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Jewish Geography of the Bronx, c.1951

The pulp paperback cover to the right (published no more than a year after the hardback original) is not as much a come-on as it looks, although Florence Goodman, the girlfriend of the narrator Bob Engel, would not wear such a come-and-get-me dress and assume such a posture, being a “nice Jewish girl” from the Bronx circa 1950. Nor would Bob, a nice Jewish boy (with a spanking fetish) have the street corner tough guy posture. Florence is only five feet tall, “cute,” his “baby.” Her girlfriends call her “our crokie doll,” and her mom admits she needs a “fine man who won’t take her guff” and will “turn her upside down every once in a while.” Filtered through the “Jewish geography” of the Bronx—weekend dances (“rat races”), the park at 161st Street (the “Bronx Country Club”), the cafeterias, the cheaper rooming houses at the shore or in the Catskills—the mating ritual takes its course. It is replete with a “slave morality”: self-deception, a need to strike poses and hide what one really wants, fear of derision from manipulative people higher in the pecking order than oneself, guilt, and loneliness. Joe Weiss cannot reach the level of Wil Eisner’s “Cookalein”; perhaps the only comparison would be that their intended audience was one that the critic Dwight Macdonald denigrated as an indiscriminate and undiscriminating “mass.” But working in pulp and comic strips, both Weiss and Eisner had the freedom to record atmospheric detail and social observation without filters. The rougher the better, and more honest.

Weiss’ editor was the late Alan Wilson of The Woodford Press, named for Jack Woodford, king of the 1930s sex pulp novel. Alan told me How Rough Can It Get was a success for the same reason the sleeper hit Marty was a few years later. It was dead-on real: the boredom and continual frustration of the young men, the dick teases, the “dogs,” the schmucks imitating Bogart or Mitchum, the clumsy wallflowers who couldn’t look a girl in the eyes, the creeps who left their dates for hotter-looking chicks, the tired young people still stuck on the dream of finding the elusive right line, right clothes, right eye contact, and dance step. That was why Wilson went ahead with publication, although his printer believed the work obscene and would not handle it. Besides, Weiss had wangled an Introduction from Dr.Theodor Reik, a leading psychoanalyst who found it “an astonishing true and realistic picture . . . of the sexual emergency situation of the male youth today.”

There’s Barry Feinstein, an intelligent, quiet guy who works for a publishing house. He reads a lot, likes ballet, has a lot of books, but did not go to college, so he does not have the same ambitions as his friends who are studying to be professional people. Not a big operator, Barry lives like “a man without a country.” His brother, called Lifty because he is so ugly he needs a face lift, is a good dancer and dresser. After a single dance, he would ask right away for a date. She’d decline, and he would counter with “You’re no bargain either.” Note the spite that frustration and competition for elusive resources. The wind up is “taking it to the mattress,” with porno, girlie magazines, burlesque memories, or fantasies built on glomming a babe earlier that day.

Weiss devotes a whole section of his novel to Herbie (“what a piece”) Browsky, a truck (“airplane”) pusher in the Garment District. Bald and moon faced, he compensates with a polished line, an excellent dance technique, and bold action, like kissing a girl he’s not yet met on the neck. He has made peeking at models as they dress a job perk. Herbie believes with all his heart that “I’m the biggest sex maniac in New York.” For him, it all pays off big when he becomes a live sex performer at the midtown “sex circuses” the garment district execs put on for their rich clients.
Herbie’s dream comes true, while his buddy Spencer Birnbaum crashes in flames. After a bad morning that starts with mother and sister calling him a “bum” and his job hunting failing for lack of credentials, he snaps. A pretty girl flirts with him and he tries to rape her. Weiss fails to take us inside Spenser’s head, to what must the inability to stand up to the ego frustration that he has suffered. Herbie is less of a “sex maniac” than poor Spenser, as it turns out; both are the victims of fortune, since neither is in control.

Joe Weiss provides a denouement for the flagellant that substitutes sleaze for explicitness. It’s a dream Florence has of being captured by a savage tribe, whipped (you bet), forced to dance naked, and finally being approached by the witch doctor with a flaming pole he is about to stick in her. “It couldn’t be happening but it was!” Due to the break in first person narration, the passage is printed in italics. Apparently the inconsistency did not bother the book’s editor. Weiss was enjoying himself and so would the spanking lovers taking it to the mattress. Florence awakens, and the fever she had been running has disappeared, according to Weiss. “Normal.” Now Bob approaches with the engagement ring.

A better writer than Weiss would have been more in control of what his story implied. This is a problem with the genre of pop culture he is working in. Such a piece of writing does not follow the set of rules a piece of high literature does. It is more pure--I mean, pure entertainment. Thus the happy ending, pure wish fulfillment for young male readers who identify with Bob and thus remain as clueless as he, Florence, and her parents are. It shouldn’t have happened but it did. But it was inevitable sometimes, given the nature of the genre and the demands of the publishers upon needy writers. Even Jim Thompson fell victim. The paperback novel The Nothing Man had a typical ending for this writer: his castrated and murderous protagonist was to face the rest of his life trapped in a bone-dry psychic desert from which there was no escape, and no chance of desire or its fulfillment ("it ain't much fun, is it keed?" is the last sentence). But his publisher, Dell, forced him to add a non-noir ending that gives the Nothing Man a mission of regaining community respect. Yuk.

