Saturday, October 31, 2020

Revenge (Jack Ehrlich, 1958)

It's always a pleasure to read something different. This one is memorable for quite a few things and let's start with its unpredictability. The title and the cover suggest a somehow sleazy run-of-the-mill pulp yarn so it comes as a surprise when it opens with a proper - well planned and executed - bank heist. And continues with our anti-hero raping a woman! Encouraged by getting away with these crimes he then promptly ups the ante and assassinates some local mobster!?! There's simply no telling where the story will go next but it's clear it won't end well. And indeed, it does culminate in a big clusterfuck. With no sign of remorse or redemption from our asshole protagonist.

Described like this, you might think it's all a big mess but I'm happy to report otherwise. The author manages to keep it tight and there's a method to all this madness supported by some pretty twisted rationality that drives the narration. Definitely not your typical escapist quick read. I really needed to pay attention since there's not much dialogue and the narrator frequently digresses into the past describing and referencing the events that trigger his present actions.

 And most of all, it's not easy to stomach the sick shit like this:

I do believe that no woman can be taken only through rape. Except for the oddball, women are natural whores, and to make one requires very little. It's like Hoover said, a chicken in every pot and a whore in every bed. It's the American dream. A vine-covered cottage which is the price a guy has to pay.....

It doesn't change the fact that every man sells his soul to make a buck and every woman sells her body to share it with him. And it isn't really a bad arrangement...

But Ogden Nash once said it and I'll buy it: give the sissy his seduction, the he-man wants his rape.

Crazy. Simply insane. Would dare to guess that it was probably even more offensive in its time than it would be today in (unlikely) case it would even get published.

So yeah, Revenge is not a book about heist or rape or assassination. Instead, it's a character study of the sociopath. A guy who is full of hate and loathing for both himself and for society. 

Intense stuff and even though it does get a bit repetitive at times, there are still plenty of fascinating and occasionally even funny parts. As an example, I kind of liked his planning of the crimes. He's an ex D.A. assistant so he knows all the police technicalities and therefore prepares everything in advance with the utmost attention to detail and a great deal of enthusiasm. In his words: "It was a problem I enjoyed solving". To be honest, the guy does have a pretty decent sense of humor. Check out the 'cool lines' section of the facts below.

Not so humorous are the parts that deal with his mental state. There are numerous factors and circumstances like his dominant father, shameful (in his mind) army service, distrust of women, sexual frustrations, etc. They are of course all intertwined and it's hard to separate causes from the effects and I'm not sure whether I managed to solve the mystery of what had made this guy insane. I think the final piece of the puzzle lies in the really weird ending in which he finds refuge in his best friend's house. Not sure how to interpret the whole episode with the wife and kids and will have to think about it a bit. One confusing little nasty mindfuck this is.

An interesting book, memorable for many things. Most good and some simply awful. I'm pretty sure that some of Jim Thompson's psychotic characters wouldn't mind too much hanging out with John Cummings.

4/5

Facts:

Hero:
John Cummings. A prototype of a young white male suburban middle-class guy. Former high-school football star, former DA assistant, these days not the most prosperous lawyer but a quite efficient criminal with a decent strike rate. Also 100% psychopath.

Dames
His ex-wife Lou, his rape victim Jennie a.k.a. Mrs. John Frederick Fitch French III (!!) and his most recent romantic and emotional confusion personified called Sue. But they are pretty much dehumanized and we never really get a chance to know them better. I mean, check out his opinion of Sue and bear in mind that she gets the kindest share of his misogyny comparing to the other two:

Sue is a hell of a feminine dame and her clean freshness is more exciting than the most sultry slut.

Location:
A small town near New York

Body count:
1

The object of desire:
John is pissed off at the whole wide world and takes revenge against it.

Blackouts:
There was no pain at all, that's the funny thing. I had to fight to keep my mind concentrating. A lot of thoughts kept crowding in which had nothing to do with me. I tried to talk to myself but the gray blur came closer and closer to me and blanketed me.

References:
Then I piled the hi-fi full of records, mostly piano concertos. I put the Emperor Concerto on last because it's my favorite and played on two sides. I could flip the stack after the first playing and hear the ending of the Emperor in the right sequence.

Title:
See "The object of desire" section above

Edition:
Dell #A168, First Edition, October 1958

Cover
:
By McGinnis. One of those creepy, unsettling ones that make you feel like a voyeur and give you a bit of a guilty conscience for liking it.

Cool lines:
I maintained a detached interest in Lou's life like a man does in common stock which he sold too early and is now doing great things.

I felt revengeful and full of loathing and I felt the small and insignificant feeling a man gets when he gets looked over during a job interview.

Bit by bit, my practice was dropping off more every month. The golden degree tacked onto the Cummings name was fading into an oxidized bronze. It didn't matter, but it galled me because it proved people had more sense than I was willing to admit.

It was like a fever. Ideas and thoughts kept parading through my mind and I watched them like a bored jazz fan at the opera.