Difficult lives...

Hola, amigos.   I know it's been a long time since I've rapped at ya, but I've been readin' like a motherfather, from a wide variety of things, from the highest literary art to total (presses palms to mouth and blows really hard) - classics to trash and all points in between.  These don't fit my usual horror or men's-adventure genres, but they do have a unifying factor:  they're all about troubled, desperate people living rough lives. Beyond that, well... just go read the reviews, that's what they're here for!

The Cheaters - Orrie Hitt (Stark House, originally 1960)
Tension-laden tale of lowlife desperation that was originally considered a smut novel, although the sex (while frequent) isn't half as graphic as what you'd find in most Westerns now.  A loser named Clint is down to his last ten bucks and wants to keep his girl, Ann, so he takes a job as a bartender in a dive bar in a slum district.   Much of the bar's business is built around the prostitutes who work the area, and a corrupt local cop named Red is shaking down the bar and whores for protection money.  Clint gets Ann pregnant and then drops her because he's obsessed with his boss's wife, Debbie, because she has size 40 tits and he is that  shallow of a sonofabitch.  He buys the bar from his boss and starts making more money, partially by upping the amount of prostitution going on.   Clint's life gets more and more desperate as Red chain-whips him to keep him away from Debbie, who Red wants for himself, and Debbie won't leave her husband because she wants to collect on his life insurance, and a strike on the docks cuts Clint's clientele way down... and he starts making dangerous plans.   This is a very well-written story of people with few options and a lot of personal flaws to which they are captive.  Their pursuit of happiness only makes them more miserable and gets them into deeper and deeper trouble.  The story’s sleazy, by necessity, but can’t be dismissed as just smut, because the writing is too good and there’s too much social truth captured here.  Hitt wrote like a fiend, hammering out novels in two weeks sometimes, publishing around 150 books with titles like Trailer Tramp, Abnormal Norma, Torrid Wench, etc.  This one comes bound with his Dial M For Man.  Hopefully Stark House will resurrect more of his work, because his writing is strong enough to turn trash to art.

McTeague - Frank Norris   (Library of America, originally 1899)
Brilliant masterpiece in which a hulking, strong, stupid self-taught dentist goes from a life of impoverished-and-lonely contentment to married, wealthy misery of hellish proportions.   McTeague is a slow-witted, shy, awkward guy who falls in love with one of his patients, who happens to be his only friend’s girl.  The friend likes the idea of being magnanimous so he says he’ll step aside, and McTeague marries the girl, who is also poor-but-content.  Then, by happenstance, she wins $5,000 in a lottery she didn’t even want to buy a ticket for, and that happy event soon turns into a nightmare that just gets worse and worse.   McTeague’s friend starts resenting him out of jealousy, his wife turns into a money-obsessed miser (when she didn’t have it she didn’t miss it, but now that she does she wants more and more just for the sake of collecting it), and McTeague gets a taste of the finer things so he’s no longer content with the simple pleasures he used to have.  And then he misses those things when his wife’s crazed money-hoarding leads them to a life of pointless squalor.  A couple of subplots are as interesting as the main one; a housemaid with mental problems drives a money-hungry man (an unfortunately racist portrayal of a Jew) crazy with tales of a gold set of eating utensils that never even existed, and an old man and woman try to carry on a romance of sorts even though each is too timid to even look at the other.  Norris’s writing is great and extremely readable; for a book so old it’s an amazing page-turner, and it’s realistic (Norris’s claim to fame), detail-rich, and fearlessly dark.  I had heard this was one of the great novels but was still surprised at exactly how great.  Highly recommended.   Basis for Erich Stroheim’s silent classic, Greed.

