Chandler Brossard (seated) with Alexis Lykiard
Chandler Brossard (seated) with Alexis Lykiard
Pulp fiction. It’s a term usually designed to dismiss what is being referred to as not worthy of serious consideration. It’s said to be literature designed for quick and easy reading and hardly taxing the intelligence of the reader. That’s certainly how it is often seen, and there is, perhaps, some truth in how its limitations are defined, at least on a general level. But, being of the opinion that good writing is where you find it, I’ve more than once been pleasantly surprised to come across it in a pulp novel I’ve read. I’d agree that it’s necessary to pick and choose carefully when delving into the world of pulp. My own liking is for older novels, those dating mostly from the 1930s through to the early-1960s. After that, it seems to me, the breakdown in censorship meant that writers were more at liberty to focus openly on sex and violence, with the result that it was no longer necessary to suggest it. The imagination declines in such circumstances.
This is a contentious issue, and I’m not advocating censorship, simply pointing to what might have happened when it was relaxed. Writers of pulp fiction will no doubt disagree with me and claim that they now have greater freedom to develop characters and situations. But they could surely do that by suggestion when working within a restricted framework. The fact is that sex and violence sell books, and pressure is exerted on writers by agents and publishers to add doses of each to their novels. A crime novelist of my acquaintance once told me that this was the case.
I don’t want to spend time generalising about pulp fiction. The above reflections were triggered by the recent discovery of an example of a pulp book. It’s an interesting item to look at for more reasons than one. Published in 1962 by Lancer Books, New York, it has two novels – Season of Love by Colin Ross and The Wrong Turn by Daniel Harper – both of them short (123 and 127 pages, respectively) which might suggest they were written to a specified format. With very few exceptions pulp novels rarely exceeded more than 250 paperback pages, and many hovered around the 180 to 220 pages mark. Putting the Ross and Harper books together (250 pages in total) made sense in that context.
There are one or two curious aspects surrounding when the two novels (do they fit easier into the novella category?) were written. As mentioned earlier, Lancer published the book in 1962 and the Ross novel was copyrighted by them in the same year. But the Harper was copyrighted in that name in 1954, and a check shows that it was originally published that same year by Avon Books, New York. The earlier edition isn’t mentioned by Lancer.
I’m making no claims for these books as more than what they are, lightweight “entertainments” that have inevitably been long-forgotten other than by a scattering of dedicated pulp readers. There are enthusiasts who specialise in collecting old paperbacks, often as much for their covers as for their contents. And there are magazines and books devoted to pulp writers and their publishers. Some contemporary publishers – Stark House and Hard Case Crime, for example – find what they think can be usefully salvaged from bygone years and re-publish it. It all seems to me a worthwhile enterprise, but I’m prejudiced and freely admit to a long-standing interest in pulp novels and the stories surrounding them.
To return to the novels in question. Colin Ross’s Season of Love has little to recommend it in terms of its capacity to keep the reader attentive to the storytelling. A young woman with aspirations to be a writer is involved in a relationship with an older man. She ends it and heads for Paris where, she thinks, she’ll have the time and stimulus to produce something creative. In fact, she encounters a series of men on board the ship, when she’s in Paris, and in the South of France, who all find her desirable and want to sleep with her. Bearing in mind what I said earlier about what could appear in print prior to the 1960s the sex scenes are brief and with little detail. A somewhat contrived ending appears to suggest that the woman will marry and settle down, although she has made it a condition of marriage that she be allowed time to write a novel. The book had previously been published under the title, The Mistress, by Beacon Books in 1958, but no mention was made of this in the 1962 Lancer publication.
References to young Americans in Paris living on G.I. Grants earned because of their military service in the Second World War, sets the period as around the late-1940s and early-1950s. There are also the obligatory inclusions of Hemingway, the Select, Kiki of Montparnasse, the Existentialists and other elements of “local colour” to provide some authenticity. It tends to come across as designed to appeal to American “stay-at-homes” who can fantasise about a Paris they may never get to. The writing is functional at best, pedestrian at worst.
Daniel Harper’s The Wrong Turn is better written and much livelier. A judge’s wife, Adele, with an older husband, craves excitement and decides to look for it with a young criminal, Eddie, she encounters when visiting the judge at his courtroom. She’s bored with the kind of life she’s leading among the well-to-do social set she‘s required to associate with in Washington, and the young man has the potential of offering something different. Her meetings with him are clandestine at first, but she soon becomes indifferent to the possibility of discovery. She smokes marijuana, buys clothes more in keeping with the kind of women he normally associates with, and visits bars and other establishments where criminals congregate. She doesn’t go unnoticed and a local gossip columnist makes an oblique reference to her one day.
