The Golden Scorpion is a quick read that left me wanting a whole lot more. If you haven’t heard of Bill Craig before, then you need to remedy that. He’s a damn awesome pulp writer who knows how to spin a yarn.
Opening Leonard Fritz’s In Nine Kinds of Pain is like stepping into the Noir Asylum for the Mentally Insane. It’s cracked-out crime fiction at its finest and most fucked up. There’s power in Fritz’s words, and every page seems capable of catching you off-guard, holding you at gunpoint, stealing your wallet, busting your nose, and leaving you bleeding, black and blue, and blubbering—in a metaphorical sense, that is. In real life, I’d never volunteer for an ordeal like that, but in a book, that’s exactly the sort of stylish bravado I want to see, and it is doubly impressive coming from a debut novelist. In Nine Kinds of Pain is ambitious, but more importantly it is also successful—not to mention batshit crazy, and pretty damn funny.
How does one even go about describing the story? It’s like an explosion of bad people, bad intentions, and bad feelings. There’s Baby, a prostitute who is left bleeding on a pile of garbage by a brutish client; now she wants to get the hell out of Detroit once and for all. Then there’s her two-timing boyfriend, Dante, who’s gotten involved with some dangerous dudes. Father Costa is an alky priest with a bad case of DTs, and whose increasingly whacked-out religious visions all center around Baby. Then you got Dallas, a desperate, horny, and suicidal cop whose wife has dumped him. Meanwhile, Dallas’ crackhead colleague, Ron Frady, is knee-deep in an a big scheme that will either make him rich or get everyone above killed.
Phew—that wasn’t easy, and even that doesn’t do In Nine Kinds of Pain justice. Fritz has constructed a story that doesn’t rely on a linear mystery. There’s only one way this story can end—and that is badly. We know “whodunit” because we’re following them every step of the way. In true noir fashion, Fritz is more interested in the motivating factors that force his characters to make such terrible, foolish decisions. Take for example Father Costa. When he turns the vestry upside-down for a bottle of anything to take the edge off, we feel every shake and every drop of cold sweat. And as his preoccupation for Baby turns into a delusional nightmare in which he plays Jesus, we walk through every Biblical fantasy alongside him. By the end, little that Father Costa says or does makes much sense in the real world, but inside his head, he is playing out a religious drama of futile redemption and martyrdom. Who knows what the rest of the world thinks of Father Costa—we never see him from their perspective. Fritz burrows deep inside the priest’s own booze-addled consciousness, and from his perspective, everything is at it should be. It’s a wild ride seeing the world through Father Costa’s eyes, and he’s only one character among many in this psycho-prismatic novel.
When it comes to style, Leonard Fritz can be as daring and bonkers as his characters—but he’s also a heck of a lot smarter and more self-controlled. The fractured narrative and experimental prose suggested William Burroughs, while the stream of consciousness and gutter rhapsody reminded me of Henry Miller. I mention these authors not only to suggest the sophistication and high-quality of Fritz’s writing, but also to point out that In Nine Kinds of Pain isn’t your run-of-the-mill crime fiction novel. It’s a welcome reminder of just how far-reaching, diverse, and experimental the genre can be. Fritz is an exciting and fearless writer. Throughout the novel, he breaks the narrative and delivers a series of chapters titled, “Here is Wisdom.” These are didactic, direct-addresses from an unknown narrator to the reader, talking about Detroit, the hierarchy of the streets, and the down-low on politics, drugs, and violence that contextualize the story for non-natives. It’s like a tour guide given by Travis Bickle: bitter, disgusted, intolerant, but strangely understanding and poetically perceptive. Fritz’s literary arsenal also includes comic panels (drawn by himself—damn, he’s talented!), and even a mathematical equation, to tell his story.
Call me crazy, but as dark as the book is, I also thought it was pretty funny. That’s one of the things I like most about noir—things are terrible, but sometimes you just have to laugh. And I laughed a lot when I was reading In Nine Kinds of Pain. One of my favorite passages had to do with Dallas and his failed attempt to get back with his ex, Liz. As if things couldn’t get worse for the guy, when he gets home, his neighbor’s dog is gone. The guy is so pathetic, he doesn’t even have his own dog to mourn over—he has to look across the street. Here’s the passage as written by Fritz: “He had been saddened after his date with Liz, a date that didn’t go as well as he had hoped, a date in which he had pulled out his penis. He’d been further saddened when he’d returned home and had discovered that Smiley, the one true bright spot in his life, the smile in most smile-less days, was gone.”
