The late Thomas Boyle was a Pennsylvania kid who spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. (That makes him an Honorary Brooklyn Boy in my opinion.) He graduated from Cornell, earned his doctorate at NYU and taught at Brooklyn College for many years. Some book review sites confuse him with the more famous T.C. Boyle the author of many brilliant novels including The Road to Wellville – set in a 19th century health-spa and Drop City – set in an Alaskan hippie commune.
Our Thomas Boyle’s last book (published in 1990 in the midst of his crime trilogy) was Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead – a study of Victorian crime fiction. It sounds like the Sherlock Holmes mystery Conan Doyle forgot to write! I’ve added it to my “must read” list.
Any fan of gumshoe fiction will enjoy Boyle’s modern yet faithful reworking of the much-loved archetypes and plot devices of that often hackneyed genre.
Anyone who knows the geography of Brooklyn will get an extra kick out of Boyle’s locales. His hard-boiled tales follow Detective Frank DeSales as he chases bad guys down hidden alleys in Red Hook, across garbage strewn vacant lots in Williamsburgh and even onto the hallowed ground of Green-Wood Cemetery.
If you like Lawrence Block’s ex-cop now “private dick” Matt Scudder, you’ll feel right at home with Thomas Boyle’s active duty detective Frank DeSales. They are brothers from another mother.
I can’t find any movies or TV shows based on this trilogy which is a shame and surprising. For decades now, “All things Brooklyn” have been all the rage. Go know!
Any list of famous writers from Brooklyn would fill a decent sized phone book. And any list of books set in Brooklyn would be almost as large. I’ve read plenty of both but there are many more I’ve missed. So, the posts I’ll be making about Brooklyn books will be far from a definitive list. Think of them as tips from your friendly Brooklyn librarian.
It would be remiss of me not to begin with the very first “Brooklyn” book I ever read. (Hell, it was the very first book I ever read cover-to-cover!) And, I’ve reread it many times since – most recently last Tuesday. In fact, it’s the overdue book mentioned above – overdue for over 60 years! If you haven’t read it then all I can say is, “I pity you!”
“Psssst, hey kid, ya wanna read a really doity book?”
As you drive into Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge a large sign looms up at you. It screams, “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” If a driver doesn’t take that exit they are taken onto the Gowanus Expressway and thence over the neighborhood of Sunset Park where the spectacularly downbeat novel Last Exit to Brooklyn is set. In the 1950s, the period of the novel, that sign should have screamed, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
In the 50s, the waterfront of Sunset Park was a land of perpetual night – a slum rotting in fetid shadow beneath the elevated Gowanus Expressway. The Mafia had killed the docks, Robert Moses had killed Sunset Park by cutting it in two with his hideous highway and the Dodgers had killed Brooklyn by moving to L.A.
Hubert Selby Jr. knew this coz he was a Brooklyn boy born right next door to Sunset Park in Bay Ridge.
Selby’s book consists of inter-locking tales of losers, junkies, sadists, pimps, hookers and trannies who fight for scraps in a nightmare world of gangs and gang-bangs.
I was raised in the 1950s just a few blocks away from this world. I even swam in the public pool there. But, I knew better than to venture into the Terra Incognita below the highway. Many years later, I met a Yorkshireman who had lived in a sleaze-bag hotel in Sunset Park during WW2. He was outfitting ships to British standards that had been built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He told me that the whole area was full of crap games, gyp-joints and whorehouses all making a fortune from the servicemen and dock workers.
In the 1980s, I would spend pointless, penniless weekends meandering around Brooklyn by bike. I was drawn to the derelict and rotting factories of Industry City that lined the waterfront in Sunset Park. I thought, “Damn, this would make a great film set.” And, that’s exactly where, a few years later, much of the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn was filmed.
That film is good but doesn’t capture the daring style and outrageous vitality of Selby’s prose. Plus, by 1989, much of the shock value of his book’s subject matter had been lost. But, when it was first published in 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn was an outrage and banned in several countries. I haven’t been impressed by Selby’s other work but anyone interested in the lower depths of Brooklyn life and the heights of “outsider” American literature should read Last Exit to Brooklyn.
In 1965, I read it as a 15-year-old while working as a messenger in Times Square. The guy who sold it to me could have been arrested. I made sure that its instantly recognizable cover was always visible sticking out of my back pocket as I made deliveries. And, I made sure that same cover was visible as I read Last Exit to Brooklyn on the subway. I didn’t live in a artist’s garret in Greenwich Village but it was fun to pretend that I did.
Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.
I will also be posting about the best books, movies and songs about Brooklyn. And, sharing my practical and off-beat travel tips. If you enjoy my blog, please follow me. Hover your mouse in the lower right corner of the screen and a pop-up box will appear. Enter your email address and you’ll never miss one of my posts. Your address will not be sold or shared and you won’t be pestered with any sales cons.
