Thursday, October 18, 2007

THE NAKED STREETS by Fletcher Bennett Playtime Books, August 1962, 160 pages, 60¢

“A Bad Turn For A Hot Pants Lesbian”

Bob Peters is a first-class stinker. By day, he works as a collector for the Abraham Lincoln Beneficent Loan Company in Brooklyn, NY, his job “mainly to chew out over the phone people who were behind in their payments.” By night, he uses a 50 year old police badge bought in an antique shop and an identification card taken from “a kid’s cap pistol and holster set” to shake down prostitutes.

In the first chapter we see him in action. He picks up a whore putting on makeup in front of a candy store at three AM, and promises her $40 if she agrees to spend the rest of the night with him. She takes him back to her place, where “she bounced and heaved on top of me, her breasts jiggling furiously, those hard little nipples making patterns in the air.” Once the bouncing and pattern-making are finished, Peters shows her the fake badge and ID, and tells her he’ll arrest her if she doesn’t buy him off. She agrees, in an exchange that neatly summarizes one of the main arguments for legalizing prostitution:

“You know, you’re doing something illegal.”
“And I can’t report you or do anything about it because what I’m doing is illegal too. Isn’t that a hell of a thing?”

The following night he just can’t help himself, he’s addicted to the thrill more than the need for money, he goes out again and finds another “pro,” this one claiming to be in mourning. He brow-beats her into accepting $75 for the night, and they go back to her place for some stiffening, kissing, squeezing, and pebbling. Peters is such a cruddy bastard he doesn’t even bother to take his socks off.

The woman starts moaning about “Terry,” but Peters doesn’t mind if she’s so drunk she thinks he’s someone else. “I would be getting what I wanted even if she thought I was Nikita Khrushchev.” Then, she moans that “Terry” is actually a woman, and Peters’ delicate sensibilities are offended. For crying out loud, what kind of man gets offended when he’s making it with a woman who’s into other women? “Naturally, I stopped,” he says.

The woman, who’s called Annette French, explains that she and Terry, another whore and Annette’s lover, had made plans to start their own whore house. Unfortunately, those plans went south when Terry committed suicide.

Even though she’s “only a whore, and a lesbo one at that,” Peters is touched by her. They have a long conversation in which she explains what a hard life it is, how she’s seen some REALLY kinky stuff. Like, there are some men who get their kicks from-- and you won’t believe this-- whips. Peters is pretty scandalized by that, “That’s crazy, why should a guy want to beat up a girl with a whip?” making him probably the most prudish fake vice cop who gouges whores for payoffs in history.

Anyway, Peters gets sentimental about her and after his “hips were treated to the feeling of her solid thighs against them,” she goes into the living room and passes out on the couch. Instead of gouging her as he’d originally planned, he tenderly covers her naked body with a blanket and leaves her the $75 before taking off. He wonders what the hell is wrong with him? How did this whore get to him?

Peters starts to wonder if maybe he’s in love with Annette, and it makes him feel “sheepish.” He considers discussing things with Harry Sims, one of his coworkers, but he’s not entirely sure if he can trust him. Instead, he decides he’d like to see Annette again, to offer her a business opportunity. He would use the money he’s gouged from whores to help her finance her whore house. This is what you might call irony.

He goes to her apartment, where for some reason the door is unlocked. He lets himself into the living room, where the phonograph is playing “soft and sensuous music, quite unlike anything I had ever heard before.” The description of the “soft honey” of the music takes up about a page and a half, and the description of the album cover takes another half a page, real nouveau roman style, before we discover the album title is “Echos of Lesbos”: “Now I understood why the music had sounded sexy and not sexy at the same time. Being a straight cat myself, music to go queer by was bound to sound a little strange to me.” (By the way, that’s a decent pun tucked away in that last sentence. It’s so decent that Bennett repeats it a little later.)

Not surprisingly, Peters decides to take advantage of this rare opportunity to catch “lesbianism in action.” (This is where Bennett trots out the “strange” pun again: “Now that I could see lesbianism in action, it no longer seemed so strange to me.” It’s a good pun, but using it twice in rapid succession in this way seems like overplaying your hand.) In the living room, Peters seats himself on a chair positioned so that he had a view of the bedroom mirror in which he gets an almost supernatural view of Annette’s activities with the other woman.

From their talk, Peters learns the other woman is a "virgin", and wonders if he has a “masculine duty” to intervene, and prevent Annette turning the poor girl lesbo. He decides not to, there are plenty of women in the world for him, and he’s rewarded for this magnanimity with the sight of Annette performing cunnilingus on the appreciative girl. He’s barely able to stop himself going in and joining them in a three-way, but “I couldn’t interrupt. The thing that was getting to me was called lesbianism, and the minute I walked into that room, it wouldn’t be lesbianism anymore.” It takes a big man to resist temptation like that.

Later, after the other woman leaves, Annette discovers him, pulls a gun, calls him the rotten bastard he is, and tells him to leave and never come back or she’ll ventilate him. He tries to explain his sensible business proposition, but her only response is to pull back the hammer of the pistol. Angry and disappointed, Peters lams.

He decides not to let the confrontation with Annette stand in the way of a good business opportunity, and he still wants to help finance her whore house. First, however, he wants to get revenge on her for threatening him with the gun. Writing her name and number on men’s bathroom walls over town and crank calling her at odd hours seem unsuitable, and he’s despairing of what he should do when he sees Annette’s “lessie” partner sitting in a bar. He sidles up next to her, pretends to be from out of town, and charms her for awhile.

