Sign of the times
Last week, after a painful two year absence, the Saranac Lake Free Library book sale was resurrected. And when the door opened, you can bet your last zloty I diddy-bopped in.
However, I didn’t diddy-bop out, because I was shlepping two huge bags, each packed to the brim with my latest scores. But it was just bizness as yoo-jool for me at the library sale, having done the same thing since I was a mere poppet.
How mere a poppet? To the best of my recollection, my first library sale was the library’s first as well, in 1952.
For obvious reasons I don’t remember that sale very well. But I vividly remember the sale of 1962, if for no other reason than it drove home Cold War zeitgeist, big time.
Zeitgeist is another example of a word in foreign language that has no one-word English equivalent. According to Merriam-Webster it is “the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era.” Maybe the closest English word is “spirit.”
Anyhow, the Cold War spirit was perfectly exemplified in the books I bought of two very different authors. One was Mickey Spillane, the other was Philip Wylie.
Today, Mickey Spillane is little more than a footnote of American crime fiction, and virtually unknown to anyone under 50. But in his heyday — the ’50s and ’60s — he had name recognition, par excellence. And well he should have since his novels sold over 250 million copies.
His most popular character was a private investigator name Mike Hammer, a guy who put the “hard” in hardboiled. He was mono-dimensional, mono-syllabic and as brutal as they get. In short, he was a state of the art Sociopathic Thug.
But if he was a ST, how’d he ever get so popular?
Simple: He was our ST, the All-American Boy of the brass knuckles set. He was a perfect lad of the times — a WWII combat vet, a super-patriot, a guy loved by the dames, and a rabid commie hater.
The Mike Hammer novel that best showcased him at this all-time “best” is “I, the Jury.” The plot kicks off with his army buddy getting murdered, dispatched by gut-shot, a slow and painful death. His buddy was no mere boot camp pal — he lost his arm saving Hammer in battle. And so Hammer vows to avenge his death, and to do it quid pro quo: He’ll kill the murderer by gut-shot too.
As the title implies, Hammer wasn’t about to avail himself of such inefficient niceties as the rule of law. Uh-uh, he’ll do it his way, following the great tradition of vigilantism, which over the millennia has provided untold numbers of good citizens the entertainment of lynchings, scourgings, burnings at the stake and so on.
In the course of the novel Hammer hooks up and gets engaged to a woman psychiatrist who, as it oh-so-ironically turns out, was his buddy’s murderer. Oh, the treachery!
At the novel’s end, she tries to seduce him — and at the same time, shoot him with her concealed carry. Of course Hammer beats her to it and, true to his word and sadistic proclivities, gut-shoots her.
As she’s dying in agony, she asks, “How could you?”
To which he gives the answer all Hammer fans want to hear: “It was easy.”
I’d never heard of Mickey Spillane before that library sale, but on a whim (and based on their salacious covers) I snagged a bunch, and buzzed through all of them, seemingly in minutes. They may have been cliche and predictable, but they were also marvelously entertaining to my puerile mind.
Of course, literary critics considered Spillane’s stuff lowbrow trash, and maybe they were. But they were a helluva lot more interesting and easier to read than the literary diet I was being force-fed in school. “Great Expectations?” “The Red Badge of Courage?” Gimme a break. Or the E.A. Poe classic we were supposed to fall in love with — “The Bells?” Really? What kid with 52 in his deck would read anything with the word “tintinnabulation” in it if it wasn’t assigned?
I outgrew Mike Hammer in a short while, but for the summer of ’62 he and his ruthless ways were mighty fine nighttime company for me.
The nuclear family
My second zeitgeist score from that sale was a book written by Philip Wylie, an author who could be considered Spillane’s polar opposite.
Wylie, a Princeton man, had a long and respected career as a writer of many genres. He did screenplays, social criticism, fiction, science writing, science fiction. He had such creds that he was an adviser to the Joint Congressional Committee for Atomic Energy, which later morphed into the Atomic Energy Commission.
The book of his I got at that sale was perfect Cold War fare. It was called “Tomorrow” and was about survivors of a post-nuclear holocaust. It was written in 1954 but was just as relevant in 1962, since back then we were so naive, we worried more about dying by a Russki firestorm than by inadequate health care.
To 15-year-old me, it was a compelling and well-written read, one that held me in its grip from start to finish. I was so impressed by it that I wanted all my friends to read it, and first on my list was my buddy Nancy Jo Johnson.
Nancy Jo’s family lived in Niskayuna, but had a state camp on Lower Saranac, which is how I met her. She was smart as a whip and one of the most fun peeps I ever knew. It didn’t matter what we did — swim, waterski, collect bottles for an Altamont ice cream orgy, or just hang out — she was always a hoot. And so, because she was such a good friend, and I was aflame with missionary zeal about my latest literary score, I lent her my copy of Tomorrow.
The next day she gave it back to me, which impressed me mightily. The book was a real page turner and I was an avid reader, but still, it took me two full days to finish. And here, she’d read it seemingly in the blink of an eye.
“So how’d you like it?” I asked.
“I didn’t read it,” she said.
“You didn’t read it?” I asked. “Why not?”
“My mother wouldn’t let me.”
“She wouldn’t …” my voice trailed off as I was overcome by confusion.
What could her mother have possibly objected to, I wondered? In addition to being fine entertainment, it was a call for sanity in a nuclear-paranoid world. Who could object to that? And why?
I soon found out.
“Why wouldn’t she?” I asked.
“Cuz of the cover,” she said.
“The cover?” I said. “What’s with the cover?”
“Look at it,” she said.
I did. And when I did, a shock ran through me.
The cover? I’d never even noticed it before, or if I did, it didn’t leave an impression. But it was a classic ’50s pulp fiction cover — in lurid colors, of course: In the background was a huge post-bombing firefest. And there in the foreground, dead center and big as life, was a beautiful blonde trying to hold onto what was left of her clothes, which were shredded everywhichway and about to be whisked away by the radiation-filled wind.
“But … but … but…” I stammered. “That wasn’t in the book.”
And it wasn’t. As a matter of fact, in the entire book there wasn’t even a hint of S-E-X.
But I realized that wouldn’t have mattered to 1962’s mothers of daughters. To them it screamed Dirty Book, if not out and out porn.
I thought maybe I could explain the truth to Nancy Jo’s mother. But then, almost as soon as I thought it, I pushed it out of my mind. I realized the effort would be futile, at best.
While I’d failed as a literary missionary, I’d learned an excellent life lesson.
For as long as I could remember, all adults had delivered the dictum, “Never judge a book by its cover” as if it was so profound it should’ve been the eleventh commandment. It was drilled into me so much that I understood it wasn’t about books, but about not judging others till we get to know them.
But till the “Tomorrow” episode I hadn’t understood two things about the saying:
First, it could indeed refer to books and book covers.
And second, while adults told us that, it didn’t mean they’d actually follow it themselves.