which Fearing excludes himself so completely from the action that he has no close correspondence with any character.
Reluctant to give up a narrative strategy in which he evidently believed (Clark Gifford’s Body, published in 1942, has thirty separate narrators), Fearing, in his best work, made his protagonist the primary narrator, the voice that begins and concludes the narrative, and put his or her fate at the center of the narrative. In this way, his scorn for society, an attitude he shared with such hard-boiled writers of mystery and detective fiction as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and such contemporary novelists as Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, formed the narrative sensibility from which the action unfolded....
(The entire section is 2517 words.)