Friday, February 2, 2018

Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats

Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats
Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980
Edited by Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette
PM Press, December 2017

2017 was a good year for lavishly illustrated retrospectives of paperback books.

September saw the publication of Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, which examined American horror paperbacks from the late 60s to the early 90s.

December 2017 saw the release of 'Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats’, from US publisher PM Press, a small press company that mainly publishes books devoted to Marxism, Class Struggle, the Liberation of the Oppressed, and other far-left topics...... ?!

Copies of 'Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats’ are readily available at your usual online book retailer, as well as from the PM Press website.

‘Girl Gangs’ is a well-made, 336 page trade paperback tome, printed on good quality paper stock, with high resolution reproductions of some 400 covers of paperbacks published from the early 50s all the way up to the early 80s. The emphasis here is on paperbacks published in Australia, the US, and the UK, with the lineup of 20 contributors reflecting this multinational approach.

Editor Iain McIntyre has published several books on Australian pop culture, while Editor Andrew Nette maintains the Pulp Curry blog devoted to Australian crime and noir fiction.

The chapters in ‘Girl Gangs’ are arranged in a loose chronological order, leading off with the chapter titled ‘Teenage Jungle’, which covers the advent of the juvenile delinquent genre in the 50s, spearheaded by Irving Shulman’s 1947 novel The Amboy Dukes. ‘Beat Girls and Real Cool Cats’ covers pulp fiction treatments of Beatnik culture, and ‘Love Tribes’, the ‘hippie’ movement of the late 60s and early 70s. 

‘Groupies and Immortals’ deals with novels about rock and roll, groupies, and hedonism, while ‘Wheels of Death’ covers exploitation literature about motorcycle gangs. ‘Cults of Violence’ switches to the UK and its unique pulp fiction about skinheads, terrace terrors, and punks. The final chapter, ‘Outsiders’, deals with the Young Adult novels released in the US in the late 60s and early 70s.

The text content of the book consists of critical overviews and synopses of selected books and genres, and biographical sketches and interviews with pulp fiction authors. These span novels published in Australia, the UK, and the US (what can I say, once again, Canadians may feel left out), sometimes offering insights into the cultural and sociological tropes that gave a distinctive ‘national’ flavor to each country’s paperbacks.

One potential problem with a book like this is the temptation for some contributors to adopt a self-consciously ‘scholarly’ or ‘academic’ tone in their writings. Thankfully, most of the contributors to ‘Girl Gangs’ avoid this temptation and endeavor to keep their prose simple and direct, although no one adopts the irreverent humor that permeates Grady Hendrix’s analyses of Paperbacks from Hell. The only real clunker in ‘Girl Gangs’ is an essay by UK writer Stewart Home, whose use of terms like ‘wimmin’, ‘bigoted stereotypes’, ‘heterosexist conditioning’, and ‘patriarchal sexualities’ makes his piece an (unintentional) parody of a college term paper in Gender Studies.

The cornucopia of paperback covers that make up the meat and potatoes (or tofu and kale, if you prefer) of ‘Girl Gangs’ are well integrated into the text and anyone picking up the book for a casual look-through is sure to find themselves quickly becoming engrossed.

For my part, the contents of ‘Girl Gangs’ provided all manner of new insights and appreciations of the genre, particularly for novels released in Australia and the UK, very few of which ever made the successful journey to the US.

As with any book that attempts to cover such a wide swath of pop culture, an argument could be made that ‘Girl Gangs’ overlooks some major works. Missing in action is any mention of Warren Miller's Cool World (1959), Richard Price’s The Wanderers (1974), and Trevor Hoyle’s Rule of Night (1974), all of which were squarely situated in the genre, but easily transcended it, by virtue of their vision and literary merits. 

That said, even the most ardent fans of the genre are sure to find new discoveries among the pages of ‘Girl Gangs’, and here is where a significant problem emerges: many of the treasures unveiled in the book are long out of print, and in the hands of speculators who are intent on charging exorbitant prices for copies, even copies in poor condition. Some encouragement can be gained from the fact that some of the novels showcased in ‘Girl Gangs’ are available as eBooks, but if you’re like me, an eBook is never as good as having the real paper-and-glue thing there in your hand. So be warned: reading 'Girl Gangs' is going to lead to myriad impulse purchases that your bank account probably is not well prepared for......

Summing up, if you’re a fan of the genre, a student of Anglophone pop culture of the postwar years, a devotee of commercial art, or someone who enjoys offbeat, weird, twisted deviant, and disturbing material (and here John Waters fans come quickly to mind) then ‘Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats’ is well worth picking up !

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