I told the cop who was interrogating me that a few days after seeing Carrie walk through Needle Park in a trance, I learned that she and her roommate’s possessions had been stolen. They had packed their car for the move from tenement, roach-infested Hell’s Kitchen to toney, roach-infested Brooklyn Heights. But, they’d committed a cardinal sin. They had loaded their car full of their stuff. I imagined a portable TV with a mouse-ear aerial wrapped in aluminum foil sitting on the back seat next to a hair dryer with the cord wound around it. I saw a bag of hair curlers. I saw Earth Shoes, sandals, magazines. I saw hangers. Everything they owned safely stowed and ready for transit, the girls laughed up the stoop, through the vestibule and up the five tenement flights to check they’d left nothing behind.
I’ll bet they felt like they were in one of those “kooky girls come to New York” movies – My Sister Eileen or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But, when they came back downstairs, their car was empty, the trunk wide-open like the maw of a hippopotamus. When I learned of this theft a dizzying dread crept up my spine. Did my hair stand on end? It may have. I know that I felt helpless against some deadly force, some irresistible undertow, some relentless riptide pulling Carrie under.
In those golden days of yesteryear, there were strict codes of conduct in porn theaters and dirty bookstores. In the latter, it was thought rude to pick up a porn magazine immediately after another sticky-fingered voyeur had put it down. The girl in that magazine was still his girl. It was best to let some time pass and allow the couple to come to terms with their recent break-up. Then you were free to paw over Teenage Enema Bandits.
In porn cinemas, as in all cinemas, it was held inconsiderate, threatening and sexually provocative to sit right next to, directly in front of or (worse) directly behind someone when there were other seats available. It pains me to report that some lost souls went to porn theaters expressly to jack-off or to be jacked-off. I was never among their number. My preference was to sit far apart, all the better to enjoy the mise en scène. And, to avoid being hit by recklessly extruded seminal fluid.
Porn theaters, like strip-shows, were remarkably somber affairs. The men hunkered down to watch and/or wank in silence. No chitchat. No popcorn passing. Definitely no eye contact. You didn’t want to risk being recognized.
“Murray, what the hell are you doing here?”
Furthermore, a wisp too much eye-contact with the flaming Black fairies who walked up and down the center aisle, licking their lips while looking into laps, might suggest you were happy to let them get a lip-lock on your love-monkey. No. And again, no! Eyes straight ahead.
As a fifteen-year-old messenger in Times Square, I get a whiff of the newspaper game by making deliveries to the New York Times. I get to hang out in the newsroom – full of smoking men banging away at typewriters, and in the proofreading room – full of smoking men squinting away at galleys. The paper’s underground printing presses literally shake 43rd Street when they run at full tilt. The pressmen come up to the street for air wearing admiral-style hats formed out of that day’s front page – a bit of old New York life that is gone forever.
I make regular deliveries to the offices of Broadway producers and to the apartments of gossip columnists where I get a flavor of “the business they call show” and the Public Relations racket. And, I see the ad campaigns unfold in Times Square for the blockbuster movies of that summer. Of course, I’m more interested in the brabusters of that summer. My pace slackens as I inch past the marquees for Orgy at Lil’s Place or Sinderella and the Golden Bra or the many nudist movies like Goldilocks and the Three Bares. I spend three months walking around midtown Manhattan with a perpetual teenage hard-on. No wonder I attract creepy, confusing attention from creepy, confusing men.
We ad agency messengers fight for the uptown deliveries because they take us past the Metropole Bar. During the day, its doors are kept wide open so passers-by can watch the rock bands play but, more importantly, watch the caged and fringe-skirted go-go girls shake their money-makers. We gawkers must stand behind a yellow line on the sidewalk to let pedestrians pass. Tourist husbands pretend not to look as outraged wives pull them past this go-go Gomorrah. At night, the Metropole closes its doors and the girls go-go topless.
My favorite band of the summer is the Eggheads. They wear monk cowls and have their heads shaved like Friar Tuck. And, man, they put on a show that is clean outasite. (That meant “very entertaining” in 1965 parlance.) They and the go-go girls dance the Monkey, Frug, Swim, Jerk, Hitchhike and Watusi in perfectly synchronized moves. It is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I can tell from the way they look at each other that the “with-it” guys in the band are “making it” with the “swingin’ chicks” in the cages and I seriously consider taking up the bass.
I spend the clammy days delivering invoices and sample ads to midtown bars, eateries, niteries and the new style of sexy nightclubs called discotheques. Picture this scene straight out of Mike Hammer–
Sunny day. I go into a cave-like club where the chairs are on the tables, the janitor is sweeping up, the bartender is taking stock and a chanteuse is auditioning for the owner. He is seated alone, tie undone, sleeves rolled up, working on a highball and worrying over the receipts.
I live this scene in the world-famousPeppermint Lounge, “the Home of the Twist” – plus the Copacabana, Latin Quarter, Roundtable, Roseland, Arthur, Upstairs at the Downstairs, the Rat Fink Room and, my favorite, the Santa Claus Bar.
In 1965, I land a messenger job with a penny-ante advertising agency in the Paramount Building in Times Square. It holds the theater where Sinatra had sung to screaming Bobby Soxers in the 1940s. In 1965, the Beatles movie Help! is playing there. To get into the elevator lobby, I have to fight my way through the screaming daughters of those Bobby Soxers.