Whenever Penguin bring out one of their enticing new series, I feel like Homer Simpson (sans sarcasm).
Marge: We don’t think you’re slow, but on the other hand it’s not like you go to museums or read books or anything.
Homer: You think I don’t want to? It’s those TV networks, Marge: they won’t let me. One quality show after another, each one fresher and more brilliant than the last. If they only stumbled once, just gave us thirty minutes to ourselves, but they won’t! They won’t let me live!
Yes, it’s Penguin’s fault: they won’t let me live. But these series are one of the best ways to give older books new life – particularly to magpies like me – which is in part what this blog is supposed to be about anyway. So now, after Gothic Reds, English Journeys, extravagant Bill Amberg leather-bound classics and more, we have the Penguin Magnum Collection. These are six titles of 20th century reportage by American authors: A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Fight by Norman Mailer, Hiroshima by John Hersey, Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, and Hellfire by Nick Tosches.
At least three or four of these titles hardly need new promotion, but the USP here is the wraparound covers from the Magnum photo agency. Click for larger versions.
The title are stickered on, so when removed, the brilliance of the design takes effect. The reader looks on a wordless front cover, with an image which draws the eye around the spine – an apparently bare piano and mike stand on Hellfire, say, or a series of telegraph poles on Hell’s Angels – and suddenly the focus of the image is there – Jerry Lee Lewis talking to the audience, a phalanx of bikers roaring into the distance – on top of which the words appear like an explosion. It’s a narrative cover, like a cinematic trailer for the content of the book, and it’s bold and beautifully executed. There are further Magnum images on the inside covers. You need to see them to appreciate it – though of course then you would have to buy the books so you could peel off the stickers and really experience it. What can you do?
It is not all good. The barcodes on the spines are, for a series where cover design is their raison d’etre, a disaster. They transform the books from the most desirable paperbacks I’ve seen in some time, to ones I would be reluctant to display on my shelves. Why couldn’t the barcode be discreetly printed on the inside cover, or even on a removable sticker (as Penguin have done before on clothbound hardbacks or the Bill Amberg collection)? Also, the type has not been reset, so we are left with whatever font was considered fashionable when the paperback was first published. This detracts from the series as a matching set.
And what of the books themselves? I wanted to try them, but In Cold Blood, Hiroshima and The Fight were already familiar to me (and the first two I recommend without reservation, if I need to). I didn’t fancy 600-odd pages of Apollo missions. So I opted for Hell’s Angels and Hellfire. The former I admit I haven’t opened yet, due to a horrible prejudice that Hunter S. Thompson was a self-regarding berk to whom no encouragement (even posthumous) should be offered. So the stylish reissue has not quite worked the magic of winning a new reader in this case. (I would welcome responses on whether I am completely wrong about Thompson; I really hope I am.)
That leaves Nick Tosches’ Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. I am ashamed to admit that before reading it, I had only a faint idea who Jerry Lee Lewis was. After discounting the possibility that he was the one who chummed about with Dean Martin, I nailed him as the man who gave us ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’. Truth be told, after reading his story, that seems still to be pretty much the summit of his contribution to the world, but what a story, and what a journey he takes to and from that summit. The Killer:
I hated that damn name ever since I was a kid, but I been stuck with it. I don’t think they meant it killer like, like I’d kill people. I think they meant it music’ly speaking. But I am one mean sonofabitch.
We begin long before his birth, with a warning from history. The settlement in Louisiana which would become Lewis’s birthplace was formed by what one of its own pioneers called “the scum of all sorts of nations. They excel in all the vices. The women are as vicious as the men. The savages, though savages, who have occasion to see them, hold them in contempt.” They were prone to inbreeding too, “this whole queer-living, breathing, cotton-farming, marrying, multiplying mess of Chinee arithmetic.” Yet from this would come a strange musical genius who, at the age of ten, sat at the piano and “took a whip” to the tunes of the Depression and “shook them down to boogie-woogie.” By the age of 21, he had had his two biggest hits (“distinctly smart wax” – Billboard) and was on his third marriage and second bigamy: to his thirteen-year-old cousin. That sort of thing ended no better for him than it had for Edgar Allan Poe, with Lewis forced to abandon his UK tour after the story got out. “BABY-SNATCHER QUITS”, cried the Daily Herald (precursor to The Sun) while back home the New York Herald Tribune offered, “The Jerry Lee Lewises are going to have an addition to the family. He bought her a new doll.”
Hellfire is flamboyantly overwritten, consciously biblical and portentous when describing Lewis’s religion-soaked origins, and high-octane and spectacular when reaching the heights of his excesses. (“He was taken away and made to blow into an Intoximeter. He registered .15. The police at the station were impressed, for many of them had never known the device to register beyond .10.”) The model here seems to be Tom Wolfe, whose compelling if not comprehensive The Right Stuff is one of the reasons I’m putting off Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon. Tosches brings Lewis’s bewitching contradictions not only to light but to life. It’s a sizzler, a blast and a breeze. A Magnum of champagne for this reissue.