Thursday, July 21, 2022

In The Pulp Fiction Trenches

In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, by Len Levinson
June, 2022  Rough Edges Press

I’m sure I’m going to get even more long-winded than normal in this review, so I’ll start off with the big finale: In The Pulp Fiction Trenches is one of the best novels I have ever read. This memoir, detailing “The Tumultuous Literary Career” of Len Levinson, is a heatbreaking work of staggering genius. You can forget about Dave Eggers; this is the real deal. It is the book Len Levinson has been working toward since he ventured into his writing career in the early 1970s. It is at turns hilarious, poignant, insightful, and at times even touching, without ever once getting maudlin. If you have even a passing interest in men’s adventure novels, or war novels, or pulp fiction in general – or even life in general – then you owe it to yourself to head over to Amazon and get yourself a copy. 

But In the Pulp Fiction Trenches isn’t just a memoir about Len’s writing career, though it does spend much of its time on that. It’s also about the sometimes-insurmountable troubles Len has encountered over the years…troubles he managed to surmount regardless. And even though the overwhelming theme of the book is the series of crushing “low sales” and cancellations of his vaious writing ventures, there is still a note of dogged optimism throughout the narrative. This I think is one of the main things that appeals to me about Len’s writing; he is clearly an optimist, and despite being “crazy” by his own admission, he is clearly a nice guy. This is also evident in how, despite writing action novels for much of his career, he’s never delivered a purely loathsome villain; even his bad guys have their reasons, and never come off like cliches or stereotypes. 

Len and I have been planning to do an audio interview where we talk about his books, and I’d put it up here as the first (and perhaps only!) Glorious Trash Podcast, but I’ve yet to figure out how the hell to record a phone call. If anyone out there knows a good (and free!) app for doing that, or for doing a podcast, please let me know. But in the meantime I’m just going to list here what I was going to open that podcast with. I’ve read many of Len’s novels over the years and I think I’ve narrowed down what exactly it is that appeals to me about his work. First and foremost, it’s his unique style. No one can write a Len Levinson novel like Len Levinson. This unique style permeates the narrative; even for stuff like his Sharpshooter novels, it’s clear that we don’t have an anonymous author just turning in a mob-busting action novel. There’s always more going on, with a focus on characterization, witty dialog, and occasional dollops of philosophy. Whereas a lot of those series writers of the ‘70s turned in dry, professional books without a wit of personality, Len’s books are all about the personality. 

The other thing, which I’ve noted before, is that Len is literally the only action-adventure writer I know of who has his male protagonists hit on women. This is one that took a few years for me to realize. Whereas the genre staple is for some hotstuff babe to throw herself into the arms of the studly hero, Len Levinson’s protagonists have to work for it. Take for example his Butler series, which is the Len Levinson take on James Bond; Butler spends the majority of his novels trying to put the moves on various women. And often failing. It’s such an inversion of the genre that, like I said, it took a while for me to even realize how different it was…not to mention how much more realistic it is. Not that Len’s action books were bogged down by realism! 

Another thing I love about Len’s work is tied into the optimism I mentioned above; he’s a true believer in various things, like the ideal of love, or that a macrobiotic diet might lead to a breakthrough of zen understanding, but he always undercuts the sap with a joke or a dose of gutbucket reality. The best way to describe this would be a direct quote from Trenches. Early in the book Len describes the few years he spent in the wilds of Canada, in the mid-1970s, living off the land in a hardscrabble but rewarding existence, and he ends the chapter with his comments on how he’d “love to live that way again:” We cannot recapture the past except in our minds, although I’d certainly try if I had the bucks to bring it off. I laughed out loud when I read that. That’s Len’s style in a nutshell: he sets you up with a profundity and ends it with a punchline. And there are gems like that throughout In The Pulp Fiction Trenches

The book is mostly told sequentially, with Len starting off with how he decided to quit his job as a PR agent and become a writer. One thing he doesn’t note in the book is that the 1970s would have been the perfect time to attempt this; there were a glut of paperback houses and publishing outfits at the time, so quitting your job to become a writer wouldn’t have been as risky a proposition then as it would be now. This is not to minimize Len’s gamble, of course. I’m just noting this because the 1970s was a much different era so far as the publishing world went. From there Len details his earliest novels, from a porn paperback to those three Sharpshooter novels, and his standalone books like the incredible Shark Fighter. These chapters started life as the essays Len wrote for my blog years ago, though he has revised and expanded some of them. In some cases he has also included excerpts from my reviews, which flattered me. Except in the case of my comments on Cabby; I was embarrased to see how critical I was of that book. I’m sure if I were to read it again I’d be more positive about it. 

