The Hot Mods, by Dave J. Garrity
June, 1969 Signet Books
Dave J. Garrity, who a few years later started off a Mafia trilogy beginning with The Never Contract under his real name “David J. Gerrity,” here turns in what could most accurately be described as a hardboiled hot rod novel. Running to a mere 128 pages of big print, The Hot Mods is entertaining, but given the hardboiled vibe it comes off like something from a decade earlier.
Our narrator is the magnificently-named Lux Vargo(!), a veteran “modified” racer (ie hot rods – throughout referred to as “mods” or “modifieds”) who is based out of the East Coast; Garrity plays it fast and loose with the locales, usually not even informing us where the action takes place. But this is just part of Lux’s narratorial style; he only gives us as much info as he thinks we should know, and anyone looking to the novel to learn about vintage hot rodding vehicles and gear will be disappointed.
Lux rarely if ever even informs you what kind of cars he’s competing against or even driving. This gives the novel the ring of authenticity and authority (Garrity thanks a New York racing team at the intro, so he was into the scene), as if Lux were speaking casually to a fellow racing enthusiast, but it does cause a bit of confusion on the part of the reader. At least if, like me, you’re not too hip on the racing scene to begin with.
But Lux’s voice steals the show, because it’s the Hardboiled Voice straight-up, weary and cynical and eternally pissed-off. Garrity pulls it off so well that The Hot Mods is another of those novels where you’re uncertain if the author intended it as a spoof, as the bad-ass dialog walks a tight line between legit and satire. Garrity was pals with Mickey Spillane and if you ever wondered what it would be like if Mike Hammer became a racecar driver, wonder no longer (for what it’s worth, though, there are no private eyes or tough cops in the novel). It’s an interesting choice Garrity’s made, and I wonder how it went over with the readers of the day – when I picked up the book, the last thing I expected was a narrative style more akin to a Gold Medal paperback from a decade (or more) earlier.
Plotwise the novel is also more along the lines of a hardboiled yarn than the racing action one might expect; Lux is in the midst of a torrid affair with a stacked blonde named Carol Minor (“She was a dream-sized chassis with all the speed parts and built to run up front”) who just happens to be married to Pat Minor, a fellow mods racer. Lux informs us how he and Carol like to shack up in motels and have hot (off-page) sex, but Carol gets serious as the tale opens, asking Lux if he wouldn’t mind maybe “accidentally” killing Pat in tonight’s race!
Lux says hell no, and instantly that sultry look in Carol’s eyes fades away, and our narrator knows their torrid affair is over – just like that. He mopes on back to the garage, where Poppy Bergen, the “leathery old bird” who serves as Lux’s chief “mech,” nags at Lux about getting involved with another man’s wife. By that night’s race Carol, who makes her final appearance until the very end, informs Lux that she’s made a decision to work on her marriage with Pat. Lux heads on into the race, and the racing scenes throughout have that hardboiled hot rod vibe:
The champ from Langhorne found a clear chute in front of him and slammed hard into the turn with Murdock at his heels. The Florida rebel hung in the groove with Pat Minor dug in tight behind him, wheel over and back-end sliding. He stayed in there, working hard with steering and with power. The three front cars went round in front of the pack, one a battered Plymouth coupe out in the loose stuff and breaking his wrists to stay. He caromed off the wall going into the back chute but pulled free and charged away with a new battle scar to mark his already wrinkled right side.
In the heat of the race Lux corners Pat Minor’s “yellow bug” and the realization hits him just as it happens – he’s lined him up to make the kill he earlier told Carol he’d never do. It happens, the two crashing into each other and Minor’s car flipping and catching fire; Garrity well captures the horror as an unharmed Lux tries and fails to pull a shrieking Minor out of his burning car. Now the man’s dead, and at the inquest Lux is cleared – it really was just an accident, after all – but he spirals into depression and self-doubt. “Go out and get drunk,” Pappy tells him.
Lux does so…and in the next chapter we open on him sitting in some jail cell in an unnamed small town hundreds of miles south of “Mid-City,” which is where the race took place. He has no idea how long he’s been on his drinking and fighting binge, but eventually we’ll learn it’s been six weeks. The way Garrity writes it, though, it’s like Lux has been gone a lot longer, like years maybe, having completely dropped out of the racing life and gone AWOL so far as his friends and associates are considered.