I’m not sure whether the Detroit Chamber of Commerce should put a hit out on Fritz or give the man an award—hopefully the latter—because as vicious and vile as the city comes across in the book, it is written with such loving pride and protectiveness. You get the feeling that if anyone else said anything bad about Detroit, Fritz would be the first one to step up and defend his city. While New York City inches closer and closer towards Disneyland, Fritz’s Detroit still has an edge to it. I’ve never been to there but, oddly enough, after reading this book, I kind of want to go. (But I’ll probably stay away from the neighborhoods where Baby, Dallas, and company hang out.)
In Nine Kinds of Pain isn’t for the cozy-inclined—there’s nothing wrong those types of novels, and I occasionally want something lighter as well, but it is worth knowing what you are getting in for with this book. These characters are at rock bottom, and they aren’t redeemed by any hearts of gold or final acts of absolution. They’re addicts, dealers, prostitutes, killers, no good lovers and back stabbers. The best you could say is that they do what they have to do to survive, but even that’s a stretch. What makes them appealing to me, at least, is that when they reach the end of their proverbial rope, they all seem more alive than ever before. Their lives may suck, and they may hate Detroit, but man, they really want to hang on to what little they have. In a weird way, they value existence more than many. These aren’t boring characters. They’re not apathetic and they don’t sit down and watch sitcoms until the cows come home. They’re active and they’re crazy and they’re funny and they’re interesting as hell. Sure, they screw up their lives and everyone else’s, but at least they don’t go down quietly. There’s something wonderful about reading characters so full of life, even if it is an admittedly unpleasant one. But thankfully, even that doesn’t stop them from living—or dying—to the fullest.
Last night, Kevin Avery spoke at New York City’s Strand Bookstore to discuss the late Paul Nelson, a former critic and editor for Rolling Stone magazine, and the subject of two recent books by Kevin. Joining him on stage was critic Dave Marsh, a friend and colleague of Paul’s from their days at Rolling Stone in the 1970s. Kevin’s two books are Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Books)—a biography and anthology of Paul’s writing—and Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson’s Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood, 1979-1983 (Continuum)—one of the longest interviews with the director that were conducted for an unrealized Rolling Stone feature. Cover art for both books (and the design for Everything Is An Afterthought) was provided by my good friend Jeff Wong, who also did great work for Busted Flush Press’ Damn Near Dead 2: Live Noir or Die Trying last year.
Paul shared a deep passion for music, film, and literature, and these books show not only how knowledgeable a critic he was in all three fields, but they also reveal a unique insight and original conception about arts and culture at the time. Paul was a mythologist (just as he, himself, became a mythological figure of sorts) who saw the genius of rock ‘n’ roll, noir crime fiction, and hardboiled film auteurs like Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood years—if not decades—before the rest of the world did. Paul passed away in 2006, but in many ways, he’s still ahead of the times. Kevin’s two books are a testament to Paul’s artistry and brilliance, and a monument to his tragic life and career, both of which ended too soon. (One of the many projects Paul intended to write, according to Dave Marsh, was a series of detective novels in which one of the recurring tropes would be the rising cost of cheeseburgers in NYC. Oh, how I wish those were realized!)
Paul started his writing career at The Little Sandy Review, reviewing folk music in the 1960s (even a young Bob Dylan was influenced by Paul, especially when he ran off with some prized records belonging to Paul and Little Sandy co-editor Jon Pankake). When Dylan went electric, Paul saw how things were changing and decided to change with them. As an editor at Rolling Stone, he championed a whole new generation of musicians in the 1970s. At Mercury Records, he signed the New York Dolls. And then in the 1980s, professional clashes with editors and an increasingly crippling OCD forced Paul to leave Rolling Stone. His writing career came to a stop, even though the ideas didn’t. Later, he worked at a video store in NYC, and ultimately died alone in his apartment. Kevin’s biography, Everything Is An Afterthought, tells the whole sad story. It’s heartbreaking as hell, but I couldn’t put it down. Paul was as compelling and complex as any of the artists he wrote about—and just as talented.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin about Paul Nelson for Our Town, Downtown. Limited by space in the publication, I couldn’t dig as deep into my own reaction to Paul’s writing as I would have liked, so I’d like to do that here on Pulp Sereande. As a big fan of detective fiction and all things noir—and a noir-ish character himself—Paul seems a natural fit for this blog.