On a pedantic note, one book Len does not cover in Trenches is Streets Of Blood, his installment of the short-lived Bronson series. However, Len wrote his thoughts on that book for Jack Badelaire’s Post Modern Pulps blog back in 2012, so you can read them there. Len covers each book with a chapter, some just a few pages long. These are great windows into a forgotten era, where Len would sit beside the desk of his editor Peter McCurtin and get his latest writing assignment, as if Len were the Bond to McCurtin’s M. Occasionally Len sprinkles in some details of his own life, but really In The Pulp Fiction Trenches isn’t a straight-up autobiography. Indeed, important events in Len’s life are only mentioned in passing, like his two (relatively short) marriages, and the fact that he has a daughter. He focuses more on the writing of the books themselves, and what thought processes formed their narratives. These are great bird’s-eye views into a creative mind at work. 

Other memorable chapters include Len’s tenure as a cab driver, very early in his writing career, and also his thoughts on his first-published book, a hardcore sleaze novel which I’ve been meaning to read and review on here. There’s also great material on Lin Carter, with whom Len worked in the early 1960s at Prentice Hall. There are also chapters here in the early part which do get outside of the writing process, and they’re just as fun, if not more so. One of the highlights of the book is the chapter on Len meeting none other than John Lennon. In his capacity as a PR man, before he quit the game to write, Len was called at a moment’s notice to do the publicity for one of John and Yoko’s bed-ins, and Len well captures the heady air of the times. In just a few sentences Len brings John Lennon to life, and the chapter is interesting because it shows a direction Len’s life could have gone in. Len relates how John took to him, based off Len’s familiarity with a macrobiotic restaurant in New York. Later on, Len is calling radio stations for publicity when John strolls in and starts strumming his guitar, a sort of solo performance for Len. But John somehow detects he’s making Len feel nervous, so he leaves. Len then tells us that, months later – after he’d quit the firm – his old boss told him that John was actually asking about Len. I’ve read a few books about John Lennon, and it seems to me that this is not standard behavior for him; I think it’s clear that he liked Len, and the two of them could have become friends. Who knows, maybe Len could have become Lennon’s assistant/best friend, instead of Frederic Seaman. As if Fate were really trying to get Len’s attention on this, he tells us that years later he passed by a store in the Village in which John and Yoko were shopping, but Len kept on walking despite his momentary consideration to step in and tell them hello. 

But then, Len had his own life to live, and Trenches proves how colorful his life has been. Despite the disappointment that ultimately settles into the narrative, the subtext is quite clear that Len has lived this colorful life precisely because he turned his back on the standard setup of job and family. After all, who will remember you for being a PR agent, or spending your entire life working for a company? Another great chapter is the one mentioned above, where Len lives in a remote cabin in the Canadian woods; I had forgotten that this was where he wrote The Bar Studs and Hype!. Here Len talks about his lifelong friend William Kotzwinkle, who himself provides a chapter for In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, sharing his thoughts on Len. When I first talked to Len, back in 2012, I mentioned to him that The Last Buffoon reminded me of Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man. This really blew Len’s mind, as of course he was friends with Kotzwinkle, something I was not aware of at the time. 

As the narrative moves into the ‘80s, Len talks about his various WWII works, like The Sergeant and The Rat Bastards. It’s the former through which I first discovered Len, when I was a kid; the little library in th town where I grew up had a spinner rack of action paperbacks, and as a kid in the ‘80s I vividly recall bringing home a few volumes of The Sergeant to read. Len spent the majority of that decade writing WWII yarns, before moving into Westerns. Even though I have never been much interested in Westerns I’m sure I will read Len’s novels in this genre, and also his pieces on them here in Trenches are some of the best parts in the book. In particular his chapter on the origins of his Pecos Kid series is one of the book’s highlights. Here, late in the book, Len talks about his childhood, how his mother passed away when he was only four years old and how Len was unceremoniously dropped into foster care by his dad. It’s hard not to read this section and feel bad for little Lenny Levinson, but Len is not one to wallow in self-pity. Indeed, he sees his dad’s later abusive behaviour as a way to teach Len “coping skills.” 

