Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kin Platt: An Introduction




Kin Platt was the mad genius of young adult books and probably the most controversial writer for this audience in the 1970's. From 1968 to 1980 he tackled many topics that had previously been taboo subject matter for children's books. Nothing was off limits for Platt and he managed to create fictional books on the topics of adolescent male sexuality, the effects of divorce and parental neglect, schizophrenia, drug addiction, gang violence and poverty. The books had an edginess missing from today's market and represented a time when publishers were willing to take bigger risks. Throughout the 1980's he continued to explore these themes, but the market and the editors were changing. The field of "young adult" books was becoming more conservative. Just as Platt was on a roll, pushing the boundaries, the doors were closed in on him. His last great works, discovered in an archive at Boston University, show Platt at his edgiest. Unfortunately, they remain unpublished to this day.
To understand Platt's books is to know Platt's history as a caricaturist. In his stories for Young Adults, caricature sets the stage, setting apart a Kin Platt book apart from the many other teenage dilemma novels of the 1970's that had a realistic or psychological bent. As one reviewer stated, "Platt takes the extreme, end of the line cases as his starting point, eschewing comfortable, typical, and familiar protagonists and situations for his fiction." His book, Headman (1975), reads almost like a satire of Frank Bonham's 1965 novel Durango Street. And Platt's book Flames Going Out (1980), that concerns a schizophrenic adolescent, feels like a cartoonish version of the National Bestseller I Never Promised You a Rose Garden from 1964. Platt's talent as a writer was in presenting true-to-life disturbing situations through the eyes of a humorist.
Platt was an uncompromising artist who no doubt suffered for his work.
In his own words, he has stated, "I would like to see less genteel supervised attitudes towards books for children and more imaginative approaches welcomed...Publishers have always been afraid of the type of books I wanted to do....I didn't want to keep doing ordinary books. I always felt that I had to stay ahead of everybody else, in my own mind at least...I don't write to make money; I write because the story has to be told."

Telling stories was Platt's forte, but only one of his many talents. And even though many of his works never saw the light of day, his output is one that would make any writer blush. An astonishing number of his titles saw print and included over 50 books.

In Kin Platt's autobiography from 1993, written when he was 81 years old, he states that anyone who wants to be an artist must learn the art of survival. Kin was no stranger to hard times. In his own words, "I've done my stint sleeping on bare floors and in railway stations for want of a room, gone hungry and walked many miles for lack of nickel or transport, sat with beggars more used to the life, and carried my own dreams. But in the end, at times, I did compromise, to eat and live and provide and survive, and the shame and loss of pride has never left me. What I had was the will but not the courage to starve to death." Kin Platt had something to be proud about, for he lived an amazing and rewarding life and accomplished more than most dream of. He lived by his own rules. In 2003, at the age of 91, he died by his own hand.
Platt was the son of a cantor and born Milton Platkin in December 1911 in New York City. Rebelling against his Jewish upbringing, Platt ran away from home at age 7. Pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable from the very beginning, Platt had a difficult childhood. To entertain himself he drew funny pictures. The artists he adored included the cartoonist George McManus as well as the caricaturist and illustrator Ralph Barton. The influence of both these artists can be seen in his drawings. As a kid, he was a voracious reader, claiming to have read up to 5 books a day. He mostly enjoyed the pulps which included western, sports and adventure stories. In High School , he imagined himself to be a writer as well as a cartoonist and later on in life, both these dreams would be achieved.At age 19, Platt graduated High School just as the Great Depression had begun. Looking back at some of the pre-code Hollywood pictures of the early 1930's, you can see where Kin's distinct humor comes from. For example, there is a sort of reckless dark humor than runs amok in film's such as Skyscraper Souls (1932) that is not so far from Kin's sensibility. Kin never went to college. Instead, he began his career at a New York advertising agency as a delivery boy. Ever resourceful, he was soon selling cartoon ads to the company. He lived cheaply sleeping on a floor and managing food at 25 cents a week. Soon he started selling theatrical caricatures to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The World-Telegram and Sun. He got so entranced by the theater that he forgot to sketch while there and instead began making drawings from memory only. One of the cover drawings he did for the Eagle, in the style of Ralph Barton, became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoons in American newspapers. From there, he started drawing cartoons for ad campaigns, including the characters Pepsi and Pete for Pepsi Cola. Pepsi and Pete can still be seen in vintage Pepsi advertising including a giant reproduction sign that is now displayed outside of the New York New York Casino in Las Vegas.Working in advertising provided his first major financial success and led to him inheriting the art chores for Mr. and Mrs., a comic strip that ran in the New York Herald Tribune. He even did some cartoons of Bob Hope before he gained fame in Hollywood. Also, early on, Kin developed a lifelong friendship with cartoonist Vince Fago. The two would eventually share studio space. Their partnership would be as good a model for Chabon's Kavalier and Clay as that of Simon and Kirby.
In the mid 1930's, Platt began writing radio scripts. In 1936, at the age of 24, the ambitious young man headed west to seek his fortune in the then burgeoning Hollywood. He drove across the country and was almost immediately hired to write comedy scripts. Some of the legendary talents he wrote for included George Burns and Mary Martin. The former, he was a great admirer of, and the latter was a dear friend for over 50 years. In fact, he used to babysitter Martin's daughter as well as Larry Hagman, who would later become famous for playing JR on the TV show Dallas. This would be the most glamorous time in Platt's life. In California he was taking in over $1000 dollars a week, living a glamorous lifestyle and gaining an unparalleled education through experience. Still, Platt disliked writing jokes, preferring a more soft and droll humor that was less popular amongst mass audiences at the time. He pressed on through writing not 1, but 3 shows a week and averaging about 3 hours sleep a night. Elements of a 1930's joke writer remain throughout Kin's work though and a trademark of his characters, even in his YA books, is that at some point they say "rotsa ruck". It's a throwback to George Burns era comedy.
From the beginning, Kin always disliked compromise. He notoriously lost his temper when collaborating. After eventually offending too many comedians, Platt left the joke writing business. He didn't travel too far though, landing on his feet at the story department at the Disney studios. Finally, his drawing talents and writing skills seemed to merge into a singular purpose. While Platt was excited about the direction of the animation medium, he felt disappointed in the compromised roundness of the drawing style that seemed to suck the personality out of the art. The artist at Disney he most admired was Bill Peet, who would also later leave Disney in favor of creating his own children's books.

