July 22nd, 2014

He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford (1950)

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threecovers

I stumbled onto this book while rooting around the Internet Archive, as I like to do from time to time, in search of interesting titles somewhere in the region between what’s in print and what’s been out there long enough to enter the public domain. He Feeds the Birds is one of those texts you can find in the Archive–but only for borrowing in Adobe Digital Edition format, which means for reading on a computer, which I can’t stand. (I don’t mind using a Kindle or Nook, but still prefer real books.)

So I went off to find a used copy, and quickly discovered this novel’s odd publication history. It was first published by the Dial Press, in hardback, in 1950. Then, two years later, Avon Books brought it out in paperback but decided for some reason (OK, the reason was to grab attention and sales) to change the title to The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. Seven years after that, Berkeley Medallion Books brought it out as a cheap paperback for a second time, only with yet another title: Easy Living. All three publishers learned that a dud by any other name is still a dud.

Well, like Billy Mumphrey, I’m a cock-eyed optimist–at least when it comes to looking for diamonds in the rough and dusty shelves, and I was determined to find out what got three different publishers to give this novel a shot, and ordered the cheapest copy I could find, which turned out to be a near-mint copy of The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. I’m easily awed when I find in excellent condition something that should be even more beat-up than me, and so I carefully opened its cover and began reading with some respect, not to say reverence.

It wasn’t the most promising beginning, I have to admit. The book opens with a fight between Rex Lannin and his wife, Betty, both in their cups, then introduces us to several other men and women of their acquaintance. The main thing that seems to bring them together is booze, time on their hands, and enough money to buy one to kill the other. Ford does make a point to specify that the story is set in the summer of 1939, but events in Europe affect their lives about as much as a termite infestion in a house on the other side of town. “A hell of a summer,” Rex grumbles a few weeks after Betty moves out on him:

Hot days, drunken nights and a crummy furnished room and Hitler in the headlines and in the back-buzz of barrooms and Hitler on the radio in the furnished room without Betty where getting drunk was the easiest thing to do and Hitler and Smigly-Ridz and Danzig and no Betty and Smigly-Ridz, Smigly-Ridz, Smigly Ridz. . . .

Gradually, though, Ford seems to gain confidence in himself and his story. Instead of just swirling around in some boozy imitation of a dance, his characters start to take directions. Some start heading on, some head out, and at least one, an heir to a small fortune starts spiraling down into self-destruction after the last of his money runs out:

Here was another day. Another day of living in the streets aglare with the hot sun and its cruel revealing light. Another day of walking without destination. Up one block, down another. Turn west for three blocks. Down four blocks. Across to the park. Now ten blocks north. Or ten blocks south. Across and up and down and across. No place to go. Public libraries. Toilets. Park benches. Streets. And always the ache of hunger chiseling inside him, driving him on and through the empty, timeless hours.

Rex, on the other hand, spends his time bar-hopping, moping around his little apartment, and pretending to write a play with one of his friends. A little monthly allowance from his mother is enough to keep his going and enough to keep him from wanting to make any great changes. He suggests that he could blame his stagnation “on the fact that I’m one of the half-generation that was a half-step behind the Lost Generation. Call it the Unclaimed Generation.”

The whole cast of characters appear to be unclaimed–unclaimed, that is, but any force or motivation strong enough or persuasive enough to ally with. Communism, fascism and capitalism are all equally unconvincing, at least compared to another round. Even love seems a dead-end street for most of them. But Rex is at least honest enough to admit that his problem is simple laziness: “Right now, I’m the laziest guy, pound for pound, in the world,” he jokes.

The book ends in early 1940, with war going on in Europe, newspapers speculating about Roosevelt running for a third term, and most of the characters having been forced to take some decision or action. One man attempts suicide. A woman who spends most of the book bouncing between lovers decides her salvation lies in staying with the husband she already has and having a baby. Rex, having been signed off on the divorce papers and sent them back to Reno, leaves New York to try writing away from his old haunts and drinking buddies. And one Joe Gould-like carries on as a bum and self-proclaimed poet.

