I just realized I have been neglecting Barry Malzberg’s sleaze novels as Mel Johnson, Gerrold Watkins, and himself, which half this blog (along with Robert Silverberg’s pen names) is supposed to focus on (and now I have added in March Hastings, Joan Ellis, and Andrew Shaw).
I have been trying to track down Malzberg’s Mel Johnson Midwoods for years with little success, and if I do find them, they are priced outrageously. I have no idea why these Midwoods — even the doubles and triples Johnson is in — are scarce and priced so high, when other late 1960s Midwoods are not.
A kind Malzberg fan, Jim Mix, contacted me and said he had a couple extra beat up Johnsons and one Watkins and sent them to me, in the interest to advnace my overdue Mazberg monograph, Beyond Science Fiction (let’s say early 2010 from Borgo Press at this point).
One of them was Instant Sex, that has a nifty Paul Rader cover:
Not even Lynn Monroe had this one in his Rader catalog, and he lists it as wanted. When I sent him this scan from Jim, he was surprised he had never seen it — I mean, he’s one of the top authorities and collectors of vintage paperbacks in the country. Before my telling him, he had no idea Malzberg had written as Mel Johnson, and the Johnsons were not in his catalogues. This makes the Mel Johnson scarcity more mysterious…the Gerrold Wakins books are hard to find because Olympia only printed 1000-1500 copies and maybe sold half the run. But Midwood printed in the 25-50,000 unit range…
Does this great cover art depict the storyline inside the pages? Not really. But when do they ever?
In an email conversation aboutl, Barry Malzberg told me that the novel
was written with real ambition under the working title FIRE. I was trying, in 9/68, to write the first Vietnam veteran‘s novel, to make a major statement. I reread it just a few years ago, tried to anyway, thought it was all right. Better than all right. I don’t know what was crazier: a) writing a novel of that ambition for Midwood Books’ $900, b) thinking that I had a chance at some “literary” recognition. Cough cough. This way to the egress, ladies and germs.
Here is a true or at least represented-as-true story told me by my Midwood editor and good friend Robert Devaney: the novel was delivered, Harry Shorten paid for it, Devaney put it on top of the small pile of delivered manuscripts heading for copyediting. Harry Shorten came into his office. “I had a dream,” Harry said, “I had a dream last night. Here is the dream: it is that I published a novel and it was called INSTANT SEX. I awoke and thought ‘that is a really good idea, I want to call a novel INSTANT SEX.'” He pointed to the pile of manuscripts. “Take that one on the top,” he said. “Call it INSTANT SEX.”
This goes along the lines of other Harry Shorten tales. In an interview with Gil Fox (Paul Russo, Kimberly Kemp, Dallas Mayo), Gil Fox says to Muroe:
Harry Shorten had no knowledge of books whatsoever. He had some money from his cartoons, wanted to start a business, used the money to start Midwood. I don’t think Harry ever read a book in his whole life. He did not recognize intelligent writing in books. He would slap a hot cover on anything. For some reason Harry loved me. He would hit me on the back and call me “his most prolific author.” How Harry operated: one day we came back from lunch and Harry picks the title WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW out of the air and says “Your next book for Midwood will be WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW.” That was it, no meaning at all, no story. So, you know, I went home and wrote WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW.
In another interview, Joan Ellis says:
One time I walked into Harry’s office and he held up a painting of a blonde eating an ice cream cone and he said, “I now own this cover art. Write me a book to go with it.” So I did. (ed. note: the book is TALK OF THE TOWN, Midwood 32-396).
Would Fire have been a better title than Instant Sex?
Malzberg states he wrote this novel in Sept. 1968, and it’s pub. date is 1968 — Midwood must have had a quick turnaround from accpetance-copy-editing-production.
As for the story…
Coleman got into some trouble in Saigon — he was arrested for being with a Vietnamese prostitute and he assaulted a superor officer (tones of “Final War,” Malzberg’s novella written as K.M. O’Donnell). After some time in the stockade, he returns Stateside despondent and impotent. The letters from his fiancee were distant, and when he tries to re-connect with her, he knows the marriage is off.
He goes to New York in search of himself, hell, and meaning of his experiences in Vietnam. He wanders into the world of prostitutes, since it was a hooker who ruined his army career.
(I am left wondering if William T. Vollmann [whom I have published two books on, with the recent one out now] read this book, because there are some parts that remind me of Vollmann’s short novel, Whores for Gloria.)
Coleman meets the cliched “whore with a heart of gold” — Cynthia, a skinny girl in Harlem, that he picks up on the street. He goes limp while they have sex. She feels bad, like she has not satisfied a custimer, and offers to give him half his money back.
Coleman is an angry Nam Vet. He goes into a bar and looks for a fight. He wants to go back to jail. Cynthia has followed him. When he gets into a brawl and the cops start to take him away, Cynthia comes to his rescue and says she’s his girlfriend and he’s a war hero, blah blah…she takes him back to her apartment and he sleeps in bed with her, and attemepts a half-ass (no pun?) act of anal sex with her.
He wakes up with Cynthia’s pimp, a man named Creature, in his face. He leaves, although he feels he shouldn’t and Cynthia gives him some looks…he decides to go back, just as Creature is about to stab Cynthia (why do all the charcters have names that start with C?)…Coleman fights Creature and beats Creature up…feeling like the winner, like a man, he takes Cynthia on the floor and, yes, has instant sex. Violence becomes the pure for his impotency.
This book surprised me — it’s a good novel, but the style is different than most Malzberg’s: it’s not in present tense or first person, and Coleman is not as insane as many Malzberg protagonists tend to be. This also has a “happy” ending. As a “Vietnam novel,” it does comment on PTSD and what soliders coming back home from an unpopular war have to endure. The sex, as in many Malzbergian fictions, is not “hot” or enticing for the label “one-hand book” but realistic, horrifying, sad, nuerotic.
It’s an early Mazberg, a novel written before he was publishing under his own name, and before his stint at Olympia Press, and was just starting to write as “K.M. O’Donnell” in the science-fiction field. It reminded me somewhat of Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story.
As for the cover art — that isn’t Coleman and his skinny teenage Harlen hooker…it could be Coleman pre-Vietnam, with the girl he was to marry…
Some day I will find and read all the Mel Johnsons…next is A Way With All Maidens, from Midwood’s short-lived Oracle Books imprint. Then The Box and The Sadist. I really want to find Campus Doll and Nynpho Nurse.