After Disney, Platt went to work for the MGM animation department where he befriended Heck Allen, who was also a Western writer. One of Allen's books inspired the title for Kin's first children's book. Platt also met Joseph Barbera and Bill Hanna. When they later left MGM to form Hanna Barbera Studios, Platt was hired on as one of the studio's main writers. Within a year Kin was put in charge of thirty writers in the shorts department at MGM. He was soon married in LA, only to get fired shortly after. This would spur on his first move back East to New York. Luckily, at this time, the comic book industry was being born.

In the early 40's, Platt wrote and drew hundreds of comic book stories for Timely Comics. This gave Platt the chance to work more autonomously and to exercise his drawing skills. Platt drew detective stories, superhero stories and funny animal stories. Amongst his creations were the superhero Captain Future, Inferior Man "The Weakest Man In The World" and SuperMouse. He drew these while living in a brownstone apartment off of Central Park West. He would also return to writing animation for a number of companies including Walter Lantz and Hal Seeger Productions.In 1943, at age 31, Platt was drafted into the army. While enlisted he wrote the book, lyrics and music for a musical play Let Freedom Ring. Platt played piano and writing a musical was one of his grand ambitions that he harbored since being a teenager. While stationed in India, as part of the Army Air Corps (USAAF), he drew the spicy weekly comic panel Broad Views for an army newspaper called The Hump Express. He also began doing "lightning quick" caricatures as a performance/drawing act. Army life, however, did not suit Platt's temperament. He was constantly getting in trouble for insubordination and found himself chasing around a Red Cross girl. This just happened to be the Commander's girlfriend and Kin was transferred over to China.
In 1946, he went back home to New York. He was married and had a son, Chris. While living in Great Neck, New York, he continued writing for comic books and drawing Mr. & Mrs. Between 1947 and 1948, he worked for Timely again, alongside Stan Lee, working on the company's teen related comics with titles such as Cindy, Rusty and Willie. He had known Lee as far back as 1941. By 1950, he would also have a newspaper strip of his own creation, The Duke and the Duchess, where he spoke out against Joe McCarthy and other political opinions, but it only lasted until 1954. Some of the hundreds of comic books he wrote included the scripts to the Bob Hope, Sgt. Bilko and Jerry Lewis comic books. Ironically, Platt had done sketches of Bob Hope earlier in his career before he had moved to Hollywood.
His first children's book, The Blue Man, was published in 1961 and introduced his character Steve Forrester who would appear in three more books. The book was a sort of underground hit with librarians even though it was bashed at the time by some critics. One reviewer, from the School Library Journal, stated that the book "could not be recommended for purchase". Others, however, found something special about the book with comparisons drawn to JD Salinger's The Catcher In the Rye. Later Scholastic re-released it in paperback form. The story concerns a boy who takes the law into his own hands after he believes a blue bodied alien has killed his uncle. The character carries a rifle and goes on a road trip searching for the mysterious killer. The subject matter, while tame compared to some of Platt's later books, still sets the standard for his distinctive style.