She’s soon persuaded to participate in actual criminal activities, including a raid on a Western Union Office during which someone is shot. Eddie drops the gun while escaping with the money, and persuades Adele to blackmail her husband into removing Eddie’s fingerprints from police records. He does so, but realising that what he’s done will soon come to light he commits suicide, but not before writing a confession of his guilt. Adele and Eddie panic and drive out of the city but the car crashes and both are killed. It all sounds very much in the spirit of the kind of Hollywood productions of the 1940s that were labelled film noir. There’s the same dark feeling that the relationship between Adele and Eddie is sure to end as it does. The writing is much more compelling than in the Ross novel, and pushes the narrative from page to page,
What intrigues me about both books, despite whatever drawbacks they have when it comes to their literary qualities, is that they were published under pseudonyms. Colin Ross was Harry Roskolenko, and Daniel Harper was Chandler Brossard. They were writers with novels and other publications in print under their real names, and it can only be assumed that the pulp material they produced was done for the purpose of making a little money,
They were far from alone in doing this, though some writers were happy to have their real names on the covers of their pulp paperbacks. The experimental novelist David Markson wrote three pulps between 1959 and 1961. One of them, Epitaph for a Dead Beat, used the Greenwich Village bohemian scene that he knew well as a location for its story. The critic Seymour Krim called Markson’s Springer’s Progress (not a pulp), “The most honest and stunning Greenwich Village novel of my time”.
And there was R.V. Cassill, an academic, editor, noted short-story writer, and novelist who wrote at least nine pulp novels, with titles like A Taste of Sin and Left Bank of Desire, as well as several more published in hardback by major companies. I’m tempted to say that, on the whole, I always preferred his pulp novels to most of the others. But what may be his major achievement, Clem Anderson, is well worth looking at. A fellow novelist and fine short-story writer, Richard Yates, said that it was “the best novel I know of on the subject of writing, or on the condition of being a writer”.
Harry Roskolenko appears to have used a bewildering number of pseudonyms during his writing career, and I assume that most of them applied to material that he wrote purely for financial reasons. To take one example when he again called himself Colin Ross, New York After Dark was published by McFadden Books in 1966. It claimed to give the lowdown on the city’s sleazy side, with chapters on sex orgies, drugs, prostitution (male and female), lesbians, homosexuals and anything else guaranteed to convince provincials that New York really was as decadent as they thought.
One chapter inevitably focused on Greenwich Village and at least demonstrated that the writer had a familiarity with its history as a bohemian outpost, and with some of its legendary characters like Maxwell Bodenheim, Eli Siegel, Harry Kemp, and John Rose Gildea. He says that he “first saw the Village, before World War One”, and seems to have kept up an acquaintance with it over the years. He waxes nostalgic for older periods of bohemianism, but yesterday’s bohemia was always more interesting and productive in the eyes of those who experienced it.
It’s easy to understand why Roskolenko may have looked askance at some of the posturings of the Beats of the 1960s. He’d led quite a colourful life. Born in 1907 to Jewish immigrant parents on the Lower East Side of New York, he ran away from home when he was 13 and in the early 1920s became a merchant seaman. He wrote about this period of his life in a wonderful memoir, When I Was Last on Cherry Street, published in 1965. In the 1930s he aligned himself with the American Trotskyists, and began to establish a reputation as a poet alongside Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky in avant-garde magazines like Blues and Pagany. He also hiked across America, attempting to spread the revolutionary word. In the 1940s he joined the Navy and served in the Pacific. After the war he travelled, wrote novels, three memoirs, including the one referred to, and various other books. I’m dealing with his activities in a very limited way. There isn’t the space here to go into details about all the things he did and the people he met. Roskolenko died in 1980.
Chandler Brossard also had a varied career, although of a different kind to Harry Roskolenko. He was born in 1922 in Salt Lake City to “educated Mormon elite and upper middle-class” parents. He moved to Washington with his mother when his parents divorced, and seems to have dropped out of formal education at the age of 11. When he was 18 he got a job with the Washington Post and later worked for the New Yorker, which is when he started to think seriously about writing fiction. In the 1950s he had editorial positions at leading magazines such as Time, Life, and Coronet. In 1955 he edited the anthology, The Scene Before You : A New Approach to American Culture, which included essays by writers like Seymour Krim, Manny Farber, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, Elizabeth Hardwick, Clement Greenberg, Anatole Broyard, Milton Klonsky, Norman Podhoretz, and others.
