After reading R. V. Cassill’s The Wound of Love (1956), which I discussed in a post a few weeks back, I’ve become intrigued by the rest of Cassill’s pulp oeuvre–eight or nine novels that he published as paperback originals between 1954 and 1963. One of the most influential writing instructors of his time, Cassill was also a prolific author in his own right, publishing around a dozen other novels as serious mainstream hardbacks and nearly ten times that number of short stories, several of which were included in O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories collections.
Born in Iowa, Cassill studied art at the University of Iowa and later became one of the mainstays of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This experience is well reflected in Naked Morning (1957), which is set in the fictional town of Blackhawk, Iowa, home of Blackhawk University–Cassill’s stand-ins for Iowa City and his alma mater.
The novel’s actions play out over the course of about four days in early September, during the break between summer and fall sessions. One of the lead characters, a graduate instructor, “liked that time better than any other part of the year:
Then the campus lay ripe and vacant under a succession of fine days. It was a period when most of the human sounds vanished or were subdued by the heat. The noise of power-driven lawnmowers sham-battled through the afternoons and the shadow of campus trees was as blue as it could ever get.
Cassill knows this Midwestern university town well. He knows the upright but pallid character of the men in administration, the driven wives relentlessly fueling faculty politics, the frustrated cliques of artists and intellectuals feeling themselves exiled from the big time, and the townspeople always a bit bewildered or bemused by the university’s pretensions and eccentrics. He knows the great Victorian monstrosities–“like an oversized statue of two bisons and a wapiti”–now moldering away as faculty homes and student houses. And he knows the kind of bars that offer some of the few places where students and younger members of the faculty can cut loose:
The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.
The cover of Naked Morning proclaims, “A young and innocent stray in a world of men.” In case that was too subtle, Avon Books plastered across the back:
SHE WHISPERED IT INTO HIS EAR–
“I have to get of in this here town unless I have some money. So if you want me to go with you….”
As was the case with Cassill’s The Wound of Love, a cheesy, come-on cover hides an otherwise serious work of fiction. In both books, there is a loose link between the cover and the contents. Naked Morning opens with a young man, a student returning to Blackhawk by bus, being approached by Sissie, a young girl somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen, who seems penniless, homeless, and ready to sell herself to survive.
The story revolves around the havoc her arrival in Blackhawk provokes. Sissie is something of a feral child, a corn-fed Lolita with no inhibitions, which, of course, means that she attracts a variety of abusers, exploiters and would-be saviours. A buyer hoping to find the salacious treats suggested by the cover would have been quite disappointed. Cassill only hints at Sissie’s sexual exploits–a glancing reference to a possible gang-bang in a frat house basement is as far as he goes.
Sissie really only serves as the spark to set off crises of character for the student on the bus, his girlfriend, and the graduate instructor. She is off-screen through most of the book, with much more space devoted to the others and their thoughts. And, as is too often the case with novels where the reader has to spend most of the time inside someone’s head, introspection is a poor substitute for action or description. The best parts of Naked Morning are not the result of Cassill’s ability as a story-teller or creator of characters but his ability to capture what Iowa City must have looked like, what it must have been like to live there, in the mid-1950s–as was the case for the small Iowa town setting of The Wound of Love.
Cassill’s superficial motivation for writing Naked Morning may have been money, but it’s clear that writing the book also had some artistic value for him–perhaps as a way to safely perfect his craft away from the harsh scrutiny of mainstream editors and critics. I suspect this was true for his other pulp novels, which is why I’ve ordered a few more to read over the coming months.