In the early 1960's, Platt relocated to Santa Monica, CA. He also had an act in Vegas (learned in the army) calling himself The Fastest Draw In The West. The act consisted of him doing lightning quick caricatures in 4 to 5 seconds that were projected with a wall projector. From 1963 to 1965 Platt also contributed several stories for humorous comic books and a few War titles published by DC comics. Platt's wife, Ruth, also helped out by scripting some romance titles. Platt's most well-remembered contributions to popular entertainment were at the Hanna-Barbera studios. He helped create the shows Top Cat and The Jetsons. He also wrote for The Flinstones and Jonny Quest. Of all these shows, Top Cat was the best reflection of Platt's humor with its cast of eccentric characters who hung out in an alley.In 1965 Big Max, written by Kin, was published by Harper Brothers and was the first mystery written for beginning readers. Platt's second novel, a mystery called Sinbad and Me was rejected by Harper, but later bought by Chilton. It won the Edgar award in 1967, was reprinted multiple times and is still well-remembered and sought out today by collectors. Even though this book also featured Steve Forrester, it was far different than The Blue Man. It's strengths relied not on Platt's "edginess"" but instead as his skill as a Mystery writer. Platt would go on to write 2 more Steve Forrester mysteries as well as ten mystery novels for adults. 7 of these would feature Max Roper, a karate expert private eye who sometimes killed with his hands. These mysteries usually revolved around a sports theme.Platt's breakthrough book came in 1968 at the age of 57. The Boy who Could Make Himself Disappear would set his career in a new direction, writing about taboo subjects up until 1980's Flames Going Out. The story concerns Roger Baxter, a boy who is troubled as a result of a dysfunctional family. His mother abuses him. And, perhaps too close for comfort, the absent father who lives in LA is a comedy writer who completely ignores his son. As a result, Roger suffers from a severe speech impediment. His problems leave him lost in New York City and on the verge of a mental breakdown. He finally learns to cope through friends and the assertion of a speech therapist. The book touched a nerve with readers and heralded in a new form of psychologically based YA book that would follow by authors such as Marjorie Kellogg and John Neufeld. The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear was reprinted in a number of languages, had multiple Dell/Laurel-Leaf paperback printings and was even adapted into a Hanna-Barbera produced live-action film starring Scott Jacoby.Oddly enough, around this same time, Platt also began writing under a number of pseudonyms. Beginning in the late 1960's, he published 3 "Adults Only" paperbacks that included Pandora (as Guy York), Lovers & Exorcists (as Wesley Simon York) and Sex Heel (as Guy West). Obviously the pseudonyms of West and York derive from Kin's history of moving back and forth from New York to the West Coast. He would also use the name Nick West to pen three books in the juvenile series Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators. But it doesn't end there. Astonishingly, Platt wrote another 8 paperback originals for California publisher Canyon books under the name Kirby Carr. This lurid men's adventure series that Platt created was titled The Hitman. The books have Platt's trademark humor mixed in with all the elements you might expect from a 1970's action/exploitation movie. Reading these books today has the feel of a Quentin Tarantino movie in the works. Also, in the 70's, Platt wrote the occasional comic book story as well as picture books for children based on animated characters.To say that Platt's career was diverse is an understatement. This renaissance man also dabbled in sculpture, painting, architecture and was a seasoned runner and golfer. When you consider all of the TV shows he wrote, that are still viewed today, and the amazing number of comics and novels he produced, it is fair to say that his audience as a creator was in the millions. There is no doubt that his work created a huge cultural impact.

On a more personal level, his work, particularly his Young Adult novels, had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager. This led me to contact Kin via phone in the late 1990's and we also briefly corresponded by mail. According to Platt, "I've developed a personal relationship with some of my readers who have had problems, and by correspondence or by phone, we were able to solve some of them. I helped them to center on the more important ways of finding their own identities and a fuller life."

Kin Platt's fans remain adamant about his work and hope for more titles to see print. They also express the desire to see old titles back in print. Kin's son Chris has been trying to foster interest in his father's legacy for years. This has resulted in Kin's only posthumous work to date. A Mystery For Thoreau, Platt's foray into Historical Fiction, was published by FSG in 2008. The Blue Man was also reissued in 2005 through a small publisher, Twin Lakes Press, begun by a Kin Platt fan with the intention of reprinting more of his books. The facsimile printing featured a new introduction by Chris.
Below is a bit of information on three of my personal favorite books by Kin Platt.

"What makes a book or author controversial? Dealing with a current topic that the guardians consider too risky to discuss. All my good books were so categorized, and I've done a dozen since that were turned down for the same kind of attack on the injustices and frauds I see."

- Kin Platt
HEADMAN (1975)

"Durango Street updated, not only in language which is uncensored street talk throughout, but - more important - in the ending, where your suspicion that Owen doesn't have a chance is conformed."

- Kirkus Reviews

"A taut and very tough novel...as direct as a hammer blow."

-The New York Times Book Review

Synopsis
(from A Teacher's Guide to the Paperback Edition of Headman - 1980, written by Dr. Jo-Ann Lynn Mullen))

This story of street survival and the desire and inability yo leave the ghetto takes place in Los Angeles, California, and in an alternative reformatory called Camp Sawyer.

Early in the novel the main character, Owen Kirby, is sentenced to spend two years at Camp Sawyer, an alternative to traditional prison in that it operates in a country camp setting and according to the rules of an honor system. The reader experiences Camp Sawyer with Owen and gets to know a great deal about him --- his family background, his thoughts, his relationships, and his problems.

After Owen is released and returns to his home environment, the reader accompanies him and sees Owen through optimistic experiences and, more frequently, through the realization that life for Owen has not really changed at all.

From the book jacket:

"When I get outta this dumb camp, he told himself, I'll be somebody.

Yeah? Like what?

He tried reaching out in his mind to grasp the future. Nothing there at all but space. Then he saw himself running...Breathing hard. Scared. For his life? he wondered. Jesus, always?

He thought about the other kids...
Running with gangs. Stealing. Fighting. Stabbing. Shooting. They all got to wind up in the clink, he told himself.

