Friday, March 26, 2021

The Book You Have to Read:
“Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye,” by Horace McCoy

(Editor’s note: This is the 170th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Author Horace McCoy throws a couple of curveballs in his ambitious Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye (Signet Books, 1948), but readers should not be deterred. To provide background and motivation for the depraved criminality of protagonist Ralph Cotter, McCoy coheres hard-as-nails pulp to Freudian-lite, then mixes in a smattering of Greek mythology. Most readers might rather see criminal activity born of the Seven Deadly Sins than of mommy or daddy issues (or, in Cotter’s case, grandmother issues), and thankfully McCoy is too good a crime writer to allow Sigmund Freud and Thomas Bullfinch to take over completely. However, this book does at times seems a little odd. Even Cotter, who narrates the story, occasionally scratches his head as he undergoes some very ardent introspection. The cultural references and rawness of Cotter’s behavior may be intermittent distractions to some, but the intense, non-stop action and the fine writing will hold the attention of everyone.

The specific book under examination here is Signet’s “Special Edition” (shown on the right), published in 1949, one year after the original saw print. I admit I have not read the first edition, nor can I find anyone who has; so it’s hard to determine whether there are significant differences between the two. The tagline on this later paperback edition—“Love as hot as a blow torch … crime as vicious as the jungle”—promises less than what is contained between the covers, prompting one to ponder how much more lurid (or personality-disorder-centric) the original yarn could possibly be, if at all. After seeing Ralph Cotter in action with a femme fatale named Holiday, a woman “pulsing with a lust straight from the cave,” readers are advised, if they decide to become invested in either character, to consider donning a bullet-proof vest or an asbestos condom, respectively. As these two players are engaged in violent sex or else a fistfight whenever they’re together, a lion tamer (chair, whip, pistol) would also be recommended.

McCoy’s novel centers around a 1930s prison farm breakout and its aftermath. Cotter and his convict pal George are aided in their bloody escape by George’s sister, the above-mentioned Holiday. Cotter murders George during the ensuing gun battle with prison guards (Holiday doesn’t realize this right away, but she finds out), and by the time Cotter makes it to a safe house, readers will realize that Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye is not your standard pulp noir—not by a long shot.

Cotter is a college-educated man, and his lust is fairly tempered by his book learning, which at times seems to keep explicit prose in check. Holiday allows Ralph a glimpse of her naked crotch, which he describes as “the Atlantic, the Route to Cathay, the Seven Cities of Cibola …” Comparing Holiday’s mon veneris to the great wonders of the world is the type of exaggeration one might expect from a guy just sprung from lockup—but more importantly, it gives readers a good idea that Cotter isn’t your run-of-the-mill sociopath. Although Holiday is a distraction, Cotter doesn’t allow her to get in his way.

He has plans, big ones, and the anti-heroes of the 1930s—John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, Alvin Karpis—are both his role models and his competition. Ralph’s aim is to usurp those deities residing in the pantheon of crime and install himself, instead. The distinctions between Ralph Cotter and such folk-hero crooks of the Depression era is that he believes he’s much more intelligent than those mere stick-up artists; and the plot he devises to ensure continued and unimpeded success is a clever one.

(Left) The 1965 Avon edition

Cotter is “reborn” when his damning rap sheet conveniently goes missing; and the official identification he acquires (a gun permit from the local police department, ironically enough) allows him to stay under the radar. Cocksure, and now going by the alias Paul Murphy, he makes his way around City Hall with the swagger and hubris of a thuggish Icarus, daring to be taken down. He meets Margaret Dobson, the young and impressionable daughter of a rich and powerful man, one Ezra Dobson. Margaret is a bit of a lost soul, as well as a disciple of Dr. Darius Green, a new-age charlatan with a shady past. After a one-night stand and a meeting with her father, Murphy and Margaret elope, but Ezra Dobson subsequently has their marriage annulled—or so he says. Paul declines the five-figure payday Dobson offers in recompense, figuring that disappearing is wiser than sticking around. It’d be only a matter of time, he figures, before Dobson’s scrutiny uncovers Paul’s real identity. This is not the last, though, that he sees of the family—or their money.

Having lost a wealthy wife, Murphy now hopes to rid himself as well of Holiday, the amoral hussy whom one “couldn’t turn your back on for five minutes without her having a body scissors on somebody.” But first, there’s that one last criminal job—the big one—that’ll provide him with funds for a clean getaway.

Murphy is always thinking about his plans and about himself. As he begins to understand who he is, and what made him that way, he dials down the rhetoric, changing from a misogynist and homophobe (quick to condemn “dikes and faggots”) into a man who sees better how gays are similar to himself, and therefore acceptable. (“They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extraverted—theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill …”) The proximate impetus for this alteration of attitude was the discovery that one of his associates, a regular-guy grease monkey, is homosexual. This remarkable character development eliminates Cotter’s brutal prejudices as he morphs into Ralph Murphy. It may reflect, too, the mental growth author McCoy underwent during his rough-and-tumble days, as he learned to accept his fellow men for the ways they found to naviage a tough, unforgiving world as outsiders, just as he had.

Horace McCoy possessed the kind of résumé one would expect of a Golden Age pulp writer. He’d been a taxi driver, a capable newspaperman (despite his inclination to fabulate), a war pilot, a professional wrestler, a fruit picker, a failed actor, and a lackluster Hollywood screenwriter. Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye, the fourth of his six novels, was adapted into a 1950 film starring James Cagney, Ward Bond, and Barton MacLane. The movie was famously banned in Ohio as a “sordid, sadistic presentation of brutality and an extreme presentation of crime with explicit steps in commission,” which comes as no surprise. McCoy’s books took time to catch on in the United States; yet in Europe his success came earlier, with French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir hailing McCoy’s debut novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), as one of America’s first existentialist novels.

(Right) Author Horace McCoy

The Tennessee-born McCoy described his parents as “book rich-money poor,” and his career arc suggests that was his destiny, too. To pay for his funeral (he passed away in Beverly Hills, California, in 1955), McCoy’s wife had to sell his book collection. Yet the knowledge this author picked up from all of his reading was put to good use. Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye is filled with classical references. Alecto and Tisiphone, for instance, appear several times in these pages, those being the names of two of the three Furies, sisters in ancient Greek mythology who took vengeance upon lying and murderous men. Cotter/Murphy summons their memory again as this story concludes. However, one sister is missing, and he can’t understand why. It is really the Fury who stands before him with a gun in her hand that he should be concerned with.

READ MORE:Tired of Living, Afraid of Dying: Horace McCoy’s Legacy,” by Chris Morgan (Los Angeles Review of Books).

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

A great writer but you really have to be in the mood for Horace McCoy. It's a good idea to hide all the razor blades in the house before reading THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?