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Sunday
May132012

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy

First published in 1948; digital edition published by Open Road Media on April 17, 2012

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye begins with an escape from a chain gang and ends with an escape of a different sort. Ralph Cotter's violent departure from the chain gang is orchestrated by a "dame" named Holiday. Freed from his chains, Cotter quickly pulls off a robbery but, thanks to an untrustworthy accomplice and a dishonest cop, ends up penniless. It doesn't take him long to invent a new scheme to take opportunistic advantage of his desperate situation, although his plan doesn't feature the "rich rounded satisfactory nuances" that he prefers. Soon enough Cotter is in a position to take on the whole town without worrying about the police.

One of the characters aptly describes Cotter as "cocky." He's also intelligent, violent, and aloof. In his self-analysis, he is brutally honest. With others, he's merely brutal, although he exudes charm when the situation calls for social grace. Although Cotter is a tough guy killer with a James Cagney attitude, Horace McCoy imbued him with additional dimensions that set Cotter apart from other noir characters of his era. Cotter has a Phi Beta Kappa key, a degree, a "passion for the minor snobberies of life," and -- he explains with some pride -- an impressive "collection of psychoses." Included among the latter are an inferiority complex (when he moves among the elite) combined with a vast sense of superiority (when he moves among the criminal cohorts he regards as "mere passers of food"). At the same time he's capable of sentimental feelings -- not for people, necessarily, but for the cherry phosphate he orders at a soda fountain.

Among the peculiar characters Cotter encounters are a physician who is also a Zen master (he has forsaken the healing of bodies in favor of healing minds), a shady lawyer, a nervous hood named Jinx, and a well-connected, liberated woman named Margaret Dobson who, like Holiday, might be more than he can handle. In sharp, penetrating, insightful paragraphs, McCoy gives life to the novel's characters.

The story follows a course that takes more turns than the Tour de France, but the plot isn't complex. Rather, it follows an aimless life as Cotter reacts to the changing and seemingly arbitrary circumstances that confront him. The novel is as much a psychological profile of Cotter as it is a crime story. Cotter expects the worst from people -- betrayal is the aspect of human nature he always anticipates and he stands ready to betray in return. He regards women with a mixture of awe, jealousy, and contempt. His response to the two women in his life is complicated and contradictory. Much to his displeasure, it is his involvement with women rather than crime that determines his path. Through it all, he remains true to his nature. McCoy makes it clear that Cotter had no choice but to be the man he has become.

McCoy tells the story in mesmerizing prose ("the room was bitter with the feculence of imprisoned air that had been exhausted by a thousand usings"). While steeped in the language of its time ("this babe's full of vinegar"), the narrative incorporates enough literary references to make English majors gleeful. There is a certain poetic justice in the novel's final moments, the kind of irony that the educated Cotter is well-positioned to appreciate.

The story works just as well now as it did when it was first published in 1948. In fact, it may have been ahead of its time. Most modern readers will probably be more accepting of Cotter's social commentary than readers of an earlier generation would have been.

Readers who only desire to read about morally stalwart, likeable heroes should stay away from Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. On the other hand, noir fans who appreciate complicated characters, strong writing, and unorthodox plotting will find much to admire in this nearly forgotten treasure.

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