MEMOS FROM PURGATORY (1961) by Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is a writer with a unique voice, paddling his own caustic canoe (sic), defying all those who would pigeon-hole his talent. His resistance to easy categorisation remains ever more laudable in an age of cookie counter consumerism and serious retrenchment in the traditional book trade. Memos is a case in point: divided into two sections, it is part memoir and part journalistic reportage, though both remain deeply felt and highly personal efforts. In 1954 the twenty-year-old Ellison assumed the name Phil ‘Cheech’ Beldone and for ten weeks ran with ‘The Barons’, a teenage street gang from the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to gather material. Haunted by what he found, the experiences would eventually inform not just one but several books.

I offer this review as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which this week celebrates its fifth anniversary over at her Pattinase blog – congratulations Patti! My previous contributions can be found here. I also submit the following for the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to all participants’ reviews, click here.

“There are two kinds of people with whom this book is chiefly concerned. The lost and the guilty.”

Ellison-Memos-powellEllison was just starting out as a professional writer (at this stage his publications consisted mainly of short stories for the crime and sci-fi pulps and digests) when he decided that he wanted to find out more about the emerging phenomenon of juvenile delinquency. So, with the kind of bravado and cavalier disregard for personal safety that will always remain the privilege of youth, he went undercover to gather material. He found a job at the docks, moved into a rat-infested apartment and under his assumed identity found out where Red Hook’s resident gang, ‘The Barons’, hung out. Ellison has engendered controversy in his career for his passionate self-involvement, making his writing very specific and personal. I love his pugnacious yet delicate and emotional style, though I know his rhetorical take-no-prisoners approach can turn some people off. It is certainly is well in evidence in Memos, right from the various prefatory remarks the book has begun with over the years – indeed Ellison has written several introductions for successive editions (including ones in 1969, 1975 and 1983), providing context for his own feelings about the state of youth and gang culture and how this has changed – and also providing guidance on how the book should be read (which really annoys some people). I would argue that this is certainly warranted here as we follow the author’s own descent into a truly alien landscape.

“They were the children of the gutters, born into a life with no doors, no windows”

Ellison-Memos-regency-cropEllison shapes his experiences into a fairly conventional narrative where events accumulate and escalate from the already fairly tense beginning, when he first meets members of the gang in Ben Malt’s Shop, which the Barons have taken over; to his violent initiation ceremony, in which he literally has to run the gauntlet and avoid getting maimed by youths sporting sharpened belt buckles and other gouging and slicing implements; through hand-to-hand combat against a disgruntled band member, nicknamed Candle, who has come to resent Ellison/Beldone’s rise in the ‘Barons’ (already fictionalised by Ellison in his earlier book Web of the City); his hooking up with one of the designated ‘debs’ he has to ritually mate with before being accepted; to the seemingly inevitable climactic ‘rumble’ against the rival Puerto Rican gang, the ‘Flyers’.

“For the first time in my life literally held another person’s life in my hands. I could kill or not, as I chose”

There is a mass of sociological detail available, from information about the clothes and the customs to the rich if now quaint-seeming street slang. What emerges is a surprisingly compassionate portrait, one depicting the violent excesses of boys and the equally violent girls, teenagers often let down by family and support institutions – youngsters who are often bored but too under-resourced as individuals to know what to do with their time and how to channel Ellison-Memos-acetheir energy in a positive manner. The diminutive Ellison is able to pass himself off as a 17-year-old but his level of intelligence and education clearly elevates him from those around him though slowly but surely he is drawn into their atavistic life, so when the rumble comes he becomes the ‘war counsellor’ and fights just like everybody else. The prose is often overdone and over-emphatic, using three example or similes when one would suffice, but the impact is undeniable. The second half of the book takes place six years later on the night of 11 September 1960, providing an ironic coda where the author considers whether his activities have engendered some guilt that he must expiate when he spends a night in Manhattan’s House of Detention, aka ‘The Tombs’.

“It was like nothing else in this life … totally without reason or pattern”

Some one makes a complaint about Ellison to the cops (he assumes it is someone who owes him money) and when two detectives arrive they discover the gun and other such items that he took from his days in the gang, which he had used as props in various talks about his experiences ever since. He is arrested under the Sullivan Act (‘illegal possession of a firearm’) and booked downtown. If this part of the book is less dramatic (indeed the original publishers made his alter a small part to connect the two halves by having him fictitiously bump into an old gang member in the cells), it provides a sensible counterweight as we see the older Ellison revisit his experiences as a young man after one Ellison-Memos-2pbfailed marriage and a two-year stretch in the army during the intervening years. In total Ellison’s experiences in the summer of 1954 directly provided material for five books. The first two, both published in 1958, were his first novel, Web of the City (first issued without his knowledge, as Rumble) and the short story collection, The Deadly Streets; two further collections followed with (more tenuously) Sex Gang in 1959 as by ‘Paul Merchant’ (and reprinted in expanded form last year in two volumes, under the author’s own name this time, as Kicking the Train and Getting in the Wind, from Kicks Books); and in 1961 came Children of the Streets (originally published as The Juvies), the same year as the more directly autobiographical Memos from Purgatory.