What about yourself? What plans you got to be a big man?

I don't know yet, he told his inner mocking voice. Gimme time. Don't bug me."

Kin Platt has created a hard-hitting, brutally honest portrait of Los Angeles street life. He has captured the rhythmic cadence of its lean language, the real, unglorified dichotomy of its violence and the bitter irony of society's panaceas. Against this backdrop, he weaves a powerful, disturbing story of a young man's fumbling search for personal dignity and a place in the world.


Notes (Dave Kiersh)

The book is short (186 pages) but fast-paced. This has to do with short chapters and short sentences. At times, Platt even uses fragments to build rhythm. Like most of Kin's other YA books from the 1970's we hear the character's inner dialogue through italics. The format is similar in The Doomsday Gang and Flames Going Out which also have an abundance of swear words in the dialogue. Also, all three off these books take place in LA and have unhappy endings. Platt was living in Los Angeles while he wrote these books. Of the three, only Headman appeared in paperback. Indirectly, it seems that the nihilistic and sometimes darkly humorous tone in these books is similar to the attitude represented by the punk movement starting up in LA in the late 1970's. Kin wrote these books while in his 60's, but was still acutely aware of what was going on around him. For example, in Flames Going Out, he even references several punk bands such as The Germs. Books like these would often stem from Platt taking newspaper clipping files and writing about real topics that were of interest to him. Another similar book that Platt wrote around this time that never saw print was entitled Homeboy Toothfairy.
The Doomsday Gang (1978)

From the book jacket:

Forming the Doomsday Gang was the first real goal of his young life. It was an idea that had taken him over so completely that he carries it with him like an obsession.

Doomsday...it not only sound good, it mean something. Goddam, the end of the world be what it mean.

Seasoned and street wise at 15, Coby and the other four had hustled, stolen and fought as long as they could remember. But with their own gang, things would be different. The Doomsday Gang would grow large and powerful. With guns of their own, they would take any gang in East Los Angeles...

In tough, spare language, Kin Platt has written a searing indictment of the poverty, hopelessness and filth of urban decay. It is the painful story of a boy's search for meaning and self-respect in a world that offers none--and of young lives, honed on the keen edge of violence, hurtling blindly toward doomsday.
Notes (Dave Kiersh). This is not the first motley gang of hoods that Platt has written about, if you count his scripts for the Hanna-Barbera produced cartoon series Top Cat. Surprisingly, some of that same brand of humor is found in this darkly nihilistic tale.
Flames Going Out (1980)

From the book jacket:

Alone in her room she played the match game, obsessively. It was another secret not to be shared with her parents.

The match game becomes you and you are the match. It flares and swells and flames brightly and then it dies. That is you dying in the air and you can do it over and over again. Until the day you don't have to strike the match and hoard the flame because you won't be there any more...

Her shrink had told her that every person is really a hundred different people, that she had to find a structure for her life with in that diversity. But Tammy remained divided, angry, and withdrawn -- until she fell in love with Jonathan, who was even more lost than she was.

With compassion and insight, Kin Platt has written a powerful, tragic love story that reflects in unsparingly honest scenes and language some of the nightmare truths that confront today's young people.

Notes (Dave Kiersh):
I can't read this book without thinking of the made-for-tv movie A Last Cry For Help that aired in 1979. This movie, written, produced and directed by Hal Sitowitz concerns a girl who falls in love while recovering in a hospital from a suicide attempt. As in Flames Going Out, the girl in A Last Cry For Help realizes that the boy's problems are worse than hers. In both cases the results are tragic. Additionally, both movies feature psychiatrists as prominent characters, are set in LA, and have pivotal scenes taking place at a beach location. I wonder if Kin ever saw this movie? Ironically, a book even more similar to this movie, about a suicidal cheerleader, was published the same year (1980) by my other favorite writer Frank Bonham. The title is Gimme an H, Gimme an E, Gimme an L, Gimme a P.

And finally, another excerpt from Kin Platt's autobiography to sum this up:

"By the mid 1970's, Susan Hirschman, who had started my writing career by publishing The Blue Man at Harper Brothers, was the publisher of Greenwillow Books at Morrow. She took two of my gang books ---Headman and, a few years later, The Doomsday Gang. Kids liked Headman, which won an ALA notable book award. The Doomsday Gang nearly did but was sunk because of street language. Susan warned on her publicity sheet: Do Not Buy This Book If Language Offends You.

The guardians of the minds of children like to pretend kids don't know all the dirty words, even after being exposed to them all their lives, usually at home. When Susan suggested cutting some of that wordage from Doomsday, I laughingly told her she would have to cut out most of the words in it, since every other word in every sentence was tainted.

Morrel Gipson, soft-spoken but courageous, took Flames Going Out for Methuen. It was about teenagers with drugs and ahead of its time in 1980. Nobody wanted to hear about this possible problem for young people. It died. As did my lead characters."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Frank Bonham's Dogtown (Part 1)

(logo for Laurel Leaf books. Their paperbacks in the 60's and 70's are also identifiable because the page edges were often painted blue).