Before I picked up either book, I had only heard of Paul Nelson—I had never read him before. As soon as I dug into them, however, I knew I had found not only a critic I could admire, but also a kindred soul I could relate to. Nelson wasn’t just a reviewer, and he brought a rare artistry and personal style to the field of criticism. At his best, Paul didn’t just review the merits of a particular album, but he dug deep into himself to talk about how the piece moved him, and why it affected him the way it did. It’s not merely autobiographical or confessional—it’s criticism at its finest, examining not only the aesthetic merits of a piece, but also tapping into that spiritual place that great art can take us.
Kevin Avery began the event by reading excerpts from Paul’s review of Willie Nelson’s Red Handed Stranger. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing, as much poetry as it is criticism, history, and mythology.
Teddy Roosevelt claimed loneliness is a quintessential ingredient of our national character, he hit the psychic bull’s-eye, ringing up images of pragmatic pioneers, existential outlaws and a long line of heroes who dreamt of the purity of their youth even as they drew their guns to eliminate it. “There are no second acts in American lives,” someone once said, and a cursory glance at our gods — the cowboy/desperado, the gangster/detective, the movie star/rock & roller — whose lifestyles generally suggest either early and unnatural death or obsolescence, easily reinforces such a statement. To the quiet American, violence, like the perpetual but unreal motion of life on the road, seems to serve as solicitous coin in the realm of the solitary survivor, some kind of necessary stop-gap and occupation while a man waits in the sanctified state of loneliness for something to happen, someone to come along or return, his vague search to end.
From Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to Dirty Harry Callahan, the mythic American hero is a man, almost always womanless, who has somehow been trapped in that curious nether world between comic innocence and tragic experience; unable or unwilling to make a choice, he can at best (or worst) embrace either adjective, neither noun. He has known happiness once, lost it, and now nothing will help. for the sentimental there is Christianity, the “official” solace, itself an uncanny mixture of loneliness and death, its hero a lost and forsaken son slain only to rise again with the promise of a glorious but distant new childhood in exchange for a worn out, hopeless past. It is small wonder that most Americans worship no god except their own lost innocence, have had, in fact, to rely on popular literature, films and music to provide plausible and workable archetypal “religion,” that is more Jungian and Freudian.
Veteran country singer/songwriter Willie Nelson knows all of this — and much more. His Red Headed Stranger is extraordinarily ambitious, cool, tightly controlled. A phonographic Western movie which brilliantly evokes the mythopoeic imagery of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shane and the works of John Ford, the album traces the life of a Montana cowboy who finds his true love with another man, kills both of them and later another woman, then drifts through Denver dance halls into old age, forever unable to cut his early loss but managing in the final years of his life a moving, believable and not unwarranted synthesis of all he has missed… (Rolling Stone, 8/28/75)
From Teddy Roosevelt to Pat Garrett to John Ford to Robert Altman to Jack Schaefer to Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood—all in the first three paragraphs of a review of a Willie Nelson album. Who the hell else had the guts—to say nothing of the foresight, understanding, and intelligence—to write this? This is the type of essay that, in the best possible way, kicks your ass and gives your mind a workout. It also makes you want to run out and listen to the album.
Paul spoke—and wrote—with the language of a true connoisseur. As you can read in his obituary on Ross Macdonald, or in his interviews with Clint Eastwood, he was more than a fan and more than a critic. He spoke about the things we loved with a lived-in intimacy. You got the feeling that these albums, books, and movies had banged around the inside of his mind and passed through his guts three-times over before he sat down to write. One of the amazing things about Conversations with Clint is how he gets the typically tight-lipped actor/director to open up. It’s like sitting in on conversations between two old friends…except they had only met a few times in their entire lives. The instant chemistry between the two is remarkable, and makes for one of the most engaging long-form film interviews I’ve read in years. One of the nicest touches to Everything Is An Afterthought (aside from making the book resemble a box of Nat Shermans, Paul’s favorite) is its organization: part one is the biography, and part two is filled with some of Paul’s best pieces (including his Ross Macdonald obit). First you get to know the man through his life, and second you get to know the man through his art. When you finish the book, you begin to realize how Paul’s biography would be incomplete without his own writing.
Paul was, and still is, a game-changer, and reading his work pushes me to become me a better critic.
