(Gold Medal, 1957)
(originally posted on GoodReads, May 14, 2013, re-posted here with small edits)
Why shouldn’t I be a wise guy in a world filled with suckers?
I ask myself the same question every damn day, but that’s not me talking. That’s Ed Hawkins, main character in Mike Heller’s 1957 novel So I’m a Heel. Hawkins is a guy with a chip on his shoulder and hunger for his piece of the pie. The back cover copy reads:
So I’m a heel…a low-down coyote in khakis, a nogoodnik, a menace to society. A blackmailer.
Look at it my way. There’s Otto Weylin with his sixty-grand shack and his private-beach tan and his wife stacked like the veritable brick you-know-what.
And here I am living just acoss the canyon, my wife pinching pennies, my kid with his nose pressed to the window, looking like some damned waif.
So I find Weylin in a spot that smells to the high heavens, a rottenness that’d blow his smugness to smithereens. I nick him for ten lousy grand he’ll never miss.
Then I find out. I find out what Weyling really is and that he’s got my kid stashed away with him somewhere.
What do I do now? Maybe this coyote gets up on his hind legs and goes hunting for Otto Weylin with murder in his heart…
The real plot is a bit more subtle, but this gives you a general idea and a taste of the language that writers like James Ellroy emulate today.
Hawkins is a war vet with a prosthetic jaw. It’s not the cool bionic kind that can bite through steel bars, it’s just a plastic thing to replace his real one that got sliced off by shrapnel in the Marshall Islands during the war, making him look like “a man sucking eggs,” or “Andy Gump.” He’s got a pretty blonde wife, a bookworm son who throws like a girl and a modest little house out in unincorporated southern California. One thing he doesn’t have is a job. He just got fired from his job driving a tow truck. But when he gets hauled into the police station for a minor misunderstanding he inadvertently gets the inside scoop on the arrest of a prominent lawyer, Otto Weylin, for fooling around with a fifteen-year old. The kid’s family is not going to press charges. They want to keep the story hush-hush and so does Weylin, but Hawkins has other ideas. He sees an opportunity to squeeze the dope for some easy cash, in exchange for keeping his trap shut, of course. Turns out though that Weylin wasn’t the dope that Hawkins thought he was and when his son becomes missing Hawkins finds that blackmailing is not the racket he thought it was.
This is an absorbing little (little, topping out at 144 pages) crime novel and it’s sort of unfortunate that it’s probably not so available (although it can be found cheaply via online sources) because it’s an interesting read. I picked this out of my old stash of books from storage. I think I must have got it from a Goodwill or Salvation Army store years ago, but I don’t remember. It’s a first printing, the pages are stale smelling, brown and brittle and the cover price is $0.25. If you look up So I’m a Heel on GoodReads you won’t find a lot of information. I had to exercise my investigative powers (my network of underworld contacts, ie. Google) to get the real scoop. Turns out Mike Heller was a pseudonym for Arnold Hano, who is best known for his sports writing, like for A Day In The Bleachers, covering the action between the Indians and the Giants in the 1954 World Series. But, like a lot of writers, Hano adopted pseudonyms to write in other genres. Mike Heller was one of them. He also worked in the publishing business as an editor and edited some of Jim Thompson’s stuff (an interview with Arnold Hano may be found here: Bronx Banter).
Written in first-person, Hawkins uses the typical patois of the time to tell you his story and he has sort of a dry, biting sense of humor. But the most striking aspect of the narrative is how deeply maladjusted Hawkins is. Part of this is due to his disfigurement, but it clearly goes beyond that:
…we’re a nation of crooks and cruds, of pimps, prostitutes and punks, of gamblers, grifters and grafters.
But most important of all, we’re none of these when the heat’s on. We’re any of these when we can get away with it.
We’re a nation of cowards and opportunists. We’re quick on the uptake when the cop’s walked around the corner and has promised us that he won’t be back on his beat for ten minutes. We’re firm believers in the Eleventh Commandment. Don’t get caught. It’s okay if you don’t get caught.
His skewed view of society colors all of his observations. Men are out to get him. Women are tramps. His wife doesn’t get him. His kid’s a disappointment. Things go wrong in his life and he sings the constant refrain, “It’s not my fault.” But he also has a deep-seated self-loathing. He recognizes that he’s a “heel” and spends a fair amount of time justifying his decision to blackmail Weylin. Hawkins is not a criminal. Actually, he’s really bad at it and hates the idea of it, but his sense of entitlement is overpowering, even to the point that he wants to bed Weylin’s wife just to stick it to him. He wants what he feels he deserves. Hawkins’ negative bias toward life makes him an unreliable narrator since he seems incapable of distinguishing honesty from crookedness, but it’s this unreliability that adds a layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a fairly conventional crime story.
Also notable is the particularly dark and uncomfortable territory that Hawkins’ foray into blackmail takes. Hawkins finds out later that Weylin was accused of messing around with a fifteen-year-old boy, not a girl as he had assumed, and this is a game-changer for Hawkins, since Weylin befriends Hawkins’ boy in order to get some leverage to force Hawkins to abandon the blackmail attempt. But Hawkins’ has a skewed concern for his son, fearing more the stigma of being labeled a “fairy” or “queer” than for his physical safety. Hawkins seems to think that there is a difference between homosexual pedophilia and heterosexual pedophilia, that one is more understandable than the other, and that the victim in the latter is just as complicit.
This is, of course, bull, and at first impression it is easy conflate the view of the narrator with the author, which made me very uncomfortable. Realizing that this was published in 1957, I also realize that most authors probably subscribed to the prevailing attitudes of the times. But Hawkins mentions his own childhood experiences that could contribute to his homophobia. And while it is implied that Weylin may be secretly gay, he was only suspected of molesting a kid. The charges were dropped because there was no proof. This was something that Weylin tried to get across to Hawkins, but Hawkins was dead-set on milking the chump for dough, guilty or innocent, because Hawkins, we have to remember, is a heel.
Considering it this way, it seems that Heller (Hano) was not being homophobic, but we are looking through Hawkins’ damaged, homophobic lens, a somewhat uncomfortable experience. The next point I think supports this progressive view of the author.
Interestingly, the book was surprisingly (to me) free of the racial stereotyping that I would have thought commonplace for 1957. Police Sergeant Sakimoto, a tough local cop, plays a supporting role that is refreshingly unstereotypical for the time. Hawkins, describing Sakimoto, mentions that he was the first Japanese-American hired by the force and earned the town’s respect after he had a scrape up with another racist cop. This, I think, is a rather significant point, considering the treatment Japanese-Americans, as well as other Asian-Americans, had to endure before, during and after WWII.
So I’m a Heel is a neat little novel, surprisingly complex and a nice example of the popular reads of the time. While it’s far from perfect (case in point, the too-tidy, feel-good ending) and not, perhaps, a work of lasting literary significance, it is a forgotten gem and still holds solid entertainment value for readers today.