The realistic teen novel that dealt with serious issues such as divorce, unwed pregnancies, suicide, sex and gang violence could be said to have truly begun in the 1950's. Its beginnings were much like rock and roll and boasted of rebellion, boredom, and youth with too much time on their hands. It was also a reflection of writers who grew up during the depression and were no strangers to disappointment, hard times and survival by any means possible. As pulp magazines died out, they were quickly replaced by television and mass-market paperbacks. A fiction subgenre categorized by juvenile delinquency heralded in the talents of writers such as Irving Shulman and Evan Hunter. The film Rebel Without a Cause helped popularize this sentiment, yet for a teenager to read such books was still viewed as a somewhat delinquent activity in and of itself. At the same time the books actually marketed towards teens usually dealt with safer content and were categorized less by action than strong character development. Two such excellent writers were John R. Tunis, a sports writer, and Beverly Cleary, a librarian who also wrote for younger children. Thrown into this mix were more literary titles, such as JD Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye (1951), a model for YA fiction in that it set the standard for epiphanies in coming of age fiction. Frank Bonham was a pulp writer of this generation who turned his talents to writing edgy books for teenagers in the late 1960's that dealt with social issues. His work would help bridge the gap between the grittiness of the pulpy delinquent books and the strong humor and character development in the less heavy-handed books by juvenile authors. His books would receive rave reviews and would even be used by teachers in schools, heralding in the psychologically focused young adult novels of the late 1960's aimed directly at the interest of teenagers. Much of this had to do with the Laurel Leaf Imprint of Dell books that brought together a range of such books from different publishers. These pocket books, released in inexpensive editions under a single imprint, were edited by a professor of Elementary Education at New York University and another professor from Kean College. Their efforts helped contribute to 1968 being a breakout year for young adult books with debuts by authors such as Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier and SE Hinton, to name just a few, whose classic debut books remain in print to this day.

Durango Street

Frank Bonham, born in 1914, had already established himself as a top notch Western writer with over 25 novels in print before he turned to writing books for young adults in the 1960's. He grew up in Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life. Beginning his writing career at age 20, he churned out short stories for pulp magazines, sometimes acting as a ghost writer for Ed Repp, where he learned to fill his stories with physical action. Turning to Hollywood in the 1950's, he also tried his hand at television writing and sold 12 of his scripts. His writing would prove successful enough that he would never have to hold a "real" job for his entire life and remained prolific, publishing over 60 titles, until his death in in 1989. After his death, his Western short stories had a bit of a revival, published as anthologies edited by mystery writer and pulp fiction historian Bill Pronzini.

(one of the many pulp magazines where Bonham's stories appeared)
(The Cross and the Switchblade was also adapted into a film as well as a comic book)

Durango Street is one of the first hard edged novels for young adults that dealt with gang violence and was marketed directly to teens. It is also different from its 1950's predecessors in that it dealt exclusively with minority gangs and focused on an African American character. As a noted essayist for the St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers wrote: "Writing about a black teenager growing up and living in a ghetto was not the usual setting or model character that teenagers normally read about in the young adult books available in the early '60s. Frank Bonham was, in part, responsible for introducing social realism into young adult fiction." Durango Street would be the beginning of a series of novels that took place in the fictionalized city of Dogtown, based on Watts, and the surrounding poverty ridden communities. Published in 1965, the subject matter was so timely that ironically it was released the very same week of the Watts riots. To create the book, Bonham spent a year doing firsthand research into the Los Angeles Watts area. Bonham acknowledges that he was allowed access to agencies in the area that worked directly with juvenile gangs. He visited camps, accompanied gang members at outings, spoke with gang member's families and met with both psychologists and social workers. However, the result of Bonham's research is far different than, say, David Wilkerson's "The Cross an the Switchblade" (1963) whose purpose has more of a heavy handed objective. Instead of preachy reportage, Bonham fictionalized his facts in order to bring the reader into the complex personal life of one particular headman. He drew sympathy to social problems at large by focusing on a single character. According to Bonham, in a Horn Book essay, "I became impressed with the tremendous challenge in rehabilitating a gang boy or girl. If rehabilitation means 'to restore to a former capacity,' then it is impossible. You cannot restore a capacity one has never possessed, and these young people never had a capacity for anything but hard luck and defeat. But with sufficient patience and skill, ideas of ambition, justice, and hope can be implanted." Because Bonham's book addressed such issues directly and fulfilled this need, they were well received by kids as well as reviewers.
(a 1965 issue of Life magazine that details the Watts Riots)
The story begins as Rufus Henry is about to be released from a juvenile detention camp. He has been sent there for stealing and wrecking a car. There is a realism to the character for he appears both street smart and skeptical of advice. When he goes back home to Dogtown it's obvious from his family and surroundings that this is not the land of opportunity. His parole officer forbids Rufus to join a gang. Yet from the perspective of Rufus, joining a gang is a matter of survival.

After a quick attempt at going straight by getting a job at a car repair shop, Rufus is quickly turned off when the owner talks down to him. It becomes apparent that Rufus' main characteristic is his pride. The reader gets glimpses of this through the manner with which Rufus interacts with his siblings. Even more so, it is the way that Rufus interacts with other gang members. He is fearless.