Thanks, Kevin Avery, for introducing Paul Nelson’s work to me, and putting it back into circulation for long-time fans and newbies alike to enjoy.
Here are some more pictures from the event:
Every time I look at my shelf, I’m thankful for Stark House Press. Greg Shepard and his colleagues tirelessly endeavor to find the hidden gems of American literature—the forgotten classics, should-have-been-hits that fell between the cracks, the critically misrepresented, and the underdogs that never got their due. Orrie Hitt is all of these and more, and now he joins Stark House’s esteemed roster that includes Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, W.R. Burnett, A.S. Fleischman, Margaret Millar, and Robert Silverberg. This new anthology includes The Cheaters (originally published in 1960 by Midwood), Dial “M” For Man (originally published by Beacon in 1962), as well as introductions from Hitt’s children and Brian Ritt, an afterward by Michael Hemmingson, and a complete bibliography of Hitt’s work.
Half a century after most of his books were published, Orrie Hitt still carries the stigma of the “sleaze” genre. But, as Brian Ritt points out in his introduction, this “allowed him to portray a side of American life not dealt with in the mainstream media during the 1950’s.” Upon first publication, Hitt’s milieu might have been thought of as licentious, but today his characters just seem real, and all too relatable. They’re working stiffs sick of their day job, tired of their home life, and bored with their surroundings, and they resort to alcohol and sex to take their mind off the monotony and dreariness of their everyday life. Hitt is not an idealist, and his characters are as imperfect and morally bankrupt as the world they live in.
In The Cheaters, young lovers Clint and Ann leave their farm-town of Beaverkill, NY and wind up living in the slums of Wilton, known as “The Dells.” Ann works by day in a diner, while Clint spends his nights tending bar. Soon, he finds himself caught in a web of small-time vice that could lead to big-time problems. There’s the bar’s owner, a fat pimp named Charlie; his buxom, hot-to-trot wife, Debbie; and a corrupt cop with his eyes on Debbie, Red Brandon. When Clint sees his chance to dump Ann, grab Debbie and the bar, and get rid of Charlie and Red, he decides to put everything on the line…
Dial “M” For Man is about Hob Sampson, a twenty-something with his own TV business, a deadbeat business partner, and a frigid, virginal girlfriend. All that changes when he makes a house call on Doris Condon. Her husband, shady business tycoon Ferris Condon, stands in the way of everything Hob wants: he blocks Hob’s bank loan to improve his shop, and he won’t let go of Doris. Sick of his shop, his girlfriend, and his partner, Hob decides to clear out of Hawley, NY once and for all—but not without Doris, and not without exacting revenge on her scheming husband.
Both The Cheaters and Dial “M” For Man are finely crafted novels, blending squalor, suspense, and social realism. The world that Hitt resents is more recognizably human than in many of his contemporaries’ books. Hitt is like William Inge, but with less melodrama, and with more crime and depravity. And forget about the “sleaze” label—these two novels are 100-proof noir, as potent as any of the more celebrated stuff coming out from Gold Medal or Lion. Hitt’s characters are lost in their frustrated desires, unable to get anywhere new and unwilling to go back to where they came from. Instead of digging up and out, they only dig themselves deeper into the grave. Their motivations are the stuff you find sitting next to you on the bus, or behind you in line at the store—working man’s noir. Read this little excerpt from The Cheaters and see what I mean:
“Several times I tried calling the apartment but when I did he answered and I hung up, my hands shaking and my guts tense and tight. All I had to do was think about her and I was a wreck, a hopeless ghost of a man who was blinded by all of the love that was being lost. More and more I turned to the bottle, seeking from the bottle the answers to the thousands and thousands of questions that kept churning around inside of me. I didn’t find any answers. I got drunk and stumbling and I didn’t care whether I worked at the bar or not.”
One thing you can you say about Hitt’s characters: they really go to work. In both books, the day-to-day grind of the job is intimately detailed. Hitt is deeply invested in the notion of work as few authors are. There’s a lived-in, worked-in quality to Hitt’s novels that is unmistakably authentic—the tedium, the irritation, the slog, and the disappointment is utterly real. There’s the sense that his characters have to work for their dollar, for their booze, and for their rent. Not one aspect of daily life is overlooked or taken for granted. There’s a palpable sense of poverty, hunger, and destitution on every page. As Hitt writes in Dial “M” For Man: “Living with her would be constant excitement. Yes, living with her, giving her children—but how would I be able to pay the bills? Poverty, stark and real; she would not want that and neither would I.”