Whether the reader or the characters really learns anything in the course of the story seems beside the point. Whatever reason Ford had for writing the book, it clearly wasn’t to deliver a moral lesson. He Feeds the Birds takes its title from a religious tract: “Live close to God, your faith renew, he feeds the birds and he’ll feed you” (which, in turn, comes from Matthew 6:26). Ford’s God takes care of some, seems to abandon others, has no effect at all on others.

My guess is that Ford wrote the book for no other reason that to try his hand at it. About a third of the way into it, he started to stretch out and give into his lyrical impulses, and my own assessment is that he was pretty successful at it. As an evocation of a particular time and place–America while it was standing outside the war in Europe–it’s far less successful than John P. Marquand’s So Little Time. But there are some great descriptions like the one above or another about waking up drunk and self-disgusted or a third about passing spots known in better days (“I wish I was as successful as I thought I was at twenty”). And he manages a multi-player cast in a multi-threaded story without getting either tangled up or lost. I think he rates a solid B and some extra marks for some of the passage. Not a diamond in the rough, but hardly a paste gem, either.

Terence Ford was in his early forties and working as a public relations man when he wrote the book. Before that, he had quite a varied resume:

I worked on a couple of newspapers, was an actor, an oiler on coastwise ships, a barker on Broadway for baseball batting cage, the manager of a Park Avenue antique shop, the maitre d’hotel of a 3rd Avenue bakery lunchroom, a barrel jockey in a shellac factory, the ultimate assistant editor of a trade journal, a barely perceptible contributor of satirical pieces to The Bookman and Vanity Fair. . . .

He Feeds the Birds was his first and only novel. He stuck with the PR business until he died of a heart attack in late 1958 at the age of 52.


He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford
New York: The Dial Press, 1950

also published as The Drunk, the Damned and the Bevilled
New York: Avon Books, 1952

also published as Easy Living
New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1959


 

July 18th, 2014

“Venice, California, 1950s,” from The Slide Area by Gavin Lambert

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venice

She lives in Venice, near the furniture store. A mouldering unfinished little town along the coast beyond Santa Monica, it began fifty years ago as an imitation of the Italian city. Moonstruck, an industrialist from the Middle West decided to create a romantic resort on the dreary tidal flats. He built some florid villas, a copy of St. Mark’s Square, a network of bridges, canals, lagoons, colonnades. The aged Sarah Bernhardt was imported to play La Dame aux Camelias on what is now a tadry, neglected amusement pier. Hardly anyone went to see her. Hardly anyone hired a gondola for a trip along the mosquito-ridden flats. Then oil was struck, machinery converged upon the lagoons. A few bridges still remain, spanning dried up canals, with pumps and derricks stretching away beyond them. Drugstores, banks, service stations have settled in the empty spaces between colonnades, and the villa are apartment house with rooms always vacant.

As we pass St. Mark’s Square, I notice a group of young motor cyclists dressed in black, with tight belts and slanted caps, leaning against the colonnades. Pigeons cluster nearby, then disperse as the cyclists set off with a roar, speeding along the empty boulevard, past a neon sign announcing BEER, past the Bridge of Sighs and the derricks in silhouette..

The noise rouses Zeena. She blinks, looks out of the window and recognizes landmarks: a closed-up hotel with broken windows, a plot of waste land with an abandoned moonlit sign, BOATS FOR SALE. She murmurs: “Why, I’m almost home.”


Gavin Lambert’s 1959 short-story collection, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, is one of the best works of fiction to come out of Los Angeles. He followed it a dozen years later with The Goodbye People. Both are out of print now, which is inexcusable, given the quality of writing in both books.


The Slide Area, by Gavin Lambert
New York: Viking, 1959


 

July 14th, 2014

Informed Sources: Day East Received, by Willard S. Bain (1967)

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informedsourcescovers

Reading Willard Bain’s 1967 meta-fiction, Informed Sources: Day East Received, was for me such a time-trip that I can’t imagine getting half as much pleasure if I’d read it forty years ago.

