Though primarily known and lauded as the author of short speculative fiction, Harlan Ellison’s first book publication was Web of the City, a grittily empathetic look at gang life based on the author’s own experiences undercover researching as the member of a gang in Red Hook, Brooklyn. First published in 1958 under the more pulp worthy title Rumble, the writer’s debut novel has just been reissued under the Hard Case Crime banner. While clearly the work of a young writer, it holds fascination as a document of urban life in the 1950s. Reading it, you can practically breathe in the city atmosphere and sense of adolescent despair.
The book’s protagonist is Rusty Santoro, the former leader of a teenaged gang named the Cougars, who is attempting to quit the life after getting into trouble with the law. Thing is: the only way you get to leave the Cougars is in a pine box (when you’re a Cougar, you’re a Cougar all the way), so our hero has to fend off challenges by the new gang chief Candle and the scorn of his high school peers who call him “chick chick.” Though Rusty has the support of a sympathetic teacher named Pancoast (a name that couldn’t help but recall Candide), Rusty’s is a world where adult authority doesn’t hold much sway. He’s pushed to defend himself in a bowling alley rumble and the inevitable game of chicken. But when his sister is found dead and sexually assaulted in an alley, Rusty’s focus shifts to finding and punishing her killer.
If Rusty’s story reads like something that could’ve been shown on a drive-in movie in its day, Ellison’s vivid and evocative writing lifts his material. At times, you can see the short fiction master struggling to keep his point of view consistent, shifting in places from his hero’s eyes and ears to that of a somewhat aloof adult narrator -– as when the book critically describes the “vapid” music of a Jerry Lee Lewis song –- and a few descriptive elements get reiterated more than necessary (I lost count of the number of times he pejoratively referred to the “fat” wives and mothers of Rusty’s immigrant neighborhood). But in a way, these youthful flaws mesh with the book’s still half-formed hero. I didn’t buy the scene where an adult authority figures shows to try to warn Rusty off his quest for vengeance and is revealed to be a dope addict. It wasn’t that the reveal was unbelievable, more that it takes the drug-savvy Rusty so long to recognize the character’s addiction.
Web ends on a cautiously positive note, though Ellison appends three short stories to the reissue – rather like the added demo tracks on a CD remastering – one of which, “No Way Out,” brings the opening knife fight between Rusty and Candle to a much more despairing conclusion. The remaining two tales look at the scourge of juvenile delinquency through the eyes of adult protagonists and are much typical of hard-boiled pulp. No journalistic social realism here, just men coming up against young punks who deserve what’s coming to ‘em. You can only take this empathy business just so far. . .