Sunday, February 19, 2012

John Held, Jr.--Novelist

Thar's Gold in Them Thar Digs!

Back in my paperback-collecting days I amassed quite a few Dell Mapbacks. When I sold the collection I kept several intending someday to read them. One was Crosstown, a 1933 novel by John Held, Jr. I was curious to see how the legendary cartoonist would treat "the story of a Jazz Age gold-digger." 

Some fifteen years later "someday" arrived. I spent several hours in the tub following the career of Mary "Mazie" Petropolis as she rises from tenement slum child to Broadway star. For those of you sensitive to "spoiler alerts," stop now. I will be telling the whole story. Most of you will be grateful I saved you the trouble of reading the book.
John Held, Jr.

You know sex will figure heavily in a novel when it opens with its fifteen-year-old heroine admiring her naked body and thinking how she's saving it for her sailor boyfriend. A couple of pages later Mazie is raped by her drunken father. She takes some clothes and her dog Buddy and begins her odyssey as a single girl in a dangerous world.

 Held’s storytelling style is not exactly arty. He describes events in diagrammatic prose broken by chunks of expository dialogue. Held introduces his characters with dossiers detailing their histories and motivations. Often that's all we get. For example Mazie's hoodlum brothers supposedly protect her honor jealously, but we never even meet them. My college prof, who preached "Don't tell it--show it," would cry. Crosstown is all tell.

Buddy is the first in a succession of dogs (and dog substitutes) to whom Mazie explains her feelings, like Little Orphan Annie recapping last week's episode to Sandy. Girl and pup find shelter with Fox the Dippy, an ex-pickpocket who'd lost his legs in a subway accident. The bitter young man has made a fortune begging. By day he poses as a destitute veteran; at night he straps on prosthetic legs and hits the hot spots. His relationship with Mazie starts out altruistic, but one night One Thing Leads to Another and they become enmeshed. It's a difficult affair, and when, in a self-pitying rage, Dippy beats the dog to death with his artificial limb, that's all she wrote. 
The dog barked gleefully at his hysteria. “Four of ’em he’s got! Everything’s got legs but me! I’ll fix you. I’ll fix you. You’re doing it on purpose. You’re doing it because you know it hurts. Four legs you got, and I ain’t even got two! I’ll fix you!”
Mazie moves in with a female friend and finds work at a big department store. Unfortunately the store's lecherous owner singles Mazie out for conquest and rapes her. With the ho-hum stoicism that typifies her throughout the book, Mazie moves on and finds work as a taxi dancer. She saves her money and resists come-ons until she's propositioned by a steady client, Walter Lee. This young Chinese intellectual wants to keep her as a sort of anthropology experiment. She agrees to a loveless (but not sexless) union and gets another dog, this one cool and distant like Lee himself. When Lee unceremoniously abandons her, he takes all their belongings and her little dog, too.

Mazie tries out for a chorus line. Despite lack of training she quickly shows herself to be a natural, attracting the patronage of a powerful producer--one of the few men in the story not eager to get into Mazie's pants. With additional help from Roland Parker, brilliant and cynical young press agent, she begins a climb to featured dancer, supporting actress, and finally star. 

Along the way Mazie (now rechristened Flora St. Joan; she takes several names before returning to her original one in the last chapter) picks up "Goosie" Sullivan, an ex-boxer turned hoofer. Goosie earned his nickname from an extraordinary sensitivity to being poked in the rear. He knows all the ropes and mentors Mazie tirelessly. Their relationship is platonic; in fact Goosie's a dog replacement. Mazie even pats his head.
“You’re a funny kid [Goosie says]. I ain’t never had a girl like you paying attention to me. All my life I just been a punk. I been a mutt dog. You know, for people to tie cans to. Just a mutt dog.”
Joining the entourage is motherly seamstress Mrs. Bonton, who Saw It All in days of yore and now dreams of retiring to a country home with cows. Sadly, the team doesn't last. On a street corner a jokester from the theater pokes Goosie's ass, catapulting the startled pug into the path of a taxicab.

Mazie reaches the Big Time. She shacks up with Parker. They're fond of each other, but not in love. Mazie inspires Parker to write the Great American Novel. It’s an instant hit and he becomes a millionaire. Alas, he's also a spendthrift and a one-book wonder. When he goes broke he splits from Mazie, refusing to live off her money.

Now rich and famous, Mazie encounters Michael Houghton, a rich and famous magazine caricaturist. Houghton rejected his billionaire father's business to pursue the arts. He meets Mazie on an assignment. They fall in love at first sight. Following the presentation of Houghton's dossier the two spend ten pages telling each other how they fell in love at first sight. Then they marry. Just as they're about to consummate their marriage--literally--word arrives that Michael's old man has kicked the bucket, leaving Michael fabulously wealthy and never needing to work again.

After a four-page world tour the happy couple moves into a splendid Manhattan penthouse filled with glamorous possessions, servants, and a new dog. They plan a huge party which only the City's elite may attend. All society's backbiters beg for an invitation. The night of the party, almost as if they knew this was the final chapter, all the characters from Mazie's former life appear. Fox the Dippy is now a successful bootlegger, the store manager is a fawning toady, Walter Lee is a Chinese ambassador. Each pays his respects to Mrs. Michael Houghton. Nobody recognizes her.

Luckily Mazie has her dog to talk to. She reveals to Mr. Shultz that all along she had wanted revenge on her old antagonists by showing them up. Not that she'd told us much about it. But let her explain:
“I wanted to hurt people that hurt me. I had always hoped that the time would come. I didn’t know when it would come. It came last night. I couldn’t have planned it more perfectly. But my revenge was empty.”
Despite the book's subtitle, Mazie Petropolis isn't really a gold-digger. A classic gold-digger trades her body to a wealthy man in return for the good life. Though Mazie samples several men she always earns her own money and rejects would-be sugar daddies. She enters relationships only by choice--she just lacks good judgement. Mazie witnesses a true gold-digger’s fate one night backstage. A dancer whose Daddy has jilted her drinks cyanide and dies in the dressing room. The show must go on, and the other girls step over her corpse to line up for their cue. In the long run Mazie earns her riches through hard work, superior talent, and enough lucky breaks to send Nathan Detroit into raptures.

Held catalogues the preposterous events of Mazie’s life in such a deadpan monotone that one wonders if he really knows how silly they are and is playing a sly joke on the reader. If so he's too smart for me. The consistent earnestness of the prose belies any hint of irony. Rather I suspect that as a novelist, Held was a great cartoonist.

No comments: