Vice Town by Ennis Willie (Vega Books, 1962)
I wasn’t blown away by the two Sand Shocker novels I read of Willie’s, but I did like the writing style; Vice Town is more to my liking. Willie creates an ultra-violent reality, an alternate universe of the real, comic-book like in many ways — I’m thinking Frank Miller read Willie in the ’60s and there’s some influence Willie had over Sin City, or that whole genre of dark crime fiction.
Gator is like Sand in some ways — the single name, the cryptic past of being “in the war,” and a sense of loyalty to avenge the murder of old friends. Gator, 29, has returned to a mythic southern city on the edges of the swamp, called Labanion, to find out who murdered an old girlfriend, Castine. The town has grown, is a “wet county” (booze served all the time), and gambling is legal, “a town that made its living in a darkness that hid its promiscuities, and decent people put up with it as the price of prosperity” (p. 56). He is not welcome back in Labanion but he doesn’t care — he’s on a mission to find a killer, and exact vengeance, and come to terms with his past. “All a man has is home,” he says, “and when he has nowhere else to go, he goes home.”
He also has a missing leg, and moves around on a crutch –but he uses the crutch as a weapon, and can take on multiple big thugs in dark bac alleys sans a leg…
Why is he called Gator? At age 15, he emerged from Bama Swamp, “his hair long like a savage and caked with mud” (p. 23). He didn’t know who he was, where he came from. He was feral. He came to the attention of Mother Bannister, a kind rich woman who owned the town newspaper, and helped many people. She aske d his name and he didn’t know. Someone said he must be a gator since he came out of the swamp and the name stuck. Mother Bannister adopted him, much to the objections of many in town; another ward of hers was Castine, and the two fell in love. One day Mother Bannister accidentally fell into a well and died and everyone thought he had done it, despite the facts otherwise. A lynch mob tried to hang him. Another girl, Trudy, a lover, had saved him by cutting the rope and he ran.
Here he is now, and of the three young women he once knew, one is dead, one, Trudy, took off with a sailor, and another, Ursula, is married to a slob of a local businessman and yearns for Gator again.
Then there is 21-year-old Alice, daughter of the local wealthy man who will run for the Senate soon, whom Gator saves from an abduction and rape in a back alley. She pays him back with sex, despite his trying to turn her down:
“Look here, little girl. You are beautiful. And to tell you the truth, just sitting beside you makes my hormones sing. But, unfortunately, this isn’t choir time. I’ve got a job to do, and naked little blonde broads just aren’t on the agenda.” (p. 18)
Gotta love that dialogue! Alice claims she’s a writer, and she’s fascinated by the one-legged man who can wipe out two big men with his crutch and judo chops, so she wants to write a novel about him.
There’s plenty of violence, some sex, more violence, as people try to kill Gator and his resolve becomes stronger; a few plot twists, a few plot problems, and a quirky ending make this an excellent little novel — hard to find, like many Willie books, at a decent price, however, although I got lucky and nabbed one on eBay for $7.
Vice Town was published by Vega Books, an imprint from Sanford Aday, who did Fabian and Saber Books, so it has the same Fabian/Saber cheap production values: ultra-thin paper, shabby typesetting, and a cover so thin it’s almost like the inside paper with some gloss. This is the only book Ennis Willie did with Vega, away from his main publisher, Merit Books. Why did he go to Vega? Did Merit reject this one? This is better than the Sand novels, the two I read anyway.
There have been rumors here and there of an Ennis Willie revival; hopefully this will happen soon.