Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Cheaters (1960) by Orrie Hitt

Back again with sleaze publishing's laureate, Mr. Orrie Hitt. Now enjoying a revival of interest, it comes years after the great man's death in 1976. A prolific writer, he is rumored to have turned out a novel every two weeks. The Cheaters is Mr. Hitt at the top of his game. All the elements of his working class sweat fiction are here: bombastic women, masculine men, and people stuck in lousy jobs and worse towns.
The book is told from the view of Cliff, a big country boy from New England. He and his girl friend Ann decided to get the hell out of Dodge when Ann's stepfather took a liking to her. Not that there was much else holding them back in the hick town they where they busted sod. Cliff revisits the place mentally in the course of the novel with disgust. Although his view of it changes toward the conclusion.
At the beginning of Cheaters, Cliff and Ann are holed up in a boarding house looking for work in a port city only slightly better than the hayseeds they left behind. Ann takes a job as a waitress, Cliff finally lands a position as a bartender at a dive in a slum section of the town. Known as "The Dells", this is the bottom of the ladder for the working poor. The bar serves cheap beer and drinks to the dock hands.
But the real money is made off the girls who use the bar to attract customers. The bar's owner, Charlie, gets a cut out of their business and provides them with a location to turn tricks. To make matters worse, there's a corrupt cop named Red who hits the girls up for protection money and shakes the bar down as well. However, Cliff proves to be a good worker and the bar owner keeps him on.
Cliff does so well running the bar that Charlie offers to sell it to him in installments. Cliff isn't interested at first, but Charlie's bombshell wife Debbie makes a hard play. Cliff finds himself so smitten by Debbie, an ex-dancer, that he considers dumping the now-pregnant Ann. He ends up spending all his time running the bar and brings in a few new girls for the afternoon shift. Debbie entices him with tales of all the money Charlie possesses and how it can all be theirs if he just bides his time.
It all starts to spin out of control one night after Red beats Cliff senseless and leaves a scar to remind him who the real power is in The Dells. Cliff then leaves Ann after Debbie makes it worth his while. But a strike is looming at the docks, the newspapers are pressuring the cops to crack down on all the vice, and Red starts demanding more pay-off money. However, in true Hitt fashion, the book ends on a good note.
Once again, Orrie Hitt shows us the world of working class poverty that he knew so well. His books remind me of the films of Russ Meyer: stark, cartoonish, and lurid.
At least in this book you learn all about the day-to-day functioning of a dive bar.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Damballa by Charles Saunders

Charles Saunders, author of Imaro and other African Sword and Soul heroes has released his own tribute to the pulp novels if the 1930's. It is a fact: there were no black pulp heroes in the 1930's save Dick Benson's sidekicks. It's good Saunders can rectify this with his "New Pulp" book.
It's Gotham City in the 30's and the only thing looming bigger than the Johnson- Kreiger heavyweight championship fight (patterned on Louis vs. Schmeling) is the mysterious Damballa, hero of Harlem's downtrodden. Cloaked in a black cape, Damballa appears out of nowhere to stop a home invasion robbery at a soiree organized by the Harlem elite for the Black American heavy weight champion, "Jackhammer" Johnson. The police, especially Detective Errol Bynoe, are respective, but jealous, of this one-man avenger. The Third Reich is sponsoring Kreiger as the "Aryan Adonis".
As the big fight looms closer we learn the German Nazis have concocted a deadly serum which will render their prize fighter invincible in the ring. Damballa eventually discovers the nature of the serum. With his African grandmother, he cracks the formula in a secret underground laboratory. Now he has the power to administer it to the Black American boxer, but will the serum do more damage than good?
The best parts of Damballa center around the heavyweight bout. Saunders shows his knowledge of boxing by having the description of the fight given by an announcer. As Kreiger and Johnson bash into each other you can feel the surge of energy from the fans. This is easily the best part of the book.
If there is any thing negative to said about Damballa, it would be stylistically. It's hard to recreate the world of the 1930's which gave birth to the pulps. In some ways, why would anyone want to? The pulp hero novels stuck to a very specific formula which is hard to duplicate. Saunders has his own style, which serves the novel well.
I'm looking forward to the next Damballa episode. Maybe the local newsstand already has it in stock.