and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation
The original 50c paperback edition of this book goes for $100 in rare book auctions. Why? Because it contains 25 of the best, hardest-to-find stories of the writer the Washington Post calls "one of the great living Amercian short story writers," the unpredictable Harlan Ellison. - Ace edition, 1983
I love this one most of all. - Harlan Ellison, 1975
The book is horribly titled 'Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation.'... It turns out that Mr. Ellison is a good, honest, clean writer, putting down what he has seen and known, with no sensationalism about it.... I cannot reccomend it too vehemently. - Dorothy Parker
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Ten of the stories were first published in Rogue which Harlan edited for a while with Frank Robinson.
Rogue 3/61 with "Lady Bug, Lady Bug"
Comments on MEMORY OF A MUTED TRUMPET and NO GAME FOR CHILDREN in the CHILDREN OF THE STREETS thread. Feel free to leave opinions about the book and anything in it, and thank you.
FINAL SHTICK is the opening story of Harlan's book GENTLEMAN JUNKIE (it's also in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON) and was first published by Rogue magazine in 1960. It's the story of a Jewish comedian, Morrie, who has hit the big time and returns to his hometown to be honored by it's citizens. To Morrie Feldman (who tellingly changed his name into Marty Field) this conjures up memories of his childhood which define his relationship to the Ohio town, and it forces him to reflect on his heritage, as well as what his position should be.
While it may not have been obvious at the time, Harlan uses his own childhood to furnish Marty with his background, down to such details as the names of streets and people. The story is very much a memorial to Harlan's past, with only the name and profession of the protagonist changed - and the town is called Lainesville instead of Painesville. As is to be expected in such cases, one's childhood is correctly portrayed as that which made us what we are, for all it's worth. Harlan has never shed any doubt on this fact.
Obviously, Harlan could have gone the other way in his life and become a comedian, like many Jews. We can easily see this today when he makes public apearances - he has all the requirements of a comedian, due in no small part (as is mentioned in the story) to how he had to develop his verbal skills, his knowledge of human foibles, his sense humor, so he could compete with non-Jewish Americans who never had to rise to the same challenges. FINAL STICK is an alternate reality story in which Harlan reveals a certain amount of pride for not having chosen the route of his alter ego.
Turning painful and sad childhood experiences into comedy, the bread and butter of many comedians in their early stages, can be pathological in that it can be indicative of a state of denial. Certainly, it's an easier way out for both the artist and the audience because it makes the experiences seem less painful than they were and probably continue to be. Neither the comedian nor the audience have to face reality, since that would not be funny. Leaving such conflicts unresolved and using one's pain to make a buck can create a (knowingly) sick personality such as Marty, who had a nose job done to look less Jewish and who struggles with the gap between the truth and his way of twisting the truth into something funny. This is especially true of Marty's Holocaust jokes. Marty has every right to feel like burning the town to the ground, yet his speech to the howetown public is very brief and harmless, despite his mixed feelings. Either he choses not to offend or he is too embarrassed by his heritage and former station in life. None of the people, who would have remembered him, are around, with the exception of the school headmaster, to whom Marty was just a boy among many.
After having been doubted by one's fellow men throughout youth and adolescence, being bestowed honors by one's hometown as a symbol of success creates a sense of self-validation, which I imagine is something that the Jewish people strived for harder than others. In Harlan's case, he does point out often which and how many awards he received. While being filled with personal detail, the story is certainly one of shared Jewish experience, and as such, like THE BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS (from STRANGE WINE), it's something that one feels highly priviledged to get a rare insight into. (Keep in mind that this was written way before Philip Roth became a household name, but perhaps you guys can name a few more authors.)
The fact that Harlan chose this very personal, autobiographically tinged story as the opener of his early collection is not only an act of courage but also one of exorcising one's demons, which he continues to do to this day, even though he usually disguises his personal experiences more than he did here. He's willing to serve us the truth, raising questions about ourselves and our society. Sure, like Marty, in a way he's turning his past into a buck, but he's giving us the whole package, making us pay for deeply unpleasant truths. At the core, what Harlan has been doing, is ramming prejudice down society's throat.
I was particularly touched by Harlan's memory (if it is one) of missing his own surprise birthday party due to staying away from home not expecting one. Words fail to describe the emotional impact of his childhood stories, which he always wrote with special care. Other such stories include FREE WITH THIS BOX! (written around the same time), the allegorical ISLETS OF LANGERHANS, and ONE LIFE, FURNISHED IN EARLY POVERTY. Am I forgetting any? I certainly hope we can look at all of those. We have already talked about the magnificient PALE SILVER DOLLAR (from SLIPPAGE).
Addendum: Check out the photo of Harlan's 6th grade class and Harlan's comments underneath in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON (in front of DRVING IN THE SPIKES). Harlan was also asked about Wheeldon in an interview (with Clifford Meth):
Wheeldon died. Wheeldon shows up in my story “Final Shtick”—that’s me going back to my hometown. It’s a Lenny Bruce character, but it’s actually me.