This book was adapted by Ellison himself for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as ‘Memo from Purgatory’, a subtle title change occasioned by the excision of the 1960 section set in the Tombs. James Caan got his first starring role basically playing the author, here renamed ‘Jay Shaw’. Originally aired on 21 December 1964 it is a fictionalised retelling of most of the events in the book, with Walter Koenig (a friend of the author’s) playing the leader of the Barons (here re-named ‘Tiger’ from the book’s admittedly less prepossessing ‘Pooch’) while Tony Musante is the (now) psychotic Candle. All the actors are clearly well into the twenties, which changes the dynamic somewhat, and the shooting in California in the studio and on the backlot robs it of some of its authenticity too.

“You’re a square, that’s all” – Filene (Lynn Loring) in ‘Memo from Purgatory’

But the actors are good (especially Musante) and most of the plot is initially retained until the halfway mark. At this point it changes completely with the too easy uncovering of Shaw’s ‘secret identity’ as a writer (something Ellison had in truth sought very carefully to guard in fear of his life). This tends to further sanitise the story by removing the sociological interest and making it more of a personal tale of survival and revenge, robbing it of its realism as Shaw is put on ‘trial’ by the gang, leading to an accidental death. The rewrite does finesse a small section from the Tombs section at least by having Shaw spend a night in jail, but works merely as decent melodrama and loses some of its serious intent in the process. Ellison’s original script (two drafts in fact, with hand-written annotations reproduced) is now available in the first volume of Brain Movies, a new series collecting some of the author’s writing for television presented as facsimiles of the originals with all kinds of fascinating encomium in the margins and right across the page – for further details, visit Cafe Express at: www.cafepress.com/harlanellison

Much of Ellison’s work has just been released in e-book format for Kindle – you can currently watch the entirety of the TV version on YouTube:

Memo from Purgatory (1964)
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Joan Harrison
Screenplay: Harlan Ellison (from his book ‘Memos from Purgatory’)
Cinematography: John F. Warren
Art Direction: Alexander A. Mayer
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: James Caan, Lynn Loring, Walter Koenig, Zalman King, Tony Musante

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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20 Responses to MEMOS FROM PURGATORY (1961) by Harlan Ellison

  1. Sergio – I respect the work of authors who refuse to be easily categorised so I’m glad you’ve featured this one. What an interesting approach to narrative, too, so points for innovation as well. And I do like the fact that Ellison did the screenplay for the film. You’re the film expert of course but it seems to me films stay truer to the book that way in general.

    • Thanks Margot – quite often writers seem too close to their own work when it comes to adapting to another medium, but no one could accuse Ellison of that here – they feel related but not the same – the book is much better though.

  2. Harlan Ellison was still finding his “voice” in 1961 when MEMOS FROM PURGATORY was published. Ten years later, everyone in the science fiction world and Hollywood knew who Harlan Ellison was. But, in this early work, Ellison’s talent is obvious.

    • I think it was John Clute in his encyclopedia of SF that of all the major authors to emerge during those years Ellison was the one who took the longest to really define himself. I love his stuff but I htink you have to wait until the Paingod (1965) and I have No Mouth (1967) collections before the ‘definitive’ (sic) Ellison truly emerges.

  3. John says:

    Wasn’t there some talk of Ellison exagerrating the story a bit and painting himself with the brush of exagerration? This reminds me of a self-published book on biker gangs in suburban England that I received last year. The subject matter should’ve made for fascinating reading. But I couldn’t finish it. The writing was extremely intellectual and detached. The author tried an experiment in trying to pass off a novel as a journalist’s biography of the gang member. Sometimes the Truman Capote “non-fiction novel” approach can result in a bungled mess. But Ellison’s book sounds intriguing. I’ll have to keep an eye out for a copy.

    I’ve seen the Hitchcock episode. It was hard to take Lt. Chekhov as a young gang leader seriously. Koenig is so engrained in my mind as that usually docile and officious Enterprise crew member. But he had his tough guy moments.

