By Jonathan Yardley
Saturday, March 28, 2009
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
I am a child of the 1950s. I was 10 when the decade began, 20 when it ended. My entire adolescence was spent in that allegedly "silent" decade, which wasn't really all that silent except when it came to the subject of that abiding, obsessive interest to teenage boys: sex. We had no idea that the Sexual Revolution lay ahead, with all the freedoms -- and all the anxieties -- it entailed. All we knew was that sex was a mystery we were determined to solve, and that adults were determined to keep as mysterious as possible.
Today, when sex is everywhere, it seems impossibly quaint, but in the 1950s, you had to go looking for it. There were rumors that the pneumatic Jane Russell had exposed her breasts in the 1943 movie "The Outlaw," but they were under wraps in the version I saw. If you were lucky, you got your hands on crude little comics called "eight-page Bibles," cartoonish erotica more likely to amuse than arouse. In Times Square sex shops, you could pay a nickel to hunch over a primitive video machine and gaze at pictures of women in various stages of undress.
Or you could read a book. Kathleen Winsor's novel "Forever Amber" was a thousand-page slog, but every once in a while, you'd encounter one of what we all called "the good parts," usually involving ripped bodices and panting swains. Sex of a rougher variety was offered by Irving Shulman in "The Amboy Dukes," tattered copies of which were passed from desk to desk when teacher wasn't looking. Along with occasional snippets of sex, the novel offered Brooklyn street gangs and juvenile delinquency, a combustible mix that was anathema to parents, teachers, school boards and other authorities -- though, doubtless to their horror, it managed to sell 5 million copies. Grace Metalious got us panting with "Peyton Place," which has the definitive death-by-car-sex scene, and of course Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels were always good for a frisson.
Then there were the novels of Harold Robbins. Today, he is remembered as the crown prince of hacks, author of "The Carpetbaggers" (1961), "The Betsy" (1971) and other schlock classics that Hollywood managed to turn into movies even worse than the books. But in the early 1950s, he was a literary rebel with a cause, which was the kind of rebel we fell for in those days. Of his first three novels, two -- "Never Love a Stranger" (1948) and "A Stone for Danny Fisher" (1952) -- achieved cult status among teenage readers, in part because they had what we thought were pretty neat sex scenes, and in part because this rough-and-ready son of the New York streets had a soft spot for (as he puts it in "Stranger") people who were "hungry and poor and miserable, living off relief, off charity, or some job that barely gave them an existence."
It will seem exceedingly odd to anyone who knows anything about the book business that the first novel by the man who eventually inflicted "The Carpetbaggers" on us was published by Knopf, the house where the likes of Willa Cather and Thomas Mann had previously found a home. But reading it now, one can see why. In many ways it's an artless book, but it has energy and conviction and a certain raw power that must have struck some editor at Knopf as authentic, as reflecting New York as it really was before, during and after the Depression.
I have no idea how its author presented himself to his publisher, but history suggests it bore only a passing relationship to the truth. Robbins was a compulsive fabulist, not merely in his novels but also in his self-mythology. He probably told Knopf that (like the novel's protagonist, Frankie Kane) he had grown up in a Manhattan orphanage, but in truth he was the son of a well-established pharmacist. In 1948 he was 32 and had seen his share of life's vicissitudes, but whatever the precise details of them, he clearly had literary ambitions.
What happened to him between "A Stone for Danny Fisher" and "The Carpetbaggers" is not entirely clear, but he had a good deal of experience in Hollywood and eventually must have decided that fast-paced dirty books about its denizens were a lot more remunerative than proletarian novels about the streets of New York. The older he got, the more explicit his sex scenes got, and the more unpleasant he got. Although critics routinely turned up their noses at his work, he pugnaciously insisted that he was the best writer in the world, a conviction apparently shared by many readers, as his more than 20 books sold more than 50 million copies. He made his way through five marriages, none of which seems to have been happy, blew huge amounts of money on cocaine and other delights, and accumulated a vast collection of enemies. He died in 1997 and was as little mourned as he had been widely read.
