It’s finally summertime, and to most of us this means one thing: everything that wasn’t acceptable before is suddenly completely fine. The heat makes us embrace the most hideous fashions. Glistening white legs line the streets. You strut around the city listening to Futuresex/Lovesounds on loop, without the slightest pang of embarrassment or shame. Summer is also the perfect time to immerse oneself in the macabre canon of Frank ‘Badass’ Norris, the turn-of-the-century Californian novelist whose gritty humanist masterpieces words fail to describe, or even to exalt to their proper height.
In an atmosphere rank with overwritten Jack Londonesque and tales of racial isolationism and exploit, Norris occupied himself by writing quaint, bizarre fables of ‘the coast’, tales of homicidal dentists in the days before the great railroad takeover that now makes us think of East Coast and West, as (roughly) part of the same nation. And like all true originals, he did it right, dying at the age of 32, before having time to fuck up his image.
Norris was all about those rough elements of human nature that the summer so mercilessly brings out. His subjects are epic: Greed, Lust, Industrialization, Sex and Suffering (usually enjoyed at once), New Money, and Politics, always as proper nouns. His understanding of the human condition in unlike any other writer of the time, more merciless, more graphically violent, built on the idea that there’s a private hell waiting in store as the consequence of every ‘good’ intention. There’s certainly nothing like reading about death in the dunes in the final scene of McTeague, wherein one man murders another who is handcuffed to him, and is then forced to drag the corpse throughout the desert before dying himself. That last image–of a man having to carry around the physical consequence of his action–is a prime example of Norris’s camp, as well as his perfection.
It’s a bleak, hot, restless existence for the characters of Norris’s fantasy, and an utterly, guiltlessly pleasureable to read about. If nothing else, it helps to put into perspective the comparatively slight sampling of misery we New Yorkers feel during the summer months. Reading him will make you feel the summer more keenly than a Tennesee Williams play. And since he is the darling of the public domain, BULLETT is pleased to leave you with a small excerpt of his best work, The Octopus, which you can read in full here:
“He had been taking in with a quick eye the details of Minna’s silk dress, with its garniture of lace, its edging of velvet, its silver belt buckle. Her hair was arranged in a new way and on her head was a wide hat with a flare to one side, set off with a gilt buckle and a puff of bright blue plush. He glanced at her sharply.“Well, but—but how are you getting on?” he demanded. Minna laughed scornfully. “I?” She cried. “Oh I’ve gone to hell. It was either that or starvation.”