Friday, April 27, 2018

The Book You Have to Read:
“Homeboy,” by Seth Morgan

(Editor’s note: This is the 155th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Seth Morgan updated the jewel-heist storyline in his acclaimed 1990 debut novel, Homeboy, by taking it to the way down low of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District where pimps, porn queens, and junkies comprise the curdled cream of society. The English language can barely contain this fast-moving white-trash picaresque as Morgan’s adventurous and unrelenting, jive-slinging and look-at-me-write! narrative plunges breathlessly forward with the unquenchable cravings of an addict—which is what the author was. Homeboy zigzags through the late 1980s underworld, following strip club barker and junky/dealer Joe Speaker, together with a large and intriguingly conceived supporting cast of “hookers, hustlers, thieves and thugs,” as Morgan’s story moves from the street, to strip joints, and eventually to prison. For a lucky few, that journey ends with serendipitous redemption and self-revelation. For most, however, it does not.

Rosemary Hooten, “a she-devil bike bimbo and certified Satan’s Slut,” bears the nom du putain Rings’n’Things, in recognition of her plethora of piercings and tattoos. As this book opens, Rings witnesses the murder of her friend and fellow sex worker Gloria Monday, who had already been beaten badly by her lover, well-married California Supreme Court Justice Lucius Carver Bell, after he failed to retrieve from Gloria his wife’s family heirloom: a necklace featuring the infamous Blue Jager Moon diamond. Subsequent to the justice’s empty-handed exit, local kingpin pimp and porn tycoon “Baby” Jewels Moses, an obese parasite “pawnbrokering dreams,” arrives and finds the necklace. Recognizing his opportunity, he promptly kills Bell’s low-rent inamorata and then sets out to blackmail the prominent jurist. The fly in the K-Y Jelly, though, is that Rings’n’Things now has the goods not only on Bell, but also on Moses. As if those weren’t plot complications enough, Joe Speaker soon robs Jewels’ gambling den and stumbles upon the Blue Moon. He takes that sparkling prize, unaware of its value or provenance. Or the dangers it will bring his way.

With San Francisco’s criminal realm nettled by politicians’ efforts to clean the streets in advance of the coming election season, the search for Bell’s wayward gem turns deadly—even for those who write about it.

Author Seth Morgan was born in New York City to a family of privilege and old money. (His father was soap fortune heir, poet, and onetime Hudson Review editor George Frederick Morgan.) Yet not even exclusive boarding schools could make him into something suitable for polite society, so Morgan set his own course. Prior to penning Homeboy, he was a heroin addict and alcoholic who himself worked as a strip club barker in San Francisco. He was also rock singer Janis Joplin’s fiancé at the time of her death, in 1970. Later in that same decade, Morgan served the greater part of three years in prison for armed robbery. Publishing a popular novel might finally have turned things around for him; instead, it was all downhill from there. He died in October 1990, at age 41, the victim of a drunken motorcycle crash in New Orleans, just months after Homeboy saw print.

Judging by the abundance of voice, literary invention, and characterization Morgan poured into his only finished novel, one might think he knew his life would be short. The plot and action hurl along through these pages, aided by coincidence and fate, like the work of a Brontë sister on crack. It’s recommended that readers surrender their judgment to the machinations of this book in the same way addicts submit themselves to dope. Morgan channels Valley Girl drolleries (“fer shur”) and exhibits a Joycean flair for lusty portmanteau, labeling fashionable prostitute wear “peek-a-boo whoredrobe.” He flirts with Shakespearean-lite when describing a junkie-hooker’s abject endgame, the woman strung out on heroin (“the bitter seasoning of her direful days”), imagining that she will “hijack a shopping cart and join the Tenderloin’s mad hag legions, hank and hair like her of what had once some dim yesternight been dream flesh.” The fabled and cursed Blue Moon possesses a pedigree that makes the Hope Diamond seem like a dime store rhinestone; but Morgan writes that its beauty, its “cold colors washing the lights from his rings the way dawn enfeebles streetlamps,” simultaneously beguiles and damns all who come in contact with it—including Joe Speaker.

Everything hits the fan for Speaker when a robbery results in homicide—and that’s just the start of his troubles. Speaker tosses the pricey necklace he’s found into a shark tank in a Chinese restaurant for safekeeping, and then allows his loose-lipped sidekick to die at the hands of police in order to keep him quiet. One feeble ray of hope shining on Morgan’s protagonist is a tenacious cop named Ricardo Tarzon, whose skin in this game is a beef with Baby Jewels. Tarzon’s daughter, Belinda, is a street-level employee of Jewels, and following the cop’s failed rapprochement with her, and her ensuing slaying by Jewels, Tarzon plans to even the score. Accomplishing that will require that he recover the Blue Moon; and to do that he must keep Speaker safe.

(Right) Author Morgan photographed on the back of 1990’s Homeboy.

After Speaker is sent away to prison for car theft, he can keep his secret no longer. Tarzon, Jewels, and the entire San Francisco underworld seem to know that he’s hidden the Blue Moon, and efforts to get him to divulge its whereabouts begin. Homicide Lieutenant Tarzon’s power is limited in the penitentiary; but that’s not the case for Baby Jewels, whose tentacles extend through the bars to wrap around Speaker’s throat in search of information. Fortunately for Speaker, he has a guardian angel in the joint—one with some juice, and nothing to lose. An elderly lifer named Earl, whose relationship with Speaker is closer than the junky barker imagines, keeps him safe during a cell block uprising, but in the process, literally takes a bullet for the young felon.

Quickly, loose plot threads are laced together like a Victorian bodice. The love of Speaker’s life, a stripper known as Kitty Litter, is revealed to be carrying his child—and both parents are elated. Speaker discovers the truth behind Earl’s devotion to him (a twist that might have been right at home in a romance yarn), and the Blue Moon is not only located, but is sold to fund a drug-rehabilitation program. Although it is at times prosaic and a little corny, with over-the-top elements and Pink Panther-on-junk twists tossed in, Homeboy reinvents the gritty world of sex and dope. It doesn’t glorify that lifestyle, but uses it to showcase the triumph of Joe Speaker’s resilience.

It’s apparent that Seth Morgan wrote about the sort of world he knew best, and without a doubt he lived there, too. He doesn’t take cover behind his art: what you see is what you get, full-frontal Morgan, unashamed of revealing himself and most likely reveling in the talents that brought this book to fruition. Homeboy seems to be a cathartic document about a life Morgan needed to share and from which he would never escape, save for dying.

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