The German - Lee Thomas  (Lethe Press, 2011)
During WWII, a killer murders young men, leaving pro-Nazi notes written in German in their mouths.  A wave of paranoia is inflamed against the Germans in the community, and violence against them soon follows.  One of the German citizens, Ernst Lang, is scarred from WWI and is left rather abrasive and cynical.   When local kids discover that Lang is also homosexual, the paranoia about him is doubled, and Lang won't be able to expect much justice for the treatment he'll get; even if he's not guilty of any crime, just being German and a "queer" will be enough for people whose fear has blinded them to the danger of demonizing "types" instead of seeing individuals.  Powerful, well-written, and insightful; this is somewhat of a horror novel, although the darkness here is the kind made by human weakness.   In parts it's reminiscent of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door (without reaching quite those harrowing extremes) and also reminded me a little of Paris Trout.   It was a little hard to get into at first -- Thomas has a formal literary style -- but after a point I flew through it.  Impressive and important.

To Each Their Darkness - Gary A. Braunbeck  (Apex Publications, 2010)
An expansion/revision of Braunbeck’s earlier (limited, i.e. expensive) Fear In A Handful of Dust: Horror As A Way Of Life, this is kind of Braunbeck’s version of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre - like an overview of the genre -  but it’s more of an autobiography of a fan steeped (and working) in the genre.  He doesn’t do much detailing the history of horror, because if you’re reading this book you can be assumed to know about The Castle of Otranto and the rest of it.  Instead, Braunbeck tells you (with brutal candor) about his life (and oh my fucking GOD has it been a tough one -- he never whines about it but trust me, you couldn’t blame him if he did) and how what he’s learned from it has shaped him as a writer/reader/viewer.   It’s very opinionated (but that’s what you’d buy such a book for, right?) and extremely well-written, and even when you disagree with him on some things, you can’t help liking and respecting the guy.  He tackles only a limited number of books and movies, many of them not conventionally considered horror (such as John Cheever’s The Swimmer), and intelligently discusses them, with enthusiasm; he’s convinced me I need to watch Seconds again.   A lot of material previously published is used here -- articles on Stephen King movies, a eulogy for J. N. Williamson, prefaces and afterwards to other books -- but only the prefaces and afterwords  (although interesting) really felt like filler.  The flow from chapter to chapter can get  a bit clumsy and non-cohesive, but there’s so much good in here that it’s easy to overlook a few flaws.  And the autobiographical sections will have you nailed to the book.  If you’re wondering why I put a nonfiction study of the horror genre in a blog post of book reviews based on “difficult lives,” read this and I don’t think I’ll get any argument.  Important and recommended to any non-casual horror fan.

To Have and Have Not - Ernest Hemingway (Scribner, originally 1934)
Hemingway apparently tries to go noir in this multiple-viewpointed tale of a fishing boat captain, Harry Morgan, who tries to bulk up his struggling finances by doing something he really doesn’t want to risk doing -- carrying smuggled people from Cuba to the U. S.   His ill-fated border-crossings always end up with someone dead, and he eventually loses an arm while smuggling liquor.  Harry is stubborn, racist, and hard-assed about what goes on on his boat but wants to provide for his family (it might be more effective if we saw them -- they’re barely mentioned) and eventually what he’s doing will cost him.  The novel’s written so tersely you almost can’t tell what’s going on at times (one major character dies and I couldn’t figure out that’s what had happened until several pages later), and it changes viewpoints a lot -- first it’s written first person from Harry’s point of view (the strongest section), then switches to third person, then back to first person but from another character, etc.   Then, after awhile, it dispenses with Harry altogether and follows some drunken tourists who are fouling up their relationships.  It starts strong then starts to meander and lose itself; I’m not sure it’d be considered the classic it is if Hemingway weren’t so overrated.  It’s not bad, there are some good lines, but also lots of babble and pretense.  Hemingway considered it his worst book, and “a bunch of junk.”  It’s better than that, but it’s also overrated.

