Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Bar Studs

The Bar Studs, by Leonard Jordan
March, 1976  Fawcett Crest Books

The second novel Len Levinson published under his “Leonard Jordan” pseudonym, The Bar Studs is an awesome trip back to the shaggy pre-disco New York City of 1974. As usual with one of Len’s novels it’s more about the characters than the plot, with the tale recounting the sleazy lives of six bartenders as they variously find fortune, love, heartbreak, and tragedy. 

First up is Adrian, owner of a Greenwich Village bar which bears his name. A total ‘70s dude, Adrian is a good-looking guy who smokes dope in his upstairs apartment/office and entertains various women. This latter point gets him in trouble with his girlfriend, the true owner of the bar; after she catches Adrian in bed with a cute young waitress named Julie, she kicks his ass out. But don’t feel bad for Adrian, as within just an hour or so of losing his bar and girlfriend he’s once again in bed with Julie and her roommate, a pretty young black lady who also works at the bar.

Then there’s Johnny Mash, coke-snorting bartender at Adrian’s. At first Johnny and Adrian seem a bit too similar, but as the narrative progresses you see that Johnny Mash is one son of a bitch; he “treats” a somewhat-attractive customer by going home with her, and after forcing her to give him a blowjob at knifepoint he sleeps with her, makes her blow him again in the morning, and then steals cash from her wallet and an expensive watch from her desk while she’s in the shower!

Next is Leo, who tends bar at a hot nightspot where he himself sticks out like a sore thumb; whereas the place is known as a haven for the beautiful people, Leo himself is bald, fat, and “old” at 42. Of all the characters Leo the most comes off like Frapkin in The Last Buffoon, eternally bemoaning his lot in life and jerking off to fantasies of women who wouldn’t be caught dead with him. But like Frapkin he brings most of the misery upon himself, like when Leo lets a gorgeous stewardess stay with him after she has a fight with her boyfriend…and the lady proceeds to use Leo for everything but sexual purposes.

Jake is a bartender in the Bowery, and his sequences come off like a Jerky Boys skit a few decades early, what with the vitriol he spews out upon his hapless “customers.” Bums the lot of them, Jake treats these men and women like such pieces of shit that you can’t help but feel sorry for them. For instance his nightly regimen of closing the bar, which entails him screaming “Get the fuck out, you bums!” and roughing them up as he tosses them out. But Len develops a soft side for Jake when he comes across a stray cat; this serves as Jake’s story in the novel, as through the cat, which he names Khrushchev, Jake begins to actually talk to one of his customers, a “floozie” who was once married to a vet but is now a homeless alcoholic.

Teddy is a bartender at a trendy gay bar, and his sections get the least development in the novel (though Len does serve up an explicit sex scene when Teddy takes an attractive man home with him from the bar). Teddy’s scenes though are the most lurid, as in a scene that could’ve come out of Len's Ryker installment Teddy is knocked unconscious by the attractive man once they’ve had sex…and then the man rams an eight-inch railroad spike up Teddy’s ass! Turns out this guy has done this to a few other gays, and now Teddy, recuperating in the hospital, is trying to help the cops find the sadist.

Finally there’s John Houlihan, who gets almost as little narrative time as Teddy. Older than the other bartenders in the novel, Houlihan tends bar at a super-upscale hotel, where he’s worked for the past few decades. Here he is treated like a friend by the millionaires who congregrate around him for drinks. Houlihan’s character is opened up a bit more when we learn that he has a live-in son who lost his legs in Vietnam.

The above character-rundowns really also serve as plot-rundowns, as there’s no unifying thread that connects everything, save for Adrian and Johnny Mash. Whereas the other bartenders go on with their own separate storylines, Adrian and Johnny are together affected by the sudden closing of Adrian’s bar. Adrian himself tries to repair the relationship with his girlfriend, Sandra, and thus get back the bar, while Johnny visits his Uncle Al, who happens to be a mafioso. After berating Johnny for never visiting his mother, Uncle Al asks Johnny if he’d make a hit for a few thousand bucks, so now Johnny’s gone from being a bartender to a Mafia hitman.

