Friday, November 15, 2013

Forgotten Books: DON'T CRY FOR ME by William Campbell Gault (1952)

Damn. There’s a lot to like to about this one.

When I was a kid, William Campbell Gault was my favorite author. I lapped up every one of his hot rod and sports adventures at school and local libraries. So when I grew up (sort of) and got into hardboiled mode, I was glad to discover he’d also written a bunch of mystery novels. Since I was mostly into detectives, I read all his Brock Callahan and Joe Puma books, and simply accumulated the non-series books.

So I’m pretty sure this was my first reading of Don’t Cry for Me, and my reaction was Geez, what took me so long? Gault’s writing here is more adult, more literary and more creative than I remember from his detective series. His narration is consistently fresh, and kept on surprising me - even late into the book. Don’t Cry for Me is so good on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.

Our protagonist is Pete Worden, once a star tailback for USC, now a down-on-his-luck gambler and an embarrassment to his respectable brother John. Though now in his thirties, Pete has never grown up and apparently never held a job. He has the love of a smart, patient and smokin’ hot woman, and isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

As the story begins, Pete’s gambling connections get him into even more trouble than usual, as he finds a dead drug dealer in his apartment and becomes a murder suspect. So yes, this is a mystery, but it’s much more like a mystery that could win the Edgar for Best First Novel today than back in 1953, when it did. The major characters are complex and unpredictable - just like real people - and drive the story in unexpected directions.

One of those characters seems to be a stand-in for Gault himself - a pulp writer who reads great literature and aspires to write it. He’s first mentioned thusly:

    My neighbor and occasional friend, Tommy Lister, writer for the pulps. Science fiction and sports and murder and the range; you name it, he’ll write it. Three months of champagne, Tommy had had, at MGM and how many years of beer? Good boy.

Lister is throwing a party, and the talk sounds like something out of Will Murray’s book Wordslingers (reviewed HERE):

    The murmur next door rose and fell, pulsating, in cadence - the pulps will never die, the pulps are dead, the pulps will never die, the pulps are dead, the pulps will never die, di da da da, di da da da, di da da da - 
    In tune with the universe, in cadence with the infinite, together and alone.

When his girl asks what Lister has written, Pete responds:

    “Oh, This Way to Mars and Deadeye Dick’s Last Dish of Prunes and Tinsel Tailback. He’s prolific and varied, a real master.”

And Pete describes him like this:

    He was about five feet high, and thin. He had big brown eyes and the complexion of an infant and mind like Einstein, though he peddled it at two cents a word. Tommy Lister.
    His heroes are big and strong and fear no living or dead thing.

I met Gault once, and though he no longer had the complexion of an infant, the rest doesn’t sound far off.

Another character in this book, Art Shadow, writes for western pulps. Makes me wonder: Did Gault write for them too? I have at least one science fiction pulp with one of his stories, but never thought to look for him in westerns.

There’s a good deal of literary name-dropping here, guys like Saroyan, Fitzgerald and Capote, and Gault can’t resist having fun with it. At one point, one of the earthier characters asks a literary snob if he thinks the Bears will beat Detroit. After an uncomfortable silence, Gault delivers this line:

It was seconds before they got back to the lighter air, to Kafka and Gide and Roney Scott. 

I had to smile. “Roney Scott” was an obscure pen-name of Gault’s, employed occasionally in pulps and on at least one novel (reviewed HERE). This was an extremely private joke.

There's a lot of lower-brow name dropping too, such as Buck Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Ellery Queen and Raymond Chandler. And Gault frequently takes time out to comment on the problems of his times - everything from politics and racism to the encroaching evils of television. I may have the social conscience of a cockroach, but I can still admire it in others.

What all of this adds up to is a great read. You should read it yourself.

More Forgotten Books at pattinase.


Ray Garraty said...

What edition do you have, Evan? This PB or first edition HB? They are pretty scarce.

George said...

I read William Campbell Gault's Young Adult books when I was a kid. Then I graduated to his crime novels. Gault is a truly underrated writer, but reviews like yours should get people interested in him again!

J F Norris said...

Never knew about Gault's juvenile books. A mystery writer's first book (or anye writer's firs book for that matter) always tends to be more "literary" than the better known books once the writer's become established. I am continually disappointed by some writers who wowed me in their first novel only to become lazy and commercial in their later careers.

Evan Lewis said...

I have that Dell edition, Ray, which I scanned for the post. I might also have a beat-up first in storage. The edition I read, though, was the Prologue ebook that was offered as a freebie a couple of years ago (and now sells for 99 cents).

Todd Mason said...

Gault probably wrote for western magazines a bit, but what he was primarily known for in his pulp career (and this won't surprise you) was for being one of the brightest stars of sports-fiction writing...I was reading both his YA books and the reprints of his pulp and later sports-fiction short stories in anthologies as a kid, and his adult sports fiction is even better. A few years later, when I first read Damon Knight's critical volume IN SEARCH OF WONDER, he wrote of how Gault wrote pretty minor sf, but his sports fiction was the best in the business...that even with an antipathy to sports, Knight couldn't help but be swept away by Gault's work, as a pulp editor and casual reader. I haven't come across too much of Gault slacking off in his later career, either...a good writer who can continue to be a good writer often does, after all...

Evan Lewis said...

Hm. Never thought of looking for Gault in sports pulps. Then again, I've never even owned one. I smell a good story collection there.

Cap'n Bob said...

I knew Bill Gault for several years and he was a great guy and a real character. He didn't mince words and smoked right to the end. Alas, his Alzheimer's put him out of commission and his final years were tough ones.