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 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 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 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 their 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 him 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 failed 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 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.
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