“Reds” - Jack W. Thomas (Bantam Books, 1970)
Hilariously dated sleaze as a couple of 15-year-old girls -- Dorcie the hard-boiled know-it-all who’ll do any damn thing as long as it’s bad, and Polly, her wanting-to-be-cool-and-stupid-like-Dorcie tagalong -- set out to make the hippie scene on Haight.  Armed with money stolen from their parents and whatever pharmaceuticals they can scrounge up or score (including birth control pills and Dorcie’s beloved reds - seconal) they kidnap a “square” guy named Cole to take them there.   Cole doesn’t mind much because he’s intrigued and kinda likes Polly, but Dorcie soon proves to be a drug-fueled psychopath, and she’s the one in charge of everything.  She wrecks Cole’s father’s Lincoln in a chase with the cops, almost gets them all raped and killed in a bad deal with some mean hippies, and takes them to a drug house where a big black guy who calls himself “King Coon” wants to impregnate the girls to further his master plan of creating one unified race.   Polly and Cole start a sort-of romance (as close to one as too-jaded-for-such-square-things Polly can deal with, anyway) while Dorcie starts shooting up reds instead of popping the pills, goes completely, dangerously insane on LSD, and starts thinking how trippy it’d be to shoot Polly and Cole so she could be alone with her stuffed animal.  Dorcie ends up wandering around with her face painted and some guy’s severed dick in her purse.  And of course the whole thing implies “don’t let this happen to you (or your kids).”   The book’s full of slang so extreme and extinct it’s almost like reading the NADSAT stuff in A Clockwork Orange, and everyone’s a degenerate.    Even though the book wallows in the idea of orgies it balks at getting too explicit with the descriptions.  The writing’s okay and the story moves, if a bit disjointedly, but it’s pretty silly even though it’s aiming for the tragic.   You get the feeling Thomas got ahold of a drug-slang glossary from some cop and tried to use every word in it.  I figured out that “groove” is how he thinks “groovy” is spelled...

The Twisted Cross - Ann Pinchot  (Paperback Library, 1964)
Psychology textbook masquerading as a novel.  After a local girl is found strangled, then raped, her psychologist (named Mary) is approached by a minister named Douglas, who thinks he may have killed the girl during a blackout.  The rest of the book is Mary psychoanalyzing Douglas and figuring out how his hatred of his mother and abandonment by his father have given him anger towards women, homosexual tendencies, and all kinds of neurotic feelings.  The story is clumsily handled because that doesn’t seem to be what Pinchot was interested in -- mostly it’s just analysis, and a good deal of that is dated.  It’s marketed as a horror novel comparable to Psycho but it’s barely even a novel at all.  Not completely dull, but without much point other than to show off what somebody learned in psychology class.  Blah.

The Short-Timers - Gustav Hasford (Bantam 1979)
One of the all-time greatest war novels.  This Vietnam story was the basis for Full Metal Jacket, which was pretty faithful to the book but changed a few things and -- believe it or not -- watered them down.  R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant was lovable compared to the sadistic psychopath in this book.  And the section spent in Vietnam is darker, bleaker, and more violent.  Full Metal Jacket is one of my favorite films but the book is even stronger stuff.  It's compulsively readable; the prose is simple but every other line is quotable.  It's a travesty that this thing is out of print.  Very fast read which I'll likely be revisiting often.  

One Is A Lonely Number - Bruce Elliott  (Stark House, originally 1952)
Larry Camonille breaks out of prison because conditions there would kill him soon; he's lost a lung to tuberculosis.  He wants to make it to the warm dry climes of Mexico but doesn't have money to get there, so he hides out for a while in Ohio, washing dishes in a roadhouse while he tries to scheme enough money to let him keep going.  A couple of women he sleeps with want to give it to him... but in exchange for some bad things they need him to do.  One wants her mother-in-law killed so she can get her hands on her late husband's money, and the other inherited some bonds but Larry would need to hold up a banker to get them.  And he's figured that at least one of these women is setting him up for a big fall instead of the payoff they're promising.  And then his life gets even more complicated, but that might not be a problem for long if he can't find a way out.  Gritty and pretty uncompromising in the sex department for its day, this is classic noir by a guy who mostly wrote a few Shadow pulps under a pen name.  Strong, bleak desperation without easy answers.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Victor Hugo   (1831)
Imposing classic is more readable than you'd think, but is still drawn-out in excessive melodrama.  A beautiful gypsy girl, Esmerelda, enchants everyone in 15th century Paris by dancing in the streets.  Her most dangerous admirer is Claude Frollo, a priest who's so obsessed with her he's driven to almost become a rapist.  His adopted son is Quasimodo, a hideously deformed hunchback who's full of hatred for the world that scorns him, but who is capable of great humanity when shown some kindness.  Esmerelda, who'd shown pity on Quasimodo, becomes accused of witchcraft and a tangled web makes Quasimodo her protector, but Claude Frollo is as big a threat to her as the enraged mob and the king's guards.   It's overlong, and there are obsessive passages about the architecture of Paris that distract from the narrative almost as badly as the "whale" chapters distract from Moby Dick, but it's still a great, important work of literature that's also a pretty good read.