First, we have to take care of the matter of technology. The entire text of Informed Sources: Day East Received is in upper-case Courier. This is because, as we’re told around the book’s half-way point,

THE SKELETON OF THE BOOK IS MODELLED, SIGNIFICANTLY, ON THE AP REPORT FOR THE THREE DAYS FOLLOWING PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S ASSASSINATION

Back in the day–the day being pretty much any time between the late 1930s and the mid-1980s–the Associated Press, Reuters, etc. were known as wire services. That’s because they distributed their headline news and news reports to newspapers and radio and TV stations over teletype networks. In fact, the text also helpfully tells us that "DAY EAST RECEIVED" ACTUALLY APPEARS ON THE COVER OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS "A"A WIRE REPORT WHICH IS BOUND UP IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BUREAU AT THE END OF EACH MORNING.

In each one of these clients’ offices sat something that looked like an industrial-strength typewriter. These were usually Teletype Corporation Model 15s (you can see one in action in this YouTube clip).

I saw one of these in action back in the early 1970s, when my dad detoured to visit a microwave relay site while we were driving down the Al-Can Highway. The site also housed a local radio station, and my brother and I read the news on the wire service machine while Dad talked to the microwave guys. Ten years later, I ran into teletypes again (Model 28s, this time) on my first job, running an Air Force communications center. In both cases, the machines ran on 7-bit code, which meant that EVERYTHING WAS IN UPPER CASE, the SHIFT key requiring that not-yet-state-of-the-art 8th bit.

OK, enough of my geek nostalgia.

Informed Sources: Day East Received is also a trip back to a very specific time, place, vocabulary, and world-view: San Francisco in 1967, the Summer of Love, when Hashbury was the unofficial capitol of Flower Power and an explosion of cultural, musical and political energy.

You need to know that to dig where Willard Bain was coming from, man:

FIVE MINDS WERE BLOWN TODAY, FOUR OF THEM SERIOUSLY

IT WILL BE COOL WITH A CHANCE OF SCATTERED CHAOS

The book even provides at one point a quick guide to some frequently-encountered Hippie (or was it Hippy?) terms:


EDITORS: A NUMBER OF GUIDES HAVE BEEN ISSUED USING THE FOLLOWING TERMS RECENTLY:

POLYMORPHOUS PERVERT--PAUL'-LEE-MORE'-FUSS PREE'-VERT

SUFIS--SIOUX' FEE

INSECT PLOT CONTROL--(JUST AS IT SOUNDS0

LOVE--LUV'

GROK--GROK'

Informed Sources is both the book’s title and the name of the AP-like new service over which the transmissions captured in the book are sent. In this case, the story–so-to-speak–centers on a cultural rather than political assassination. Robin the Cock, a supposedly legendary figure in the “Peripheral Underground” is reported to have been killed, and in the flurry of rumors, contradictions, and reactions to his death, several fringe movements rise up and threaten the Establishment.

One bombs the Golden Gate Bridge. Several infiltrate the wire services:

THERE ARE INDICATIONS NON-STAFFERS ARE MANNING ONE OR MORE BUREAUS

Among these are Solomon and Sarah Hershey, who seem to be Merry Pranksters of the wires. They post a story describing themselves as A PAIR OF FAR-OUT VOLCANIC ISLANDS that DECLARED THEIR INDEPENDENCE IN 1963 AND NOW RECOGNIZE NO COLONIAL AUTHORITY WHATEVER. Later, they are joined–or contested–by another group known as the Green dream.

As these revolutionaries introduce more and more of their information into the system, the Informed Sources service keeps trying to push through a story that embodies the worst fears of the Establishment:

SAN ANTONIO, NOW (IS) -- A COMMUNIST BEATNIK DOPE FIEND KILLED AND MUTILATED A 3-YEAR-OLD BOY TODAY AS THE LAD WAS KNEELING IN PRAYER IN A JUST-DEDICATED METHODIST CHURCH.