Another thing I’ve noticed about Len’s overall work is that his protagonsts are generally strong-willed men who are determined to make a name for themselves. As if they were trying to prove themselves. It’s such a consistent theme that I’m certain it’s some sort of subconscious thing on Len’s part. I’d known about his childhood, of his mother dying when he was very yong and his father not being around, and over the years I’ve figured that is the core of the theme: perhaps those protagonists are driven to prove they are worth it, that they matter. In this regard the chapter on The Pecos Kid is almost a skeleton key to Len’s work in general, and it’s also a wonderful indication of how he uses his own experiences to fuel his fiction…I loved the part of how the young Pecos Kid’s plans for his future were inspired by the young Len Levinson’s plans in Miami. Again, this chapter is one of the highlights of In The Pulp Fiction Trenches; Len clearly cared about his Western books (in fact it’s clear he cared about all his books – he never just turned in a lazy first draft), to the extent that his enthusiasm for them is enough to make one want to read them. 

Despite his unflagging devotion to his Westerns, Len was still dumped and canceled, thus had to go back to driving taxis and working various odd jobs. I mean a guy who had spent two decades at this point as a published author, and he had to go back to driving cabs. As if that weren’t depressing enough, Len also details a chapter in which a good friend commited suicide, ultimately leading Len to have a crisis which had him contemplating suicide – and willingly checking himself into an insane asylum. What I found interesting is that this chapter comes right after a chapter in which Len relates how, after the cancellation of his latest Western series, he was desperate to come up with a new novel idea, something that would finally put him in the big leagues. He ended up writing a story about an intelligent parrot, one that was owned by a go-go dancer, but Len was unable to sell the manuscript. What I found interesting is that Len’s bout in the insane asylum was the “bestseller story idea” he was looking for. Wasn’t there like a big-selling “novel” a couple years ago where some guy wrote about his time in drug rehab, and it all turned out to be fiction? Len could’ve been the person to write that story, with the caveat that his story actually happened. 

But as In The Pulp Fiction Trenches draws to a close, Len’s focus turns away from writing, due to his lack of success. He works for a few years in a child-care facility in New York, and Len is so overwhelmed by how poorly-run the place is that he writes an expose which is published in The Village Voice. Len includes this piece in the book, also noting that he wrote an unpublished book about the experience. The most grueling chapter in the book soon follows, in which Len relates his bout with prostate cancer. Len is incredibly candid in this chapter, and manages to take what could be a sad story and makes it poignant, touching, and even funny. There is also a fascinating bit of life imitating art. I won’t get into all the details, but post-surgery Len finds himself unable to perform in certain capacities…and he relates all of this with that same bittersweet humor. But he is told by his doctors that there are various gizmos he could use to provide assistance in these capacities, and not only does Len find them “grotesque” but he also laughs at the idea of hauling these gizmos out from under the bed, to the puzzlement of the woman he happens to be in bed with. Well, I’d recently read Len’s Love Me To Death, which featured the recurring gag of Butler hiding his gun in his pants…and carrying the bundled-up pants into bed with him, to the puzzlement of the women he happened to be in bed with. 

Len’s medical problems aren’t over, though: soon after we have a chapter detailing his 2012 heart attack, and again the incident is treated more with humor than with self-pity. I recall when this happened, as it was shortly after I first contacted Len; at the time, he wrote an essay about the experience, which he has revised for this book. One thing he did not mention in that original 2012 essay, which he does state here, is that he happened to be high on marijuana at the time of his heart attack! Both the original essay and the chapter in this book feature Len’s doctor telling Len that, within a year of the heart attack, Len’s heart would be even stronger. I can personally attest to this. When I met with Len in 2016, we spent the majority of the day walking across Chicago. And we walked a lot. Even though I’m 40 years younger than Len, I was the one who wanted to stop to rest, whereas Len just wanted to keep walking. 

One thing that floored me about In The Pulp Fiction Trenches is how Len subtly changes his tone throughout the book. The early sections capture the wild-eyed (and possibly drug-fueled) optimism of his early writing career, and Len comes off like the real-life Alexander Frapkin, of The Last Buffoon. As an acquaintance tells Len: “You’re the craziest person I know. But you seem normal.” (Len is so flattered by this comment that he tells us about it a few times.) There are funny Frapkin-esque moments, like when Len momentarily loses the ability to speak when a publisher tells him he could become a millionaire. As the book progresses, though, the constant tide of rejections and cancelations take their toll, and a note of disillusionment permeates the chapters. Ultimately Len questions his choice to become a writer, that his “so-called literary career” was really just a joke, and that at the end of it he was just a loser. He is especially disappointed that his newly-published novels (ie Web Of DoomGrip Of Death, and Cobra Woman) and his various reprints (ie the reprints through Destroyer Books and various eBooks) have not been selling very well. 

