I'm wrapping up Forgotten Books for the year with an old friend, Orrie Hitt. PRIVATE CLUB (Beacon Books, 1959, and as far as I know, never reprinted) is set at an exclusive hunting and fishing resort in upstate New York, just the sort of place where Hitt worked as a young man. He drew on that part of his life as the inspiration for a number of books, and this is a good one.
The story focuses on three couples: Fred Jennings, who owns a successful valve company, and his semi-frigid wife Sandra; drunken copper salesman Virgil Blanding and his slutty wife Lucy; and Eddie Race, the manager of the club and a typical Hitt heel, who's involved with beautiful young waitress Beth Collins. Well, you can probably plug these characters into the various plot equations as well as I can, although Hitt throws in a little lesbianism to spice things up. And as usual, the cover promises more raunch than the book delivers. The club is hardly the hotbed of orgies you might think. In fact, although the characters think and talk a lot about sex (when they're not boozing it up), they never actually get around to doing much.
Nothing in this book really surprised me. So why did I sit there avidly turning the pages to find out what was going to happen? Because Hitt was a master at getting inside his characters' heads and making the reader care about them. I can't put my finger on how he did it, but he had one of the most readable, compelling styles I've encountered.
Actually, I think I do know, not on a technical level regarding the prose but on a more emotional level. The reader cares about the characters because Hitt cares about them. Although he was capable of writing excellent crime novels, most of his books are about the sort of people he saw around him all the time: blue-collar workers, hustling salesmen, owners of small companies. What he saw must have filled him with the bleak despair that permeates his books.
Yet at the same time there's a lot of compassion at work. Most of Hitt's heels have some decent qualities, too. A part of them wants to do the right thing, if they can just figure out what it is and find the courage to do it. Eddie Race in this book is a prime example of that. Most of the characters in Hitt's novels, no matter how bad they are, have at least a shot at redemption. It's been theorized that the rushed, sometimes awkward happy endings in Hitt's novels were forced on him by the publishers, but after reading more of his work I'm not so sure anymore. I think maybe Hitt, by all accounts a very decent, happily married family man himself, possessed a deep-seated optimism that carried over to his characters. He wanted to believe that no matter how much emotional torment he put them through, by the end of the book they still had a hope of happiness. I think those endings, hurried though they might be because sometimes he was running out of the required wordage, may just be the true essence of Hitt's fiction.
Or maybe I'm just full of it, who can say? For our purposes, here's what you need to know: PRIVATE CLUB is damned entertaining and one of my favorite Orrie Hitt novels so far. Like I said above, it hasn't been reprinted as far as I know, and the copies available on the Internet are a little pricey. But if you ever run across a copy for a reasonable cost, I'd advise grabbing it. It's well worth reading.