    • I know what you mean about Koenig (to whom Ellison’s wonderfull story ‘Jeffty is Five’ is dedicated), but it’s worth noting that he was much more impressive in his recurring role as the sinister head of Psi Corps in Babylon 5 though. Ellison can be a very hyperbolic writer in every sense and given his larger-than-life persona, one imagines that it woul be easy to imagine that he took a lot of literary licence – but he has always been adamant that, beyond the inevitable compression of time and potential re-arrangement of events for dramatic convenience, this is how it happened as he saw it and I think this is a pretty honest portrayal. Ellison is nothing if not honest, even overtly so, most of all acknowledging that he is not interested in projecting a neutral or objective viewpoint – it’s all very personal and seen through his eyes. Well worth a read John. Right, back to my house move I think …

  4. Skywatcher says:

    He’s the sort of person whom you suspect that after a day in his company you would either be a friend for life or else you would want to cave in his head with an iron bar (or perhaps both!). There’s no denying that he’s written some superb stuff. I can still remember a short story of his called SHATTERDAY, which is a very clever variation on the old ‘evil twin’ idea. Instead of being evil, the twin is kind, thoughtful and unselfish, in contrast to the rather unpleasant ‘normal’ character who is the focus of the story. At his best, Ellison is completely unlike any other fantasy writer. He’s rather mouthy, which turns some people off, although his rants can be very fun to read. There is a book about the STAR TREK episode that he wrote which includes his original script. The script is good, but the personal framing stuff about how he wrote it is even better, and there is something horribly exhilarating about the sheer loathing he has for Gene Roddenberry. It’s rage, but it’s literate rage, and it’s a pleasure to read. It’s a strange comparison to draw, but at times he is almost like a short, American Dr Johnson

    • That’s a great comparison Skywatcher, I know exactly what you mean about Johnson. Yes, his book on City on the Edge of Forever makes for amazing reading – tells us more about Roddenberry (and Ellison maybe) than we really want to know – his passion is truly exhilarating but can be exhausting too, as you say – he remains a true one-off int eh field. His Essential Ellison, a massive retrospective, for once truly lives up to its title.
      ESSENTIAL ELLISON

  5. TracyK says:

    When I first started reading this post, I thought that this book would not be for me, but the more I read, the more attractive it sounds. I did read and enjoy some of his short stories back in the 70’s. Very interesting. I had never heard of this book.

    • Thanks TracyK – I am a very big fan of Ellison and his confessional style and I think this one, while not his best, is certainly one of his most directly personal and autobiographical and is well worth picking up – love to know what you might make of it.

  6. The journalistic part of the novel certainly makes it appealing for me having read a fair share of such books in the non-fiction category. And, of course, I haven’t read anything by Ellison before and will be on the watch here on. Thank you, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant – Ellison is a fabulous writer, best known for fantasy and science fiction (if you have to pick a category or two). He wrote the classic episode of Star Trek, City on the Edge of Forever, which is usually thought of as the best show from the classic 60s series and some really wonderful essays and hundreds and hundreds of short stories (for further info, click here). He is also very, very funny …

      • Thanks for the link, Sergio. I usually try and read one or two novels by authors recommended by you and others including the many who visit your blog. I have picked up quite a few such books from secondhand bookstores. I hope the shifting is coming along fine.

        • Thanks Prashant, hope the book choices are working out! The move is kicking into high gear with all the stuff getting boxed by Tuesday morning and then we head off to London, unpack it all and then it looks like at the end of May I do it all over again … time to stop blogging again for a while. Thanks for the good wishes. Very Good TV profile of Ellison’s life and work can be found here:
          Masters of Fantasy Part 1

          Masters of Fantasy Part 2

  7. piero says:

    Sergio, ti chiedo una cortesia: avresti in tuo possesso il romanzo di Innes, Appleby’s Other Sory?
    Casomai tu lo abbia, mi controlleresti al cap.4, l’esatta versione inglese dei versi “tenete alte le vostre spade lucenti altrimenti la rugiada le farà arrugginire” ? E idem per “L’assoluta inutilità dei regni sommersi” del cap. 5?

  8. piero says:

    Tranquillo. Ho trovato. :-)

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, I love Ellison. Haven’t read this one, but I’m sure I will one of these days. His collection Shatterday is brilliant…and one of my regrets in life is that I loaned The Beast Who Shouted Love at the Heart of the World to a friend and her beastly brother absconded with it (and a couple of other of my favorite SF books). I have the book about his Star Trek episode (on the mountain range of TBR books. One of these days…..

    • Thanks Bev – must admit, my collection of Ellison books is one of the few that I couldn’t manage to live without – I’ve just put all my belongings in storage while I move house and packing my books was a real wrench – SHATTERDAY and SRTRANGE WINE probably rank with DEATHBIRD STORIES as the collections written at his peak, but I love all his work

  10. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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