Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ed McBain’s The Gutter and the Grave – An Appreciation

Year after year I waited for Ed McBain’s new books like a kid waits for Christmas, books that he produced with certain regularity. Not even once was I disappointed. This writer delivered the goods not because it was expected of him, but because he was a man born to write.

Evan Hunter or Ed McBain (October 15, 1926 - July 6, 2005) was a prolific writer—thank God! I will let others tell you about his life, his accolades, and other merits; for now I only want to comment on one of his early novels: The Gutter and the Grave. Just because the novel is an early production (1958), do not for a second think that it is a novice’s work. Not at all. A few days ago I re-read it and I want to share my impressions as to what makes this novel a delightful reading.


Because the text —narrative, description, dialogue, and action— is so riveting we tend to race ahead to keep up with the narrator’s voice; yet, if we slow down a bit the ear can pick up the cadences and rhythm through the written echoes:
“He tried not to notice the shabby wrinkled suit I was wearing, or the soiled shirt, or the fact that I hadn’t shaved in a week. He tried not to notice my red-rimmed eyes, too, but he didn’t succeed in hiding his initial shock or the slow adjustment he was making to my appearance.”
Notice in the above excerpt how the repetitions “He tried not to notice” which coupled with the repetition of the coordinating conjunction ‘or’ achieve a melodic effect.

Nominative absolutes

Not only are these constructs —nominative absolutes— of the English language tough to handle, they are confusing; as a result many writers don’t use them. Not Ed McBain. He is the master of the absolute. And he uses them in their different varieties: “You wouldn’t know a voice from a hearse.” Laraine said angrily, her eyes blazing. [Noun followed by present participle]. “I guess Johnny Bridges saw the initials at the same time I did because he let out a short sharp scream and then whirled to me, his eyes wide with terror.” [Noun plus preposition]. “And so now, coming back into the living room, she sat with her back stiff and the big bosom thrust forward high and proud, her knee and feet close together, her chin lifted, the fine bones of her face glistening wetly.” [Combinations of nouns followed by past tense and the present participle]. “… the hips flaring out below that, childbirth hips covered with a black skirt taut over firm thighs and good legs.” [Noun plus past tense].


While some may criticize his mundane similes, I find them fitting for the genre: “The mail boxes are usually broken, and the entrance hallway is as dark as a satchelful of eight balls and the hallways and the stairs all the way up to the roof are usually as dim as life through a cataract eye.”


"I only wanted to stun him, and stun him I did."

Without abusing them, we find rhetorical figures throughout the narrative, as in the above example of anadiplosis, where a word or words that end one structure begin the next.


Notice how the abstract noun ‘grief’ is concretized by the use of physical action verbs: “Slowly, the crest of her grief broke, ebbed, retreated.” And in the following example note how he uses the past tense as adjectives: “Dennis Knowles was standing behind his desk with a shocked, awed, surprised, puzzled, and frightened look on his face.” Correspondences and antitheses In the following examples, note the correspondences between ‘doctor’ and ‘nurse,’ and the antitheses ‘strong/soft’ and ‘purest innocence/darkest evil.’ “There was a doctor with strong hands. The hands searched out every cut and bruise, cleaning, wiping, swabbing, patching. There was a nurse with soft hands. The hands closed on mine gently when I screamed with pain.” “His grin was an amazing thing. It managed to convey the purest innocence and the darkest evil in one lopsided twisting of the mouth.”

Social redeeming value

Within the limitations forced by the genre, McBain always found a way to present not only the bad, the ugly, and the violent, but also to show the good and the redeeming values that makes life worthwhile in large cities:
“And this holds for musicians who come from neighborhoods where racial prejudice is taught from the cradle by well meaning parents preparing their kids for the hard knocks of life. It doesn’t work on musicians. There’s no room for hatred when three men or six men or a dozen men or two dozen men are blowing their separate sheets and making a conglomerate sound.”
Besides the points I mentioned above, I could go on about McBain’s techniques to build suspense, crisp dialogue, and character development. But that is material for another article. Taking a backward glance I imagine and see a sky studded with effulgent stars: Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others—but I also see the Ed McBain twinkle in their midst.
Augustine, City of God
Austen J, Pride and Prejudice
Austen J, "Marriage Proposals and Me"
Austen J, Emma
Borges, The Aleph
C. Bronte, Jane Eyre
Burroughs E,Tarzan
Cervantes, Don Quijote
Chaucer, Wife of Bath
Coelho P,The Alchemist
Coyle H, They Are Soldiers
Dante, New Life
Dickens C, David Copperfield
Dostoevsky, Crime&Punishment
ConanDoyle,Hound of Baskervilles
Dubner S, Superfreakonomics

DuMaurier D, Rebecca
Ellis B. E. American Psycho
Fitzgerald S, Great Gatsby
Flaubert G, Madame Bovary
Fleming I,Doctor No
Freud S, Leonardo Da Vinci
Friedan B, Feminine Mystique
GarciaMarquez, Of Love & OtherDemons
Guerrero M,ThePoison Pill

Grass G, The Tin Drum
Harris T, Hannibal Rising
Heidegger M,House of Being
Ishiguro K, Remains of The Day
Johnson S,Rasselas
Kosinski J, The Painted Bird
Lee H,To Kill a Mockingbird
McBain Ed,Gutter and Grave
Murakami H,Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Nabokov V, Lolita
Meyer, S, Twilight
Ortega,Dehumanization of Art
Poe E A, Gordon Pym
Prose F, Reading Like a Writer
Rushdie S,Midnight Children
Sabatini R, Scaramouche
Spark M, Prime of Miss Brodie

Stendhal, Red and Black
Sterne L,Tristram Shandy
Stevenson R, Dr.Jekyll & Mr.Hyde
Stoker B, Dracula
Thackeray W,History of Pendennis
Tolstoy L, Anna Karenina
Trollope A, Autobiography
Unamuno M, Tragic Sense of Life
Voltaire, Candide
Webb J, Fields of Fire
Wharton E, The House of Mirth
Woolf V, To The Lighhouse

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