I’ve known for a good many years that Robert Silverberg actually wrote the scores of softcore erotic novels published between the late Fifties and the mid-Sixties under the name Don Elliott. A few years ago I read and enjoyed LOVE ADDICT, the first Don Elliott novel and the first book published by Nightstand Books, the first and probably best-known softcore imprint published by William Hamling. I was surprised at how good LOVE ADDICT was, although I shouldn’t have been, of course, since I already knew what a good writer Silverberg was (and is).
In a few days Stark House Press will be publishing GANG GIRL/SEX BUM, the first reprints of any of Silverberg’s Don Elliott novels. GANG GIRL, originally published in 1959, was his second book for Nightstand, while SEX BUM came out a few years later in 1963. Both novels are rise-and-fall stories.
The protagonist of GANG GIRL is Lora Menotti, a tough and experienced sixteen-year-old gang member from New York who has to find herself a new gang to run with when her family moves to a different neighborhood. Given Lora’s willingness to use sex to get what she wants, it doesn’t take her long to insinuate herself into the Cougars, and she doesn’t settle for being a junior member, either. She sets her sights on being the deb of the gang leader and actually running things as the power behind the throne.
I’m not a huge fan of “juvie” novels, but this is a good one. The details of gang life come across as realistic, whether they actually are or not, and Lora is a fine if unsympathetic character, dominating the book with her fierce and ruthless ambition. There’s quite a bit of sex but even more graphic violence, and the fact that it’s so unsettling is a tribute to Silverberg’s skill as a writer.
SEX BUM is more of a hardboiled crime novel. Set in upstate New York, it centers around Johnny Price’s rise from being a small-town punk to becoming a powerful man in the New York Syndicate, double-crossing and stepping on anybody he has to in order to get what he wants. As in all tragedies, though, Johnny sets his sights too high and ultimately has to pay a price for his ambition, as Lora does in GANG GIRL.
With its upstate New York setting and heel-as-protagonist, this one actually reminded me of an Orrie Hitt novel, although Silverberg doesn’t use any of the other familiar Hitt plot elements. Nor is there the deus ex machina happy ending often found in Hitt novels. Which is not to say that Silverberg’s approach is better, just different. And equally compelling and entertaining.
Silverberg’s prose is some of the smoothest I’ve ever encountered. I would sit down to read a chapter or two and find myself halfway through the book before I knew it. Every so often there’ll be some small inconsistency (a girl’s small breasts are mentioned in one chapter, while in the next chapter the same girl has “big boobs”, for example), but that can be chalked up to the speed with which the books were written, usually six days apiece. Plenty of other writers have been guilty of the same thing. (Raises hand sheepishly.)
These are hugely entertaining books, and Stark House is to be commended for bringing them back into print. Adding to the book’s appeal is a fine introduction by Silverberg (an expansion of his famous essay “My Life as a Pornographer”) and an equally informative afterword by author and scholar Michael Hemmingson, plus a bibliography of Silverberg’s erotic novels as Don Elliott and those published under other pseudonyms. I hope GANG GIRL/SEX BUM is only the first of many Don Elliott reprint volumes. In the meantime, I have the original editions of a couple of other Elliott novels, so I may read them soon, too. These two are highly recommended.