After I read Trenches I had a revelation on why Len has yet to achieve the literary fame he deserves: it’s not because he’s a poor writer, or a deluded fool, or any of the other things he occasionally calls himself in the book. It’s because his agents and his publishers did him a disservice. The simple reason is that his books, starting at least with the Butler series, should have been published under his own name. Or even under his standalone novel pseudonym, Leonard Jordan. That way Len could have established and maintained a core following for each of his ventures. But the way things played out…say someone read and loved The Last Buffoon in 1980, and then a few years later came across an installment of The Rat Bastards at a bookstore. Unless the reader actually purchased the book and read it – and noticed the similarity of the writing style – he never would have known that “John Mackie” was also “Leonard Jordan.” But the publishers were more concerned with anonymous house names so they could continue publishing the various series with different authors; Len’s career was clearly not a concern. Again though this is short-sighted. One of the many profundities Len notes in Trenches is his response to an agent in the ‘90s, when yet another of Len’s series is about to be canceled due to “little profits,” as the publishers now demand “big profits.” To which Len responds, “But little profits add up to big profits.” It’s such common sense that it comes off as genius, but obviously didn’t change the minds of the publishers. 

As for why Len’s reprints aren’t selling well, just speaking as a collector of vintage paperbacks, I think people are more willing to pay more for the original item, even if a modern reprint would be more affordable. But there are many cases where the original paperback is either impossible to find our just priced out of reach. So then why wouldn’t the reprints of such books sell well? I think it comes down to the presentation. I don’t mean to criticize those publishers who are bringing men’s adventure novels back into print; I’m just speaking from my own opinion. But all of them reprint the books either as eBooks or as trade paperbacks with Photoshopped covers. This I feel detracts from the experience. I think those reprints should be mass market paperbacks, and to the exact physical dimensions of a 1970s paperback. This is how Tocsin Press books are printed, by the way – to the point that your copy of The Psycho Killers will fit right beside your vintage copy of The Thrill Killers on the shelf! It’s like how vinyl records sells better than compact discs today, even though the vinyl is more expensive and is itself sourced from digital, same as the compact disc. Collectors are willing to pay more for a special medium, and I honestly believe that if Len’s Butler novels were reprinted in paperback, to the same dimensions of a ‘70s paperback, they’d sell a lot better than they would as eBooks. Well anyway it’s just my opinion, but maybe one of the reprint publishers out there might come across this and give it a shot – after all, most of them use Amazon’s KDP service, and KDP can publish mass market paperbacks to those dimensions. That’s how Tocsin does it! 

I would read In The Pulp Fiction Trenches at night, and there were some nights I was so keyed up after reading that I couldn’t sleep. I had a particularly sleepness night after reading the chapters on prostate cancer, Grip Of Death, and Cobra Woman. But whereas a sort of pragmatic acceptance overtakes Len’s narrative in these latter chapters, I instead found myself getting pissed off – that Len had been so ill-served by his agents and his publishers. I mean how in the hell could an agent worth his or her salt not have sold The Last Buffoon in the ‘70s? The book could have easily become a cult classic along the lines of The Fan Man. Hell, it could’ve been a bestseller, with the right marketing. But instead it was rejected and then ultimately released years later by Belmont Tower, probably in a scarce printing and certainly without any marketing or publicity. It boggles my mind. I mean the upmarket imprints were publishing total shit in the ‘70s, like The Mafia’s Virgin Daughter. But The Last Buffoon is rejected. 

But then, as you get older, you gradually learn that people in positions of authority rarely know what the hell they are talking about. A case in point: in the chapter on Grip Of Death, Len notes with clear bitterness that the novel started life due to his agent. In the ‘90s, when Len was looking for a new project after the latest cancellation, his agent suggested, “How about a novel about the Civil War?” I almost wanted to reach into the book and knock on the agent’s forehead: “Helllooo! Who the hell is reading books about the Civil War in the 1990s?!!” But then maybe this was around the time Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published, and the agent was looking to get on a bandwagon. But even if that were so – did she expect Len Levinson to write a book like Cold Mountain? I mean I’m not saying that Len couldn’t, I’m just saying that this errant comment comes off like an agent completely unfamiliar with the work of her client. The fact that she even refused to read Len’s manuscript – which she herself suggested he friggin’ write – only made me want to reach into the book again…and do more than knock on her forehead. 

