Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Pulpy, Corny Classic

A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins

In 1986 when I lived in Chicago I took a short story writing course with Asa Baber through Northwestern's night school.  Baber was an author (Tranquility Base, Land of a Million Elephants) and wrote the "Men" column for Playboy for many years.  Around fifteen students, and every last mother one of them a miserable writer, including yours truly, to judge from my aggregate published output to date of nothing.  (We pretend writers all thank Jah for Blogger.)  One night one of the smarmy young pretend writers in the class was making a dismissive reference to Harold Robbins, comparing him unfavorably to -- I don't remember, some writerly ideal like Mailer or Updike or the like, accompanied by the nodding agreement of the class.   I had never read a Harold Robbins novel, but I spoke up, probably rather more sharply than I should have, to note that Harold Robbins actually finished writing books, wrote books that attracted the attention of real editors, and were read by millions of real readers, many of whom may not have had the elevated tastes of these kids (who probably hadn't read Updike or Mailer since college), but who were not being fooled into reading something they didn't enjoy.  That shut 'em up.

In the intervening two-and-a-half decades, I still hadn't read a Harold Robbins novel.  I don't know how I came across A Stone for Danny Fisher, but I think I read somewhere that as Robbins's first novel (published in 1951), it had about it some of the grit and drive that may have dissipated somewhat in his later potboilers (The Betsy, Heat of Passion, The Carpetbaggers).  I am very glad I picked it up.

The cover tells some of the story:  A hot mid-twentieth-century chick with one of those hot mid-twentieth-century hot-chick hairdos and really hot mid-twentieth-century hot-chick foundational undergarments, a fleabag room, and boxing.  What's not to like?

The book has all these things, but quite a bit more.  It is about a boy growing into manhood in Brooklyn during the Depression.  He suffers from economic deprivation, limited prospects, and the curse of anti-Semitism.   He overcomes them to a point, but the logic of the life he has chosen soon drives him to become a very different kind of person.  He struggles with the demands of his new life, which is in sharp contrast to the joy he takes in the woman he loves.  

If you're thinking about picking this up, let me be clear about a couple of things.  First, this is a story you've heard before.  As you read, you will find yourself predicting what happens next, and you will frequently be correct.  To adopt the boxing metaphor, Robbins telegraphs his punches.

Second, this is not sophisticated writing.  It is sometimes childishly simple.  Lots of adverbs.  (Most good writers profess to hate adverbs (I almost said "unanimously" hate adverbs.))  I'm flipping through the book right now, let's see  .  .  .  you'll find sentences like: "Slowly the beating of her heart quieted."  "Her hand reached up wonderingly and touched her hair."  "The dark rolled around me in gentle swirling clouds."

But -- and this must have been what I was sensing in 1986 -- there is something to hold your attention on every page.  Something that keeps you moving through the dialogue and exposition.   These simple and sometimes corny words tell the reader what is happening.   They don't tell you how smart the author is, they don't trick you with pointless plot devices, they just set forth the dramatic facts of the life of a young man the reader comes soon to care about.  It's a story.  Robbins doesn't apologize for it or dress it up.  He just flat tells it.

Folks, that's writing.


  1. PS. I wondered why this classic story had never been made into a movie, at least not one I could find on imdb.com. Turns out, it was the model for an Elvis movie: "King Creole."

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