I Sat Up And The Room Was Full Of A Man With A Gun (Donald E Westlake)

Donald E Westlake, a very prolific writer of crime fiction, moved to New York in 1959 & immediately found that he could give up his day job in a literary agency & turn pro. By the end of the following year there were 9 published titles written by Westlake but not under his name. This soft-porn pulp used the pseudonym Alan Marshall, an umbrella apparently for a number of contributing authors. I have not read “Man Hungry”, “All the Girls Are Willing” or even “Passion’s Plaything”, maybe I should check them out…maybe. His fecundity, his range & eagerness to see his work in print meant that he employed many nom-de-plumes in his career. It hasn’t helped his reputation as a top gun in American crime fiction. You could have read one of his books & not known that it was by Westlake.

The first of his books to make an impression had the name Richard Stark on the cover. “The Hunter”, published in 1962, It is the debut of Stark & of the master thief Parker whose life in larceny would be developed over the next 45 years. As was the case with many of the writers of hard-boiled fiction Westlake attracted the attention of European film directors. In 1966 Jean-Luc Godard played fast & loose with “The Jugger” for “Made in the USA” without acquiring the book rights. The next year English filmmaker John Boorman adapted “The Hunter” changing Lee Marvin’s character from Parker to Walker for “Point Blank”. The film, one of the greatest of the 1960’s (OK, my favourite movie, like ever !) mixed the nouvelle vague with film noir. The existentialism & the brutality were Boorman/Marvin’s, the skeleton, the classic revenge thriller was Stark/Westlake’s.

Westlake became established enough to use just the 2 names (with a diversion for the Mitchell Tobin books written a Tucker J Coe). His books are about scores, capers & heists.They are set mostly in New York & the characters more sophisticated than classic 1950′[s pulp. The plots are tight, amusing & involving, the cracking-wise excellent. Parker, the pro, is cynical & suspicious, unsurprised by any twist & turn because everything is just business. In 1970 a Parker novel kept taking a lighter, more comic turn & it became the first book to feature John Dortmunder, another long-running criminal character. “The Hot Rock” was quickly picked up by Hollywood.

In “The Hot Rock” (1972) Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, George Segal his main partner-in-crime. There’s a good supporting cast, Moses Gunn & especially Zero Mostel always add value. English director Peter Yates (“Bullitt”) & master screenwriter William Goldman, fresh off “Butch Cassidy…” & a Westlake fan, were involved too. The movie, titled “How to Steal a Diamond (In 4 Uneasy Lessons)” in the UK, is a quality comedy-caper film shot in Manhattan with a cool Quincy Jones soundtrack. It’s not “Dog Day Afternoon” but then few films are that good.

It wasn’t until 1975 that Westlake slowed a little. There was a novel a year under his own name, some developing the Dortmunder character. In 1986 he couldn’t resist introducing the Sam Holt novels written by Samuel Holt ! In 1997, after a break of 23 years, Parker returned in the aptly named “Comeback”. He seemed no older & no better at life & crime but the world had changed. This time around Parker had a great plan to rip off a tele-evangelist. Man plans, God laughs.

Hollywood kept calling & his novels were regularly adapted. Mel Gibson starred in “Payback”, a remake of “The Hunter” with the Parker name changed again (this time it was Porter). Westlake insisted that the name could only be used if all the novels were optioned. It was only after his death in 2008 that a “Parker” film was made but if you think I am going to watch a Jason Statham movie, even in the interests of research, then think on. None of these films were better than “The Outfit” (1973)  from a 1963 novel with a very similar revenge plotline to “The Hunter”. Written & directed by John Flynn, who went on to make the excellent “Rolling Thunder” (1977), it’s a direct, tense thriller. Robert Duvall  (Macklin) is out of jail & pissed. He wants the money he is owed by the Mob & revenge for his brother’s death & single mindedly pursues the Boss (Robert Ryan) with Joe Don Baker & Karen Black for company. “The Outfit” is a proper film, I met Mr Baker once in London & spoke about “Junior Bonner”, the film he made with Peckinpah. I should have complimented him on this movie too. This great clip highlights Jerry Fielding’s cool score.

It’s tough to recommend particular books by Donald E Westlake, there are over 100. The early ones are now from a world that has changed, they belong with the classic 1950’s hardboiled fiction of David Goodis & Jim Thompson. Westlake wrote the screenplay for “The Grifters” (1990), an ideal choice to update the master. His later books reflect these changes, the effect of 9/11 on New York, Google…”some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business.” In the final Dortmunder novel “Get Real” our anti-hero commits a crime for the convenience of reality TV. In this just as it always was the humour, the satire & the plot development is sharp & hits the mark. The cynicism too, nothing is what it seems. Donald E Westlake’s closest literary contemporary is Elmore Leonard, a writer held, I think, in higher regard. For myself Westlake’s cast of characters, his sophistication & even his dialogue outdoes Leonard & he deserves a place at the top table of American crime fiction.

