The long good buy 1

This short story was written by the late Ronald Chandler, a little-known fiction writer and putatively a distant British relation of the famous American detective-story writer Raymond Chandler. It dates from the late 1980s, but was only found in 2011 among his effects which had been stored in an attic since his disappearance in 2002.

We publish it here for the first time. We think it may cast some light on the debate as to who and what is to blame for the present recession in America.

The Long Good Buy

So the recession is over. At last I can tell the story of the part I played in averting disaster.

Everybody all at once seemed to know the central fact, that the germinal cause of the nation’s economic and moral decline had been isolated, and wide agreement if not complete unanimity had been arrived at as to its nature:

Materialism.

Or, in common parlance, Greed.

So far, so good. But the persons operating against society under the influence of that insidious motive were not yet identified. I decided to put a stop to this subversion. I saw it as my patriotic duty to separate the goats from the sheep and bring the goats to justice.

It was tough going. Fingers pointed everywhere, but no one could finger anybody in particular. Just what sort of acquisitive lunatic was frantically storing up treasure for himself?

Way I saw it, just like if you want to find who’s splashing cash about in the barren reaches of the Third World you look for who’s buying sugar, in the First World maybe it’s cars.

The chase began. Hot foot on a cold trail, I knocked on doors of houses with garages, wandered through multistorey carparks and waylaid drivers, interviewed prospective customers in the glassy premises of motor dealers, strolled through used-car lots, and put my question:

“Can you tell me, sir (or madam), just where is the borderline between need and greed?”

Here’s what I found:

The one-car man (or woman) puts it at the yearning for two cars; the two-car man at the hankering for three cars; the three-car man at the slavering for four cars; and the four-car man, when at last you’ve been ushered into his presence, turns out to be an ascetic on principle, with a withering scorn for what he calls “the gross materialism of contemporary society”. As for the five-car man, his PR spokesman delivered this message: “My client believes in the Marxist slogan ‘from each according to his ability and to each according to his need’ and instructs me to add that if you don’t do what you’re told you won’t get anything at all.”

I was getting nowhere. Barking up the wrong boulevard. I needed to think. I nipped into a public building and took the weight off my feet. I looked about me. Empty shelves on all sides. What had they once held? Books. And then it came to me in a flash.

I knew the louse I was after.

You see, when it first became known that the country was  in for a recession, there were many good, wise idealists who didn’t see it as bad thing. They put it that at last folk would be able to turn their attention to the things of “real value”, like culture, since the mad race after material things would just have to stop when the money ran out. But it wasn’t very long before these fine souls opened their eyes in wide dismay when they found that the theatres were closing, the orchestras starving, the art galleries emptying, and the library collections were being broken up and sold abroad. They just had not understood that “real values” cost real money.

All the best things in life cost a lot.

And even crummy things cost something.

That was the clue I’d been looking for. Even crummy things cost something. Those words burnt their way into my brain. And I knew that I was after the no-car man.

It is the no-car man, hoarding his pennies in the piggy and his pounds in the Co-op Bank in pursuance of his plot to abandon himself to the luxury of his first set of wheels, having long coveted his neighbour’s re-sprayed Mini, who is your true, hardened, compunctionless materialist. More often than not he’s also a no-dishwasher man, a no-refrigerator man, a no-microwave man, a no-centralheating man. All these things he wants. Also a water-heater, a clothes washer, a television, a telephone, a computer, a bathtub, an overcoat … The arm of his avarice would reach to the bottom, if there were a bottom, of the catalogue of our consumer civilization.

I caught him alright. This hedonist. This voluptuary.

He was on his way home from his second moonlighting job that evening as a waiter in a strip club. He came quietly.

Of course he had his story to tell. You wouldn’t believe the gas he blew. All about how if he had a car and a refrigerator and a dishwasher and could keep a bit warmer he’d have better health, and more time for the finer things of life. The lies he told! He claimed, for instance, that he didn’t want a car or a telephone just as a Thing, not just for itself, not just to show off with, but as an instrument to help him earn his living.

What a heart-string harpist he was!

He said if his wife had a clothes washer and a vacuum-cleaner she could get out of the house more. They could get to the theatre maybe, or to hear some music, or to read books in the libraries.

This was too much for me.

“You wrecked all that, chum,” I snapped. “I’m the guy who tumbled to your little racket, remember?”

And I told him to save it for the Great Court of Public Opinion.

But the verdict was a foregone conclusion. He was the goat alright. And he knew it.

  • Liz

     I remember when “materialism” and “consumerism” became the big sins that we were all guilty of.  Now we’re doing penance for those sins to the priests of the cult.  But our restitution will only be paid in full when we’re all living in harmony with nature, with the wolves and grizzlies having taken our place at the top of the food chain.