Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Hurried Feeling Encased His Groin

[This post is part of The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, hosted by Greg of Cinema Style]

There's no point in lying about this -- when you pick up a novel written by Ed Wood, you want it to be terrible. Not just bad, because that it will achieve this at minimum is a given, but awful to the point of hilarity. You want lines on par with "Modern man is a hard working human" from Glen or Glenda, or "You know, it's an interesting thing when you consider: the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened by those who cannot — the dead" from Plan 9 from Outer Space to litter every page. So if the resulting reading experience is unsatisfying on that level, without actually being any good at all, what are you left with? More specifically, what am I left with, because I'm the guy in the hot-seat.
The book I'm trying to not talk about too specifically is Ed Wood's Killer in Drag. It's an utterly bizarre and slapdash piece of work, but as a piece of prose I can honestly say that I've read worse. It's completely undistinguished, and when Wood does shoot for poetry you get lines like the one I've used for this post's title. Generally, though, the writing is very workmanlike, forgettable...which I certainly can't say about the writing showcased in his films. Why is that? It's a question I've been wrestling with, and I actually think I have an answer, but before I get to that, let's look at Killer in Drag's story, because that thing sort of is a humdinger.

Glen is a hitman. Or, rather, his female personality, Glenda, is a hitperson. This proclivity of Glen's is favored by his mob employers, presumably because it aids in keeping his identity a secret. When Glen gets a job, he dresses as Glenda, goes to a nearby bar, and gets his orders from a skeevy little low-level mob thug called the Mouse, and then he goes and does it. Glenda, it's worth noting is apparently fall-down gorgeous, and not only can no man tell that she's not actually a woman, but they all seem to fall instantly and hopelessly in love with her. Glenda accepts this as natural, and even takes pity on these poor guys on occasion. In this passage, she's just shared an elevator with the elderly operator:

The little man appeared to be gasping for air. Glenda felt sure this little man would retire to the men's room in the basement for several moments as soon as he could get clear of his elevator; so she kissed him quickly on his high forehead, leaving a big red smear of lipstick. She felt sure her kiss, and its remaining imprint, would help him later in what he would have to do.

Moving on rapidly, Glenda's first job in the book is to try to extract, from a poor old deli owner named Greenbaum, the money owed by the old man to the mob. Greenbaum doesn't have it, so Glenda guns him down in cold blood, and steals every cent she can find from the store. This isn't to pay of the mob, but to keep for herself, so that one day she can get out of this miserable racket.

Later, she goes to see Dalten van Carter, and rich and elderly homosexual. Glen/Glenda is basically angling for this guy to become his sugar-daddy, despite the fact that, while Glen will have sex with men, it seems reasonably clear that he'd rather not. This is a strange aspect of the book, though what it means, or doesn't, about Wood's own life is something I neither know nor care about. But later, Glen will have sex with another transvestite, and what little description we get has a grubby tinge to it, which is missing from Glen's relationship with a female hooker named Rose.

But I'm getting quite a bit ahead of myself. Van Carter is not destined to be Glen's savior, because before too much can happen between them, one of Van Carter's jilted lovers bursts in and murders him. Glen is helped to escape by a servant, who we later find out is also murdered, which is a shame because he was the only witness. And Glen left behind his purse, which has his ID. The ID is for Glen, not Glenda, but he doesn't imagine it will take the police too long to piece things together and wrongly blame him for Van Carter's death. Clearly, Glen has to blow town and never look back. So he buys a carnival.

Again, I'm getting ahead of myself, but that is what he does. He winds up in a town that is currently being visited by the carnival, and finds himself pressed for his biography by a couple of corrupt cops named Ernie and Mac. To get them to leave him alone, Glen claims to work concessions at the carnival, and decides to make that lie the truth by getting a job at J.M. Greater's Greater Show Attractions, which must be the shittiest name for a carnival I've ever seen. Glen can't get a job, but as it happens the owner is looking to sell, and there you have it. Then Glen meets Rose the hooker, the two of them fall in love, and then the next morning four people die in a carnival accident/brawl/murder. Mac and Ernie, who've already hit Glen up for payoffs to overlook certain non-regulation rides and performances (mocking the carnival's bad luck with weather lately, Mac -- employing everything Ed Wood knows about how bad guys talk -- says "Yeah -- that's right, Ernie. Until tomorrow. Just thought of somethin'...Maybe the sky, tomorrow, will let us wait until midnight to collect our -- rent") now demand five grand in order to get Glen off of negligent manslaughter charges. They give him two hours to raise the money, during which time Glen discovers that he has no insurance for the accident, and is informed by Rose that Ernie and Mac will never just let him off scot-free. So Glenn tries to skip town dressed as Glenda, but Ernie and Mac catch on to his little game, and chase after him, but it's okay, because they get hit by an enormous truck and die.

The morality of this book is a mite skewed, one is tempted to say. Remember, very early in the book Glenda ruthlessly and coldly murders an old man because he didn't have enough money to pay off the mob. From that point until the end, we're meant to pity him because being a transvestite is pretty rough-sledding. I don't doubt that, but need Wood be quite this glib?

"...I'm wanted for murder back east."

She gulped.

"I didn't do it. But I can't prove it. The only witness other than the murderer was also killed. Do you see why I can't be taken into custody?"

"Oh, my darling."

"And now do you see why I can't take you with me -- not like this. I've got to travel alone and fast."

"I understand now, dearest...And I believe you incapable of murder."

"I wouldn't quite say that. But I'm innocent of what they want me for. Mac and Ernie were out there."

"The lousy bastards."

Are we really supposed to feel all the sympathy we normally would for a man wrongly accused just because the man in question, while guilty of any number of previous murders, doesn't happen to be guilty of the specific murder he's being hunted for? I'm afraid my heart ain't that big.

Then again, I could be judging too quickly, because the final chapter describes the Mouse, Glen's old contact, giving orders to a new hitman -- another tranvestite, this one apparently less successful in his appearance, named Pauline (and the Mouse is so stupid that he actually has to ask Pauline what her "boy name" is) -- orders which will send him to Los Angeles. When Pauline asks who her target is, the Mouse replies "One of your own kind, doll..." Which, if I'm connecting the right dots, should lead readers right into Death of a Transvestite, the sequel to Killer in Drag, and maybe Wood has a whole reap-what-you-sow finish for his story. I don't know, but as it stands, Glen is actually the worst human being in the whole book.

As for the prose, well, you can probably tell for yourself that it doesn't exactly soar, but it's also not quite embarrassing. However, it's also fairly boring, which is far worse than what I'm used to from Wood. My theory is that, despite the cross-dressing element to the story, Wood didn't really pour his heart and soul into this book. I've heard he wrote novels to make quick money, so he more than likely just dashed them off without much thought. He dashed off his scripts, too, but I think, because film was what he really cared about, he took his scripts far more seriously. The films were his statement, and were to be, and are, his legacy. When he didn't care about the work, it comes off flat and without style. The writing is servicable, barely, but forgettable. When he did care, though, that's when Wood failed spectacularly, and that's the great joy and poignancy of the man and his work. He aimed for the clouds, and flamed out on the tarmac. But he did take aim.


Greg said...

Oh well. I know what you mean. If I were reading a Wood novel I would so hope it was hilariously poor in its plotting and writing and be disappointed when it was just mundane and forgettable.

In a way though, and I'm actually being serious here, it sounds like a really good tawdry thriller/character study could be made from it. Or maybe that's just a hurried feeling I have encased in my groin. I often have that. Yesterday I had a sluggish feeling there but today it's hurried.

Thank you for reading what I'm sure was not a very rewarding experience for this blogathon Bill. I appreciate it.

Joel Bocko said...


I have included your choice of book (and an excellent-sounding one at that) on the master list for my "Reading the Movies" exercise, to be found here:

bill r. said...

Greg, I thought the story was quite sloppy. The roots of it could work, I suppose, but it's hard to see it when you actually read the book.

You know how you can make your groin feel better? Buy a carnival.

MovieMan - Thanks for the link! And Flicker really is excellent. Check it out.

Rick Olson said...

My groin is ALWAYS hurried. Whatever that means. I'm glad you brought a literary angle to the blogathon, Bill