In the 50s and 60s ‘Vin Packer’ was the pulp fiction alter ego of Marijane Meaker, better known today as YA author M.E. Kerr. Originally published as a Gold Medal paperback, her novel is a smart and deliciously back-handed riff on Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, the sensationalist small town exposé modelled on the uncouth author’s own life. The idea behind Packer’s book is simple and clever: what if one of the real people behind the thinly disguised characters in the book took umbrage and decided to get even?
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme hosted today by Todd Mason at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
“Mrs Wealdon’s a stinker and I’d like to murder her and write a sequel to her book”
Gloria Wealdon hates living with her mild-mannered husband Milo in the small New York town of Cayuta where he teaches at the local school, tends to his flowers and makes small figures on saints out of soap. Always bedevilled by insecurities, and with an unfortunate knack for frequently saying and doing the ‘wrong’ thing in polite society (like goosing one of the town elders when the lady bends down), she vents her frustration by writing Population 12,360, a gossipy piece of ‘faction’ that becomes a massive hit and upsets the entire town, not least because it is much too easy to see who her real-life targets really are. Her husband Milo becomes Miles, her friend Fern becomes Fernanda, psychologist Jay Mannerheim becomes Dr Hammerheim, and so on. Everyone has read her book (though not all will admit it), and some have become dangerously obsessed with her – and she is not the only one writing a book, either …
She had an almost sticky hunger for love, so that being in her presence was like walking through a too-humid hot August afternoon, when you felt you were too powerless to accomplish anything at all.
There is something really delirious about the simple premise of The Girl on the Best Seller List – its inspiration would have been obvious to all its readers (the fictional author, Gloria, even dresses in the jeans and men’s baggy shorts made famous by Metalious), which is perfect given that Peyton Place became a hit precisely because it was recognised right away as being based on real people and places. But this is no Borgesian piece of meta fiction – what we have here instead is a whip-smart pulp variation that all readers in its day would have recognised as being a bit tongue-in-cheek, and which then goes on to have all sorts of genre fun with it. Thus we have quite a complex narrative (each chapter begins with an extract from Gloria’s novel and then shows us the real-life counterpart for her fiction), presented in a clear and accessible way so that the hundreds of thousands of readers of ‘Vin Packer’ paperback originals would not bristle at being presented with something that could be seen as being a bit high brow and verging on postmodernism. It is to the author’s considerable credit that these elements are there (there is also a playful nod to her then partner Patricia Highsmith, who has a character named after her), but in no way get in the way of the well-defined characters and simple plot that moves inexorably to a single locus – will someone eventually snap and kill Gloria for what she did?
“I never realized my wife had such contempt, such loathing for me until I read her book.”
The book does have one obvious flaw as Gloria is just so unpleasant throughout, which is what we might expect in a superficial mystery to ensure that there are lots of suspects, but which hurts it a bit as a novel of manners. None the less, while the basic premise of this book had already appeared in Stanley Ellin’s The Key to Nicholas Street and would later appear many more times, such as in Joan Hess’ Strangled Prose, Packer’s is probably the gutsiest and most enjoyable of all of them, partly for its cheerfully and unapologetically bitchy tone, but also because it came out so closely to its literary target, making its satire that much more pointed. This is particularly clear in the concluding section of the book once the police get involved, which is almost parodic in tone. This is a terrific read and comes highly recommended – not least because, as the seventh in the mass market Black Gat line from Stark House Press, it even goes to the trouble of recreating the 4.25” x 7” paperback format of the past. Bringing the book back into paper print after nearly 60 years, this is another great release from Stark House Press, to whom many thanks for supplying the review copy – it’s a keeper.
For a fine review of this book, you can do no better than going to see what Bill Crider had to say, right here; while Stark House editor Greg Shepard has written about his love for the Vin Packer books on his blog.
The Girl on the Best Seller List
By Vin Packer
ISBN: 978-1-933586-98-4 (paperback), 176 pages, $9.99
I submit this reviews for Bev’s Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the ‘book’ category: