Saturday, May 16, 2009

Benjamin Appel: From Brain Guys to Tough Guys

I first came across Benjamin Appel in David Madden’s Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, in which he contributed “Labels,” a perceptive essay in which Appel talks about tough guy and proletariat writing, maintaining that the best tough guy novels have endured because for such writers the genre was never a device or artifice, but constituted genuine reflections of the world, and that "tough" was merely a convenient term. Of course, we know now what Appel knew then, that guys like Appel, Algren, Fearing, Farrell, O’Hara, etc., were writing what they knew and writing it from the heart. In that essay, Appel also says that the proletariat novel had a shorter lifespan than "tough" fiction because it reflected a particular moment in history. On the other hand, it too produced some excellent novels, be it Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited, Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money and John Sandford’s The People From Heaven. Of course, tough guy, proletariat and noir at some point intersect, as in the work of George Milburn and William Cunningham and even Jim Thompson. But then categories are sometimes superfluous. On the one hand, good writing is good writing. On the other hand, they do provide cover and context, even if, these days, literary categorization has become more than ever a means of marketing books.

I also found in Madden's book, in an essay by George Grella (The Gangster Novel), a brief description of Appel’s novel Brain Guy. I later read that Appel was a friend of one of my favorite poet/crime writers, Kenneth Fearing, and that he was an early champion of Algren and O'Hara. All of which made me realize this was someone I really had to read. Since that time my Lion paperback copy of Brain Guy remains one of my prize possessions.

So who was Benjamin Appel?

He was born in 1907 in New York City. His parents emigrated from Poland and settled in Hell's Kitchen, known at the time for its crime, vice, corruption, and poverty, and which became the setting for many of his novels. Appel would attend the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and graduated from Lafayette College in 1929. As a young man, Appel worked as a bank clerk, farmer, lumberjack and factory-hand. He was also a housing inspector for New York City. During World War II, he served as an aviation mechanic. Between 1943 and 1945, he was employed by the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense and the War Manpower Commission. He was a special assistant to the U.S. Commissioner for the Philippines from 1945-46. His novel, Fortress in the Rice, was based on his experiences in the Philippines and was made into the 1963 movie Cry of Battle starring Rita Moreno and Van Heflin. Coincidentally, it would be one of the films playing at the movie theater when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder of President Kennedy. Appel married Sophie Marshak in 1936 and they had three daughters. The family moved to Roosevelt, New Jersey, a New Deal resettlement town, where Appel lived until his death in 1977.

Appel's first published work was a book of poetry, Mixed Vintage, which appeared in 1929. During the 1930s he published widely in the "little" magazines. His first novel, Brain Guy, the story of small-time con men, poverty, prostitution and murder appeared in 1934. It was called "a street-corner Macbeth." Further novels dealt with the themes introduced in Appel's first novel: like Runaround (1937) which deals with politics, and The Power-House (1939), which tells the story of corruption in the formation of a labor union for waiters in New York. While The Dark Stain (1943) explores the tensions between black and white Americans and how racial prejudice can destroy everyone concerned. Appel’s gritty writing was often compared to Cain and Hammett. In the 1950s, he began publishing literature for young adults. His last book, The Fantastic Mirror: Science Fiction Through the Ages, was published in 1969.

Thanks to Stark House Press, along with the likes of Busted Flush and Hard Case, one of the best small publishers of noir fiction, we have not only Brain Guy, but three other excellent Appel novels: the Manila-set Plunder, Sweet Money Girl and Life and Death of a Tough Guy. All of them examples of low-life, tough-guy fiction from the dark side of America, and highly recommended.

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