Saturday, May 25, 2013

Web of the City (Harlan Ellison, 1958)

Rusty wants to quit the Cougars gang whose leader (president) he used to be and leave behind the violent life in order to become a designer. Or something. But there is no way of getting out - he's a helpless captive of this urban jungle and things go from bad to worse when his beloved sister gets raped and murdered. Now his only redemption and way out of this mess lies in revenge.

I'm aware that Ellison is one of the genre's giants but this one somehow just doesn't do it for me. Hard to pin down the exact reason but I would argue that, like so many other debuts, it suffers from being over-ambitious in both content and style.

Starts great, I liked its pace and the concept of chapters being titled by the days of the week gives the book a real-time dynamic. First half takes place from Thursday to Tuesday but then it just gradually loses its momentum - 10th chapter is titled "Saturday a Week later" and three chapters later is just a simple "Days later". Problem of course is that nothing much happens after the initial prologue, introduction and actual crime; our hero wonders around pretty much lost and his "investigation" is - well, what would you expect from 17 years old confused and pissed off hooligan? - pretty cumbersome. Somehow he gets into his head the idea that there simply must be a connection between the killing of his sister, youth gang dispute (war) over the territory (turf) and some big shot drug dealer. Spoiler, fucking spoiler - there will be no connection...

Narration is a bit hard to digest sometimes because there are long sections of dialogue-less pages which badly impact already mentioned lack of pace. Also everything is concentrated on our protagonist and his moral dilemmas. Other characters are either completely good (mom, teacher) or bad (pretty much everyone else). City seems to be author's constant fascination - in spite of its clearly negative role. After all, it is suppose to be the mighty Web that catches our innocent Rusty, isn't it? Even harder to understand are author's sympathies with gang members. They are violent and on more than just one occasion pretty sadistic bunch but still Ellison addresses them as "kids" or even "boys". I definitely prefer more non-sentimental depiction of the youth gangs from The Real Cool Killers.

It is written very well with full of energy, but - once again - maybe a bit too ambitious. Like author tried too hard and couldn't decide if he was writing a pulp novel or more "serious" drama stuff. Lots of slang which I usually enjoy but here it's just a little too exaggerated. There is a funny moment where the slang word "procoo" is explained in - you've guessed it - slang as a "protective cust'id".

Undoubtedly good stuff and probably ground breaking back in the 50s as well as a great document of the era's youth gang culture. But too bleak and depressing for my taste to really enjoy it. I'll give it an extra half point for the additional short stories. Especially No Game for Children. Clever, well plotted with a good twist and also very violent!



Rusty Santoro, 17 years old ex-leader (Prez) of the gang Cougars.

Brooklyn, New York "the web of the" City - One gigantic, pulsing, living mass, moving, surging, pressing, hot and sweating, carrying along with it the fever of lechery and the stink of bad hot dogs, good papaya juice, tired feet.

Body count
2. But in the short story No Way Out (originally published as Gutter Gang) which is more or less a chapter from the Web of the City we do get another killing.

Louise "Weezee" Chaplin - highly attractive girl....aware of her growing body and so the sweater was a size and a half too small.

none. But there are even three of them in the short story Stand Still and Die!

Rusty is caught in an inescapable web of the city that doesn't let him go. To be honest, there are so many references to this metaphor that it was beginning to be a bit annoying.

Decent enough paining by Glen Orbik, maybe a bit reminiscent of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers poster. But not really accurate - Rusty just fucks three chicks but none of them actually tries to escape with him. Also sinister assholes pictured above them surely don't look like no kids. And I think that NYC should be somehow presented in the background as it plays a major role in this one.

Cool lines:
She bought a bottle of good Scotch from the man and Rusty wondered how she knew good from bad. She didn't seem to have the brains.

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