And what with the Mafia stuff and a character named “Johnny,” you can’t help but think of Len’s three contributions to the Sharpshooter series, particularly his first one, The Worst Way To Die, which like The Bar Studs featured a hit in a restaurant. But whereas in that earlier novel it was Johnny Rock blowing away a mobster while he ate his pasta, here it’s Johnny Mash waltzing into a Puerto Rican bar and firing several shots into his victim.

Throughout the novel Len’s usual strengths are in full effect; you get the feeling these characters actually exist, and their ways of speaking and interracting with one another come off as very true to life. For example how Johnny Mash idly flirts with a Puerto Rican girl in the bar as he waits for his target to arrive; you can tell the girl finds his sudden interest in her exciting, but Johnny could care less and is just killing time. Or the scenes with Houlihan’s handicapped son, Donald, which are played with zero sappiness, with Donald bullshitting over beer and football with another vet about “Vietnamese pussy” and how cheaply it could be had during the war.

The maudlin-free treatment Len gives this sensitive topic is refreshing, as in today’s world it would be played up for all its “emotional content.” Len instead has Houlihan and one of his wealthy patrons going out into the city to find Donald a hooker. This scene also sees a cameo from the protagonist/narrator of a later Len novel: Shumsky the taxi driver, who later appeared in Cabby, a 1980 Belmont-Tower novel also published under the Leonard Jordan pseudonym. Shumsky, though only appearing here for a few pages, turns out to be one of the more memorable charactres, as he drives Houlihan and his wealthy friend around lower Manhattan in search of a suitable whore.

If like me you’re fascinated by the sleazy ‘70s, then you’ll definitely dig The Bar Studs, as Len peppers the novel with all kinds of period details. And speaking of sleaze he also serves up lots of graphic sex scenes, leaving little to the imagination as Johnny Mash gets his rocks off (while holding a knife to the poor lady’s throat!) or as Adrian has sex in his loft apartment above the bar with Julie. Drug use is also rampant, with characters snorting coke and smoking dope with abandon – and, best of all, with none of the “moral implications” that would be forced upon such scenes in today’s world. These people just want to get stoned and fuck, and what’s wrong with that?

I did sort of wish that there was more of a unifying thread to the novel; other than the fact that they’re all bartenders, the protagonists have no interraction with one another. It’s also worth mentioning that the novel really isn’t about bartending at all. Other than a few parts in the opening of the novel, we rarely see the protagonists at work. The novel is moreso about their lives outside of the bar. This is fine, though, as reading a novel solely about bartending would get to be a drag after a while. At any rate the novel sparkles with Len’s customary wit and moments of philosophy, enriched with the occasional dash of utter sleaze, and that’s basically all I could ask of a novel.

Finally, The Bar Studs has recently been e-published, and comes with a few bonus articles: “My So-Called Literary Career,” which Len wrote last year for Justin Marriott’s Paperback Fanatic #23, and a great new piece titled “John Lennon & Me,” in which Len recounts in entertaining fashion how he met John and Yoko back in 1970. The ebook is available here – the only thing it’s missing is the great cover art from the original Fawcett Crest edition.

A couple months ago I asked Len if he’d share the background on a few of his novels, The Bar Studs among them. Here’s what he had to say:

I wrote The Bar Studs because I liked to go to bars when I lived in NYC. And I was drawn to bars not because I liked to drink, but because that's where the action was, where I could meet single women interested in romance, the female counterparts of myself. 

During my 42 years in New York City, I went to all kinds of New York bars, from the Oak Room at the Plaza, to singles bars on the East Side, to Village hangouts, to Bowery dives, to gay men's bars in the Village out of curiosity, and even one jaunt to a lesbian bar called The Duchess, where I was made to feel very uncomfortable. 

I guess I should amend what I wrote above, because ultimately I didn't go to bars just for romance, or to get laid, although those were my primary objectives. I also went because I met many interesting people of all types who were great storytellers. 