This pride stems from Rufus being a fatherless child. As a kid his mother told him a story that his father by birth was Ernie Brown, a well known halfback in the pro football leagues. While the reader never learns for sure whether or not this is fact or fiction, Brown becomes a hero for Rufus. Just the thought of big Ernie Brown as his protector gives Rufus the ability to escape from dangerous situations. Rufus keeps a scrapbook of Ernie's achievements, but keeps it hidden. The book is a record of his hopes and dreams and he dare not let anyone know of it, lest these aspirations get smashed.

When Rufus runs into trouble with a gang, The Gassers, he is literally backed into an alley. Using his wits and a broken milk bottle to escape, he realizes that his troubles are not going to end there. Quickly he decides to meet up with the rival gang, The Moors, that he heard about through his friend "Baby" whom he met while serving time at the detention camp.

Getting membership to the gang does not prove easy though after Bantu, the gang's leader, and the others make a member by beating on him. After his parole officer finds out that Rufus has been initiated, he assigns the gang a social worker named Alex Robbins. The gang, knowing that they are dealing with the law here, reluctantly agree to meet with Robbins.

As the battle between the gangs grow more violent, Rufus overthrows Bantu in a fight, taking his place as headman. Angered after Simon, headman for the Gassers, threatens his sister, Rufus devises a plan to get revenge. First, he blows up the Gassers car and later he attempts to get some of the other rival gangs to back him up. As the violence ensues Rufus eventually secures a rifle and is intent on scaring Simon out of the neighborhood.

The story takes a turn as Robbins is able to get both the Moors and the Gassers to attend a professional football training session with Ernie Brown. Rufus is thrilled to meet Ernie yet manages to keep the father bit a secret. Simon manages to find out about his scrapbook though and eventually steals its. When he mockingly boasts of the scrapbook to Ernie, Rufus' pride is hurt and he is filled with contempt.

Finally, Rufus devises a plan to rid himself of Simon. The plan involves creating a dance, a huge event with a band and paid admission, where he will either humiliate Simon or start World War III. But with the help of Robbins, and the encouragement of Rufus' new girlfriend Judy, the dance surprisingly turns out to be a success.

At the end of the book, Rufus is still skeptical about his future but there is a notion that he may begin to see some good in Robbins' advice and may begin on the path to return to school.

Perhaps because this story seems so personal is the reason it has stood the test of time and led it to stay in print for over 30 years. In Bonham's own words, "To some extent I am a do-gooder in my books for young people, in that I often deal with a subject such as delinquency, in the hope that something I say in the book will have a positive effect on a young reader with personal problems." Three years later, with the publication of SE Hinton's The Outsiders, Durango Street would get overlooked as the essential teenage gang novel. The comparison ends there though because these works are so different and excellent alone in each of their own right. While The Outsiders is a raw tale written by a teenager, Durango Street is a researched book written by a seasoned pro. The fact that Bonham is a white writer takes nothing off of the edge that these characters are distinctly African-American. Because of Bonham's skill for writing action he is as comfortable here as he is in the Western genre. For example, he does not even shy away from his characters using the "N" word. Parts of this material may be outdated, such as the characters who try to straighten their hair, but for the most part this book maintains its edge for a modern teen audience. In many ways this book can be seen as the predecessor for films such as John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (1991) or even the young adult novel Scorpions (1988) by Walter Dean Myers. The subject he wrote about and the questions raised by the social issues presented still remain relevant.

The Nitty Gritty (1968)

After the publication of Durango Street, Bonham would turn his talents to writing almost exclusively for young adults. He did not publish another Western novel until the 1980's. Bonham was not the only writer who followed this trend. Another example would be William Campbell Gault, a serious pulp fiction writer also from Southern California who had a successful career as a Mystery writer. In the 1960's he saw the market changing and turned to writing juvenile fiction that dealt with social issues when he could no longer sell mysteries. Like Bonham, he would later return to writing within his original genre of choice in the 1980's.

Within 3 years following Durango Street, Bonham had already published 5 more novels for young adults and would continue to publish an astounding 14 more until 1984. The Nitty Gritty may be his most well known title after Durango Street, but few of these books received multiple printings and had the long standing notoriety of the first. Still, there is no doubt that with each book, Bonham continued to hone his skills. In The Nitty Gritty, we see the writer loosening up, taking a step back from his research and delving into a highly entertaining story that may have even more emotional power than Durango Street, minus the gangs.

In this entry the tone is set in the beginning that even though poverty abounds and hard times are a coming, this is a lighter side of the Dogtown that we first saw portrayed in Durango Street. This time the story is set on Ajax Street and Charlie Matthews has dropped out of school, not to steal cars, but to shine shoes. Also, like the famous play A Raisin In the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which is referenced in this book, this tale is set more within a struggling family unit and shows the contrast between money and dreams in a black family.

The story begins as the Matthews family gathers over dinner in their apartment. It's an apartment with rotting floors and soul food is being prepared in the kitchen. Both parents are exhausted, stressed out about their jobs and the struggle to get by. Meanwhile, their son Charlie pays little attention for he is lost in daydreams. He dreams about striking it rich, about homeless men who tip him off to buried treasure and about escaping from Dogtown. In essence, he is a kid still filled with hope despite the tired complaints of his family. Unfortunately these dreams are often shattered or quickly brought back down to earth by his tired and jaded parents. They have no complaints about him missing school as long as he's able to make a contribution to the family's funds.

