by Ryder Miller
I was the last family member to see my father, Leon Miller, career IRS agent, alive. He lost his battle with cancer and spent the last of his days in Hospice care in The Bronx. There is something unpredictable about suffering and illness. It is not always clear when someone is in pain; maybe that is why we need stories and writers like him. They can let us know when one should have empathy. He had been sick for a long time. By that last day he had wasted away. It was called being skeletal. He did recognize who I was on that last visit, but he was not able to talk. He actually asked me to leave. I was surprised to find out later in the day that he had passed.
Months before he had lost his ability to walk, ironic for a former punter, the cancer had started in the knee and that is where he felt the pain when he sat still. He was not able to sit for long periods of time. He had gotten a chunk of it cut out in an operation and the cancer had spread through his body.
He was no longer at his full power in the hospital.
For some reason he did not have a great deal to say in those last hours. It must be hard for the incapacitated and sick to be surrounded by their family, especially since they have lost their physical strength. Things also can become very confused in hospitals, especially in intensive care and nursing homes with all sorts of possible consequences. New Yorker Leon Miller (1934-2012), however, did not appear to give up until very close to the end. He was still concerned with the state of the world and tried to solve its problems. He would not spend his time listening to music or watching movies for distraction as some of us family members had suggested.
He was annoyed at me because I had become too polite and did not want to disagree with him enough. He had left things unresolved to some extent. It is hard for me not to remember some of the uncomplimentary things he did, but he also had done a great deal for me and my brothers over the years. He cared for us and took care of us through high school and college. His death was a disconnect or end. He was no longer there to encourage me as a writer and reporter. One could not call him up for information or help any longer. For advice and questions after a parent had died, for the empty blanks on the page, one needed to now search their memory, think about the books and movies he recommended, and with him the body of writing he left us. He did leave us with three self published books that are now available on the Internet:
The Long Shot
I thought he had a hard and dangerous life in many respects. His older brother was a football player and lifelong athlete. He spent time in the army during the Korean War, even if he was only stationed on the East Coast. Things did not work out for him as an English Teacher or a writer. He would throw out manuscripts that were rejected. He also spent most of his professional life as at taxman, a day job, in both investigation and collections. His first wife asked him to leave, and they were later divorced.
He really seemed to have a paranoid streak at times, but he needed to be that way as a urban family protector. Living in New York City he would read The Post, The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and major literature. He also had an interest in Film Noir and crime novels which he shared with us. He especially appreciated Raymond Chandler and James Thompson. He helped keep the world safe for democracy as a soldier. He did not live very far from Harlem. He also had to collect from some unsavory types over the years.
I thought he could tell the story of being a tax collector, i.e., how, like journalism, it was also a sort of detective work. He liked a lot of authors who wrote in the area of crime which included all sorts of subcategories for those in the know.
It is also interesting to compare him with David Foster Wallace who was also a taxman, but his The Pale King was more investigative as in new journalism, and more a memoir compared to the dangerous work these taxmen sometimes had to do. Wallace’s book is usually a funny and nervy collection of writings about his experiences in the IRS, his in Illinois, and some of the problematic procedural practices they struggled with. From my father, I expected the stuff of Film Noir, a dark vision of a society where even the police cannot keep things under control and private detectives are necessary. Noir can be a state of mind or emotion, but often it is about the authorities needing the help of engaged citizens. We sometimes need to be more than innocent citizens to keep things under control.
The IRS made my father sign agreements about not publicizing how they did their business which included seizures, liens, paycheck garnishing, and bank account withdrawals. He did not talk much about his work. In his writing he also did not write or comment much about his life as a taxman as he agreed, but this profession had given his protagonists some skills to hunt down criminals.
It is hard to know where to put my father’s writing in the field of crime writing which has changed over the years. For me Film Noir had ended with the movie Chinatown to be replaced by crime fiction, especially the transgressive strain in the oeuvre of Coppola and Scorsese. “Crime pays” my father would joke, but he was also trying to catch you in trouble to teach you a lesson. He would even send you a shirt which had the alert tag still in it so that it would ring an alarm as you stepped out of the store. He had grown disenfranchised like some of the characters he had read about in the works of Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me), and in the movies, like The Godfather, Scarface, Good Fellas…. The American Dream did not always pay out and he had served his country as a soldier, tax collector, husband, and father, and did not have a great deal to show for it. The streets had also become more dangerous over his lifetime.
One should also remember that he was a Miller writing in the shadow of a wild and banned Henry Miller and a second social commentator Arthur Miller. I once joked that I was the bastard literary grandchild of these writers, with Djuna Barnes who wrote a book called Ryder, but that was unfair because I owed my father and mother a bigger debt. These writers created a literary tradition, but I would not have been as successful of a writer if I did not learn from my parents who were both artists (our mother being his first wife) and met in an English Program at Brooklyn College.