Real-world worries distinguish Hitt’s plots and give them their distinctive edge. He invests classic suspense scenarios with working class woes, and the result in both books is a story as fantastic as it is believable. On the one hand, Clint and Hob find themselves living out their big bosomed fantasies and their paranoid nightmares, but at the same time, they’re never fully divorced from the concerns of putting a meal on their plates or paying their rent. Call it noir neorealism with a little added sex—Orrie Hitt’s 1950’s make many novels of the time seem like vanilla ice cream in comparison.
Another aspect of Hitt’s novels that I love is his style. There’s a natural, unlabored flow that reminds me of Harry Whittington (though Whittington is, on the whole, much more intense). Hitt had a clever sense of humor, and he rarely resorted to clichéd expressions, instead creating his own distinctive style. For example, “She dripped sex like a leaky faucet,” (The Cheaters) or “She had a low voice, hot and sultry, the kind of a voice that could sell bathing suits in the middle of winter” (Dial “M” For Man). Even when Hitt is trying to be sexy, there’s frequently an underlying nuance of poverty and struggle, such as this line from The Cheaters: “She was the kind of a girl you could starve to death with and not mind it at all.” In fact, that is precisely the future that Clint sees for himself unless he can find a way to pay-off Red Brandon.
When it comes to plotting, Hitt doesn’t rush head-first into trouble, and instead lets the situations develop slowly. Both The Cheaters and Dial “M” For Man are more about the build-up than the pay-off. Don’t get me wrong, both have terrific and surprising finales, but Hitt dispenses with conclusions rather quickly. He’s more interested in how—and why—his character get themselves in such a rut. Two of the driving motivations are summarized by Hitt himself:
“I’ve got a bull by the tail here but I’ve got to hang on. If I let go now there won’t be another chance. There’d be just jobs here and jobs there and I’d end up floating from place to place, never earning very much and never being sure what I was going to do the next day.” (The Cheaters)
“How bored can you get and still live with yourself?” (Dial “M” For Man)
Hitt’s characters are as restless as they are in need of a rest. The male characters are afraid of commitment, and frequently realize that they’re no good sleazebags. As the narrator of The Cheaters admits, “I was making big money in The Dells but I was just as bad as the prostitutes who worked out of the bar.” The female characters, in particular, are ready to settle down, but they don’t want to settle for less than they feel they deserve. While many of the women are too easily forgiving of the men and too quickly accept the role of a martyr, Hitt never forgets the hardships they faced in order to maintain their independence. They’re smart, savvy, and world-weary from a very young age. Only the femme fatales—Doris and Debbie—come off as thinly characterized (but “fully” developed, physically speaking) archetypes. But these are also the characters Hitt spends the least time with—he’s obviously not interested in them, nor does he sympathize with those who exploit others for personal gain. His loyalty is with the underdogs, the losers, and the workers.
Two days ago, I was new to Orrie Hitt. Today, I’ve read three novels by him. Not only the two books reprinted by Stark House, but also I’ll Call Every Monday, Hitt’s debut. And sitting by my side is another Hitt novel, Shabby Street. Yup, I’ve been bitten by the Hitt bug, and I’m a happier readier because of it. On page one, I knew I would enjoy Hitt’s work, and by the end of the collection I knew I had found a new favorite author.
Thanks, Stark House, and keep up the excellent work!
I’ll Call Every Monday, originally released in Hardcover by Red Lantern Books and in Paperback by Avon in 1953, was Orrie Hitt’s first published book. The story is about Nicky Wevaer, an insurance agent caught in a web of women. First, there’s Sally Allen, a local up-and-coming singer who is stuck on Nicky because he was her first lover. And then there’s the recently widowed Bess Walters, whose husband—a colleague of Nicky’s—hung himself after getting caught impregnating a young client and also defrauding his company with phony claims. And then there is Irene Schofield, a buxom blonde whose husband is a pornographer posing as an “artist.” Luckily, he’s dying of cancer. Unlikely, for Irene, he’s not dying fast enough, and he doesn’t have any insurance. But Nicky knows all the tricks of the trade, and for the right price—and the right woman—he could make anything happen.
The influence of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is plain to see—how could any “adulterous insurance salesman” plot not be touched by Cain’s masterpiece—but Hitt doesn’t merely repeat the archetypical plot, nor does he mimic his forebearer’s style.