Luckily there is an adult who believes in Charlie. Mr. Toia, his schoolteacher, visits the Matthews household. He attempts to talk some sense into his parents regarding having Charlie return to school. Mr. Toia recognizes Charlie as a talented writer with potential. But for his parents, college, as well as most opportunities, seem like a silly dream never to be attained here in Dogtown. Like the social worker, Robbins, in Durango Street, Mr. Toia infiltrates the family. His voice, while one of conscience, is not always obeyed.

Charlie seeks to replace his unsympathetic father with his own personal hero, his Uncle Baron. Baron is an uneducated drifter and gambler with an upbeat disposition. His adventurous stories, musical talent and freewheeling ways appear as an alternative to Charlie. For Charlie, Baron symbolizes a ticket out of Dogtown and represents an opportunity towards a better life. His Uncle's influence seems to have an even more alluring pull than an education.

When Uncle Barron unexpectedly arrives in a Volkswagon van that he has been living out of, Charlie is ecstatic. Baron tells him that he has plans to make a deal in Dogtown. Once made, he boasts, this arrangement will help him make some big money. Charlie eagerly agrees to help. When he finds out that Uncle Baron needs $150 to set his plan in motion, Charlie is determined to make this impossibility a reality.

This is where the story gets interesting. Bonham introduces a slew of quirky, eccentric characters and comedic situations that set Charlie and Baron on a series of escapades both gripping, real and right down there in the nitty gritty of things. These characters include Cowboy, a tough high school rival whose boots Charlie sets ablaze while working at the shoe shine parlor. Then, there's Breathing Man, one of Bonham's most fascinating characters that will reappear in several of his other books. Breathing Man, who sleeps sitting up and consciously counts his breaths when awake, hasn't worked in 15 years. Yet somehow he manages to survive better than most in Dogtown. Charlie seeks out Breathing Man as a wise man, a sort of ghetto sage, and Breathing Man is more than happy to impart advice.

Snapping out of his daydreams of healing the sick and being elected Mayor, Charlie decides it's time to hustle! The hustling he does outside of school includes salvaging rats, bottles and bricks from a junk lot. He also finds some treasures there. This includes $30 worth of antique coins that almost gets stolen by Cowboy, his rival (maybe a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bonham's Western books). The funniest part though, is when Charlie gets tipped off to a man who claims that he'll buy ladybugs, if he can manage to bag some from a canyon out East. Baron and Charlie take a road trip and discover a treasure trove of the tiny red and black insects. After they've captured a sackload, the critters escape in the van as they are driving back to the city. Attempting to capture them and drive at the same time creates a hilarious scenario.

Later in the story, Charlie and his friend Caeser become contenders in a ridiculous boxing match that includes animal blood and an oiled up ring. They also make some extra dollars by visiting a blood bank. Surprisingly, Charlie is able to exceed his original goal of $150. He gladly hands over this hard earned money to his great Uncle Baron while still enthusiastic about his hero's plans.

Charlie looks forward to seeing the machine that Baron has promised to purchase with his earnings. He is quickly disappointed though when he realizes the $150 has gone towards the purchase of one fighting hen. The Baron intends to gamble the money on an illegal cockfight. When the hen gets destroyed, so do Charlie's dreams. The Baron takes off leaving Charlie behind.

Back in Dogtown, Charlie must come to terms with his daydreams. He realizes that only he could chose the direction of his life and a path out of the ghetto. He cannot follow the advice of his parents or his heros. He must learn to take pride in himself.
Bonham's message is not your typical coming-of-age tale for it deals with a particular type of pride, black pride, and survival in a place of urban decay. Fortunately, Bonham infuses this story with enough energy and humor to balance out the hardship. He brings a difficult social issue to the forefront by focusing on a single character over a short period of time. The format is highly accessible and the book is one that young readers would not have trouble digesting.

The conclusion, as in Durango Street, remains open for the reader to decipher. Bonham does this by presenting the story in a realistic open-ended manner. The situations are so tight, so fully realized and the characters so engaging that reading this book brings to mind images of some lost blaxploitation cinema classic penned by a pulp giant while still maintaining a PG rating. It's also a book with rhythm that maintains a language that is both soulful and unpretentious. In my opinion, it's an even greater work than Durango Street and even the clever chapter titles give this one a zing. One of the chapter headings, Hey Big Spender, Bonham would later use for another title of his books set in Dogtown.
Hey, Big Spender! (1972)

In Hey, Big Spender! Frank Bonham takes readers on their wildest ride yet through Dogtown. This time around the book's main character is Cool Hankins (who appears in several other of the Dogtown books as well including the Golden Bees of Tulami -1974). Like his name, 17 year old Cool is just that. He wears blue glasses, a floppy hat and walks around confidently with a bounce in his step. Unlike Bonham's other characters, Cool seems more free, first driving a Buick around Dogtown and later a Harley. Actually, when I read this book, I can't seem to get the images of movies like The Monkey Hu$tle (1976) out of my mind. It's just got that same sort of funky rhythm to it minus the cheesiness. Despite the ease with which this character gets around, life remains difficult and this is represented by the foster home he lives in with several other children and his Aunt. Like a big brother, Cool is full of heart and gets by through being familiar with the people and being aware of the hard times around him.