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A Fearful Shadow Lies Constantly Over The Residents Of Uneasy Street. (Jim Thompson)

I worked in a basement in Baltic Street, North London, between Old Street & the Goswell Road, near the Barbican. It was an old building in a funky neighbourhood, a mix of residential & small businesses. I didn’t have to punch the clock, would say “Hi” to the people in the office & disappear underground for the day. I liked the job & I was good at it. I had my coffee maker, my boombox & I was surrounded by books.

The company imported American books not published in the UK. Don, English, & Beth, American, had, at first, brought in titles they & their friends liked. Plan B was to get hold of things that actually sold & they were getting better at doing that. We distributed a lot of  “New Age” thinking, snake-oil salesmen masquerading as gurus in the Age of Aquarius. Now I’m down with Madame Blavatsky & the Theosophists but in the mid-80s the madvice was changing from “smile more & be a better human” to “smile more & make a $1,000,000”. Yuppies eh ? “Quit putting a god damn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!”. Bill Hicks & I agree on that one. Self-help ? Man, if I need a book to learn about myself & the world I reach for Dostoevsky, Philip K Dick, Bukowski, writers who I know know stuff about stuff.

My basement was the only place in town with a stack of  Charles Bukowski’s poetry books. “Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit”, ideal for lunchtime reading. We had the contract for City Lights too. A copy of “Howl”  in my pocket was more beatnik than that dumb beret I wore for a couple of weeks. We were in on a small company out of Berkeley California, Black Lizard books who were re-printing forgotten “hardboiled” fiction. The lurid, retro dime novel covers were an invitation & these short books, from the 1950s & 60s an introduction to David Goodis, Charles Willeford & a Great American writer, Jim Thompson.

I came to American crime fiction through Hollywood. I saw “The Big Sleep” (1946) & “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)  on TV, watching with my Dad. Humphrey Bogart’s world-weary, smart-mouthed tough guy detectives, Philip Marlowe & Sam Spade were as iconic to his generation as De Niro’s Travis Bickle was to mine. The films led me to the source, to Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett, the twin towers of the genre, tight, “tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder” (Chandler), diamond-sharp dialogue. This pair elevated the genre from the pulp magazines & set the standard by which all crime/detective writers were measured.

I didn’t know at the time that many of the most affecting films of my youth were “film noir”. These post-war productions  presented a complex morality, heroes & anti-heroes familiar with life’s grey, shadowy areas. The books of the films by James M Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”), Horace McCoy (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) & Cornell Woolrich (“Rear Window”), were marine-tough, Bogart-tough. Jim Thompson is a couple of steps beyond all those guys. Inside those garish covers his bleak, nihilistic world is a stab to the solar plexus with a Louisville Slugger. Stephen King wrote “the guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop”. Once I got started I didn’t want to stop either.

 

Jim Thompson wrote over 30 novels, 5 in 1953 & again the following year. They were published as cheap, mass-market paperbacks & by the 1960s were mostly out-of-print. Born in 1906 in Oklahoma, his experiences of Prohibition in the 1920s & the Depression of the Thirties were high & wide & hard. His books feature drifters, grifters, convicts, con-men, stand-up broads & swell-looking dames. Everybody’s trying to get by, not everybody is doing the right thing. When trouble comes around inevitably the only way out involves more trouble.

 

I have no list of Thompson’s best books, his stories can be slight & it’s the characters who are memorable. These people are way past sociopathic. JT’s piquancy is to show their dark inner-world, twisted logic, desperation & downright badness. In “The Getaway” Doc McCoy is a killer, a bank robber, a man with a plan. Carl Bigelow (“Savage Night”) is a scuzzy, tubercular hitman who, like young bellhop Dusty Rhodes (“A Swell-Looking Babe”) thinks with a body part other than his brain. Then there’s Roy Dillon (“The Grifters”) the short-con operator whose relationship with his mother is wrong & shocking. These fractured felons, captured with an unflinching & wry realism, stay with you. I know what Jim Thompson would have made of  those 70s New Age yuppies…mincemeat.

 

Gratuitous pic of Jessica Alba from “The Killer Inside Me”.

