The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

November 30, 2007
Washington, DC

As I read some of the recent blogs?Paulette's about her commendable effort to give up TV and David's about what constitutes "literature"?I was reminded of the first time I encountered the art of Dashiell Hammett.

Ten years ago, before becoming the Publications Manager at the NEA, I was living in Norway with my wife, in Bodø, roughly 60 miles above the Arctic Circle (about 100 kilometers for those counting in metrics). We had no television for the year we were living there, which left time for lots of reading. I had already plowed through the small quantity of books we brought, which was a problem?I tend to get anxious if I don't have something to read. When I don't have a paper in the morning, I start reading the cereal box, or the wrapper of whatever food substance I am ingesting. This became problematic as my knowledge of Norwegian was quite bad.

So I went in search of reading material. Unfortunately, we were living in a small, isolated town whose library had a very limited books-in-English section. There was a used book store with English books, but they were mostly romance books, science fiction, and mystery novels?nothing I relished reading (though I did do a fair amount of sci-fi reading as a teenager). Still, it was something to read, so I picked three authors that I recognized but had mostly stayed away from due to their reputation as "genre writers" or "popular writers." They were Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park, Graham Greene The Power and the Glory, and Dashiell Hammett The Maltese Falcon. I had always assumed that if a writer was popular, it was probably because his/her writing was appealing to the lowest common denominator. Never have I been so wrong about authors as I had been about these three.

Although I knew Greene as the author of The Quiet American (which I hadn't yet read at the time) and the short story "The Destructors" (which I read in high school and enjoyed), his work was regularly shunned in college. An English major as an undergraduate and an MFA recipient as a graduate student, I took many literature classes?not once did I read a Greene book. So The Power and the Glory took me by surprise with its strong narrative and amazingly perceptive character study of a drunken, fornicating priest on the run during the religious persecutions in Mexico in the 1930s. It was anything but a genre book?it was literature, and at the same time an exciting read (believe me, that is not always the case). The same was true of Gorky Park, which followed Moscow detective Arkady Renko during the Cold War years of the 1980s as he tries to solve the murder of two people in city's park. The strong attention to character development made it much more than a run-of-the-mill detective story. And then there is Hammett.

Now I had seen the movie of The Maltese Falcon, the John Huston version, many times. I enjoyed it each time?from Bogart's tough guy Sam Spade to Peter Lorre's fey Joel Cairo to Sidney Greenstreet's unforgettable Gutman?but had never picked up the book before. I have found that the best movie adaptations are often of books that are mediocre, and that good books just as often make wretched films (not always the case, as I was to find out). So I picked up The Maltese Falcon with trepidation; I was afraid it might ruin the movie for me.

Two things immediately struck me: one, the description of Sam Spade resembled nothing of Humphrey Bogart, and two, the brilliant dialogue from the film seemed to have come entirely from the book. In the first paragraph, the description of Spade is of a "blond Satan," his face a series of v's. Not exactly what you think of when you think of Bogart's fleshy face. Throughout the book, there's a hardness to Spade that Bogart managed to soften in the film, but to the character's disadvantage in my view. The reason Spade survives is through his hardness and his unwillingness to "play the sap" for anyone.

And then there's the dialogue?I say without hyperbole (okay, maybe a little) that Hammett is one of the finest writers of dialogue in the English language this side of Hemingway's short stories. They are tough, simple sentences, but like Hemingway's, say more than just the words alone. There's implications and unspoken allusions sneaking around the edges of the sentences, which in a mystery like The Maltese Falcon, add to the intrigue. And they're something that Hemingway's often isn't: funny. Hammett has his way with wisecracks and witty repartee that would make Oscar Wilde smile.

Years after I read the book, I came across a story, possibly apocryphal, about how director John Huston wrote the screenplay. Huston was way behind in writing the screenplay for the film, so finally he ordered his secretary to take the book and type out all the dialogue, and he would use that to work on the screenplay. She did so and left the typed pages on her desk before she went to lunch. In the meantime, the producers of the movie came by to see where Huston was with the screenplay. They were reading the typed pages when Huston returned. They congratulated him on an excellent screenplay and Huston just smiled and said nothing. A strong endorsement of the writing in the book if nothing else?

The Maltese Falcon compelled me to be less likely to categorize and dismiss a book because of its popularity or the ?genre? it was written in. Good writing is good writing, whether it is decreed from on high by the literary gods to be ?literature? or a paperback picked up at the airport. All that matters is the words on the page. And that's the stuff that dreams are made of (which, incidentally, isn't a line from the book?allegedly it was thought up by Bogart on the movie set?).