The story begins as Cool is working a summer job doing odd gardening chores. He is approached by Monique, his feminist counterpart, who alerts him that Breathing Man was in the hospital and wants to see him. Breathing Man, whose character had an important role in The Nitty Gritty, reappears here as an even more interesting character. He is still Dogtown's wise man and doing just fine without working while seated outside all day in front of the Hob Nob Pool Parlor. In winter evenings Breathing Man lives under the 4th Street Bridge. Come summer you can find his home hidden amongst a mass of underground storm drains. Cool thinks of him as a friend and agrees to see him.

Upon their meeting outside the Hob Nob, Breathing Man offers Cool a job. At first Cool takes this as a put-on. Later, when he is handed a hundred dollar bill, his mind begins to sway. He agrees to meet Breathing Man in his underground hideaway in order to discuss his secret plan. Breathing Man draws him a map while Cool remains skeptical.

On his trip through the storm drains Cool encounters a community of subterranean hippies who avoid the hardships of Dogtown by staying out of the daylight. Then he finds Breathing Man living alone in his neat, minimalist alcove. Breathing Man explains that he is the inheritor of the Le Duke fortune which pretty much makes him the richest black man that ever lived. Cool doesn't know what to believe but when Breathing Man shows him a safe stacked with 100 dollar bills, he is convinced. It turns out that the inheritance totals over 650,000 dollars. The prospect of inheriting this amount frightens Breathing Man, for he believes any sort of excitement could be bad for his health. So much so, that it might kill him. What he would like to do is "do right" by giving the money away to those in need. This, however, creates a dilemma. He does not want to give the money to a charity for he believes it will go to waste being divided amongst salaries of those who work for such organizations. Instead, he wants to give the money - in cash - directly to the people in Dogtown who need it most; to the people that the system has not been able to help. He has chosen Cool to act as a middleman because he knows the kid, trusts hims and believes he has lots of heart.

Cool is wise to the fact that this is too big a job for just one kid to handle. Regardless, because of Breathing Man's trust, and because he offers Cool a hundred a week, he reluctantly agrees. Cool is also supplied with a brand new custom chrome-plated Harley Davidson motorcycle with the word HOPE painted on the tank. This way, he could deliver the goods in style! Cool quickly sets up shop by renting a store front and advertising "FREE Money" on a handmade sign taped up in the window. Both the landlord and his friends are surprised when he attempts to explain the nature of his business, keeping Breathing Man's identity anonymous. Confused, his friend remarks "If it's free, it isn't money. And if it's money, it isn't free..."

The way it works is this: People line up outside, cool lets them in one by one, listens to their hard luck stories and takes notes on small cards. At night he visits Breathing Man where he shares the stories and Breathing Man picks a winner. One for each day of the week. He then gives the requested amount to Cool who makes the deliveries. Upon opening day there is only one visitor. It's a down and out white man named Snow in need of a set of tools to get his life back on track. Breathing Man kindly agrees to help Snow, despite his race.

News spreads quickly though and soon things begin to get out of hand. Monique acts as Cool's assistant. She attempts to organize the crowds that begin to line up outside of the door to the small shop. Cool takes on the role of a social worker. He listens to all the horrible tales of woe and tries to weigh in on who has it worst. It's never an easy decision. Nevertheless, money does get delivered and Cool quickly picks up the nickname "Big Spender".

What follows are not only hard decisions but also trouble. Cool has a run-in with a man who might be his unwelcome and estranged father. Then, he is threatened by Rat-Ass, a chain-twirling leader of a motorcycle gang. Soon Cool is racing for his life while being chases by a Hell's Angels group and ducking into storm drains on his Harley. All the time Cool keeps his wits about him and survives by creating an oil slick that wipes out both Rat Ass an his bike. The trouble doesn't end there though. The biker gang gets its revenge by firebombing Cool's bike and nearly setting the foster home ablaze.

The final straw comes when Snow returns to the free money office drunk and asking for more help. This convinces Cool that while Breathing Man's intentions are good, this might not actually be helping at all. Disappointment sets in until Cool's aunt comes up with an alternate solution. This is where Bonham's philosophy comes into play. It is decided that if people in Dogtown need help, they need it early on.

A consideration is made to help the hundreds of homeless children living in the slum. This would be done by setting them up in foster homes where at least they'd be given a chance. It's obvious that this is a social cause close to Bonham's heart. He makes it clear not through being didactic but by being a pioneer in bringing such subjects to the forefront. Once again, he does this through creating an entertaining story in an accessible format aimed towards youth. Hey, Big Spender! is a triumph on all accounts.

(image from the film The Monkey Hu$tle from 1976). Not related to Bonham's book, but the visuals have a similar feel to me).


Other Dogtown novels include: Viva Chicano, Cool Cat, Chief, The Golden Bees of Tulami. It is my intention to write about these books in a separate blog entry.