Conceived as “Two Irishmen Walk into a Bar,” the founders of Litquake, San Francisco’s annual literary festival, imagined it would be cool to get Dennis Lehane and Eddie Muller to take to the stage with beers in hand. Last week the author of Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island and writer on HBO’s The Wire did just that with Muller, the “Czar of Noir,” novelist, film preservationist and producer and host of the SF’s Noir City Film Festival, at the Herbst Theater.
Muller, whose grandmothers were Irish, began by asking about Lehane’s upbringing. Lehane described 1970s Boston as riddled with racial strife and violence. “But when I entered my home I left 1970s Boston and entered 1940s Ireland,” he said. Though he “bristled” at his family’s insular nature, he said that is probably what saved his life.
“Mystic River is mostly about survivor’s guilt,” said Lehane. He was one of three people he knew to get out of his dangerous neighborhood.
“Did your parents live to see your success?” asked Muller.
“My old man never quite got it,” said Lehane, whose father very recently passed away. “He didn’t read and he didn’t like movies.” But, he said, the most charming man he had ever known could sharpen his brogue and talk up anyone, even Clint Eastwood about filmmaking. Still, Lehane added, “He was constantly calling me to tell me that the Post Office was hiring, because that made sense to him.”
Speaking of Hollywood, Muller said: “Let’s face it, Dennis, you are living the life writers dream about.” What’s it like to get the call from Clint Eastwood about directing Mystic River?
“Odd,” said Lehane, adding that the soft-spoken former mayor of Carmel sounds nothing like Dirty Harry on the phone.
Then Ben Affleck used Gone, Baby, Gone to set off his directing career. “Here I was two for two, and I get the call that DiCaprio and Scorsese want to do Shutter Island,” said Lehane. His wife asked him who he was going to tell about that news, but Lehane kept his mouth shut for fear his writer friends would string him up.
That silence went on for days until he got an e-mail from George Pelecanos. The subject: “Scorsese.” The body: “Fuck you.”
But Lehane was not there just to talk about his own work. “Long before we met, I read your work on noir and taught your book,” he told Muller, referring to Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. Muller has called noir “working class tragedy,” and Lehane agreed with that assessment.
“In Greek tragedy they fall from great heights,” said Lehane. “In noir they fall from the curb.” Like Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success, a movie they agreed was the most quotable noir of all time. “The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river,” they quoted, a Curtis impression in unison.
Another opinion shared was that genre writers do not get a fair shake from book critics, especially if they write literary books like Lehane. Set in 1919 Boston The Given Day is the one out of Lehane’s ten novels that is not genre. And it’s 700 pages. “I didn’t want to make it a polemic,” said Lehane. He pointed to parallels between 1919 America and today. “Fear of terrorism, the attack on the working class, and the same nationalism,” he said. “What happens when a society gets the shit kicked out of it?”
Noting the rise of the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann, opposition to gay marriage, Muller asked, “What’s driving the fear?”
“As a novelist, I like when things come full circle,” said Lehane. He said growing up with racial strife he could talk to a racist from that background and understand without condoning them. “The people I truly despise are racists who grew up in all white communities, because they didn’t earn it. They’re afraid of what they don’t understand.”
In his next novel Lehane continues the story of a character from The Given Day, in what he called a gangster novel. “I’ve wanted to write a gangster book since I was 11 years old,” he said. “James Cagney movies were very influential.”
“Like a good Irishman,” said Muller.