For one, Hitt throws readers deeper into the everyday life of a small-town insurance agent. We see the work at the office, the chitchat between co-workers, the late- night meetings at bars, and the wheeling-and-dealing. Hitt is working with a much larger, ensemble cast, and he is also much more concerned about developing a palpable sense of community within the novel. Social and economic networks have been central to each of the three Hitt novels I’ve read thus far (the other two being The Cheaters and Dial M For Man, both recently reissued by Stark House), and details of this sort are what makes his novels come to life, and makes them still relatable some sixty years after they were first published. Between all the co-workers, clients, spouses, adulterers, lodgers, and bar patrons, it really feels like there’s a whole town at work in I’ll Call Every Monday.
Stylistically, Hitt writes in a calm but confident manner. This is a slow-cooker of a plot that allows each of the characters to simmer until they’re red hot and ready to pop. Hitt doesn’t rush into complications, and at any given moment there are a number of different paths that the characters could take, which would send the story into whole new territories. This is one decided difference between Double Indemnity and I’ll Call Every Monday. One feels that there is never any alternative for Cain’s characters, and that they’re fated to be together “to the end of the line.” But for Hitt’s characters, the narrative feels a bit more open, which not only gives the characters a bit more freedom, but also makes them all the more reprehensible for their own downfall. Nicky isn’t a total patsy—he knows that most of the time he’s a low-down, horny scumbag, and he knows he passes over a potentially good relationship with Sally for a purely physical fling with Irene, whom he knows is hiding something from him, but he’s too busy juggling her figures to worry about that. Hitt’s male protagonists share a self-knowledge that reminds me of Day Keene’s characters—they’re not innocent victims of a dastardly femme fatale, instead they’re knowing schmucks who can’t keep it in their pants. And, strangely enough, that’s what makes them sympathetic and likable. We’ve all known someone like this at some point in our lives. Even Hitt’s femme fatales have this homegrown, small-town quality to them: their busts might be bigger than life, but their villainy certainly isn’t, and their motivations and actions are recognizable.
I also really enjoy reading Hitt’s turns of phrases. Instead of the usual “my knees were shaking,” Hitt describes Nicky’s reaction to seeing Irene like so: “My knees did things to each other.” What better way to convey someone as being dumbstruck than by, well, making them sound momentarily dumb. In a more subtle sense, there’s also the implication that Nicky isn’t even fully aware of what his body is doing when he’s around Irene. Another favorite line is, “My bank account was going down faster than a hand-dug well in dry weather.” It’s clever, precise, instantly visual, and very original. The water metaphor also brought to mind someone dying of thirst, desperate enough to do anything for just a drop of water—and that’s exactly how Nicky is acting, except it is sex, not water, that he wants. Nowhere in Hitt’s line does he talk about “desperation” and “thirst,” but it still communicates those feelings, even without the words. Being able to transmit ideas between the words is the mark of a skilled craftsman, and that’s what Orrie Hitt was: a terrifically talented writer.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading I’ll Call Every Monday. Hitt didn’t invent the “adulterous insurance salesman” archetype, but with Nicky Weaver, he certainly created one of its best incarnations. The plot is filled with colorful characters, and captures that vivid sense of homespun, working-class America for which Hitt is best remembered. All in all, it’s one hell of a first book. Mark me down as an Orrie Hitt fan—and now it is time to dig into my stack of his paperbacks that I’ve neglected for far too long.
If you’d like to read more about I’ll Call Every Monday, you should check out Frank Loose’s review, or read this piece over at Orrie Hitt: The Shabby Shakespeare of Vintage Sleazecore.
The second installment of my Los Angeles Review of Books column, “The Criminal Kind,” has been posted on their website. In the piece, I discuss Christa Faust’s Choke Hold, Ken Bruen’s Headstone, Ed Gorman’s Bad Moon Rising, and Day Keene’s Dead Dolls Don’t Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold.
Excerpts are below, or read the full piece here.
Hard Case Crime, October 2011. 256 pp.
Written in a casual-but-confident first person perspective, Faust skillfully weaves some of today’s most kinetic hardboiled action with her endearingly earthy humor and moments of unexpected poignancy.
Mysterious Press, October 2011. 256 pp.
