Paradise Alley, by Sylvester Stallone
October, 1978 Berkley Books
I’ve never seen Sylvester Stallone’s 1978 movie Paradise Alley, and tell the truth had never even heard of it until I discovered this tie-in novel a few years ago. At the time I read somewhere that Stallone had written the novel first, then did the film, which was his followup to Rocky and also his debut as director. What’s most interesting about Paradise Alley is that it presents Stallone as an “event picture” type of actor instead of the action star he’d become more famous as with Rambo and other action flicks in the ‘80s.
Paradise Alley was a dud, though, and this novelization appears to be just as forgotten. I need to see the movie to see how it differs from the book; if it’s true that Paradise Alley started as a novel, then I must assume this is that novel, unless Stallone rewrote it to cater to his script. In his contemporary review of Paradise Alley, critic Leos Carax (who memorably describes the movie as “an orphan’s nightmare”) states that the project started life in 1970 and that Stallone’s original script was much “darker.” So is this novel what the original, darker script was based on? Perhaps Sylvester Stallone himself will leave a comment here and clear up the mystery. (Hey, I can dream, right!) While the novel isn’t super dark, there is a bit of weird stuff that I’m betting didn’t make it into the film…like the part where the character Stallone plays wants to make a fast buck by lining up a bunch of winos to screw the corpse of a dead hooker! I mean, it’s not exactly up there with Adrian rushing into the ring to hug Rocky, is it?
First published in hardcover in 1977 (where it was reviewed by Kirkus), Paradise Alley received this paperback edition the year of the film’s release. It includes some stills from the movie, which I assume were not in the original hardcover edition. There are also a handful of illustrations by an artist named Tom Wright, and I assume these were in the hardcover. What’s curious is that neither Wright nor Kirkus seem to know which of the three main characters Stallone would play; the uncredited Kirkus reviewer assumes it will be Victor Carboni, the brawny but gentle ice truck driver who eventually becomes a wrestling champ – clearly the role someone would expect Stallone to play, post Rocky, especially given that Victor is in love with the Adrian-esque wallflower Rose. However Wright, judging from his illustrations, seems to think Stallone will play Lenny Carboni, the morose WWII vet who becomes increasingly Machiavellan as the story progresses.
As it turns out, Stallone played Cosmo Carboni, the least “Stallone-esque” character in the film, a conman with hardly any redeeming features. The character, as featured here in the novel, is so unlike any Stallone has ever played that I’m determined to see the film one of these days to see how Stallone pulls it off. Well anyway, Paradise Alley takes place in 1946 and occurs solely within Hell’s Kitchen, New York; supposedly the original title of the script was “Hell’s Kitchen.” But this is a 1946 straight out of classic cinema, and I concur with the Kirkus reviewer that the dialog here is much more 1930s than late ‘40s, but then it’s not like I was there and could give an accurate assessment. At any rate, Stallone well captures the grungy vibe of the place, presenting a small cast of penniless lowlifes; Leos Carax was very apt in his “orphan’s nightmare” description, as Paradise Alley takes place in a world in which grown men act more like waifs, where bullies roam the streets and there are no “adults” to set things straight.
Stallone writes the tale in a simple, earthy sort of tone, with a lot of dialog and not much effort into word-painting the settings. In a way it reminds me of the Bowery sequences in The Bar Studs. Stallone, for some random reason, also sprinkles the narrative with short poems that seem inspired by haiku. But despite the aforementioned necrophilia for dollars plot, the tone is pretty much PG here, or at least the ‘70s version of PG, with only a little cursing and no real dwelling on any explicit stuff. Cosmo even has a hooker he visits frequently, but the sequences are mostly given over to dialog concerning the plot before immediately “fading to black” before the sleazy activities begin. I have to say overall that I really enjoyed Paradise Alley, and felt that it worked fine as a novel in its own right. And in fact I’m wondering if this will be a situation like The Rose, where the tie-in novel is such its own thing that seeing the film it’s based on would spoil it.