It’s a losing, battle, however, and the infiltrators manage to subvert an attempt to push out a “Support Your Police” message:

sufferpolice

Before the whole thing goes spiralling out of control, the movement celebrates its triumphs:

WASHINGTON, NOW (IS) --THE STATUS OF MAJOR LEGISLATIVE PROPOSALS THIS SESSION:

LEGALIZE POT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ENACTED

FREE LOVE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ENACTED

REDUCE LAW ENFORCEMENT TO OPERA BOUFFE . . . . . . ENACTED

The first publication of Informed Sources was itself a counter-culture act. Printed by mimeograph and stapled together by the Communications Company, run by Chester Anderson and Claude Hayward as the publication arm of the Diggers an improvisational theater/community anarchist group, the first few hundred copies were taken to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore and given away free. (Today, the few copies to be found fetch the price $400 on Amazon.)

On its first appearance, the book was considered a sign of great days a-coming. Writing in the L. A. Free Press, Lawrence Lipton proclaimed,

What is being escalated today, among other things, is the dying of the sick & dying society. A day to day chronicling of the deathbed scene. The author, whoever he is, is the master arsonist of ideas, A light-bringer as well as a fire-bringer. This book may turn out to be the first major work of the hip era in writing.

The book’s reputation eventually made its way to the editors of Doubleday, who published it as a trade paperback in 1969. At that time, reviewing the book in the New York Times, novelist R. V. Cassill advised readers not to get distracted by the font and focus on Bain’s message. In doing so, however, he chose a comparison that now makes him seem even more dated that the teletype: “In its quality as political manifesto and in its subordination of eccentric technique to satire and affront, I find it more in a class with the play ‘Macbird!‘”

Now, of course, we know that the Summer of Love had far less political than cultural impact in the long run.
THE BIRCHERS WERE RIGHT AFTER ALL WE ARE INDEED THAT DANGEROUS
one member of the movement declares with pride, rather in the manner celebrated by the title of Nicholas von Hoffman’s account of the San Francisco counter-culture: We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against. Ironically, the Establishment’s assessment proved more accurate in the end: A COUP WOULD BE UNNOTICED AND IRRELEVANT writes one Informed Sources die-hard. The revolution was televised, but in the end it went the way of “Laugh-In.”

Willard Bain and his wife moved to Marin County a couple of years after he first published Informed Sources. They opened a bookstore in Corte Madera and raised five children. He died in 2000.


Informed Sources: Day East Received, by Willard S. Bain
San Francisco: The Communications Company, 1967
New York: Doubleday, 1969
London: Faber & Faber, 1969


 

July 10th, 2014

The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled, by Terence Ford

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nb334

The cover of The Drunk, the Damned, and the Bedevilled is chock full of all that is good in pulp fiction: sex, violence, alcohol and weirdness. The weirdness comes in part from the rather odd perspective of the picture (perhaps the artist had been punched by the guy in the tie and was looking up from the floor), in part from the Gregory Peck-like man in the middle, who seems outraged by the behavior of the guy in the tie but unable to get up from his chair, and in part from the title. Drunk, damned and bedevilled? We can easily imagine a classic pulp titled, The Drunk and the Damned. But Bedevilled? It comes across as hardly stronger than Befuddled.

The title is even odder when one considers that the novel’s original title was He Feeds the Birds, which comes from the Bible, Matthew 6:26: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” One can see how this title wasn’t exactly fit for purpose if the aim was to grab the eye of a scanning would-be buyer of cheap fiction, but did Bedevilled slip in as an unconscious nod to the Christian basis of the original?

Finally, to top off things odd, when Berkeley Books decided to give Terence Ford’s book another try as a pulp in 1959, they steered in the opposite direction, going with the riveting title, Easy Living, and a cover that replaces a cocktail party fight with a starving writer listening to his wife’s pregnant belly.

easyliving


The Drunk, the Damned, and the Bedevilled, by Terence Ford
New York: Avon Books, 1952


 

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