I especially enjoyed a Village bar called Bradley's that featured live jazz. I'd give almost anything for another musical night at Bradley's, but Bradley now is dead and the bar no longer exists, as far as I know (I no longer reside in NYC). 

Since my writer's mind was and is always tossing up stories, a novel about bars coalesced in my mind as I sat on those bar stools around 1972. I conceived it as the varieties of bar experience, about all the different kinds of New York bars I went to, and the different people I met there. 

Before arriving in NYC, I worked as a bartender at various joints in Lansing, Michigan, when I was a student at Michigan State University. So I knew what it was like on the other side, rushing back and forth on the floorboards, mixing, pouring, collecting money, making change, becoming embroiled in conversations, and learning that inebriated people often spill their secrets to bartenders, while certain women, after a few drinks, tend to flirt with the bartender. 

My working title was "The Bartenders", and the developing novel told the stories of six bartenders. Adrian and Johnny worked in a bar similar to Bradley's in the Village, Leo in an East Side singles bar similar to Maxwell's Plum, Teddy in a Village gay bar similar to Ty's on Christopher Street, Jake was a Bowery bartender, and Houlihan served martinis and other libations to the upscale crowd at the Oak Room at the Plaza. 

Actually, the novel was about more than bar life. Like all my novels, it also was about love, hate, violence, anger, crime, frustration, and the pornography of everyday life. 

Fawcett bought publication rights, changed the title to The Bar Studs, and gave it what I considered a great cover. It became my best-selling novel, around 95,000 copies bought by unsuspecting readers. I hope it gave them a good ride. It certainly was a great ride for me. I love that book and always will. It's about a New York City that's gone forever, but never forgotten by people who were there. 

Of course, the novel includes examples here and there of my occasional awkward writing, and egregious bad taste. But I was a sleazy character myself in those days, and couldn't help myself. Now I'm trying to be a dignified elderly gentlemen, without much success, I'm sorry to say.


Brian Drake said...

Great article. Now I want to go get the book!

Jack Badelaire said...

I read this book a few months ago in ebook form, and loved it. As you say not so much a novel with its own arc, as a collection of character studies, each with their own, largely independent arcs.

I think the book's greatest strength is the broad range of characters. It's not just about sex and drugs, but about - as Len says - life in an NYC that no longer exists. The sex and drugs do feature prominently, and as you point out, are just part and parcel with the story, nothing for us to get hung up on or fuss over.

Overall a great read, and highly recommended. A bunch of Len's books are being republished in ebook form by Piccadilly Publishing, including his SERGEANT series, BUTLER, and others. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Len's also recently joined Facebook, and has posted quite a bit about the history of his career.

Anonymous said...

"But I was a sleazy character myself in those days, and couldn't help myself. Now I'm trying to be a dignified elderly gentlemen, without much success, I'm sorry to say."

Haha! Len Levinson seems like a pretty cool guy. I'm glad you're bringing his work back to modern readership.

Griff said...

cool, it was re-released as an ebook? I'll definitely give this a read

Grant said...

I know I go on about the DESTROYER series in general and # 5 in particular. But the illustration on the bottom left corner of this book's cover is what should've been on THAT one's cover, since it would've made a good visual aid for a big scene in the book. No, the DESTROYER books weren't ALL THAT MUCH about titillation, but they didn't mind giving big doses of it, especially the early ones.

Kurt said...

I ordered my ebook for this yesterday. Looking forward to siding up to the bar and digging the scene.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. Those of you who've ordered the ebook, Len thanks you, and I hope you all enjoy the novel!

And Jack, thanks for letting me know the Butler series is now out as ebooks as well, that's one I haven't talked to Len much about. I've been meaning to check it out for a while, but prices for used copies of that series are kinda steep, so it's good to hear it's now available in a more affordable digital version.

And by the way, Lee, that's one of my favorite lines from Len, glad you enjoyed it too. He really is a pretty cool guy.

dandiacal said...

Bradleys was one of the great jazz clubs in NYC, bar none. All of the best jazz pianists would play there and I was fortunate to grow up seeing some of the greats, including Cedar Walton RIP