September 21st, 2014

My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill (1960)

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Cover of 'My Sister's Keeper' by R. V. Cassill
Winding down my tour through novelist R. V. Cassill’s decade-long excursion into pulp fiction, I come now to the hot mess of psychological confusion that is My Sister’s Keeper (1960).

The title offers us the unsubtle suggestion that the book’s subject is incest, but as has been the case in the rest of his pulp novels, Cassill prefers to take sex on a tangent rather than head-on. Yes, young Joe Haver is more than slightly obsessed with his sister, Corlis, but he’s less interested in having her than in keeping anyone else from doing it. Which is why the most intense scene in the book is closer to sadism than sex. This, of course, didn’t prevent Avon Books from excerpting just enough of this scene on the front endpaper to lead would-be buyers to think the opposite.

In poor Joe–nineteen going on infantile–Cassill crams a baker’s dozen disorders. His mother’s dead, his father’s a useless lecher living off a grand inheritance, his father’s alcoholic mistress spends most nights sacked up with dad just down the hall from Joe, he spent a requisite number of miserable years in expensive boarding schools, and, as the story opens, has taken up stalking and breaking-and-entering as a hobby. Still a virgin, he’s reached the point of dysfunction where his approach to chatting up a girl is to put her in terror of rape or murder or both.

The one bright spot in his life is his 15-year-old sister, Corlis, just returned from a year’s study in Europe. For Joe, Corlis is the last bastion of innocence in his world, and he’s ready to do anything to anyone–including Corlis–to keep it that way. For her part, Corlis appears to have run much the same gauntlet as Joe with nary a mark–aside from a few from Joe’s belt.

Life would be challenging enough for Joe, but Cassill decides to spice things up by tossing in Dr. A. T. Steele, a “lay analyst” and Mephistopheles stand-in. In a history that Cassill leaves suitably muddy, Steele has been a Hollywood actor, playboy aviator, private eye, and all-around man of mystery. Or, as Goodreads reviewer, Karla, puts it much better than I could have, “a parasitic mind-fucker who leeches off the largesse and warped privileged psyches of his rich marks.” I’ve noted before that Cassill seems to have used his pulp fiction to experiment with different techniques and subjects, and I strongly suspect that Dr. Steele was the prototype of the title character of Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), his “serious” novel based on the Profumo affair.

The result is easily the most interesting, if not the most artistically, of all Cassill’s pulp novels. While his aspiration might have been to weave a complex psychological drama, his final product is more rat’s nest than tapestry. If Cassill had been a chef, this is one dish he certainly would have been accused of overthinking. At the same time, there are plenty of choice bits in this potpourri, and it’s a shame that there appear to be, according to AddAll.com, no more than two or three copies available for sale at the moment.


My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1960


 

September 17th, 2014

“Song of the Drunken Business Man,” from Mid-American Chants, by Sherwood Anderson

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manatbar

“Song of the Drunken Business Man”

Don’t try, little one, to keep hold of me.
Go home! There’s a place for you by the fire.
Age is waiting to welcome you, love—
Go home and sit by the fire.

Into the naked street I ran,
Roaring and bellowing like a cow;
Shaking the walls of the houses down,
Proclaiming my dream of black desire.

Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole,
Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole.

If there’s a thing in this world that’s good it’s guts.
I’m a blackbird hovering over the land:
Go on home! Let me alone.

Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole,
Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole.

Do you know, little dove, I admire your lips—
They’re so red.
What are you doing out in the street?
Take my arm! Look at me!
Ah, you be gone. I’m sixty-five years old tonight,
Now what’s the use of beginning again.

Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole,
Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole.

Well, I’m tired. I ache. What’s the use?
I can’t meet the note. I have a son.
Let’s go home. It’s twelve o’clock.
I’m going to get that boy into West Point yet.

Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole,
Eighteen letters in a pigeon-hole.

from Mid-American Chants, by Sherwood Anderson, New York: John Lane Co., 1918

This is a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).


 

September 13th, 2014

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks

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oldindispensablesI’ve been saving this one up for a rainy day. So, as I watch the grey drizzle blanketing our neighborhood, I have to share one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years: The Old Indispensables–not a romance, but a wonderful comedy of bureaucracy raised to the nth power.

Set in the Circumvention Branch of the Circumlocution Office, The Old Indispensables is a farce in which no one–not the reader and certainly not any of the characters–quite knows what’s going on. Working in dogged earnest in commandeered hotel rooms sometime toward the end of the first year of the World War One, the staff of the Circumvention Branch–a mix of veterans of the civil service wars, well-meaning but clueless young men down from university, and bright-eyed young women continually being sent off with great stacks of papers–labors away on a constant flow of requests of uncertain intent.

All they ever seem to do with these requests is to allow them to age in their in-baskets for a few days, after which they scribble down a brief note and send the package off to another part of the vast machine of the wartime government. And there is such a variety of offices to choose from: Derogation of Crown Appanages Office; the Controller of Tombstones; the Director of Delays and Evasions; the Divagation Commission; the Board of Interference.

The primary focus of the Branch’s civil servants is on advancement of their own careers–as long as it involves the minimal amount of effort. Mr Evans, for example, somewhat self-conscious of having taken his degree from the little-known University of Llangollen, constantly mulls over his chances:

His bath that morning had been disagreeably chilly; and, as he had stepped into it, he had reflected that he was nearly thirty-four and that he would be due for compulsory retirement at the age of sixty. This gave him only twenty-six years in which to reach the summit of his desires and he fancied that he had lost ground rather during the last three weeks. All through the day dark thoughts filled his mind and oppressed him with sinister suggestions. Perhaps he would never be Permanent Under-Secretary, never a K.C.B., perhaps not even a C.B.; and when his good angel whispered to him that the C.M.G. and the I.S.O. still existed, the mocking demons of melancholy arose and extinguished even this gleam of hope.

Meanwhile, the senior bureaucrats battles with rival departments to gain ever-larger numbers of staff–and then to evade the dreaded Towle Committee, which is busily rooting out examples of over-staffing in the government.

A junior member of the Branch, sent off with the vague instruction to “get some facts,” learns that another distant branch of the bureaucracy, the Manx Office, has managed to ensure its existence by disappearing almost entirely:

Here were no machine-guns in sight, no detachments of troops. There were not even any plain-clothes men loitering purposefully about, for, when the grocer had completed his mission by mbarking the empties, and had driven rapidly away, the street was quite empty. Cyril proceeded down it, looking for a brass plate; and at length on the railings outside a small and respectable house, in no other way distinguished from the rest, he saw a brass plate plainly inscribed with the words, “Manx Office.” He paused a moment, finding the appearance of the closed door a trifle unfamiliar in a Government department. At last he went up the steps and pushed at the door. It was locked; and another brass plate requested the visitor not to ring unless he required an answer.

Cyril therefore rang and waited. After several minutes, feeling his desire for an answer still undiminished, he rang again. A prodigious interval went by; and then he heard an uncertain shuffle of feet approaching the door from the inside. There followed the sound of bolts being pushed back and chains undone, mixed with the heavy groans of a lethargic person stirred to uncongenial activity. At last the door fell open and Cyril beheld an elderly man in shirt-sleeves, with no collar, who stood rubbing his eyes and blinking, presumably at the unaccustomed light.

“Is Mr. Choop in?” Cyril asked politely.

“Mr. Choop?” the porter repeated. “Mr. Choop? Is ‘e in? I’ll go and see. Just you wait there.” Cyril advanced into the semi-darkness of the hall and waited, while the porter lumbered into the complete darkness of the stairs and was lost to sight, though not to hearing. After several minutes he returned and said in a dull voice:

“Yes, Mr. Choop, ‘e’s in.” After this he seemed to expect that Cyril would go away.