The inclusion of Broyard, Krim and Klonsky points to Brossard’s familiarity with the Greenwich Village of the late-1940s and his novel, Who Walk in Darkness, was published in 1952 in the United States, but not before there had been threats of legal action unless certain alterations were made. The main problem centred around a character called Henry Porter who was allegedly based on Anatole Broyard. The opening sentence stated, “People said Henry Porter was a ‘passed’ Negro”, and Broyard’s parents were indeed black. But he could easily pass for white, and it was useful to do that in the racially-conscious atmosphere of America in the 1940s and 1950s. He was publishing stories and essays in magazines like Partisan Review, New World Writing and Discovery, and in due course would become a regular reviewer for the New York Times. His posthumously-published Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, came out in 1993.
Brossard solved the dispute over the opening of Who Walk in Darkness by changing it to “People said that Henry Porter was an illegitimate”, and the book duly appeared in 1952. It has been described as the first Beat novel, though it isn’t about them. What it does deal with is the Greenwich Village scene of the late-1940s and the young writers and intellectuals who gathered there. A good description of that milieu can be found in Seymour Krim’s brilliant essay, “What’s This Cat’s Story”. It was a competitive environment and marked by its move away from the political tensions of the 1930s and the war years. There may have been a few writers still involved with supporting strikes, communism, and such matters, but there is no evidence of it in Brossard’s novel or in Krim’s essay.
Brossard went on to publish several more novels, some of them – The Bold Saboteurs and The Double View – as hardbacks with established New York publishers, while others – Episode with Erika, The Girls in Rome, A Man for all Women –were pulp paperbacks. The latter title was actually a re-working of the 1954 Paris Escort by Daniel Harper, and Episode with Erika had been published in 1954 under the title All Passion Spent. What this points to is a writer struggling to make a living and turning to various strategies to bring in some earnings. In the 1960s he edited a number of paperback anthologies of short stories. The titles, among them In Other Beds, Marriage Games, Desire in the Suburbs, were obviously aimed at the pulp market, but the writers included Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence, Turgenev, George Eliot, as well as some of Brossard’s contemporaries like John Cheever, Philip Roth, Richard Yates, and Herbert Gold. Brossard usually put in one of his own stories, often under a pseudonym, which may have been a useful way of pulling in a few extra dollars.
I have to say that I found Brossard’s later work of less interest. Wake Up, We’re Almost There, a sprawling, uneven novel, gained a degree of attention, but didn’t sell. He produced a number of curious collections of short pieces that were published by small, independent presses. One of them, Redbeck Press, was run by the English poet and novelist, David Tipton, and as it happened he also published three or four books of mine. I don’t suppose Brossard made much money from these publications – Redbeck Press was hardly a money-spinner - and he spent time as a writer-in-residence and similar positions at various academic establishments, including Birmingham University in Britain. He died in 1993.
I realise that, in some ways, I’ve moved away from pure pulp fiction as practised by those writers who produced nothing but pulp and made no claims to creating anything beyond it. There were plenty of them, and not all they wrote can be easily dismissed. At their best they did what writers ought to do and kept readers interested and keen to know what comes next. They could establish strong characters, describe striking scenes, and invent effective dialogue and intriguing plots. And they were entertaining. Just from that 1940s and 1950s period that interests me most I’ve enjoyed books by Gil Brewer, Jim Thompson, Day Keene, Wade Miller, Steve Fisher, and Ed Lacy, to name only a handful of the writers.
For information about Harry Roskolenko it’s useful to look at his three memoirs, and especially When I was Last on Cherry Street (Stein and Day, New York, 1965). The others were The Terrorized (Prentice-Hall, New York, 1967), The Time That Was Then : The Lower East Side 1900-1913 – An Intimate Chronicle (The Dial Press, New York, 1971). For information about his poetry, and its background, it’s best to refer to Andrew Crozier’s excellent essay, “The Case of Harry Roskolenko” in his Thrills and Frills: Selected Prose, edited by Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2013). An obscure item of interest worth tracking down is the obituary Roskolenko wrote about the New York bookseller and poet Harold Briggs, whose bookshop, Books ‘n Things, stocked little magazines and radical and avant-garde literature. As Roskolenko, a friend from the 1930s, said, “Harold and I hated every aspect of fascism, in and out of books”. It was published in The Wormwood Review 40 (Stockton, 1970), edited by Marvin Malone.
The best source for information about Chandler Brossard and his various publications is the Spring 1987 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, devoted to him and edited by John O’Brien (Elmwood Park, 1987). It has a bibliography of his novels, short stories, and selected essays, along with an interview and a number of essays and commentary by other writers.