Thursday, January 24, 2019

6. The Wild Party by John McPartland

Interesting, I just realized I read two books in a row with "Wild" in the title.  I have mixed feelings about The Wild Party and those feelings went up and down as I read the book.  It's jazz or trying to be jazz. Sometimes it succeeds and you feel the rhythm of the writing and the situation.  At other times, it becomes pretentious, annoying and trapped in its time.  I, feel, on balance that the ending unfortunately swung it just a bit into the latter, with a failed attempt at making some big theme about one of the characters instead of justing ending the narrative.

The set-up is great.  You start in a dingy jazz bar in LA and immediately get to know 4 pretty low characters.  Big Tom the brutal ex-football player and the leader of the gang.  Gage, the psychopathic knife-wielder, Kicks the loser pianist and Honey the wasted college drop-out.  They are broke, futureless and looking for money and trouble on a Saturday night.  Each has their own motivations and Tom is the uncontested alpha male of the group.  Right away, the dialogue and the inner thoughts are all hep jazz lingo.  I have always found this particular period of American culture to be profoundly annoying and it is on full blast here: weird pseudo-poetic incomplete sentences, lots of pre-60s labelling of various social roles and so on.  Fortunately, it doesn't seem to be McPartland's actual narrative voice most of the time and much of the objective voice it is straightforward and clear. 

They hatch a plan to send Gage, who is also good at looking and acting above his class, to a fancy motel to see if he can pick up a mark.  He falls upon this perfect couple, the navy pilot on leave and his debutante fiancé who is into jazz (or "progressive" as they call it which I guess is the more freeform jazz of the time) and a slight yearning for excitement.  They get led out to this dingy bar where shit gets scary quickly. 

The trap and tension is very well put together.  It is hard to blame the victims here, beyond their mistake of going out with Gage to the bar in the first place.  Every step they take gets them closer to a terrible situation but the gang is shifty and savvy enough that there are no obvious outs for them.  There is a ton of psychosexual interaction.  Tom is portrayed as a kind of ur-man that is so sexually potent and masculine that he just takes women whenever he wants and women fear him and yet realize that he may offer them some transcendant manliness that speaks to them on some primal level.  This is probably all nonsense, but is deeply rooted even today in our gender relationships and so is impactful in the book. 

I generally avoid narratives where rape or the threat of rape is a central theme and I was hesitant to pick this book up.  It was just too beautiful of a paperback to resist.  It is pretty nasty in the threats and the thinking and writing behind them.  That theme is a big part of the story but it is more about these lost lives and the desperation of all the people who are caught up in the extreme, unfettered aggression of Big Tom's insane masculinity.  In some ways, he reminds me a lot of the character of McQuade from The Spiked Heel (written around the same time).  This conflict between civilized and animal masculinity may reflect some of the tensions in post-WWII society with GIs trying to live the straight life.  Where the book over-reached was in the psychological justification for the various characters' behavours.  It is based on simplistic and overblown ideas relevant at the time.  This was especially true with Honey, who was like 20 and supposedly had been a popular cheerleader type girl until she encountered jazz and men and pot and then somehow becomes a complete wastoid with zero confidence or future.

At other times, though, this book is tense and hard as fuck, quite scary and short.  So a good read, just undermined slightly by the need to try and be deep and jazz.

I am reminded of this classic comedy moment:


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