Stallone spends the first hundred pages (of a 215-page, big-print book) on character building, before he gets down to the promised “wrestling” plot. He brings us into the grimy world of Hell’s Kitchen, in the sweltering summer of 1946, and introduces the three brothers who will be our protagonists: there’s Victor, who makes a meager living as an iceman, hauling hundreds of pounds of ice around town on his deliveries; Cosmo, the conman, with his “shockingly long hair” and anachronistic earring; and finally Lenny, with his cane and war injury and his perpetual scowl, who works in a funeral parlor. They’re all grown men, but the way they live together in a dingy home and insist how they must “stick together” only adds to that “orphan” vibe Carax noted.
And the “nightmare” vibe is also present; within the first few pages Victor sees a dead dog on his route and some kids are trying to play with it, and there are a lot of refrences to dog shit and bird shit in this opening sequence. During his route Victor also comes across a legless vet who is begging for money; in one of the novel’s first big reveals this turns out to be none other than Cosmo Carboni, the “legless vet” bit one of his many cons. Lenny Carboni doesn’t feature as much in this opening half of the novel; as mentioned he’s morose, much more of a grown-up than either of his brothers in that he just wants to work and doesn’t daydream like either of them. The implication is that he’s come back from the war “half a man” and is now content to just live his lot in life here in the squalor of Hell’s Kitchen, and doesn’t dream of escaping like Cosmo and Victor do. In fact, Stallone is a bit guilty of completely changing Lenny’s personality in the second half of the novel, but he does at least set it up in a believable way.
In addition to his dreams of striking it rich via some scheme and escaping Hell’s Kitchen, Cosmo also dreams of Annie, a local looker who works as a dancer. Gradually Stallone will dole out another reveal: Annie and Lenny used to be an item, until Lenny decided to become a hero and go fight in the war. This however is not mentioned in the text until halfway through the book. But instead of plot-building, Stallone is focused on bringing his characters and their world to life in these opening hundred pages. The dialog throughout is priceless, with some of the most bizarre putdowns and retorts I’ve heard this side of a Jerky Boys skit. But it’s all G-rated, just super oddball, like “Go stand in a corner and pretend you’re popular!” and the like. Or Victor’s “You guys are causin’ me to breathe heavy!” when Cosmo and Lenny start nagging at him.
Cosmo is an oddball himself; there’s a weird bit early on where he and Victor visit Lenny in the funeral home and Cosmo starts making inappropriate comments about the “stiffs,” noting the stink. There’s a lot of death in this hot New York summer, and one guy who’s died was a street performer who had a pet monkey. Cosmo wants the monkey for one of his schemes, but one of the boys in Nickels Mahon’s gang has gotten hold of it. Nickels and his street toughs are straight out of that “nightmare,” roaming Hell’s Kitchen and preying on the weak, but still it has a juvenile vibe, with Nickels mostly trading insults with the Carboni brothers. However there is a dark quality at play; in an effective sequence Cosmo remembers the time when he saw Nickels and gang beat a bum to death:
But now Cosmo wants that damn monkey. So at the neighborhood hangout Mickey’s Bar (surely an in-joke reference to Rocky’s trainer) Cosmo challenges Nickels: if Victor can beat Nickels’s hulking stooge Frankie the Thumper in an arm wrestling match, then the monkey is Cosmo’s. Otherwise Cosmo will owe Nickels a lot of money. This is where the brothers first learn the untamed power Victor has at his disposal, and also where they learn that he’ll only fight when his brothers believe in him. This will be the first pretense toward the main plot, but before that we’ll have more material with Cosmo’s schemes, like for example his plan to line up some drunks and tell them a dead hooker is really just “sleeping.” Tom Wright illustrates this scene, of Cosmo and Victor standing over the hooker’s corpse in the funeral parlor:
But it’s not until around page 100 that we get to the wrestling setup, and it’s a spur of the moment thing, as Cosmo again eagerly volunteers Victor’s brawn. A “colored” fighter named Big Glory has remained undefeated in the ring at Paradise Alley, where people can bet on the fighters. Cosmo, apropos of nothing, dubs Victor “Kid Salami” and talks him into fighting Big Glory, which Lenny is opposed to. But Victor again proves his worth in the ring, which takes us into the main plot, of Victor becoming a famous Hell’s Kitchen wrestler, working his way up on the underground fight circuit. Here too Stallone reveals that Annie and Lenny were an item before the war, and Cosmo gets his heart broken when he sees the two back together.