Hollywood has adapted a number of Thompson’s books. In Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” (1972) an ageing Steve McQueen takes a good shot at Doc but Ali MacGraw was nowhere near his sharp & shrewd wife Carol. His work has appealed to non-American directors. “Serie Noire” (1979) by Alain Corneau is a striking reworking of “A Hell of a Woman” while Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” (1990) is an entertaining neo-noir but a little too glossy. It’s difficult to lasso Thompson’s spirit & engage a large audience. Michael Winterbottom’s film “The Killer Inside Me” (2010) has a starry cast in a story about a brutal psychopath, it opened in just 17 US theatres & was buried.

 

Further up this page I name-dropped 3 of my literary paragons. A reviewer actually termed the phrase “dime store Dostoevsky” to describe Thompson. Like Dick he was prolific, sometimes erratic but capable of unrivalled brilliance. Thompson’s portrayal of life in or near the economic & moral gutter matches Bukowski too. His insight & honesty places him in the company of all 3. Jim Thompson was not just a top crime/thriller writer, not only the most hard-boiled of the pulp pantheon but was, in my opinion, a Great American Novelist.

 

 

Jim Thompson (1906-1977)

 

 

 

“I learned my realism from guys like Kafka.” (Robert Coover)

In 1972 Picador Books, a new imprint for international fiction, was launched in the UK. The opening gambit of 8 authors included, Borges, Hesse, Angela Carter & Richard Brautigan. This idea of a classily designed, well promoted paperback list might just work & pretty much everywhere you went copies of “Trout Fishing In America”, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” or “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” caught your eye. It was an exciting time. Those adolescent classics, “Animal Farm”, “Lord of the Flies”, were being superseded by the post-Beats, Vonnegut, Dick, Heller, now there was a new generation of American novelists demanding our attention. Of course Hunter S led the way with “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas”, Pynchon was a coming attraction. Remember picking up “Portnoy’s Complaint” for the first time & thinking Holy Crap, people can write about this stuff in books !  These Picador books were like releases by a respected record label. If the author passed the quality control then they were likely to be worth checking out. Robert Coover was one of those who made the cut.

“Pricksongs & Descants” is a collection of short stories. Coover had published a couple of novels in the US but I don’t think that they had made the Atlantic crossing. His fractured fairy tales, earthy re-tellings of familiar myths & legends, surprised with their flair and imagination. The brutality, the sexual undertones, of the original stories are developed in a coherent way. This is not “magic realism” more an insightful disclosure of a fragmentary reality. “The Babysitter” juggles many various outcomes. Love, sex, death, disappointment, beauty, all those possibilities you meet on all those new days. There are heavyweight influences, Cervantes, Swift, Beckett, which are not worn lightly or obviously. Coover seemed a modern, confident, funny, new voice.

I was lucky to find “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop” in my local library. This is Coover’s second novel, published before “Pricksongs…” & boy, oh boy, it’s good. America’s National Pastime was a mystery to me in 1974, an E.R.A. was the Equal Rights Amendment, passed by the US Congress 2 years earlier. I was more impressed by a batting average over 50 not one measured in fractions, hey, that’s cricket for you (it’s a British thing). J. Henry Waugh, an accountant, lives a life of little consequence. In the evenings he is the King of the World as far as he knows, playing his own baseball game, running his own baseball league, the U.B.A. J. Henry (Yahweh ?) is in a little too deep, like 56 (his own age) seasons deep. The history, each game, pitch, at bat, was recorded in ledgers. Every player had a name & the league had its stars, its legends. The games were all decided by the throwing of 3 dice…really.

J.Henry was on a roll (thank you), a young pitcher, Damon Rutherford, had produced a perfect game, no runs, no hits. This new star was the son of an all-time great & J.H excitedly rolled right through the night, eager to see his new star throw again. An unprecedented series of tosses invokes the “Extraordinary Occurrences Chart”. The game he invented kills his new star when he is struck on the head. Bad craziness ensues.

“The Universal Baseball Association Inc….” skilfully creates a world of obsession & delusion, control & the lack of it. Black comedy doesn’t cover this stuff. As a sport obsessive myself the rainy days of my early years had been spent similarly fabricating soccer & cricket matches. I was fortunate to have a life outside of the mind, to be able to see those stars of track & field in “real” life & have a little perspective about it (others would disagree). Coover’s use of the sport is no easy hanger for whatever metaphorical suit of lights he wants to display. He gets it & that’s why J.Henry’s two worlds are so convincing. the book is a great sports novel but it’s so much more too. Around this time “The Dice Man” by Luke Rhinehart, a book about a man allowing his life to be controlled by dice, was carrying the swing. Coover’s novel had got there first & was not the self-absorbed, proto-yuppie gobbledegook that was selling by the truck load.