He does finally get escorted up to the dark alcove from which Mr. Choop presides, and is warmly welcomed. After offering a cigarette and going into great detail about the many fine points of his new lighter, Mr. Choop then rises, saying, “Well, I’m sorry you must go,” and sends the young man off without disclosing a single fact about the Manx Office or its purpose.

In the end, the Circumvention Branch manages to earn a favorable report from the Towle Committee and various staff members earn various sorts of honors. The Armistice is signed–although whether with or without the contributions of the Branch remains a mystery.

For anyone who’s a fan of Yes, Minister, I heartily recommend taking a look at The Old Indispensables

Edward Shanks served on the Western Front until wounded in 1915 and went on to write over a dozen books of poetry and fiction, including the dystopian SF novel, The People of the Ruins. He received the very first Hawthornden Prize in 1919 for his book, The Queen of China and Other Poems.

The Old Indispensables is available online at the Internet Archive (link).


The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks
London: Martin Secker, 1919


 

September 7th, 2014

Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer (1938)

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littledoglostI wrote about one of Tiffany Thayer’s early novels, Thirteen Women, some years ago. For those who haven’t read that post, I’ll explain that Thayer was an eccentric and unique combination of pulp novelist, self-educated philosopher and follower of Charles Fort, and writer whose ambitions perhaps outstretched his abilities.

I bought a copy of Little Dog Lost after seeing the briefest of synopses, which described it as the story of Hollywood producer turned homicidal drifter. That made it seem a bit like Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer — and too odd to pass up.

I should caution that I am no expert on Thayer and defer to those who are in setting down the authoritative facts of his life and work, but I feel safe in speculating that Thayer may have been trying to work through some of his inner conflicts in the process of writing Little Dog Lost. Thayer enjoyed the financial rewards of writing to the lowest common denominator, but he also wanted to pursue philosophy, to continue Fort’s work on anomalous phenomena, and to write a massive serious historical novel based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Like Wittgenstein’s friend, Barry Pink (“Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse”), Thayer seemed to be struggling to decide which role he preferred.

It’s not stretching comparisons too far to say that Little Dog Lost is something of a modern-day Candide. Thayer launches his protagonist, a highly successful movie producer (think Irving Thalberg or Darryl Zanuck), off on a journey to discover “the common people,” only to find that life among the simple folk is even more complicated than the wheelings and dealings of Hollywood.

Oh, and to spice things up, Thayer sets up his hero, Stanley Franklin, as (a) an orphan who witnessed his father kill his mother and then slit his own throat; (b) the informal foster child of a warm-hearted Brooklyn Italian family; (c) the ward of an enormously wealthy bachelor who plucked Stanley from la familia to raise and educate him as a gentleman; and (d) the brother of a psychopathic criminal. Oh, and (e) married to an infinitely patient and understanding woman who suffers gladly her husband’s every erratic whim.

I will not attempt to outline the plot beyond this. If you’re really interested, there is a detailed account available on Goodreads. Let’s just say that Stanley bounces from criminal gang to college campus to religious community to Communist rally to, well, a bunch of other stuff; joins a kidnapping conspiracy; learns that his real mother and father were not who he thought they were; dabbles in several varieties of 1930s radical politics; and ends up in an insane asylum. Unlike Voltaire, Thayer failed to understand that a good satirist does need to be a bit more organized than the crazy world he’s portraying.

If the whole thing sounds like a gawdawful mess, it is. I sort of admire Thayer’s chaotic energy, which can bring the stalest cliches, unfathomable motivations, absurd coincidences, and a certain manic brilliance together on the same page. I can’t for a moment claim to make sense of it, but I’ll give this to Thayer: he was certainly brimming with ideas.

File under “Eccentric Fiction.”


Little Dog Lost, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1938

Little Dog Lost


 

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