What if we view the story of Wyoming through the lens of noir? You know, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh, Sam Spade and Mike Hammer, gumshoes and dames. Call it Wyoming Noir.
Noir, like jazz, emerged as a uniquely American art form and is now widely adapted in other countries. Cultural critics observe that this genre emerges at times when people are realizing that the world is complicated, that heroes do not invariably prevail, that moral decisions are not simple, that sometimes good people do bad things to make the world a better place, that we are not fully in control of our lives, and that we turn our eyes away from dark places at our own peril. This explains the emergence of this genre after the Depression and its flourishing at the end of WWII — traumatic times in which people were ready for the gritty truth.
The narratives we choose to understand ourselves and to frame our culture are crucial to shaping our values and relationships. The philosopher Richard Kearney maintained that stories were more important than food because we eat in order to live, but we live in order to tell stories. Perhaps this overstates the case, but we interpret our history and imagine our future in storied terms. And so, it behooves us to select our genre carefully.
The dominant frameworks of Wyomingites include Western tales (cowboys represent fierce autonomy, manly courage, and rugged individualism) and Rags-to-Riches tropes (clever entrepreneurs flourish, like the McMurrys, Trues and Wolds). I propose that we think of Wyoming — and in particular our relationship to the energy industry — in terms of noir, particularly the classic books and crime films that came to exemplify this genre. Noir’s structures (plot, characters, setting) and concepts (aesthetic and philosophical) provide compelling parallels to our state’s story.
Plot: Swirling stories with uncertain endings
Three elements shape a noir plot: nonlinearity, complexity, and endings. Noir manifests as a tightening circle of fate as the characters are sucked into a whirlpool of inescapable events by virtue of their decisions. Wyoming’s narrative of a downward spiral was vividly represented by Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink, in which a whirlpool of logs from beetle-killed trees swirled into a pile of coal. Whatever one might think about this politically censored artwork, it evoked our being bound to the inevitable descent of fossil fuels. There’s seemingly no escape from what is coming. How else to explain Governor Mead’s plan to “double down on coal”?
Next, a noir plot is complex. So much so that our questions shift from “How?” to “Why?” We wonder what accounts for the characters actions. In Wyoming, the complexity of legislative actions, inside dealings, and deceptive pronouncements makes the “How” of our story difficult to follow. And so the “Why” becomes darkly enchanting. Greed, revenge, fear, and power play out among the energy industry, Wyoming citizens, and state legislators. What accounts for the behavior of Anadarko and Arch Coal, of Dave Freudenthal and Eli Bebout, of Dave True and Mark Northam, or of Dick Cheney and Mike Enzi?
Finally, the ending of a noir story is disturbing. For decades, Hollywood promised happy endings but the horrors of WWII made clear that endings could be grim. In noir, nothing is certain. Heroes may die and winning can have a horrendous cost. So it is with Wyoming’s story. Savvy citizens are dubious of state leaders assuring us that this bust will be followed by yet another boom. Just what is this next economic surge going to be? What if Wyoming wakes up in the morning with an empty bottle, an empty wallet, and an empty bed?
Characters: Complex, conniving and corrupt
Consider the male lead, the female lead, and the supporting cast in a noir tale. The ethically complex (anti)hero combines virtue and vice. Likewise, Wyoming citizens are soft-hearted, hard-boiled people willing to accept morally dubious policies. We’re addicted to the economic buzz of fossil fuels — a wretched chemical dependency in which we sustain an ironic sense of freedom. The (anti)hero is alienated from social norms. His friend is a drug dealer, his girl is a former hooker, and his associate is an ex-con. Wyoming’s friend is Arch Coal, our girl is Liz Cheney, and our associate is the DEQ. We embrace our cultural isolation. Finally, the (anti)hero is trapped. The private detective falls for a temptress and is drawn into her web of deception. Seduced by the energy industry, Wyomingites know, but can’t quite figure out how, we’ll be duped this time.
