“A Novel Book is a Man’s Book!” It says so right on the spine of Orrie Hitt’s TABOO THRILLS. That’s right, we return to the work of Orrie Hitt for this week’s Forgotten Book, and it’s a good one. Or at least, a very interesting one.
First, some history. This book was originally published by Novel Books in 1962 under the title WARPED WOMAN. It was reprinted in 1963 as TABOO THRILLS, the edition I read. Then it was also reprinted in 1964 as WILMA’S WANTS, under which title it made Brian Ritt’s list of top ten Orrie Hitt novels. The folks at Novel Books, a Chicago publisher of soft-core porn and crime novels, must have really liked it.
Although the cover and the various titles make it sound like one of Hitt’s lesbian novels, it’s really not. It’s actually a semi-autobiographical yarn narrated by one Chet Long, a prolific author of what he refers to as “realistic” novels, by which, of course, he means the sort of Adults Only, early Sixties sleaze novels that this is. Chet lives in upstate New York (like Orrie Hitt), broke in by writing articles for hunting and outdoors magazines (like Orrie Hitt), and bangs out his books on a manual typewriter sitting at the kitchen table (like Orrie Hitt). The main difference is that while Hitt was a happily married man with a family, Chet Long is single and has a rich girlfriend, along with a number of other women on the side.
There’s not much plot here. Most of the book is concerned with a soap-opera-like romantic triangle involving Chet, Wilma (the rich, repressed girlfriend who hates the books he writes), and Sandy, a beautiful young free-spirited waitress who is much more suited to him. There’s also a peeping tom prowling the small city where they all live. (The peeping tom novel was another of Hitt’s specialties.) The plot just serves as an excuse for a number of lengthy rants against censorship and big government, both of which Hitt seems to have disliked equally.
But in the midst of all that are some wonderful bits about the life of a freelance writer, such as this comment from Sandy:
“I don’t get it,” she said. “I’ve read about writers and it seems crazy to me. You just write this junk and somebody prints it?”
I don’t know, of course, but I suspect that Hitt had a smile on his face when he wrote that paragraph.
Here’s a more serious passage I liked:
They say there’s tension in the advertising business but filling a blank sheet of paper is just as much tension. Your belly crawls when you can’t seem to do what you want to do. You struggle, you sweat – that’s nerves – you do the best you can, which is seldom good enough, and then you go to a bar where nobody gives a damn about what you do. You talk to men on the railroad, a retired lush who’s trying to stretch his Social Security check to the end of the month, some dame who’s got more kids than she needs and is knocked up again. You listen, buy a drink for somebody who can’t afford it – and maybe you take something about one, add it to the tragedy of another, and put it on paper. Or maybe the next day you’ve forgotten, lost in your own world because it is a world that is yours alone, since, as with all men, you are finally alone. Every man is an island, John Donne to the contrary. In the morning you make your coffee, read an out of town paper if it arrives on time, place your cup and saucer into the sink with assorted dirty dishes, and become a machine that spews words for readers you will never meet. You hope it’s a creative machine.
That’s not the most smoothly written passage in the world, but it’s got a passion and intensity to it that lifts this book to something more than sleaze, at least as far as I’m concerned. In another place, in talking about his writing career, Chet says something that reminds me of Robert E. Howard:
. . . people will suffer to accomplish what they want. Or perhaps it isn’t suffering so much as it is to have the guts to aim at a target and not be satisfied until they hit it. To many, mine wasn’t a very large target but it was one that many missed.
Finally, there’s another funny bit where Chet grabs a book off the newsstand at the train station so he’ll have something to read on a trip to New York City. He picks the book because the title intrigues him and doesn’t notice the name of the author, never realizing until he starts to read it that it’s one of his own novels, with his original title changed by the publisher. Given the history of this particular book – three editions in three years with three different titles – that’s a bit of inadvertent humor.
Unlike the other two Hitt novels I’ve read (PUSHOVER and HOT CARGO), the ending of TABOO THRILLS is pretty believable and satisfying. Hitt evidently did some of his best or at least some of his most personal work for Novel Books, and I’m going to be on the lookout for more of those books. If you run across a copy of TABOO THRILLS (or WARPED WOMAN or WILMA’S WANTS), I think it’s well worth picking up and reading.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CRITICISM By A. O. Scott
40 minutes ago