Next time around Robert Coover got properly dark on us. The early half of the 1970s was a tumultuous time in the US, he had something to say about it & I had the time to listen. “The Public Burning” (1977) is a massive, complex, difficult slab of wood pulp, perhaps the most difficult of any “Great” novel I have read. In 1953 Vice-President Richard Nixon is busy organising the public execution of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage. It was a Big Show, Times Square, Count Basie & his Orchestra, prime-time TV. America expected, deserved, no less in the Free World’s fight against the Forces of Evil. Meanwhile a scatalogical Uncle Sam mounts a platitudinous defence of the American Dream against “The Phantom”, the embodiment of Global Communism & all-round threat to national security.

“The Public Burning”‘s setting is the US of McCarthyism & the Korean War. It looks back at the violent origins of the nation, forward to when “Tricky Dicky” has the top job, bombing South East Asia back to the Stone Age while using the State apparatus to burglarise his opponents at home. The book exposes & satirises the falsity underpinning America’s political principles & its symbols of power. It nails how Nixon was a product of these distortions, why he would want & be able to pursue his poisonous agenda. The book, alongside Coppola’s movie “The Conversation”, stands at the apex of post-Watergate American art. Its prescience, as the Presidents Bush found new “Phantoms” to oppose, as the USA continued to promote the export of Democracy via the gun barrel, unopposed by a compliant media, has enhanced its stature over the years. How many times have I been reminded of “The Public Burning” in the 21st Century ? Lots.

It was 10 years before another Robert Coover novel. I guess that I was still blown away, still trying to get my head round the previous one. I’m sure that his later works are of a fine quality but the lightning flash, the blinding clash of language, philosophy, humour & politics I discovered in these two books don’t come around here too often. I need to get back to these brilliant things.

 

 

 

 

Anger Is An Energy (Alan Sillitoe)

The park at the bottom of my road is set on the Lincoln Cliff, a steep, 50 miles long Limestone scarp  slope which withstood the meltwater of the Ice Ages. It’s a prehistoric feature with the rather cool name of the Jurassic Way. The dinosaurs could saunter along this path avoiding the marshland of the Trent Valley, keeping their hooves dry (what ?). These lowlands can impress too. Now drained & fertile it’s a much more diplodocus-friendly place. The flood plain of the River Trent is a 25 mile wide featureless flatland but this Big Sky country fixes up some sensational sunsets to burnish our daily doings. On a clear day I can see for miles across the western side of the river into Nottinghamshire & the East Midlands…another country, Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood & his Merrie Men, medieval mumbo-jumbo.

Man, we are a parochial crew on our small crowded island. We think we’re so clever & classless & free but we’re still…you know it. There are antipathies between the nations which make up our “United” Kingdom. The football hooliganism of the late 20th century was an expression of perceived rivalry & prejudice which existed between towns before they could even be considered towns. The only thing we are sure about that lot who live at the top of the hill is that they don’t like us either. I am from the North of England. There are geographical & cultural arguments to dispute this but they are wrong. I am a Northerner. The rationale ? It’s like trying to tell a stranger about Rock & Roll.

Any road up, here’s something that Nottingham folk have got going on.

Ray Davies sang, in 1973,  “Where are all the angry young men now ? Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe. Where on earth did they all go?” Alan Sillitoe, a Nottingham man, the writer of “Saturday Night & Sunday Morning” was seen as an A.Y.M., an ill-defined literary movement which began in 1956 with John Osborne’s play “Look Back In Anger”. Something was happening in British society but the critical/literary establishment was never expected to know what it was. The elite, born to rule the British Empire & thus the world, had blundered their way into 2 “world” wars in 30 years. No family in the country avoided sacrifice & loss. There was blood on the hands of the aristocracy. Us British have never been a street fighting race other than after the pubs close on a Saturday but a change was gonna come. If we were going to fight & win & die in your battles then we wanted  a fairer share of , a bigger say in, the division of  the spoils. Post-1945 the nationalisation of essential industries, the establishment of a National Health Service & a Welfare State, was expression of the will of the working class towards social inclusion. The days of deference were numbered. Take your “Gosford Park” & shove it up your powdered & privileged rear.