My father was angry and hurt that he had not been successful writer during his life. He never really got to get up on the platform before a large audience that he desired. There was the army and the US Government who knew enough about him to disallow him from writing about government business. He honored that commitment. He would read The Village Voice which did give him at times a radical perspective which showed in his later work that was self published.
I tried to be friendly with my dad who was forced to socialize with people when he didn’t want to. He would remind me that he was a “Rude, Misconstrued, Dude”. He would also call himself a bastard which was a self judgment which showed his concern with decency. He was not impressed with everything he did. He will be appreciated for his sense of humor, but he was too bitter to be considered a clown.
He also liked to joke around with the ladies we encountered, even though he was married twice, but this was not an issue in his marriage. My father tended to show rather than explain. He would take us to the movies and joke around with women rather than give a lot of advice. When a woman was present, it often seemed as if she was being given an assignment to teach me, his son, a lesson. It was coded in some of the words he would use with them. We were the literary men in the family and I was the one without a muse, excluding The Pacific.
After retiring from the IRS, he self published The Long Shot, The Changes (stories), The Frenzy The Grievance. He also had some plays read in theaters in New York City, with one included in The Changes. They did not get a lot of attention and were not reviewed.
In a world of art, sleaze, sexual brutality, prostitution, strip dancing, crime, his character Milton Meyers in The Long Shot had to make his way. Meyers is a hero with fantastical gifts with the women, and as a tough guy, without rival in the text. He could have any woman he wanted and kill anybody he felt was no good. The Long Shot is not a mystery in the sense that the villain has to be identified. One could say the book was more about a hit man who also planned to rob his “criminal”. It just so happened that he beat his wife. He was actually betrayed by the wife who had been beaten. In Meyer’s world there was a line that should not be crossed with women. Surprisingly, he is there to avenge them when things got violent.
Meyers is also curious about such things. Meyers is hypocritical, but he is also a student in the dark urban world. The relations between men and women have grown hard, but he also would like to satisfy. The book is not pornographic necessarily, but the references and humor were uncomfortably crude at times.
Milton Meyers was able to work things out with them and usually get what he wanted. They also wanted him and he was a fantastic ideal in a dark world gone wrong.
Maybe his books would say how it really was for some, but I have not gotten to know a lot of women like Melissa, Marlene or Diane who figured largely in The Long Shot and in some of the stories in The Changes. They also are hard people.
Murray Schneps, the protagonist of The Frenzy and The Grievance is not very different than Milton Meyers, being also a hard boiled transgressive detective of sorts, but the story is a bigger one of military corruption, the sometimes dubious state of being a journalist, and anger gone amok.
One finds a real protest to the way things are in these works by Leon Miller, but one wonders if he picks all the correct targets. There is a lot of name calling, brutality, and anger from Schneps who is a little more introspective and cautious. Schneps is a man on medication who goes after some who would be considered heroes like the people in the military, feminists, and journalists. He does not find many admirable characters in these professions, but Schneps has reason to be angry.
One would say these main characters have left the detective or noir fiction behind and have much more modern sensibilities. They are both heroes and transgressors.
Leon’s heroes are angry men in dangerous situations. He also attacks these characters with the protagonists being criticized by others in the stories. It is a very frank and uncomfortable time in these short novels with all sorts of ugliness and abuse, but detectives Meyers and Schneps are out for their own form of justice. They are vigilantes in a world were social institutions have failed. Leon’s characters are role models of sorts speaking up and taking charge.
His short stories in The Changes (which also contains another Milton Meyers novelette and a short play) showcases some of his rare early fiction. One can see a wider appetite for places of emotional commonality. Some of the stories tell of human pain and adaptation. His stories are usually of characters trying to do the right thing in a realistic and dangerous world. They also try to enjoy their lives which was a lesson he also taught.
His work speak of a change in this country and disenfranchisement. He did not only read noir and detective fiction, having a great deal of knowledge about modern American literature and the cinema. He was one of my literature teachers, who did not usually like the science fiction and fantasy I read. He didn’t get to put his stories on the big screen like he would have liked.
I am sad to see Leon gone and wish that I could still talk with him about my writing, his writing, books and the cinema. His parenting and writing reminds me of our freedom to enjoy life and literature, to write and protest, and sometimes our need to take responsibility. His humor will also be missed. His protagonists took on some of the most pressing male issues of our times.
Messent, Peter. The Crime Fiction Handbook. 2013. England: Wiley-Blackwell.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental reporter, independent scholar, critic, and eco-critic who writes about Nature, Astronomy, the Sea, Academic books, Art, American Literature, and Genre Literature. He also writes short stories (usually genre stories) and poems. He is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book of Nature Writing/News Columns called An Ocean Beach Diary (published in The West Portal Monthly and Redwood Coast Review), and a collection of genre stories (many already published in Mythic Circle and The Lost Souls website). He has published on the web what could be a book collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy. He is also working on a anthology of Environmental stories called Green Visions. Following the dictum of C.S. Lewis he has come to believe that it is easier to criticize than understand, but not every book is worthwhile or a contribution.