Friday, December 31, 2010

Forgotten Books: Summer of Sin - Orrie Hitt

For the last Forgotten Book of the year here on Rough Edges, we return to old reliable Orrie Hitt, with the 1961 Beacon novel, SUMMER OF SIN. Hitt’s narrator this time around is Clem Evans, the usual 6’4” protagonist. Clem is 22 and has big plans: he’s going to take over a swimming and picnicking resort on the local river for the summer and make enough money to buy a shop that sells cigarettes, beer, and dirty books. But his girlfriend, pretty and semi-wholesome Nan Gordon (she only puts out for him) doesn’t like the idea and thinks he should take the janitor job that’s open at the hospital where she works. They break up over the issue and Clem winds up getting involved with local bad girl Emily Stucker while he works to get the beach resort ready for the summer season. Another distraction arises in the shapely form of Gloria Darnell, the beautiful daughter of the woman who owns the resort (which she’s only leasing to Clem). Clem falls hard for Gloria, but obstacles keep cropping up in his path, including a knife-happy JD who has a grudge against him.

As you can see, it’s the usual Hitt formula with the hero/heel juggling three women. Clem is a little more of a heel than some Hitt protagonists, as he continually mooches money off the women in his life, but he’s not as bad as some and wants to do the right thing, he just can’t seem to figure out what it is sometimes. Common Hitt themes such as fear of pregnancy, dirty pictures, and lesbianism show up, too, although for the most part SUMMER OF SIN revolves around money: Clem’s desperate, grasping need for it and his inability to get enough of it. There are a couple of crime angles, including a murder and a blackmail plot, but neither of them really amount to much. The ending is a series of abrupt deus ex machina twists, as if Hitt realized he had gotten enough words and wanted to wrap things up so he could get on to the next book. (I know that feeling!)

So why, given all that, should you read SUMMER OF SIN if you come across a copy of it? Because nobody was ever better than Orrie Hitt at creating an atmosphere of sheer, gritty desperation. Take away the phony happy endings that were probably required by the publishers, and Hitt’s books are the noirest of the noir, inhabited by people who don’t have enough money or love or anything else, people who numb themselves with sex and booze in order to cope with their grinding unhappiness, people who go down the wrong paths knowingly because they can’t seem to find the right ones. Even the rich people in Hitt’s novels are flawed and miserable. SUMMER OF SIN doesn’t belong in the top rank of Hitt novels, but it’s well worth reading because it captures that small-town darkness so vividly, yet still manages to hold out a small sliver of hope, whether it’s really believable or just another trick of fate. I had a great time reading this book, just as I do with nearly all of Orrie Hitt’s novels.


Peter Brandvold said...

Ah, what way to exit the year--with none other than Orrie Hitt. I read this one a year or so ago, and, just like you, James, had a lot of fun reading it. As I do with even the not-so-good Hitt books. I'm not sure what makes this guy a writer's writer, but he really is, isn't he? Maybe it's because we see the passion and natural ability and also the weakness we all share--like a quick wrap up because of a looming deadline.

I'm reading one of his right now, coincidentally--AS BAD AS THEY COME. Just picked it off my shelf willy-nilly. Even if it's bad, I know I'll enjoy it. I wish we knew more about this guy.


Frank Loose said...

I haven't read this one, but I have read a dozen or so Hitt's, and i have enjoyed them all and found some to be flat out terrific.