These new writers were too young to have fought in the war. Their brand of social realism articulated the opportunities & anxieties of working class life in post-war Britain. Alan Sillitoe had bombs dropped on him. He left school in 1942 & worked in the same Nottingham Raleigh bicycle factory as his working class hero, Arthur Seaton. The one we see in this clip. By the time he was 21, in 1949, he was living in France on an R.A.F. pension, recuperating from tuberculosis. His first two novels, “S.N & S.M.” & “The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner” did very well thank you. There was an element of cultural tourism about an educated reading public living vicariously through this “kitchen sink” literature & its plain-speaking, hard-drinking, sexually active protagonists. This was, however, a new voice in British society with a concern that the ideals of a decade earlier had been diluted by full employment & an aggressive materialism. Higher living standards were a diversion from the fact that economic control & therefore power remained unchanged. Meet the new boss…

These plays & books were quickly adapted for the cinema. In “Saturday Night” Albert Finney as Arthur was the British Brando, a bright new star (he was also the first Billy Liar). There was a squad from West Yorkshire, David Storey (“This Sporting Life”), Stan Barstow (“A Kind Of Loving”), Keith Waterhouse (“Billy Liar”), who all did very well. Some of these Angry Young Men (& Women)were assimilated & embraced by the same literary Establishment that they had scorned. The genie, though, was out of the bottle. Film is a more populist, more accessible art than literature. Audiences saw, for the first time, a mirror held up to their lives. They heard voices which sounded like their own saying things which were dramatic, opinionated, funny. Britain was no longer defined by the narrow range of the received pronunciation & values of the BBC. With a rush & a push many new talents found the confidence to say what they were thinking…out loud. The world was in thrall to 4 young men from Liverpool before you could say “many a mickle makes a muckle”.

Alan Sillitoe produced an impressive body of work in his life. There are over 50 books but it is the first 2 (& their screenplays) by which he is remembered. His two young protagonists choose different ways to seek dignity in a life where your path is chosen by others. Seaton knows that his willful kicking against the pricks is a temporary stage before an inevitable acceptance of responsibility. Colin Smith, on the other hand, is less impressed by the rewards for playing by someone else’s rules. That moment when he decides to run just when he wants to, that carrots can be dangled but he ain’t no donkey is just a beautiful thing. I’ve done it myself…hope that I will still do it.

Sillitoe kept on keeping on, his politics shaped by injustice, a feeling for the underdog &, importantly, a hope that things can improve. Nottingham was, he wrote, “a town built into my bones and heart, carried with me forever. Always part of me, impossible not to make it live for others as it lived and still does for me”. There are others like him, I intended this post to include a couple but…you get me. Those young writers of the late 1950s were from a class that was insisting that it told its own story for the first time. Their success & the opportunities it created for those that followed deserves a better iconography than the collected picture sleeves of the Smiths. At the time we thought that there had been a permanent change in the social & cultural fabric of the country. Yeah…that was then, this is now.

Shut Up and Shoot (Chester Himes)

I was so ready for the books of Chester Himes when I first read them. Anyone becoming aware of the world in the 1960s could not ignore the developing consciousness of black people in the USA. From the noble and symbolic protest in 1955 by Rosa Parks, “tired of giving in” to segregation on public transport in Alabama, to the black nationalism of the Black Panthers in the late 60s was a short time and a long journey. I got my information from the music. First it was Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” concerning the struggle of James Meredith to exert his rights as a citizen and enroll at the University of Mississippi. Sam Cooke, James Brown and others passed on the news. Later Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield dealt with the progress made and the problems ahead. The speeches and writings of Dr King and Malcolm X were, of course, vital signposts. It was the odyssey undertaken by Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali, the struggle by the greatest sportsman of the 20th century to assert his individuality and the vituperation this provoked, which acted as the biggest influence upon and the most clear explanation for my young self.

I had read the books of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the two pre-eminent African-American literary figures of the 40s and 50s. “Soul On Ice” (Eldridge Cleaver), “Soledad Brother” (George Jackson) and “If They Come In The Morning” (Angela Davis) were staples on student bookshelves in the early 1970s. The detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were masterly works in a genre which had become marginalised as “hard-boiled” or “pulp”. The Harlem Detective novels of Chester Himes hit me upside the cerebrum on so many satisfactory levels. Himes’ work is the link between the black literary tradition and the assertiveness of the late 1960s. Ralph Ellison had named the negro the “Invisible Man” in his novel but Harlem was New York City, brash, busy and brutal. The characters in Himes’ novels are loud and proud and with an eye for the main chance. I had never read about this hermetic black culture of the 50s and 60s which, despite institutionalised racism, hustled and bustled and crackled with. often misdirected, energy. As detective/crime fiction the books are violent, sexy, as funny as hell. Nowadays people think that Quentin Tarantino invented this shit.

