Judge Not My Sins by Stuart James (Midwood, 1961)
One goal of this blog is to discover lost works of American literature that were curiously and unjustly packaged cheaply as tawdry paperbacks for one reason or another — something Kurt Vonnegut once referenced to as literary art slapped between two covers that promised “WIDE OPEN BEAVER INSIDE.” It was the fate of his alter ego Kilgore Trout, whose fantastic works of science-fiction and social commentary could only find homes in the sex paperback market, and the only person who knew it was millionaire Eliot Rosewater.
Stuart James’ Judge Not My Sins fits the bill, to use a hackey’d phrase.
James was an editor at Midwood, as were other writers who doubled as editors for Harry Shorten: Elaine Williams (Sloane Britain) and John Pluckett (Jason Hytes) and probably others. From what I can tell, James only published two titles with Midwood, at last under his real name: this one and Bucks County Report, both in 1961.
It’s a short novel, maybe 40,000 words. It starts with a 20-page “prologue” in the third person, and then moves into six chapters in the first-person about a 34-year-old hack writer on a one-night stand with a gorgeous young blonde lass, Leslie, who is afraid he will fall in love with her, as most men do, after one night…and he does…
Stranger in a large, soft bed, brought together by city loneliness and the hunger for human touch. A cheap one-night grappling of sweaty bodies, the casual debauch, the dregs of immorality. But then there was something different, something new. As our bodies met in passion, there was an awakening, the birthing of something strange and unknown […] I had achieved a new dimension that bordered on the metaphysical, a sharp delineation of love — not the meaning of the word, the feeling. (p. 33)
Can one night of casual sex really do this to a man, or is he just so lonely and needing magic to spark the fire for a life that has gone to ennui?
Leslie’s emotions and feelings are up and down when she takes him up to her New York pad and the next morning. She’s obviously bi-polar before there was a name for such manic depression. She feels cursed by her beauty and tells him she once considered tossing acid on her face so men would not love her.
She fears and hates beauty; she claims she is incapable of love. She is terrified of love, terrified of tenderness, and tells him that their encounter ends with the one night, and she forbids him to ever come back again.
Seems he has left his wife and kid to explore a new life as a writer in Manhattan — an early mid-life crises in his 30s. And like many hack writers with deep desires to one day create art, he has come to loathe what he does (boy this could be me writing this):
In the beginning, when I first began to write for the men’s adventure magazines it was a breeze. I was thrilled to be published, I liked the idea of being a professional, and I felt that I could grind out blood and guts without having it affect me. I enjoyed the freedom of the time clock and I got a charge out of concocting the nonsensical plots for the hairy-chested magazines. But lately it had begun to bother me. There was the feeling that I was in a rut, that I was selling myself down the river as a writer. There was a time — along time ago — that I wanted to be a playwright. But those were hungry days, and I was never sure of my talent. I had hit it as a hack writer. It paid the bills… (p. 39)
And he can’t get Leslie off his mind, so he seeks her out. She’s pissed, with an other man, an older portly man who picks a fight with him. Using street fighting moves, he beats the crap out of this man, feeling bad about it, but the violence turns Leslie on and she invites him back into her pad and her bed and finally her life…
That Chinese admonishment “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it” come to play. As sexy and wonderful time with LEslie is, she begins to take up too much of his time and obsession, so much that he misses five writing assignments and his agent tells him to dump the new girl, as do others. And when he goes to visit his kids, and tells her he can’t play with her one night so he can finish a writing assignment, Leslie flips out, she does the bi-polar dance, accusing him of making her second-fiddle, of sleeping with his estranged wife, of caring more about writing than her. He’s flabbergasted by this mood swing.
Leslie, I was certain, had a definite schizoid personality […] When she was charming and understanding, she meant it and felt it; when she was a complete bitch, she was just that. It is always difficult to accept mental aberration in a beautiful woman, but I had to force myself to realize that there was a Leslie who love and needed me, just as there was a Leslie who hated my guts. (p. 107)
What he thought would be bliss soon turns to hell, personally and professionally. His writerly woes strike painfully at home for your humble sleaze blogger:
Every time a man compromises himself, no matter how many excuses he may invent to give his compromise the air of nobility, he loses a little of himself. This is a frightening thing to a writer who started out with a dream of putting something significant to print, a sentence, a paragraph that would raise him above himself; it is frightening when you are 34 and haven’t done it […] in the twilight hours of the heart’s hunger I was afraid. (p. 111-2)
He reads Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself and muses on the artistic purity of Norman Mailer, and the book even leads with a quite from ol’ Mailer.
It was love, it was also fear, and we might have huddled behind a rock while the night wind devoured the plain.
“Save me,” I heard her cry.
—Norman Mailer, Barbery Shore
While Leslie may ask for saving when she is weak and vulnerable and less sure of her beauty, he ultimately must save his sanity, and career, from her by ridding her from his life. But this is what he wanted, right? He perusued her, against her wishes, and he won her, and now he has her, but the having is hell. It’s also evident James was putting some Camus and existentialism in here, as he muses on morality and choice.
And this was a Midwood sex novel? What did readers think, expecting to read a wanker book only to get contemporary male urban angst? Probably the same reaction when they picked up a Barry Malzberg sex book: “What? This ain’t porn!”
Then again, the true ugliness of delicate relationships may be the most defiled porn of all.
We are each of us alone in the world. If I have sinned, it has been against myself. (p. 153)
This reads like an ambitious attempt at a serious literary novel about relationships, morality, and sex, something Stuart James probably couldn’t get a mainstream house to publish, so placed it with Midwood when he went to work there. It’s hardly perfect, and tends toward the pretentious, especially the last two chapters, but it is certainly quite different than your typical paperback sleaze novel.