Still, a rereading of "Never Love a Stranger" convinces me that he should be granted a bit more respect than is now commonly accorded him. There's not much art to it, but neither is there much artifice. Something can be said of it that cannot be said of Robbins's later work: It's an honest book. It's autobiographical in spirit, if not in all details; Robbins might not have been reared in an orphanage, but he did go to George Washington High School in Manhattan, as Frankie Kane does, and he did hold a number of marginal jobs during the Depression. He knew those hard times firsthand:
"The winter of 1932-3 was a bad one. People were out of work, on relief. It was becoming more evident, even to me who was safe in a small way, that steps would have to be taken to insure the livelihood of the people around me. Every day the papers screamed 'New Crisis.' People were hungry. People were cold. Bonus for the veterans. Jobs for the people. Stop kidding yourself, neighbor, 'prosperity' isn't just around the corner."
Frankie is 13 as the novel opens, living at the orphanage of St. Therese. He has "a certain amount of self-sufficiency and independence that others do not acquire until much older," and "a tinge of adventure that seemed to cling to him, an air of deviltry that attracted all the girls." After school, he works in the pool hall, sweeping the floor and picking up small bets laid by various neighbors playing the races. His idol is Silk Fennelli, "the biggest gambler in town," and his ambition is to be "a gambler and a bookie -- and rich."
He also wants to bed just about every woman he meets, and he rolls up a pretty impressive string of conquests, but -- sorry, guys -- the details are pretty sketchy. When he's still 13, he has a fling with a considerably older French Canadian who works as a maid for his friend Marty's family, which doesn't sit well with Marty's sister, Ruth, who's nursing a secret crush on him. With Elly, the daughter of a poor black family that takes him in when times are hard, there is "a feeling between us . . . a mixture of camaraderie and sex." Then comes Marianne, who "had an attraction no other woman had ever had for me, something that vaguely eluded me, something I wanted to pin down and secure for myself," but she proves overly controlling and possessive, and soon enough she, too, falls by the wayside.
While Frankie bounces from woman to woman, or girl to girl, the rest of his life bounces along in an equally uncertain course. The orphanage informs him that his mother's brother has been found, and he learns that he is not Catholic but rather Jewish; he is adopted by his uncle's family and lives happily with them. But when the family moves to Arizona, he cannot accompany them because the law requires that, as an underage orphan, he remain in New York. Instead he runs away, takes a train to Baltimore and finds a job there as handyman and bouncer in a whorehouse, then enlists in the Navy and winds up in San Diego, where a woman robs him. From there it's back to New York and a succession of jobs. Only after the end of his affair with Marianne and a stay in Bellevue Hospital does he return to his roots and take up a career in gambling.
From there on it's up to you. You can read the rest of the novel or you can watch the movie, if you can find it, that is. It was filmed in 1958 with John Drew Barrymore as Frankie and Steve McQueen (!) as Marty. Despite the presence of the latter, it pretty quickly vanished into movie limbo, perhaps because it is a typical film adaptation of a Harold Robbins novel, i.e., dreadful. Maybe some night it will pop up on the Late Late Show. Do keep your eyes peeled.
Probably, Robbins didn't care whether the movie was good or bad. By the late 1950s, he was so deeply into commercialism, cynicism and exploitation that he was doing everything strictly for the money. That was his choice, for which he enjoyed the benefits and ultimately suffered the consequences, ending his life in a wheelchair, grinding out execrable hackwork to keep himself above water. Probably, he got what he deserved. But "Never Love a Stranger" and "A Stone for Danny Fisher" tell us that there was something deeper and better to him. That in time he threw it away is scarcely a tragedy, but it does leave one with a sense of disappointment and loss.
"Never Love a Stranger" is out of print, but used copies are widely available.
Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.