Chester Himes described a social milieu which functioned in parallel to the rest of NYC. All human life was to be found within, politicians, preachers, hookers, hustlers and those trying to live with as little intrusion from these people as possible. There was black pride before “Black Pride”, an urban confidence, an elan which survived despite the acknowledgement that in any contact with white society there would only be one winner. Obviously it was my own naivete which contributed to my delight to enter this world through the books. Himes’ skill as a writer, his flair for character and story-telling combined with a moral outrage at the choices Harlemites are forced to make to get by, made the books great.

His detectives are Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, a fearsome dynamic duo attempting to discern and interpret a lot of senseless stuff. Their beat is Harlem, these two black men live in Long Island. They have made their deal with The Man by becoming cops, while at work they are “the mens”. Distrusted by both their employer and by the community they police, the bond between the two men has to be a strong one. They are capable of turning a blind eye to some things and also of  brutality, psychological torture and intimidation to those, of either sex, who try to thwart them. Coffin Ed has an acid-scarred face which he uses to frighten and intimidate and often causes comment. I did not read the 8 Harlem novels in order. In the first one, “For the Love Of Imabelle” (1957), Himes writes an account of the acid-throwing incident. Coffin Ed had done some bad things in a bad world but I was moved, even shocked, to read of how his disfigurement had happened. In American crime fiction there are no finer creations than Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones.

Hollywood has made 3 attempts to capture the pair on film. The first 2 were in the early 1970s, part of the wave of “blaxploitation” movies. “Cotton Comes To Harlem” & “Come Back Charleston Blue” de-clawed Himes’  Harlem pandemonium and went for a comedy angle. In 1991 Bill Duke filmed “Imabelle” as “A Rage In Harlem” and our heroes were relegated to bit parts. “Cotton”, as a period piece, and “Rage”, for the designer violence & Robin Givens in some super-tight dresses, are worth a look but all swerve the fatalism at the heart of Chester Himes’  books. So, no trailer then…here’s the great Bill Withers with his take on Harlem.

Chester Himes had an interesting and individual take on the world and lived a unique life. Born in 1909 as a young boy he witnessed the distress of his family when his brother was blinded in a school science demonstration and was refused treatment at a white hospital. ” A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.” He attended college in Ohio but was soon expelled over a “prank”. Just 19, he was sentenced to 20 to 25 years hard labour for armed robbery. While in prison he began to write and be published.

Released on parole after 7 years Himes spent time in Los Angeles writing novels and for the screen. The racism he encountered there convinced him that America was no place to be black. “I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate”. He left for France, where he had a literary reputation, to join a small group of emigres that included Wright and Baldwin. It was in France that his bitterness and hate were poured into the Harlem Detective novels published between 1957 and 1969.

There was more than negativity in the books. For sure the world was screwed but his characters still had hope however unrealistic. The final book, “Blind Man With a Pistol” does, though, descend into nihilism with its final description of that very man firing sightlessly at anyone and anything on a New York subway train. It is a great and powerful image. When you put the book down you just have to sit quietly for some time before summoning the motivation to do…well, something. You have read Philip K Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”…it’s like that.

Reading these books put me on to so many other things. I learned about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. I sought out the books of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, two writers dealing with fictional low-life America. The Allison & Busby editions of Himes’ books had very striking covers (see the top of this post). These were by the English artist Edward Burra, a Surrealist painter who was enchanted by the vibrancy he found on the Harlem streets in the 1930s and 40s. His art warranted further investigation and I discovered a man who was, in my opinion, the greatest British painter of the 20th century.

Now maybe people like Zora Neale and Lightning Rod and Walter Mosley without going anywhere near Chester Himes. In my own experience I have found his great books to be pivotal to an understanding of African-American art and culture of my lifetime. When I had read all 8 of the Harlem novels I moved on to the two volumes of autobiography but was a little ticked off that there would be no new tales of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger. If I made New Year’s resolutions then maybe it’s time to go back to these books.

dorky, dorky, dorky, dorky, dorky, dorky, dorky.

I’ve just looked at a bibliography of William Kotzwinkle & , Jeez, he was prolific. I’m not gonna check for the hows whens & whys of UK publication & how I missed some of these when I would have been looking. Kotzwinkle (crazy name, crazy guy) is one of the great hippie novelists. In the 70s if you had not read his books then you did not know what was what. There’s a lot of love for his books around the Interweb but when did you last meet someone who was raving about his books ? Like the individual beatnik/hippie stylist Richard Brautigan he is a neglected writer. Some of his novels are not the most profound. Of his later work a children’s book ,”Walter The Farting Dog” is the most well known. Between 1974 & 1979 he wrote three major satirical novels at a time when others were pissing about with zen & motorcycles or writing shitty pop philosophy about seagulls.

