It is the standard advice for novice writers: write what you know. Long before he was a famous and successful writer, Harlan Ellison took this advice at the age of 20 and went undercover for 10 weeks in a Brooklyn street gang to find material to write about. Taking the name Phil “Cheech” Beldone, he put both himself and his family in danger when he quit the gang.
The result of that experience was his first novel, WEB OF THE CITY, now back in print as a Hard Case Crime work after a long absence. And while Ellison is best known as a science fiction writer, having won 10 Hugo Awards, he has also written mysteries and won two Edgar Allan Poe Awards for his crime fiction.
WEB OF THE CITY is a terrific book, written in almost a documentary style and is filled with the claustrophobic fear of the urban jungle. Ellison’s city is a place where there is no escape from poverty, hopelessness and violence. And interestingly, the book almost never made it into print. In an introduction, Ellison writes that he completed it while “undergoing the horrors of (Army) Ranger basic training” in 1957. He sold it to a paperback house, Lion Books, which then went out of business before releasing it, giving the young writer a good introduction to the perilous writing business. It would take another year for the book to come out with a new title the author did not choose, RUMBLE.
The title did not matter. Pulp readers in the 1950s witnessed the birth of a great writer. People often forget it now, but the pulps and cheap paperbacks in the 1950s and 1960s were the training grounds for many great writers, such as Ed McBain, Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake. WEB OF THE CITY tells the story of Rusty Santoro, a 17-year-old tenement kid who has served as president for three years of a street gang called the Cougars. Rusty describes his life as “a sick thing, all caught up with brass knucks and swiped candy and fights in gutters.”
"WEB OF THE CITY is a terrific book, written in almost a documentary style and is filled with the claustrophobic fear of the urban jungle.... With Ellison’s brutal prose, WEB OF THE CITY is a true noir novel, a treat for the millions of Ellison fans."
Ellison, writing with the eye of a journalist, brings us back to the crowded streets of the mid-20th century Bronx, where a coke was 10 cents and kids wore their hair in a “duck fanny.” A girlfriend was called your “drag” and a coward was a “chick-chick.” Fats Domino was singing about “Blueberry Hill” on record players. Ellison writes: “The streets were crowded. Late Friday afternoon, with fat Polish women going from butcher to butcher, trying to get the best cuts of meat for the weekend; little kids playing hopscotch and stick-ball on sidewalks, against walls; radios blasting from every direction with the Giants or the Dodgers beating the pants off someone. Normal day, with a sun, with gutters dirtied by candy wrappers and dogs that had been curbed, with the sound of the subway underfoot, with everything normal. Including the stink of death that hung not unknown above everything else.”
After getting caught in a liquor store heist, Rusty decides to quit the presidency and the gang. “He wanted a future,” Ellison writes. A teacher is willing to vouch for him, and he starts thinking about becoming an industrial designer. But his decision sets off a domino effect of nonstop violence and terror that will come right into his home.
WEB OF THE CITY is very much a product of its time --- the 1950s --- but in reading it you realize that Ellison managed to do what all great literature does: transcend its time and place. Rusty looks back at his life in the city, and he could be talking about the New York of the Five Points slum in the 1850s or Baltimore or Chicago today. Ellison writes: “Drenched in violence. Product of filth and slum and bigotry, Mothered by fear. Fathered by the terror of non-conformism and the fate that waited for those who did not conform. Rusty remembered. His stomach tightened and his seventeen-year-old brain spun, but he remembered.”
The graphic realism that Ellison captured in an American city of the late 1950s is not much different from the mean streets of Baltimore portrayed in the great HBO series “The Wire.” Rusty and his gang brothers are pawns in a game they cannot win. In the first season, a smart and equally trapped young gang leader named D’Angelo says of pawns: “they get capped quick.” The switchblades and chains have been replaced by nine millimeters and AK-47s. Ellison captured the moment in New York gang history when heroin started making inroads among gang members, and the mob began seeing they could use the gangs to their advantage in the drug trade, a system that has become a multi-billion-dollar international business today.
But what remains for the poor is the hopelessness of being trapped. And if that existed when industrial America led the world in the boom years after World War II and jobs were plentiful, imagine how hopeless the forgotten children of the poor and cities feel today in post-industrial America. Ellison writes: “There would be others. There had to be others. For where the dirt and the hunger and the anger bred violence, there would be human flies to feast on the carcasses of the weaker. And those flies themselves were caught up in the city’s suffocating web.”
With Ellison’s brutal prose, WEB OF THE CITY is a true noir novel, a treat for the millions of Ellison fans. This is an important pulp work to have back in print. Kudos once again to Hard Case Crime for rescuing yet another great book.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on April 5, 2013