“Taylor, I heard you were dead,” yells a cabbie in Ken Bruen’s ninth Jack Taylor novel, Headstone. Bruen’s series detective has endured enough booze, coke, beatings, and bruises to bury most of his private eye predecessors, but like a hardboiled Sisyphus, Taylor’s eternal punishment is to push bottles back-and-forth across a bar, taking cases as they come, seeking atonement that’s always out of reach, and accepting yet another glass of Jameson as a consolation prize.
Bad Moon Rising
Pegasus Books, October 2011. 256 pp.
Gorman is in top form in Bad Moon Rising. Rather than wax nostalgic or reactionary about the sixties, Gorman cuts through the mythology to reveal a much more nuanced and confused socio-political landscape… Sam McCain is Gorman’s most compassionate and endearing character, and Bad Moon Rising is another triumph in an already extraordinary career.
Dead Dolls Don’t Talk /Hunt the Killer /Too Hot to Hold
Stark House Press, August 2011. 371 pp.
Rounding out the Keene anthology is Too Hot to Hold (1959), in which average joe Jim Brady steps into a Manhattan cab on a rainy day and walks out with a suitcase full of money… Circumstances get so twisted that even Joe wonders, “What kind of a nightmare had he gotten himself into?” The type of nightmare that Day Keene can dream up: the result is a lean, dizzying, and masterful thriller to rival any of today’s top-sellers.
Say the title, Death Wish, and most people will think of the 1974 film starring Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect-turned-vigilante after street punks rape his wife and daughter, resulting in his wife’s death and daughter’s institutionalization.
Behind the movie, however, is a masterfully written novel by Brian Garfield. First published in 1972, the original name for Garfield’s most iconic protagonist is Paul Benjamin, and he was a CPA. The basics of the story are the same—a liberal, non-violent citizen turns into a one-man army to battle injustice and street violence—but the similarities end there. I love me some Bronson, and think that the film is one of the best New York crime thrillers to come out of the 1970s, but when it comes right down to it, the old adage is true: the book is better than the movie.
But with Death Wish, it is more than just a case of “which is better,” because Garfield’s novel has such radically different, and more complex, goals than the movie. The book directly engages in the controversy that surrounds the movie, namely, whether or not it advocates or criticizes vigilantism. Garfield’s Death Wish is not at all an action novel—Paul doesn’t even touch a gun until two-thirds of the way through. Instead, Garfield has constructed a novel equally invested in psychology, philosophy and sociology, and one as disturbing as it is revealing about our modern world. And I do mean “modern,” because even though the book is almost forty years old—and even though New York has been Disney-fied beyond belief—the issues at the core of the novel haven’t gone away. How do we deal with violence when we are victims? How do we respond to our own violent urges, and where do they come from? How do we administer justice? Torn between paranoia and guilt, fear and rage, Paul Benjamin is the moral nexus of American society, someone who so badly wants to believe in Democracy on a conceptual level, but doesn’t know how to live it in the real world.
One of the underlying tropes of Garfield’s work (which unifies his Western and Crime novels) is how the introduction of sudden violence can severely alter the way a person lives and acts. It brings out the best, worst, and most unpredictable of people. In The Night it Rained Bullets, a violent outburst reveals layers of desperation and tragedy in a Western town; in Fear in a Handful of Dust, four kidnapped doctors are dropped, naked, in the middle of a desert and must balance savage nature and cunning intelligence in order to survive; and in Tripwire, set after the Civil War, a former slave-turned-soldier gets fed up with injustice and hypocrisy and sets out on a vengeance mission south of the border.
Out of all of Garfield’s work that I’ve read, Death Wish is his most lucid and profound exploration of the deep emotional, moral, and psychological ramifications of violence, from the perspectives of both victim and aggressor—and what makes Death Wish so complex and compelling is that, here, they are one and the same. It is Paul’s movement from one role to the next that occupies the bulk of the novel. “Now he had to get used to an entire new universe of reality,” writes Garfield, describing Paul’s change in perception. “Now he found himself searching every face for signs of violence.” It is remarkable, and upsetting, how the world that Paul sees—and that we see—becomes increasingly menacing, allowing for our worst fears, prejudices, and uncertainties to manifest with paranoid clarity. “The body rotted, the mind deteriorated; only the demons of subconscious fantasies thrived.”
