Review: Corrosion by Jon Bassoff

Occasionally a writer comes along and gives a performance that makes me sit back and really think about what I’ve just read. Jon Bassoff is one such writer, and Corrosion is one such performance. It’s as black and dense as freshly distilled tar and just about as bleak as noir gets. Redemption, and hope, is in short supply.

Before reading Corrosion, my previous awareness of Bassoff was strictly through his work as the founder of the crime fiction publisher New Pulp Press. However, the fact that it has modern masters like Heath Lowrance, Matthew McBride and Roger Smith on its roster acted as a recommendation for Bassoff’s work. But after finishing Corrosion, I immediately downloaded The Disassembled Man, which Bassoff wrote under the pseudonym Nate Flexer. I hope it’s as good and dark as this one.

The story begins with Joseph Downs, a loner and Iraq war veteran who has been horribly burnt by an IED, getting stuck in a small Colorado town when his car breaks down. While in a bar he intervenes in an argument between a woman and her husband, an incident that leads to violence, and soon enough finds himself ensnared by the woman, who finally asks him to take care of her brutal husband once and for all. He tries to get her to go an alternate route, by going with him to a little shack he knows in the mountains. Things do not go as planned…

Then the narrative skips back in time, into the head of Benton Faulk, a 16 year old boy whose mother is dying. His insane father tries to save her by concocting a cure in his makeshift lab, despite knowing very little about science or medicine. Being in such an environment leaves Faulk somewhat disturbed, which means his obsession with a local waitress, and a shack in the mountains, leads to a suitably tragic finale before he skips town and runs into Downs…

The final character, who appears as a kind of epilogue to the tales of Downs and Faulk, is the masked Reverend Wells, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who has little time for sins and sinners.

Corrosion is dark fare, filled with sudden acts of violence, desperation, insanity (of all kinds), loneliness, and empty of redemption. Nobody is ever what they seem in Bassoff’s world, and unreliable narrators abound. Corrosion takes the Jim Thompson-esque narrator concept, stretches it to breaking point and then gleefully stomps the broken pieces into the small-town dirt. It’s a well-written, tense tale, that performs the neat trick of making you empathise with and understand some awful characters – the kind of people you would cross the road to avoid in real-life. It’s not an easy trick to do, which makes what Bassoff has achieved all the more impressive. Corrosion won’t leave you feeling good about yourself after you’ve read it, but it will grip you tightly, and it will stay in the memory for a long time after you’ve finished the last line. Highly recommended.

Why has noir made a comeback?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, recently. What is it about noir and hardboiled fiction that makes it so popular for modern day readers? After all, a happy noir ending is as rare as hen’s teeth and, although leavened with moments of humour, noir leaves its characters floundering in a Godawful mess that gets deeper and darker the harder they try to dig themselves out. Why would people actively seek out stuff like this when the world around them is so bloody dark, anyway?

We live in a world where banks are given a government licence to steal our money, safe in the knowledge that nothing will ever actually be done about it, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer will pay for these transgressions aided by a crony political elite. We live in a world where governments spy without any constraints or accountability on our emails, phone calls, text messages and internet usage in the name of democracy and safety, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. We live in a world where the top one per cent will get richer to the detriment of the rest of society, and yet somehow manage make it seem like it’s the poor that are bleeding us all dry. We live in a world that allows corporations to control ever more of our daily lives (through political lobbying, weak and greedy politicians, and financial influence, among other things), allowing them to plunder resources, destroy the natural world and, in some cases, murder people, in their quest for ever more wealth. We live in the kind of world that celebrates fame over talent, youth over experience, beauty over almost everything. In short, we live in a world whose value system is irretrievably damaged, a world that is fucked.

I partly think it is because the world is so bad that noir has made a return to the mass-market. There’s something of the car crash about noir fiction; the way it shoves our faces into the piss and shit and viscera of this world. And if you drive a car for long enough you’ll know that there’s nothing we humans like more than rubbernecking at car accidents. Because as bad as things seem for us in the real world its nice to take a trip to places that are so much worse than ours, visiting characters whose lives are much more messed up than ours will hopefully ever be. What’s better than taking a trip to small towns where characters live out their lives of quiet desperation right up to the moment when they kick against the system and get really destroyed? I’ll tell you what’s better – that moment when you put the book down, breathless, thanking your lucky stars it’s them and not you.

Noir always seems to rear its head when times are bad. During the depression and post-depression years, during the cold war years and McCarthy’s witch hunts, during other recent periods of financial hardship. Look at Brit noir, for instance, which really started to come into its own when the swinging sixties turned ugly and faded into the early seventies, and the country was crippled by the unions, the three day week, and systemic corruption spread like cancer. Writers like Ted Lewis peeled back the skin of this ugly Britain and showed readers the rot that lay beneath. There was something appealing about somebody like Lewis saying: “Yes, your life is shit, but d’you wanna see something really ugly? Then read this.” Jack’s Return Home, Billy Rags and the peerless GBH pressed the noses of British readers into the filth and showed them lives that were far worse than their own, lives lived in squalid bedsits and B&Bs, lives lived in pornography, the sex industry, and other criminal endeavours, lives lived in prison cells or on the run, and lives lived so close to the edge that sometimes the balance is lost and they tip over the edge.

Of course, the ugliness of everyday life isn’t the only reasons for noir’s cyclical resurgence. Technology plays a big part, too. Affordable mass-market paperbacks and magazines propelled the earlier days of noir, back in the days when these things were truly affordable. And today’s noir and hardboiled fiction is propelled by the internet (e-zines etc.), relatively affordable e-readers, cheap or free ebooks, and improvements in printing technology that have enabled high-quality print-on-demand paperbacks. Today’s technological advances have allowed new small-press publishers to set up high-quality outfits with smaller outlays and overheads than Big Publishing can manage, which means they’re more inclined to take risks with material that might upset readers due to being too dark, or violent, or full of rage, or any number of other transgressions that can trouble those who might prefer ‘cosier’ stories: Blasted Heath, New Pulp Press, Snubnose Press, and Caffeine Nights are just some of the pioneers of this new trend. These folks are pushing real boundaries, taking real risks, and are putting out some cracking fiction that would never have been seen if Big Publishing was still controlling things.

There are currently a lot of Neo-Noir titans pushing boundaries that would make even the likes of Jim Thompson blush. Writers like Allan Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Ray Banks, Roger Smith, Anthony Neil Smith, Paul D Brazill, Tom Piccirilli, Heath Lowrance, Les Edgerton, Jedidiah Ayres, Megan Abbott, Nigel Bird, Josh Stallings, Ian Ayris, to name but a few, produce wild rides, break taboos, take real risks, and tell cracking tales with aplomb. If you haven’t read them yet, you should, they’ll really shake you up.

I hope that this new popularity for noir fiction doesn’t go the way of previous boom times. In the past, its popularity has been cyclical, and ended when times have got better…

Buuuut, the modern world’s a shithole, and things are probably only going to get worse from here on in (economically, socially, ecologically), so long may these noir writers and others like them reign.

Let a little darkness into your life.