I’m curious, I can’t deny it, what did they get up to in Marijuana Girl, Call South 3300: Ask for Molly, and The Sex Cure? These 50s/60s pulps were designed to pique sexual interest but Henry Miller this ain’t. Erotic? Salacious? Ribald? Not very, and honestly, that’s not the benefit of hindsight. You could accuse these novels of having risque topics but you couldn’t corrupt a Tammany Hall politician with this stuff let alone the working class descendants of the huddled masses. However, they are fascinating, they are well written and some of the social observations are really acute. The writing is often witty and/or barbed and Elaine Dorian in particular has her claws out in The Sex Cure.
As social commentary there’s more insight into the dark hidden recesses of society than you’d have got in literary fiction at the time. What does stands out is the frankness of the topics: abortion, prostitution, blackmail, coercion and drug taking. It makes me wonder if this kind of novel wasn’t the only way some people could access any kind of debate on issues that did crop up in real life but society didn’t want to talk about? Stuff that parents didn’t want to talk about either.
These three novels look at small-town life, the claustrophobic nature of living in a tiny community, the circumstances that force people to move and the contrast with city life (the characters here move away to hide, they are running away not following the dream). The focus is on people who take a wrong turn in life or simply have the misfortune to fall in with the wrong crowd, people who make mistakes and suffer for it (up to a point). Issues of class and the sense of entitlement of powerful men feature here, well ahead of #MeToo – the world was ever thus. Too modern a spin? I know full well these books are meant to appeal to an audience that wants to look into the bedroom, hear other people’s dirty stories but there’s no titillation, nothing explicit or arousing in these pages.
They do tell us a lot about the age they were written in though, the social mores, the rush to judgement, and the rebellion of youth. These novels offer a genuine compassion for their characters and at times the writing can touch on the literary, it’s never bad. The weak point is the desire to present a happy ending. The effects of being trapped, addicted, drawn deep into the spiral of decline with drugs are underplayed, what doesn’t kill you may actually ruin you but it’s not really like that here. Important characters survive largely unscathed, the same is true of prostitution. Readers clearly craved a happy ending.
Marijuana Girl (1951, Beacon reprint 1960), by N.R. de Mexico (the author was only revealed as Robert Campbell Bragg ten years ago, he died from a heart attack at 36). A congressional probe described this novel as: ‘A Manual of Instruction for Potential Narcotics Addicts.’
Joyce Taylor turns boys’ heads at Paugwasser high school with ‘the heavy roundness of her breasts’ (that’s as lascivious as it gets). The Dean, Miss Iris Shay, an ‘old maid’ tells 17-year-old Joyce that seniors should be capable of self-discipline. Joyce’s impromptu mock strip in study class was wholly inappropriate, she has no choice but to deal harshly with the matter. Joyce is suspended until her guardian, Aunt Priscilla, comes to the school. Joyce’s parents are in Europe, they don’t care about her anyway. Joyce and boyfriend, Anthony Thrine, head for drinks at Chester’s bar. Joy wants love, sex means love, for Tony sex means ownership. Joy gets a job at the Courier, the editor, Frank Burdette formerly of New York, takes her to a Greenwich village to a jazz club, The Golden Horn. She meets Jerry Best, the band and singer Ginger. They all head to the park for a joint, she confused by the language ‘you dig?’:
“Joy thought she was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen – for a coloured girl. Then for a moment, she amended that in her thoughts. Frank didn’t think of people as coloured or white, and – well, maybe she shouldn’t. And, besides, Ginger was more beautiful than anyone she had ever seen before.”
Before long Frank and Joy are lovers, soon jealousy comes out, then his wife Janice finds out, Frank ends it. Joy packs for New York, lonely and broke her life spirals out of control. Morality, small town life and the dubious idea that the grass is always greener are themes in this portrait of youth, growing up, young love, adversity and redemption. The language is interesting there’s a jive dictionary at the back which shows how strange the slang was to the 50s audience.
Call South 3300: Ask for Molly by Orrie Hitt (1958)
Not quite a crime and not erotica. Orrie Hitt put out several books in 1958 and the energy of a quickly written tale is evident here. Sales manager Slade Martin enters CEO Willouby’s office at All-Channel TV. The company has money troubles, they need big sales quick. Martin is the man to land a big customer, neither man cares how. Slade only has a secretary for sex; Betty is obliging, he’s a user.
Ann Frank left home at seventeen, her mother stiffled her. When her only boyfriend is killed in an accident she heads to the city to a factory job but a strike leaves her with no money. She’s been with men for fun, when a friend suggests Molly can help her make a few bucks, she goes with it. Later Ann gets a job at All-Channel TV, she meets Slade. If she can get the buyer, Mortimer Kane, to buy big she gets a $1 on every set. She’s smitten and so is he but lifestyles and attitudes get in the way. Mad Men-esque behaviour in a world where people are trapped by money.
The Sex Cure by Elaine Dorian (1962)
This is a fizzy small town exposé. Ridgefield Corners is based on the author’s home Cooperstown, upstate NY. Elaine Dorian was a pseudonym for Isabel Moore, one of her daughters was called Elaine. The book is a thinly disguised dig at small town life. One character is named Jane Dieterle, an abortionist and child doper (keeping the kids quiet at day care), real-life child carer June Dieterle sued for $600,000 but settled out of court in 1964. Dorian’s other daughter Pamela, a novelist, committed suicide while the court case was going on. The novel opens:
“The end of Justin Riley began appropriately enough in another man’s bed a wide lumpy four-poster which belonged to Sandy Miles.”
There’s a twist there by the way, the towns relationships, their complexity, the underbelly of small town and what people get up to when there’s nothing to get up to are all skewered here.
Sandy Miles loves Marge, they have a young child. Marge used to be Dr. Riley’s assistant at the surgery. Misty calls to tell Sandy to spread the word; Dr. Riley is really in it this time, he got his new assistant Betty pregnant. The girl had an illegal abortion and nearly bled to death in a motel out of town. At the hospital Betty named the doc as the father before going into a comma.
Betty Hogan and Dr. Riley met up in the car park behind the hospital. Her father would have killed her for getting pregnant, unless Dr Riley married her. That means divorcing Olivia and her money and he won’t do that. Betty’s family blackmail the doctor. He calls on Misty:
“What made you do such a crazy thing – get mixed up with a kid like Betty Hogan?”
“What’s crazy about a man wanting a girl when all he gets home is sarcasm and criticism?”
Naturally, Dr Riley sleeps with Misty and then she spills it all to the town. The Doc denies getting Betty pregnant, his father-in-law the Senator backs him but things come apart.
Here’s a line that smack of real insight:
“For the past two years, she had watched Justin trying frantically to destroy everything he loved. As though, she suspected, he were secretly afraid he might lose out anyway and the losing would be easier if he could pretend, to himself or to someone else, that he was only relieving himself of a wearisome burden.”
How about this for a barb:
“. . .the town’s babysitter Jane Dieterle, who had a heavy hand. When the children became too much to handle, a little chloral hydrate extended their afternoon naps into the next day.”
This novel is deliciously poison pen.
OK, Lady Chatterley these are not! Jeff Vorzimmer’s introduction points out the original copies of these pulps would cost the best part of £1,000 online now, so the interest is there. Beacon began publishing in 1954, initially one title a month but by 1960 it was up to eight a month. Among the authors published were Charles Willeford, Lawrence Block and Brian Aldiss.
Paul Burke 3*
A Trio of Beacon Books: Marijuana Girl, Call South 3300: Ask for Molly, and The Sex Cure
Stark House Press 9781944520892 pbk Sep 2019