The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Paperback Review: The Real Cool Killers and The Hustler

A few months back I reviewed The King in Yellow and promised to add a vintage paperback review every few weeks. I had the best of intentions but my next two installments were both read over vacation, and then backburnered as I caught up with work. At this point my memory of the books is fairly hazy but better a couple of short, impressionistic reviews than nothing at all.

First up: The Real Cool Killers

This is the second title I've read from Chester Himes but the first featuring his popular series characters Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones (the characters debuted in the earlier For Love of Imabelle aka: A Rage in Harlem).

The novel opens in a Harlem nightclub that is about to explode in violence. This is how Himes sets the scene:
Big Joe Turner was singing a rock-and-roll adaptation of Dink's Blues. The loud licking rhythm blasted from the jukebox with enough heat to melt bones.

A woman leapt from her seat in a booth as though the music had stuck her full of tacks. She was a lean black woman clad in a pink jersey dress and red silk stockings. She pulled up her skirt and began doing a shake dance as though trying to throw off the tacks one by one.

Her mood was contagious. Other women jumped down from their high stools and shook themselves into the act. The customers laughed and shouted and began shaking too. The aisle between the bar and the booths became stormy with shaking bodies.

Big Smiley, the giant-size bartender, began doing a flat-footed locomotive shuffle up and down behind the bar.
This passage--and the extremely chaotic violence that follows--immediately made me think of the Fleischer Brother's Betty Boop cartoons that were set to the music of Cab Calloway; the characters all bouncing in rhythm as one surreal event follows another.

Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones, named for their fearsome reps, are Mike Hammer brutal, with hair trigger tempers. Coffin Ed is the more methodic "good cop" (by a notch or two) while Grave Digger--rage-filled and paranoid after an earlier case left his face acid scarred--is likely to attack anyone around him, whether or not they're involved in the crime.

Himes' portrayel of 1950s Harlem, and his very pulpy characterizations, makes for a fun read but this wasn't at all what I expected after the sombre, realistic and semi-autobiographical If He Hollers. I'd like to read a biography before speculating, but I'm curious if Himes was deliberately writing these for the Mickey Spillane popular audience?

Next up an even less detailed review of The Hustler by Walter Tevis:

My main takeaway from the book is that the 1961 film starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason is a very fine adaptation indeed (which I need to rewatch immediately).

A few things from the book that didn't come across in the movie: the detailed, tactile descriptions of a pool hall in the early morning that make it sound like a cathedral. Also the side characters are fleshed out enough that you sense they've all tried to take down Minnesota Fats (or their own personal Fats) and the place they are now in life is exactly where they fell and will remain. Lastly the book ends on a much more ambiguous, Borgesian note than the film. Eddy has won but is tied to a vicious fixer and he's now a stationary target for every fast pool hustler who wants to destroy him. His triumph and his doom are cut from the same green cloth.

The Hustler was Dell 3940, a movie tie-in paperback from 1964 and Real Cool Killers was Berkley Medallion F1262 with a Harry Bennett cover from 1966.

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