That said, the judgmental nature of my comments on Weiss bothers me a lot. If the result of a pulp piece of writing was anarchy, so much the better. I'll try to explain:
What Weiss did was exactly what an established publisher and his assigned editor would discourage. They needed the book to be reviewed in daily or Sunday newspapers, literary monthlies, or weekly news magazines. They would aim at a readership patronizing bookstores carrying contemporary fiction from name publishers. Weiss’ soft-core sex scenes might be revised to excise the more leering dialogue and the references to masturbation. Certain incidents, such as Florence’s masochistic dream, might be cut out on the basic of ham-handed absurdity, unless cues were put to indicate that it was a fetish-bound Bob who wet-dreamed this. The potential irony of Bob’s self-assurance and its inadequacy for reaching his goal of a loving relationship would be made clear. And these “improvements” might produce reviews that would praise the work’s “interrogation” (to use today’s cant word) of its narrator’s failure to confront his inner chaos and those of the young people in his environment.

Joe Weiss’ fellow pulp writers included many more disciplined craftsmen: Jim Thompson, Robert Block, David Goodis, Benjamin Appel, Vin Packer, Patricia Highsmith, Steve Fisher, Robert Edmund Alter, Elliott Chaze, and Charles Willeford. Their publishers at Gold Medal, Lion, Ace, The New American Library, or Beacon might have been wary of a self-consciously literary style. Editors would often give the writers a plot outline and ask for a novel to fit it. They might add sex scenes if the manuscript was not salacious enough. Writers, however, could deal with subjects mainstream publishers would be wary of publicizing: unrepentant and unsuspected criminals (Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me), incest (Goodis’ Of Tender Sin), gay and lesbian behavior (Packer’s Spring Fire), female or male domination (James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish); interracial love (Willeford’s Pick-Up) , sex-maniac policemen (“Oscar Peck’s” Sex Life of a Cop); Cannibalism (Thompson’s The Getaway); and transvestism (Ed Wood Jr’s Death of a Transvestite).

One the other hand, leading hardback publishers, either in first editions or in The Modern Library’s prestigious reprints, had more respect than pulp counterparts for the author’s own text. The former thought of themselves as responsible for the artist’s integrity as well as their readers’ appreciation of it. Avon, an early paperback firm, excised all references to the Jewish background of the characters in Irving Shulman’s The Amboy Dukes (a juvenile delinquency novel) and Jerome Weidman’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale ( about the Sammy Glick of the Garment District). A product, unlike a satisfying literary work, must not annoy a segment of buyers.

A writer must not wander too much from the audiences’ tolerances; it is not good business. The Woodford Press’ decision to go ahead with the publication of How Rough Can It Get? is admirable. But the novel’s stark authenticity, and the author’s ingenuity in soliciting the prestigious Introduction, were key, as was the publicity attendant on accusations of obscenity. A working class male readership’s tolerance for obscenity and sensation cannot be overestimated, and would outweigh any uneasiness regarding (in this case) the uneasiness of Jewish readers. However, and this is the Bottom Line: The Woodford Press owners did not protect their author or the integrity of the book when they arranged with Avon for paperback rights. They let Avon cut all the last names of the characters which were obviously Jewish. And they let this "specially abridged" edition excise Florence's dream.

Points of sale for pulps, magazines , hardbacks, and eventually “throwaway” 25 cent paperbacks, were newsstands in office buildings, street corners, and bus and train stations; book and magazine outlets in urban mass-entertainment zones; corner candy stores and soda fountains; and cigar and barber shops.

Public intellectuals like Dwight MacDonald believed movies, TV, and pop fiction were producing a “mass” which cannot develop a sense of individuality, or any “aversions” or “aspirations” that are not mere clichés. But beyond the prurience and escapism, which sold and were the reason the writers of the thrillers and soft-core sex pulps got their assignments, notes of a rough authenticity could be heard in the background. The product existed in that unregulated space of “lowbrow,” “adults only,” “soft core” sensation. It opened a space for something chaotic, tentative, experimental, and new. If the result was anarchy, so much the better (and better in writers like Thompson, Willeford, and Goodis than in Weiss). Criteria like Macdonald’s, which exclude popular work that does not abide by its rules, are bound to be ignored.

When the reasons for popularity are an unregulated mix of venality and raw desire, the rawness is not an immature state of the organism, but a return to first principles. Masscult? Or a reckless, amoral attack on cultural capital, in order to see things plain, without exclusionary filters, that make those who cannot access them--who do not have bona fides--feel their lack. Any revisions of How Rough that “lifted” the book from “pulp” to “art” would have cheated the readers who wanted it. It would have betrayed the imagination of the writer, and his readers.
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