It’s been a while since I read an Orrie Hitt book, so this seemed like a good time. THE TAVERN was published in 1966, very late in his career. It also has some personal meaning to me, because I had a copy of this one before the fire but never got around to reading it. It may have been the only Orrie Hitt novel I owned at that time. I might have had one more, but I can’t remember for sure. For some reason, copies of his books just never showed up in the used bookstores around here.
This one revisits many of Hitt’s usual themes but also has some interesting differences. The protagonist is Hal Mason, a young man just out of high school who goes to work as a bartender at Mike’s Place, a rundown tavern just over the county line from the county where Hal and his friends live. You see, the drinking age in the county where Hal lives is 21, while in the next county, where Mike’s is located, it’s 18. So naturally, all the kids go across the line to Mike’s to get drunk. As usual in a Hitt novel, that’s not the only line they cross.
Hal’s youth and relative inexperience set him apart from most of Hitt’s protagonists, but he’s still worldly enough to be juggling the standard three women: Wanda, the good girl (one of many Wandas in Hitt novels); Gert, the slut with a good heart; and Tina, the stripper who’s married to Mike, the owner of the tavern. Of the three, Hal falls hardest for Tina, who is, of course, exactly the one he shouldn’t get involved with. Eventually, blackmail and murder rear their ugly heads.
Hitt has done all this many times before in his books, but the character of Hal makes THE TAVERN an interesting novel. He considers himself a heel-in-training, so to speak, but despite a few slips, he’s such a decent kid at heart that this book might almost be titled ANDY HARDY GETS LAID. Which brings up another point: other than the blonde’s outfit on the cover and the fact that Hal drives a Renault, there’s no sense that this book is set in the Swinging Sixties. It might as well take place in the Forties or Fifties, which gives it a certain nostalgic charm.
Other than an ending that seems a little rushed, as if Hitt realized he’d made his word count, THE TAVERN is a pretty good book, very readable and fast-paced. At this point, Hitt didn’t have many books left in him – I believe he died in 1967 – and he seems to have mellowed slightly, but this novel still has plenty of drive to it. If you run across a copy, I recommend that you grab it. THE TAVERN is well worth reading, and I’m glad I replaced the copy I lost and finally read it.
A Movie Review by Dan Stumpf: CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR (1950).
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