Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: Steel Shivs

Book Review: 'Steel Shivs' by Bernard Sorkin

 3 / 5 Stars

'I'll shiv you in. I'll shiv you in. You dirty wop, you."

"I'm gonna get you, you bastard. I'm gonna get you, Steve, you wop."

"Wait till I get you, you bastard guinea, Steve Beta. I'll kill you ! Kill you !"

'Steel Shivs' certainly starts off on a promising note of Ghetto Action. It's the mid-50s, and in the tough Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, Steve 'Swifty' Beta is being pursued by a large, homicidal girl hopped up on dope. A girl brandishing a switchblade knife. A girl who is comfortable using Ethnic Slurs.

Steve Beta succeeds in escaping a knifing. But it turns out his problems are only starting. For Steve is trying to turn his life around, to provide for his blind, elderly mother and his younger sister Betty, who, like Steve, make the best of things in a cramped, roach-infested apartment in a public housing project (not explicitly named, but probably the Red Hook Houses projects). 

Although Steve is on probation from a robbery charge, he's no longer in the gang life; he's got a job as a janitor in a jewelry store.

But Steve has come under scrutiny from the toughest, most violent gang in the neighborhood: the Tamaracks. Marked by their red-and-black color insignia, and their use of custom-made, extra-large switchblade knives, the Tamaracks run dope for the syndicate. And they aren't shy about murdering anyone who crosses them.

Tiny, the vicious leader of the Tamaracks, gives Steve Beta an ultimatum: Steve is to help the Tamaracks rob the jewelry store where he works. When Steve refuses, he finds his life in danger. And Steve can't turn to the cops for aid, because in Red Hook, there's no lower form of life than a Squealer..........

'Steel Shivs' (142 pp), published by Pyramid Books in May, 1962, fits comfortably within the Juvenile Delinquent sub-genre of postwar Pulp Fiction, the sort of paperback pulps that were epitomized the Gold Medal line from Fawcett. The front cover of 'Steel Shivs' has a blurb referencing the primordial juvie gang novel, Irving Shulman's 'The Amboy Dukes' (1947).

By the mid-50s, Red Hook had come to represent the epitome of the New York City crime-infested neighborhood, thanks to the movie On the Waterfront (1954). Voyeurs and poseurs made the pilgrimmage to the neighborhood to drink in the seedy essence; for example, in 1954, Harlan Ellison allegedly joined one of Red Hook's more violent teen gangs, The Barons, an experience he documented in his 1958 novel 'Web of the City' (aka 'Rumble').

As a juvie novel from 1962, 'Steel Shivs' doesn't stray too far from the formula. While the lurid cover blurbs promises a novel that deals with - and maybe even celebrates - depravity and violence, the story's main emphasis is on Steve's journey to redemption, a journey made with the help of a trio of older Jewish men who understand that not all the Red Hook kids are innate hoods and reprobates: Ben Rabin, the kind-hearted manager of the Red Hook Play Center; Jacob Becker, the owner of the jewelry store, and a man who decides to give Steve a badly needed second chance; and Al Flanz, the rough-and-ready Narc who investigates dope peddling along the Waterfront.

I won't disclose any spoilers, save to say that the ending of 'Steel Shivs' is rather predictable.

The verdict ? 'Steel Shivs' is a competent example of old-school Ghetto Action, but not a must-have.

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