In the early 70s Granada,  the publishers, launched Picador Books. The quality control was so good that it became like Island Records. If it was a Picador book it was worth checking out. Among the many that passed through my hands were 2 collections of short stories that made an impression & sowed seeds for some very enjoyable future reading. “Pricksongs & Descants” by Robert Coover was a dazzling, nightmarish re-telling of fairy tales which marked him as a man to watch. “Elephant Bangs Train”, William Kotzwinkle’s first adult collection was made more surreal by it’s randomness. The title track is the story of an African elephant watching the arrival of the first train in the area.. His elephant harem is very taken by this shiny, sexy new beast in town. The bull is not having this rival to his masculine dominance stealing his thunder. He strolls over to the train, flexes his muscles, tips the train over on it’s side ! The natural order re-established. “A Nurse Romance” has a stern nurse methodically obtaining a sperm sample from an adolescent boy who is, of course, regarding the episode as his first proper sexual experience & is falling in love.

In 1975 I got a brand new book from the local library. “The Fan Man” was the first Kotzwinkle novel I had seen in the UK. I snapped it up. I was hooked from page 1. It was one of those books that made other people in the room wonder how a book could be so much fun. A book that just was not long enough.

“Fan Man” is the story of Horse Badorties, a product of the new ideas of the late 60s. He is a super hippie dedicated to his own personal path to enlightenment . From the squalor of his pad through the streets of New York we read his inner dialogue. Every sentence ending in “man”. Horse’s obsession with doing it right include a hat with anti-Puerto Rican music flaps. “Dorky day” where his consciousness is cleansed by the repetition of this word. The recruitment of a choir of 15 year old girls for a concert which you know is not gonna happen. A collection of hand-held electric fans, vital to his comfort. Horse likes to be comfortable.

Horse is a comic character comparable with Ignatius O’Reilly from “Confederacy Of Dunces”. He is similarly convinced of the rightness of his own world view, dismissive of the concerns of others and similarly unsuccessful in his quest. I would add parallels with Don Quixote and the characters of Rabelais but I am not to go lit-crit on your ass.

I was busy telling anyone who would listen that they should read this book. At the end of the week the NME, the muso’s bible, ran a full page review by Mick Farren. This probably had more effect than my effusions. Anyone who read the book was not disappointed and it became quite a reference point among the folk I knew. Dorky days may only last a matter of minutes before dissolving into laughter but I still have the hand-held electric fan I was bought all those years ago.

The next novel was “Doctor Rat” & we were not gonna miss it. We were not disappointed. A wonderfully innocent, romantic fantasy is intercut with scenes from a vivisection laboratory where the eponymous rat extols the virtues of twisted scientific experiments on victims who are starting to join the worldwide revolt of animals against the brutalities of Man.  WOW !

It is so imaginative, the anthropomorphization of the wild animals so convincing. My female friends, a little put off by the more base parts of Badorties’ self indulgence , were now convinced of Kotzwinkle’s ability. It is an ecological manifesto. One of  humour & humanity. One in which the logic of  a kinder world is simple and irrefutable. Here’s a couple of quotes..

“This is the sort of gratifying sight the taxpayers don’t usually have a chance to see–two young scientists in front of the oven, baking a trayful of cats. This is where your taxes are going, fellow Americans, contributing to a better and lasting etcetera.”

“Elephants can be an awful bore if they get to philosophizing. When they start blabbering about the unreachable fruit and the deep immutable roaring of creation, I give them a fast bite on the tail and disappear before they know what hit them.”

As I get older I am frustrated that important debates about how we live our lives in relation to each other do not seem to have moved forward. Arguments I thought we have resolved are conducted from starting points which,I thought, were settled years ago. This book simply outlines the case that we are not here to fuck about with the world. It is 35 years old. It won awards at the time and it is still a must read. I will not reveal the ending. When lovers of the book discuss it any mention of the ending just brings a joyous smile to the gathering…really’.

Initially set in 1860s Paris “Fata Morgana ” is a stylistic leap by Kotzwinkle. Inspector Picard is sent to investigate the conjuror Rick Lazare whose fortune telling machine is the craze of the city. The book moves across Europe, across time. It is about magic, illusion,delusion, temptation, debauchery. It is about the power of the story and of dreams. The novel is a detective story set in a Hammer movie, one of the good ones. It’s a masterful involving tale which again has an ending which is surprising and satisfying.

I am not gonna go into any more depth.If you have got this far then you are gonna read these books. You are aren’t you ?