Noir’s femme fatale arose after World War II. She was both strong (having worked in the factories and discovered autonomy) and dangerous (threatening the power and authority of men). What better way to describe Wyoming’s energy industry? She promises easy money and low taxes, but leaves coal workers as depleted suckers, running off with their retirement funds. Sometimes the (anti)hero avoids being the chump, after realizing that the femme fatale will stab him in the back if given the opportunity. The question for Wyoming is whether we’ll see through double-cross in the final scene. Will Halliburton, Anadarko, and Hess continue to seduce the university with tight-fitting buildings, well-endowed professorships, and sequined “donations”?
Finally, noir portrays public officials and agencies as bumbling or corrupt. Sam Spade navigated a maze of inept cops and shady politicians. Sound familiar? There is good reason to think of Wyoming state agencies as the lackeys of the energy industry. And among politicians, conflict-of-interest is endemic, leaving the public to doubt the integrity of those in power.
Setting: Disturbing places of stark contrasts
Noir’s settings highlight contrasts: urban versus rural and dark versus light. The city is brutal and dangerous, while the countryside is gentle and safe — a tension vividly captured in The Asphalt Jungle. How could Wyoming fail to evoke pastoral harmony? The energy companies urbanize the landscape with roads, pipelines, and machinery. Consider Sinclair’s post-apocalyptic superstructure of sprawling pipes and industrial domination.
Noir’s contrast of light and dark is manifest by the glare of streetlights at night and the shadowy corners of bars. After all, “noir” means darkness — and filmmakers created vivid suspense by using the unseen. Wyoming’s bright sunlight contrasts sharply with the blackness of coal and oil. Miners work and live in the literal and metaphorical shadow of the mines and derricks. And dark possibilities lurk in the future of our state.
Aesthetics: Beauty disappears in the gritty, real, and weird beast
The artfulness of noir comes from a combination of primalism, realism, and expressionism. Primalism refers to the brute aspects of humans — violence and sexuality. Noir’s violence is often sudden, brutal, and lethal. And this is not a bad description of Wyoming’s energy industry, which engages the natural world with explosions and machinery that rip open the earth — and sometimes human bodies. In noir, sexuality is intense, powerful, and manipulative. Perhaps the most erotic primalism of Wyoming is the practice of fracking — a sexually evocative term for penetrating a formation and forcefully fracturing the deeply hidden resource which comes bursting to the surface.
Noir embraces unsentimental realism in which stark violence and calculating sex collide. So what about Wyoming? We celebrate the brutal realities of a harsh land and share dark stories of hunting, drinking, whoring, ranching, and mining. There might be sublime beauty in sagebrush flats and windswept basins but very little that could be described as pretty. Coal mines, drill pads, and power plants are tough, barbarous, even cruel, places. With further regard to gritty realism, the dialogue in a noir story is plain-spoken — no need for a thesaurus. This is also a fine echo of Wyoming, where elegant language and sophisticated vocabulary are not much practiced. Exhibit A: Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson.
In an expressionistic work, mental states are projected into the world. For example, the paranoia of a noir character is visually portrayed by a claustrophobic and insidious arrangement of buildings and streets. And so it is with Wyoming. Our internal state of anxiety over the next bust, the mad rush to extract during a boom, and the insane denial of what is soon to come are all reflected in towns like Gillette and Wamsutter, along with dying forests and abandoned well pads. Likewise, greed shapes the landscapes of the Powder River Basin and the Pinedale Anticline.
Philosophy: No excuses, no hope, no quitting
Noir’s philosophical roots tap into existentialism, moral ambiguity, and Hobbesian pessimism. Existentialists contend that life is absurd; there is no grand purpose beyond whatever we choose for ourselves. Noir’s (anti)hero acknowledges a system of laws and punishments, but they provide no genuine meaning. Likewise, Wyoming’s attitude is captured in that great line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a cinematic blend of noir and Western: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”
So the existentialist acts authentically rather than adhering to cultural norms. The noir (anti)hero makes his own decisions and offers no excuses. Similarly, Wyoming doesn’t accept living by the rules of the rest of the country in which diversity — human and economic — is valued. Like Mike Hammer, we drink hard, carry a loaded gun, and fall for the dame wearing a deeply cut, coal-black gown.
