Sunday, May 20, 2007

More Dots to Connect

In some ways, it began here, at a used book store across Mission Street from the McConnell's Ice Cream Shop where Liz Kuball and I had taken ourselves to sit for a few moments on a suddenly hot day, Liz working over a triple-dip cone, me going for the double duty of an affogato, ice cream doused in espresso coffee.

In other ways yet, it began with a blog-cum-memoir I'd posted not too long ago about used book stores. Yet other ways, ways of a life long attraction to pulp magazines and the garish cover art (and contents) of massmarket paperbacks, were part of the cosmic yank I felt, drawing me into the nostalgia that took me all the way back to Thrifty Drug Store, Wilshire Boulevard at Cochran, midtown Los Angeles, where, as a thirteen-year-old, I dropped a quarter into the slot of a machine, punched a button, and had delivered into my hands the iconic The Pocket Book of Science Fiction.
Finished with our ice cream, Liz and I made our way over to the corner of De la Vina Street, where she took the photo linked above and I scanned the shelves for any traces of the old Dell mysteries with the maps printed on the back cover, or the no-nonsense realism of the Ace Double Novels, or the steamy, noirish sexuality of the Gold Medal suspense/thrillers of the sort my old poker-playing pal, Day Keene, wrote.

Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Plenty of hardcovers, plenty of paperbacks, plenty of the mystery, suspense titles that used to support such memorable art. But of course none of the old pulp magazines, none of the art of the fifties and sixties I sought to browse as a kind of literary comfort food. I sighed, resigned to my slight-but-wonderful collection of Big-Little Books.

The early pulps and the massmarket mysteries and suspense novels were a significant part of the forces that pulled me into the notion of writing, the mixture of sacred and profane that every wannabe artist in every field experiences to some degree, vowing to attack the sacred but conflicted by the intense lure of the profane.

Of course I loved Twain and Cather and Steinbeck; of course I relished and envied Fitzgerald and Ralph Ellison and Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London. Saroyan. Ah,the dots to connect with him. But there were these others: Hammett and Chandler, Bradbury and Brackett and Heinlein, for example, and Borden Chase who, as a former sand hog construction worker turned pulp writer then screen writer, turned me toward the pulps.

Twenty years old and editor of the campus humor magazine at UCLA--the main reason I found myself on a panel with the then equivalent of Arianna Huffington, a flamboyant journalist named Adela Rogers St. Johns, now a professor at the Graduate Journalism Department. Knowing the audience had come to hear her, I quickly got off stage with a deferential nod to her and what I considered the best advice for any who wished to write, "Read everything you can get your hands on! Read cereal boxes, classics, classic comics and Classic Comics! She began her lecture with a nod to my enthusiasm, then went on to warn the audience not to waste their time with anything but the classics, the best in literature.

Yeah, well.

After all this time, I still don't know where to draw the line between the best in literature and, say, Ray Bradbury or Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler; I still don't know if Madeline L'Engel goes under literature or speculative fiction; I still don't see the difference between Saul Bellow and Mordecai Richler, except that Richler died before getting the Nobel.

I do know that The Georgia Review arrived yesterday, featuring an illustrated history of the science fiction titles from Ace Books, written by Albert Goldbarth, no slouch of a poet.

I came along just a tad too lat
e to write for the pulps, my few ventures including Amazing Stories, and Gamma, and Cha
se; there was also a period of a few years where I shared shelf space with Kozy Books, on-the-job training as it were, with a novel a month under a clutch of pseudonyms. On the other hand, I had a pretty good collection of Black Mask and Ranch Romances, and Dime Detective, and I did manage to edit Frank Gruber (and get a splendid autobiographical work--The Pulp Jungle--out of him, Bill S. Ballinger, and Bob Turner, and the major paperback agent of his day, Donald McCampbell; there were a clutch of science fiction writers as well, William F. Nolan, Chad Oliver, and Theodore Sturgeon.

The dream of pulp and massmarket originals persists along with my passion for the reviews that spring forth from universities and strange alliances between people of bookish persuasions. I had absolutely no thought of becoming Editor in chief of The Santa Barbara Review. But that is another dot, and another series of connections.

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