The night before, Lux apparently started a hellacious brawl in the local bar, one which catered to the racing crowd. Before the judge can hand down a big sentence this wiry dude comes in, whispers to the judge, and gets Lux out of trouble. His name is Les Carver, he’s a sports reporter, and he’s recognized Lux Vargo (the novel was clearly written long before the internet existed!). Instead of serving his sentence, Lux is ordered to get the job Les claims to have arranged for him, and to even live with Carver.
The Lux-Les relationship is humorous because Garrity has our hero instantly hating the guy for getting involved in his bout of self-pity (“Two little words” being the first thing Lux snarls at him…). Things brighten a bit with Les’s live-in sister, a bodacious young blonde named Sue, who is super-nice to Lux and super-supportive and caring, and Lux reminds us throughout the book that she’s the type of understanding, loving woman a guy could spend his whole life looking for, a gal who asks no questions and puts 100% faith, trust, and love in her man (no wonder Lux has found her, this being a work of fiction and all).
Les’s ulterior motive is that the job he’s arranged for Lux has him working in the shop of a local auto owner; the dude blew a ton of money in a race car that’s been improperly designed and terribly driven. The idea is for Lux to rebuild it to win. He’s instantly fighting with Turkey Johnson, the young local yokel who has been so poorly racing the car – Turkey apparently was in the bar the night a drunken Lux began ranting about piss-poor racers and throwing fists around. Turkey has no idea who Lux is; no one does, only Les Carver, Lux calling himself “Frank Smith.”
Garrity pulls that unexpected trick I always love encountering in these sort of novels – he makes you care about his characters, to the point that the hokum “tough guy learns to care about himself and others” theme is actually more touching than grating. But this is what happens – given the brevity of the book, Sue’s sudden love for “Frank” is a bit hard to swallow, but Garrity doesn’t dwell in the maudlin sappiness; instead he has Lux lording it over Les that Lux might just take advantage of poor lil’ Sue, and how will Good Samaritan Les Carver feel about that??
Lux still runs afoul of everyone else, though of course the redemption angle gradually plays in here as well. He gets yokel Turkey Johnson fired as the racer, given how poorly he’s been doing, and Lux throws himself into rebuilding the auto shop’s racer. Time comes for the big race and sure enough Lux realizes he’s the only person who can drive it. What’s more – he’s decided it will be his last race. Les has gone back to Lux’s hometown (wherever the hell it is) and has uncovered the truth – he knows about Pat Minor’s death and insists that Lux not blame himself. This after Lux has told Les all, even about Carol.
But Lux has decided to kill himself in the race, anyhow. This climax is the longest and most tense race scene in the book, hitting all the action and emotional high points, particularly given the unexpected performance of none other than Turkey Johnson, now driving another car and giving Lux a run for his money. Not to spoil the payoff of this race, but it does end the way you’d imagine – sort of. Lux becomes savior instead of suicide as he must prevent Turkey from wiping out right alongside him. And only now has Lux realized what we readers knew long ago – Turkey pisses Lux off so much because Turkey reminds Lux of himself when he was a hungry young racer.
The finale returns to the Double Indemnity vibe of the opening; Les has uncovered what really happened the night Pat Minor died. He insists Lux go back home with him. After a humorous fistfight (“These things can only go so long unless you’re a trained fighter,” Lux informs us after trading a few punches with Les before collapsing!), Lux says the hell with it and goes along. Back home, Les takes Lux to a local mechanic who has impounded Pat’s crashed yellow bug. Looks like someone did some sabotage to the undercarriage; Lux instantly spots it, confirming the mechanic’s suspicions – sabotage done by someone who knew exactly what they were doing.
This leads to a final Lux-Carol confrontation that is a bit anticlimactic given how quickly the ice cold witch melts. But by this point Garrity has moved beyond the grim hardboiled vibe; Lux is so reformed that he’s even become BFFs with previous punching bag Les Carver. The tale ends with Turkey also new best buds with Lux, with the hint that he’s about to become his protégé, and Sue – who turns out to have known “Frank” was really Lux all along, given how big a fan she is of racers – is there waiting for Lux.
The Hot Mods is one of those novels I expected very little from, but ended up enjoying a whole bunch – enough that I’m soon to read more of Garrity’s ‘60s novels. I’ll also try to get back to that Mafia trilogy he wrote in the ‘70s, but to tell the truth The Hot Mods is much better than The Never Contract.