Existentialists recognize the conflict between individual control and external influence — including chance. In noir, the hard-boiled detective struggles to shape his destiny but outside forces call the shots. As for chance, Wyoming plays the cards we’re dealt: an ace of oil, a king of coal, a five of tourism, a three of agriculture, and a two of manufacturing. Along with the noir gumshoe, our story is driven by events and powers beyond our reach. Nobody anticipated fracking, coal was going to love us for decades, and who saw coalbed methane coming — or going? We planned for reclamation using self-bonding and the companies walked out on us without so much as a kiss goodbye. State leaders aspire to build cottage industries with white picket fences but then along slinks the hot babe of fossil fuels promising endless satisfaction.
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Existentialism and noir come together with the work of Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher/author, and the stories of Raymond Chandler. In his classic essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus wonders how Sisyphus finds meaning as he rolls a stone up the hill only to watch it tumble back down in an endless cycle of futility. Likewise, Chandler’s protagonist Philip Marlowe seems to understand that justice will never prevail, no matter how often he shoves the boulder of fairness. In a sense, the futility of Wyoming’s Sisyphean pursuit of economic security by digging and drilling — as with pushing and shoving — is becoming ever more apparent. The work of chasing the next boom is ultimately doomed by the next bust. Our economy is perhaps best described in terms of existential futility. And yet we go on.
The next philosophical root taps into moral ambiguity. Uncertainty regarding good and evil played a critical role in censorship through the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code. Social standards dictated that the evil could not triumph, but in many noir films it wasn’t clear if anyone was good, let alone who came out on top. And so it is with Wyoming’s industries. Tourism looks lovely but pays its workers poorly. Ranching appears noble but relies on federal subsidies. And the energy industry pumps money into the state’s coffers (in reality the corporations collect, but do not pay, the severance tax) but endangers workers, ravages lands — and censors those who raise concerns. Hollywood had its Production Code and the fossil fuel CEOs had their Carbon Sink.
In its darkest moments, noir resonates with Thomas Hobbes’ grim assessment of humanity left to individual self-interest (or rugged individualism?): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Could there be a better account of Wyoming extractive industries? A world of each against all might well describe how the corporations shape the legislation which fails to protect Wyoming’s environment and workers.
There you have it — an alternative narrative framework for Wyoming. Is this the best way to understand our story? Probably not, but it does shed some light — and darkness — on our history and our future. And it might be what we need at this moment, like a stiff shot of whiskey poured into a cup of bitter coffee served by a cynical, buxom waitress who knows that there’s a gun under the counter in that greasy café and understands that a scream in the alley is likely to attract the curiosity of a rain-soaked street dealer looking for a quick score as the world-weary beat cop hopes to call it a night.
Jeffrey A. Lockwood is a professor of natural sciences and humanities, the director of UW’s Creative Writing Program — and the author of “Poisoned Justice” (Pen-L, 2016; a noir murder mystery set in 1970s San Francisco) and “Behind the Carbon Curtain” (UNM Press, forthcoming March 2017; the dark story of how the energy industry has censored science, art and education in Wyoming and the nation).
Jeff, thanks for this fun(?) noir interpretation of Wyoming.
Jeff: Some of the best U.S. noir writing comes from brightly lit places: L.A., MIami, New Orleans. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of sunlight and shadow, or that shadows are more intense the brighter it gets. The sun shines in Wyoming 300 days of the year. That makes the dark places very dark indeed.
You wrote a most enlightened essay! You are the canary in the coal mine. Unfortunately, the Republicans and especially Trump are deaf and cannot hear the singing.
Thank God that there are some of you in education. Watch your back, I hope you are tenured.
Once a Rock Springsite
This is a beautiful piece, but miles above most readers. Certainly mosy decision makers will dismiss it as highfalutin rhetoric.
Exquisite art will not shape public opinion. But, it is appreciated by this reader.
At the moment the only thing more existential than Wyoming is the failed Wy. Democrat party. It ‘used to be’ the party of working and thinking Wy. men and women of all ages.
Wouldn’t hurt to include some numb headed Darwinism in your narrative. You imply more consciousness than is apparent.
Whew, Jeff… to paraphrase, “Fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…”