So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Memos From Purgatory. Harlan Ellison

Memos From Purgatory is two books in one - both of them memoirs rather than fiction. The Gang is the first book and goes back to 1954 when the 20 year old Ellison went "undercover" in a Brooklyn street gang for ten weeks. His depiction of gang life is very well done, but the writing is a bit dated by the constraints of the censorship of the time. It is all here, from his initiation, through his relationships with the gang members, up to the rumble with a rival gang that drove him off the project for good.

The second half of the book called The Tombs is from a time seven years later. Ellison was an established writer living in New York when he gets arrested and spends a day in the New York prison system before he makes bail. This seems to have been a harder experience for him than the ten weeks in the gang. He fears that he is going to lose his mind because of the panic reaction to being incarcerated. Since one night in jail doesn't seem to be so tragic, his whining can make this section of the book difficult to read. My personal guess is that Ellison was a control freak and being in jail was more than he could take. Yet his descriptions of the people he meets there is richly rewarding. His criminals, winos, derelicts, and guards are well portrayed and typical of the style of writing that has made him famous.

What makes this book a classic is the visceral and emotional writing style that Ellison employs. Even when I disagree with him most, in his diatribe against two gay black men in The Tombs, I am still taken with the power of his writing.

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