Also here as mentioned Lenny gets a personality overhaul; whereas the first half of the novel he’s taciturn and introverted, with Victor’s success in the ring Lenny turns into his aggressive manager, pushing Lenny further and further. This comes off as very awkward given that there’s not much setup for Lenny to suddenly become such a prick, but Stallone does sort of cover for it, as previous to this Cosmo gives Lenny a “what the hell happened to you?” speech, where he accuses Lenny of being a fool and rushing off to prove himself in the war…and coming home with nothing to show for it but a bum leg. (As I say, Cosmo is pretty unlikable at times.) Shortly after this Lenny’s not only rekindled his relationship with Anne, but he’s also become a new man, pushing Victor around like a proto-Don King. He also comes up with the schtick of hanging actual salamis on Victor before he enters the wring. But the implication is that Cosmo’s speech has spurred this change, serving as a moment of clarity for Lenny.
Cosmo for his part becomes Victor’s trainer, leading to more goofball stuff, like Cosmo making Victor through radiators and such. Again, nothing on the par of running up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but still entertaining in its own right. As for the wrestling matches, Stallone doesn’t dwell on them much. They’re for the most part rendered in a few sentences, and only occasionally does Stallone give blow-by-blow action description. There is though this phenomenal sentence when Victor knocks out one of his opponents: “Patty McLade dropped to the floor like a whore’s nightgown.” Again it comes down more to character, with Victor losing his lovable nature and becoming more of a “killer” in the ring. Unexpectedly here Stallone goes for the heart strings in a sequence that comes out of nowhere but leaves the longest impression on the reader: on Christmas Eve, a drunk Cosmo comes across Big Glory, the black fighter Victor defeated on his path to wrestling fame, and the two men carouse around Hell’s Kitchen, trading goofy dialog; a sequence that leads to a surprising, and touching, climax.
The same can’t be said for the actual climax of the novel, though; Nickels Mahon, planning revenge on the Carboni brothers, gets Frankie the Thumper into his own wrestling career, leading to a final confrontation between the two giants in Paradise Alley. At this point the Carboni brothers are split asunder, with Victor a sadistic brawler, Lenny a heartless bastard, and Cosmo hating Lenny not only for taking Annie from him, but for being such a merciless controller of Victor. But the brothers reuinite during this climactic brawl, after which things get back to how they were at the start of the novel. Stallone goes for a circular approach, implying that the Carboni brothers can never leave Hells Kitchen, but by novel’s end it’s clear that there’s no place they’d rather be.
So in closing I have to say I enjoyed Paradise Alley more than I thought I would. It’s a fast-moving tale for sure, and Stallone shows his screenwriting nature by sticking mostly to colorful dialog instead of scenery description. I did feel that the wrestling angle wasn’t properly exploited, but I’m assuming the movie goes into more depth in that regard. I’m also curious to see if Cosmo’s various schemes make their way into the film. Speaking of which, Stallone clearly intended to play Cosmo, as he’s the main protagonist of the novel, appearing more than either Lenny or Victor. But as mentioned Tom Wright must’ve been under the impression Stallone would play Lenny, as evidenced by this illustration of the cane-wielding Lenny looming behind Victor: