A few months ago I received a review copy of a two-in-one book from Stark House Press. This publishing house has been reprinting fiction from the 1950s and 1960s for more than twenty years. Several authors who used California settings are included in the collection. (I’ve already reviewed two of them, Framed in Guilt by Day Keene and Do Evil in Return by Margaret Millar.) Both novels in the book I received -- the other one is It’s Cold Out There (1966) -- are by Malcolm Braly (1925-1980). His short literary career was delayed by years in prison and curtailed by death in a car accident. He’s best known for On the Yard (1967), but Shake Him till He Rattles shows that his other works are worth reading as well.
Shake Him till He Rattles by Malcolm Braly. Fawcett Gold Medal (1963), 175 pp.
Alto sax player Lee Cabiness has many friends and few benefactors in San Francisco’s North Beach. That makes him the prime target of Lt. Carver, the district’s most ardent drug warrior. Unlike Terry Sullivan, sometime playwright and full time addict, Cabiness resists Carver’s efforts to turn him into an informer and agent provocateur. Instead, he along with trombonist Boyd Furguson barely makes a living playing at a local club. Cabiness has become involved with waitress Jean Diamanto, but he quickly takes an interest in rich and pretty Clair Hubler when she offers him a job. Before they can set up the gig, Carver raids the club. Only Hubler’s upper-crust credentials save Cabiness from jail. He’s grateful but leery that further dependence on her will lead him astray.
This book is notable for its incisive portrait of the jazz and drug scene in North Beach during the early 1960s. The place is no longer the creative cauldron that Jack Kerouac describes in The Subterraneans and the Dharma Bums. Now tourist buses come through, prostitution is on the rise and (though Braly couldn’t know this) topless dancing is about to trample the remnants of beat culture. The author’s picture is grim: dilapidated apartments, corrupt police, drug-addled residents. Even Cabiness’s quest for non-commercial art seems more romantic delusion than principled commitment. Braly renders the scene with a crisp prose that keeps the story moving quickly. The brief epilogue may be something of a miscalculation, but otherwise the novel should satisfy fans of hard-edged fiction.