She-- her name is Steffi-- gets stumbling drunk and agrees to let him take her home, and when she passes out, he puts his plan of revenge into action, laying her out on her bed, stripping her down to her “pants,” and then stripping himself down. When she comes to, he explains that she agreed to spend the night with him for $15, and then passed out just as they were getting started. She’s abashed because she has no memory of making such a deal, she hasn’t yet started working as a whore. So Peters tells her “she had done the one thing that was probably the most nauseating thing she could possibly imagine, being a virgin and apprentice lesbian to boot. I told her she had done that thing to me, and done it with a vengeance.”

When presented with this irrefutable testimony young Steffi agrees to sleep with him. She asks him to perform cunnilingus on her, just as the lesbo Annette had done, but Peters is having none of that. He’s going to do “something better... Something only a man can do.” In no time he has her “swinging in just the manner nature had intended, swinging in a way that neither Annette nor all the lesbians in the world could ever hope to match.” In case you can’t tell, Peters has problems with lesbians. When they’re done, Peters pulls his fake badge and tells her to go back to her hometown, while she still has a chance. He gives her $50 and sends her on her way. All in all, a productive night: “I had gotten bagged. I had done a good turn for a vulnerable young chick. I had done a bad turn for a hot pants lesbian.”

The next morning finds Peters feeling depressed, and he decides he has to make his business proposition as soon as possible, before Annette hooks up with another lessie. But he’s afraid she’ll shoot him if he goes to see her, so he decides to get Harry Sims, the coworker with whom he’s gone wenching, to act as middle man. He’s got to talk to Sims that night, but Sims is having a party with some old friends from college, so Peters pours some cheap rye into a Seagrams bottle and heads over to talk to him.

At Sims’, the party is in full swing by the time Peters shows up. Before he gets a chance to lay out his proposition to Sims, a fuse blows and the apartment falls into darkness. Peters has a quickie with Renee, a woman who wears her big breasts “like she had invented them all by herself.”

Peters’ appetite for sex is only whetted by the encounter, and lucky for him Sims’ party achieves full-on orgy status, where participants “unlimbered their equipment and went at it in full view of the entire room.” Among the chicks Peters makes are a woman wearing only stockings and a garter belt who “woke up quickly enough when I got started. When I finished, she went back to sleep.” Another claims to be saving her left breast for her husband, and will only let him play with her right. Then there’s “a girl in a dark corner who turned out to be a Chinese. Making an Oriental chick was something I had always wanted to do, and the experience was just as delightful as I anticipated. I was disappointed when I discovered that what they all say about Oriental women isn’t true after all.”

Later, when he’s making a drunk woman there’s another pretty decent pun: “It took a while, since were both drunk and both half-sated, but she made it up all right.”

Well, this wild party is all the proof Peters needs that Sims is the right man to join in his whore house investment. Although he can’t come through with quite as much scratch as Peters hoped for, Sims agrees to become a partner, especially when Peters explains how the night before he’d seen Annette and Steffi making it. “Boy! There’s something I’ve always wanted to see --two girls making it.”

Next day, Peters brings to work the three grand he’s made from shaking down whores, mostly in 50s, and Sims puts the money with his $873. Their plan is for Sims to meet with Annette, and explain that he and an unnamed partner want to get in on her little whore house venture. After work, he goes to Annette’s apartment while Peters heads to a bar downtown, where they plan to meet up after Sims has had his meeting. On the walk downtown, Peters decides that he really WANTS Annette. He’s not in love with her. “She was nothing but a whore, and a lady-lover besides. You don’t love a woman like that.” He wants to control her, because he is the man, and she is the woman.

SPOILER ALERT: If you want to discover on your own how this compelling work of fiction ends, please stop reading now. If, however, you believe that true art can never be spoiled (everyone knows that Romeo and Juliet die at the end of their play, but they go see it anyway), then please continue.

After about three hours waiting in the bar, Peters starts to get worried and walks back to Annette’s apartment. No one is there, and the closet is empty. No one is at Sims’ apartment, either. Sims doesn’t show up for work the next day. Turns out, in a wild coincidence worthy of Woolrich, that Annette’s real name is Elsie Crane, a girl that Sims used to know at school, and part of the same crowd that Peters had partied with at Sims’ place. Annette likes Peters’ idea about financing the whore house, but she hates Peters and won’t go in with him. So she and Sims cut him out of it.

Peters says plainly: “I never saw either of them again.”

This statement lessens the impact of the epilogue. In existential crime novel fashion, Peters ends an embittered shell of himself, back to pretending to be a vice cop, shaking down whores. Now, it’s not just money he’s after, but information. He’s got a gun, and when he finds out where Annette/Elsie and Sims went, he’s going to find her and “make her whimper, make her crawl. I’m better than any lesbian in the world, and I’m going to prove it.”

THE NAKED STREETS hits all the high notes for a vintage sleaze novel. There’s plenty of gratuitous sex of the straight and lesbo variety, bizarre psychology, and irritating moralizing. The last eight pages alone, in which we learn that the cruddy bastard’s desire for revenge has driven him mad, are worth the 60¢ cover price. Humor, fun sex, pathos, rough sex, a couple of good puns, drunk sex, and irony all combine to keep the book moving in a never-ceasing motion, like the hips of a natural redhead who’s experiencing cunnilingus for the first time.

Two and a half stars.

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