Hunger - Knut Hamsun (Barnes & Noble, originally 1890)
Our unnamed narrator for this angst-driven classic is an unsuccessful free-lance writer in Norway, who spends the book in desperate straights, both because of cruel fate and his own actions; the guy's a lunatic to begin with, and he's being driven even madder by malnutrition,.  Unable to find any sort of job and only rarely managing to sell anything he's written, he's pawned everything he owns that he could get a shilling for; in one ridiculous moment he even tries pawning the buttons off his coat.  He has to struggle for every cent, but if he somehow gets any money he often gives it away, apparently to create the illusion (mostly to himself) that he's not really so badly off.  He's so starved that he tries eating chips of wood, and when he does get any food he throws it back up because his body doesn't know how to handle it anymore.  His hair starts falling out and his clothes get ragged, and the only friend he has is a woman who's interested in him because she thinks he's a madman.  While he starves (and resists the urge to ask for charity) he acts crazy, harassing people in the street with bizarre "pranks" (like following a woman around yelling that she's going to drop her book -- and she's not carrying one) or telling ridiculous lies to strangers and then starting arguments by accusing them of not believing him.  His situation gets more and more desperate as he's always on the verge of being homeless;  his landlords are always just about to kick him out of the palces he stays, and the starvation's giving him writer's block so there seems no way out.  This is pseudo-stream-of-consciousness stuff, more concerned with the protagonist's thoughts and feelings (the reader will often understand what's happening better than the narrator's megalomaniacal perceptions allow him to), and there's not much plot.  It does keep you reading, though, just to see if this goof will ever get his shit together.  Hamsun ended up a pariah in Norway because his conservatism led him to welcome the Nazi occupiers (he even gave Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift and wrote a tearful eulogy when Hitler died), so that's tainted his reputation considerably.  But taken as a work divorced from the character of its author, this is a worthwhile read.

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  1. I read Short Timers ten years ago and it sticks with me. Without question the best 'Nam novel ever. The sequel, "The Phantom Blooper," starts off nearly as good, but spirals off into a weird sort of communist fable in which the VC are like Snow White's elves and the American soldiers morph into inhuman, murdering demons...which makes it super strange that Hasford dedicated the novel to his fellow vets. I reviewed both of them on Amazon back in '03 or so, but really need to re-read them, as it's been that long since I've read the books.

  2. Somebody needs to reprint Hasford, preferably all in one volume. Those books are going for stupid money now, and if his other two are even half as good as Short-Timers, it's a crime to have 'em out of print.

  3. Delightful. I've already added McTeague, The German, and The Short-Timers to my must-read list. Never been much of a Hemingway fan, so your review of TH&HN reconfirms my bias. I read HoND in high school and appreciated much of it, especially the gothic overtones and depressing ending, but HOLY SHIT did Hugo need an editor. Such wordy bloat.

  4. Yeah, Hunchback reminded me a lot of Moby Dick... which I love, but think would be a stronger book at half the length. (I love Melville, but he's odd... some stuff is total genius and compulsively readable ("Bartleby the Scrivener" - I re-read that every few months) and others are almost impossible to get through (Billy Budd).

    I stubbornly keep trying Hemmingway, and he's not unreadable or anything, but I don't get where the genius is supposed to come in. Maybe at the time he was wildly original or something, I dunno, but now it's a big eh. I'm also trying to like Faulkner but having the same trouble.

    I think you'll like McTeague... I was impressed with that one. I read it in a Library of America volume of Norris's stuff that I picked up for almost-nothing at a library sale just 'cuz it was a Library of America book (I worship those things), and now I'm psyched that there are two more of his novels in there...