The Joy of Pulp
Once upon a time, before digital downloads, before On-Demand, before the Web itself ensnared the world of possibility and rendered it into high-speed pixels, there was a special, mildly sleazy and slightly disreputable form of entertainment called the drugstore paperback. For people of a certain age, the squeak of a metal rack revolving back by the cold remedies and sunglasses display can still evoke a tiny thrill and a carousel of memories. What forbidden pleasures were promised by the pulpy covers of The Betsy by Harold Robbins, The Girl Hunters by Mickey Spillane and most unforgettably, the erotic parabolas of the young lady's derriere on the front of Naked Came The Stranger by Penelope Ashe (actually, a pseudonym for Newsday reporters who perpetrated that novel).
In school, we were taught that books were gray respectable monuments, to be approached cautiously and observed with suspicion. One might chip away at the edifice and analyze the fragments, but few in their right mind would actually want to go inside and make themselves comfortable. But these salacious-looking tales dared you to pick them up when no one was looking. They hinted at R-rated excitement and titillation within; they even dared to suggest that works made up entirely of prose could be as involving as comics and children's storybooks had once been. It turned out that Robbins and Spillane weren't really my guys, but a turn of the rack revealed Herman Wouk and Ira Levin on the other side. A few more spins over the years brought me to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. And from there, it was only another half-turn or so to get to Hemingway and more "literary" writers, who suddenly didn't seem so dull and daunting.
So decades go by, the rack spins a few more times, and you try to read—and maybe eventually try to write—a "better quality" of book. But if you're honest with yourself, you never quite forget that it all began with those rotating glimpses of mass marketed fleshpots. Back in the 1990s, I tried to write a version of Heart of Darkness set in the casinos of Atlantic City. But the story insisted on turning into something a little less grandiose, a gangster tale that in some ways harkened back to those old pulps I first fell in love with. Casino Moon was ultimately put out by a highly successful publisher with a very refined cover of the cityscape by a very talented artist. In my heart, though, I always knew the image wasn't quite right. The story cried out for the kind of cover that schoolteachers would disapprove of. Luckily, Charles Ardai, the publisher of the Hard Case Crime paperback line (and a very good novelist himself) agreed with me. He commissioned a former Golden Gloves boxer named Ricky Mujica to paint a cover for it. So now: a boxer whipped, but not quite beaten, sits in his corner, staring sullenly after a long-legged round card girl in a plumed headdress, her bare midriff lithe and glistening, her eyes looking warily off to the side. It's all very noir and suggestive, and not at all the kind of thing designed to appeal to fans of Jane Austen (though you never know, do you?). And in my fondest dreams, somewhere in the world, a kid of about fourteen is looking both ways, making sure no grown-up adult is giving him (or her) the hairy eyeball, before crouching down behind the Ray-Bans to see what this classy but slightly louche-looking little volume revolving by on the lower rack is all about.
© Peter Blauner