But Garfield—and even Paul, to a certain extent—isn’t oblivious to the inner change that is going on. “It was no good pretending the soul-sucking darkness wasn’t alive with terrors. The beat of his heart was as loud as the echoes of his heels on the concrete.” This self-knowledge is something that is lacking in the movie. Bronson’s silent demeanor doesn’t allow us access to his thought process, so perhaps he is experiencing the same sorts of revelations, but if he is, he’s keeping them to himself. Not so in the novel, where we wrestle alongside Paul with his transformation.
Another significant difference between the book and the movie is the representation of violence. Death Wish, as filmed by director Michael Winner, is a “thriller”—you experience an emotional rush alongside Bronson. This is definitely not the case with the book. Only the first killing is graphically depicted, but it is more nauseating than exciting. After that, the murders are brief, curt, and uncomfortably detached—which is Garfield’s way of signaling Paul’s sociopathic turn. “The second time—the man who’d tried to rob the bank—he’d felt very little; he remembered it with vague detachment as if it were a scene form a movie he’d watched a long time ago.” Garfield is even more clear with his intentions when he writes this line, which takes all the heroics out of Paul’s vigilante exploits: “He was keeping his own equilibrium only because he seemed to have been struck by the edge of the same malaise that had infected Carol—the inability to feel anything.”
Reading Garfield’s novel today, it is clear that he is not advocating for vigilantism. When I interviewed Garfield, he said how the novel was based out of his own violent reaction when he was victim to a crime, and how revolted he was by his sudden thirst for vengeance.
“The Paul Benjamin character was a sort of everyman to me. Impetus for the Death Wish story came one night in late 1971. At the time, I lived out along the Delaware River, near Lambertville NJ, and I’d driven into New York to go to a party at a publisher friend’s. I parked on the street. When I came down I found that somebody had slashed the convertible top of the car to ribbons. It was about a two-hour drive home, and really cold, and I thought about finding the guy who’d slashed the roof. I never did find him, but the novel came out of it so I think I got the better of him.”
The novel Death Wish is about an inner conflict, but some interpretations seem to miss the point. From Newgate Callendar’s review in the New York Times when the book was first published, it seems that even he misunderstood the book’s intentions. Here’s an excerpt from his review:
“Men like [Paul Benjamin] are not normally men of action, no matter what catastrophe may propel them—but Garfield skillfully establishes the change in his protagonist’s character, his thinking, his world-view, then sets him to acting out the fantasies many big-city people (more and more) are beginning to feel. The fantasy of being able to stand up against ‘Them.’ The fantasy of actually living an eye-for-an-eye philosophy. The fantasy of stepping on human vermin.
“The reader’s reason may reject the basic situation, but his emotion cheers it on. That is because Garfield is so very plausible. ‘Death Wish’ is a scary novel about life and death as experienced through the feelings of a citizen in a crime-ridden New York.”
Callendar was right that Death Wish is “scary,” but what he didn’t get is that Garfield wasn’t embracing these fantasies. He was busting the mythology of violence wide open, and taking the romance out of crime fiction. When Garfield started out writing Westerns, he changed the way the genre worked, the types of characters that were around and the physical spaces they inhabited. He’s a realist, interested in real people and real places. Sure, Garfield can entertain the hell out of you when he wants to, construct a breathtaking plot and put it into motion at breakneck speed, but he’s a great writer with original ideas and a unique voice.
It’s a shame that Death Wish hasn’t been reprinted since 1989. Like many of Garfield’s books, they’re only circulating in used editions. But just last month, Mysterious Press announced on their website that they’ll be bringing out new eBook editions of many of Garfield’s work, and Death Wish is included on the list. Hopefully this will win new audiences for Garfield’s book, and win Death Wish the critical acclaim it deserves.
Until the eBook is released, here is one of my favorite passages of the book, which reflects on its own relationship to Westerns:
“He turned on the TV and sat down to watch it. One of the local unaffiliated channels; a rerun of a horse-opera series the network shad canceled years ago. Cowboys picking on sodbusters and a drifting hero standing up for the farmers against the gunslingers. He watched it for an hour. It was easy to see why Westerns were always popular and he was amazed he hadn’t understood it before. It was human history. As far back as you wanted to go, there were always men who tilled the soil and there were always men on horseback who wanted to exploit them and take everything away form them, and the hero of every myth was the hero who defended the farmers against the raiders on horseback, and the constant contradiction was that the hero himself was always on horseback…”
Edition read: Fawcett Crest paperback reprint, 1974.