By now Kotzwinkle was the favourite writer of a lot of people. He had a celebrity fan in Melissa Mathieson or Mrs Stephen Spielberg. She persuaded the director that Kotz was the man to write the “novelization” (horrible word) from the script of ” E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. It had to be major bucks and the writer accepted. It’s actually a good effort. E.T. falls in love with Elliott’s mother and the outcome is hilarious. The gig was so ludicrous and lucrative, (I remember the incongruity of seeing his name on an annual best seller list) , his next book was a similar job on a “Superman” movie.

Kotzwinkle continued to write. There are novels that are enjoyable. That have moments that only he could have imagined and described. There did not seem though to be the ambition to extend himself that we had seen in the 3 novels. I am not accusing him of selling out though he hardly subverted the movie novelization racket. I think that the financial success just took the fire, the sense of injustice from his work. Still, those 3 great books are unchanged and, I feel, unrivalled. Check em out.

Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I’m James Ellroy.

When you start to read a new author I have always thought that it’s a smart move not to start with the masterpiece. If you read the best first then the others may not stand up to it. To get a feel for a writer’s tone, style and attitude takes time. Do this with one of the minor works. You do not want to waste the first 100 pages of something that will stay with you for life wondering just where this stuff is coming from and where is it heading.

Of course there are exceptions. Joseph Heller has written some great books but the range and brilliance of “Catch 22” was never matched. He didn’t try to copy this great success. Read “Catch 22” and you will appreciate the talent and restraint in his other work. T.C.Boyle will try and try again to write a great novel. It is his first, “Water Music”, a barnstorming piece of raconteurism, that makes you give him a fifth or sixth chance to entertain.

If you are going to read James Ellroy and you should, at least, think about it, a warm up or two is in order before you approach his magnum opera, the wonderful ” Underworld USA”  trilogy. The relentless rat-a-tat repetition and alliteration may not be for everyone. When you read it as a development of his style you appreciate it more as a device to get it down, get it done and move on. Ellroy wants to get it all said in the trilogy. a no bullshit style from a no bullshit guy.

  Ellroy is, for me , like  Picasso and Captain Beefheart. An artist who has mastered the essentials of his chosen field . He wants to dissemble  these parts and build something new. The novels before the trilogy establish him as a leading crime writer. There is a definite progression. Each book is more ambitious as he challenges himself. There are six novels before “The Black Dahlia”.They are good books but if you start with any of these you may wonder what all the fuss about him is about. They are solid noir crime. The three Lloyd Hopkins stories are probably an attempt to establish his own brand. Trouble with getting a career writing about the same character is that you can become repetitive and formulaic (Yes you, Robert Crais).

“Dahlia” was the book that Ellroy was building up to. The fact he waited until he was good enough to do it justice is admirable. It is based on the much publicized murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 1947 but infused by the unsolved murder of Ellroy’s mother 10 years later. If you are going to use this stuff in your fiction then you want to do it right or not at all. Ellroy did it right.

 It’s the first of the “L.A. Quartet”. Succeeded by “The Big Nowhere”, “L.A” Confidential” and “White Jazz”. Each spins a web of corruption, crime and immorality underpinning the link between police, government and those with an interest in the keeping or gaining influence. Through the books Ellroy’s style  becomes more truncated. Sentences are shorter .Dialogue ,filled with slang and profanity, is stripped down. It reflects his more moral cynicism with the cynical distortions of his characters. He wants to get this shit down quickly and forcefully. The reader is swept along and had better stick with it because the writer is not hanging about. “Post-modern historiographic metafiction” ? Bite me, this stuff is a blast.

The violence in these books is sharp, brutal and shocking. I love Tarentino’s films but he gets nowhere near the abruptness, the banality of the violence in Ellroy’s books. Films have been made of two of the quartet. A  contributing factor to their failure to match the immediacy of the books is that they have just not been able to capture the stark inevitability of the violence in them. Ellroy has set the standard for violence in twentieth century art.

        Los Angeles has a fine literary tradition which often fuses the bizarre reality of a city of dreamers with equally confused fictional characters. From Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West to John Fante  and Bukowski. In cinema, “Chinatown”  and the films of Robert Altman complement these.  James Ellroy has taken the post war myths and legends of the city given them a good kick to the balls and produced four books which not only belong with the greats but have moved the genre forward.

  If you are going to read Ellroy  at least one of the first three and then “White Jazz” is a good start. The author had found the style he wanted. He had confronted the major event in his personal life. He now had the balls to approach the defining events of his generation and his country. The “Underworld USA” trilogy are  big books about big things. When you know a writer’s style starting a new book by them is a pleasure from page one. It would not do the trilogy justice to walk right up and spend the first 100 pages wondering just what the fuck is going on here…and, believe me, that could happen.