So Len, no – you aren’t a terrible writer, you were just served poorly by those who could steer your career. I mean I can understand why Len’s early books were under house names, but by the time of Butler he should have at least been credited by one name, whether his own or Leonard Jordan, and one name only. This would have established a readership that would have followed him through the various series. I mean this is how sci-fi authors survive, isn’t it? I’m not talking about the bestsellers; I’m talking about the ones who turned in a book a year and made a career off that. And speaking of sci-fi, at one point in the book Len notes that he was riding high at the time, as he was confident that he could write in any genre. Unfortunately the one genre he never wrote in was science fiction. This is why I’ve always said that Venus On The Half-Shell is the closest thing to a “Len Levinson sci-fi novel” we ever got. 

I first got in touch with Len in early 2012; I’d just read The Last Buffoon for the second time, after discovering it in 2005 in a Half Price Bookstore in Dallas. The copy was signed “Leonardo Levinson,” and after a bit of research I discovered that this was the real name of the “Leonard Jordan” credited on the cover. I read the book then and really enjoyed it, but when I read it again in 2012 I loved it, given that I was once again into the men’s adventure novels I’d read as a kid. But at the time Len did not have an online presence, at least one I was aware of. I think I even asked James Reasoner about him – and I have gone all this time without mentioning James, who should be thanked for bringing In The Pulp Fiction Trenches into print for everyone to enjoy. James, who also had read Len’s books, didn’t know what happened to him, or whether he was still alive. Then I came across a comment “Len Levinson” had left on Amazon for a review of The Last Buffoon. At that time you could comment on reviews, something I think Amazon has now disabled. And also, Len commented on this specific review because it had been posted by a woman – we discussed this years later, and he was surprised because it’s not a book you’d expect a woman would read, let alone enjoy. But anyway, in his comment Len noted his location, and I did some real-deal Big Brother searching and tracked him down via an online phone catalog for that Illinois town. There was of course only one “Len Levinson” in that phone book, so I figured it had to be the same guy – and luckily, it turned out to be him. 

I bring all this up because shortly after we got in contact, Len had his heart attack, and while he was convalescing I suggested a book I’d recently read and enjoyed: Jean Dutourd’s The Horrors Of Love. This is a super-long novel (almost as long as this review!) that was published in France in the early ‘60s, and then translated and published in the US in the late ‘60s. It was a Book Of The Month Club selection and etc, but it must’ve gone over like a lead balloon because there was only the hardcover edition, and it’s completely unknown today. I got my copy for a dollar in an antique store in 2005 and couldn’t believe how good the book was. It’s about two guys walking around Paris, discussing the murder-suicide affair of a colleague, and the entire novel is rendered in dialog. In fact, I always thought that the day Len and I walked around Chicago, talking the entire time, was like our own version of The Horrors Of Love. Well anyway, back in early 2012 I suggested Len read the novel, and in an email to me dated June 26, 2012, Len wrote: “I finally finished reading The Horrors Of Love and really enjoyed it…Dutourd’s insights were remarkable. Compared to him, I feel like a featherweight writer and thinker.” 

With In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, Len proves the fallacy of his own words. A “featherweight writer and thinker” could not have written a book with this kind of impact. And it is filled with plenty of remarkable insights. It is a book to be read and enjoyed, and then dipped into again and again. Since “finishing” Trenches I’ve picked it up at least five more times to read a section again. That’s how good it is. So long story short, I recommend In The Pulp Fiction Trenches probably more than any other book I’ve ever reviewed on here. You all should know, I’m never pushy about telling you to buy books. I mean the blog isn’t even monetized. I write these reviews for fun, because I’m reviewing books I enjoy. But I’ll be pushy about this one – please head over to Amazon and purchase a copy of In The Pulp Fiction Trenches. Len has been ignored for too long in his career. The best way we can show him he matters is to buy this wonderful book.


Steve Carroll said...

Outstanding review of an important voice in our favorite genre. I just ordered it. Thanks, Joe!

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

An excellent and enlightening review about a great book by a great writer. Kudos to Len and you!

Unknown said...

You asked about recording a phone call for a podcast. Use zoom and get Zencastr - which is easy to use and records at good quality. To sound really good, each of you would use microphones, but you can do it without that and it's still listenable. Last time I used it, Zencastr was essentially free. Check it out, would love to hear a podcast with Len.

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

I forgot to mention, I use the app named REV on my iPhone to record interview calls. It works well for me -

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!