Memos from Purgatory – Harlan Ellison (1961)

Memos From PurgatoryI’ve always enjoyed, if not loved Harlan Ellison’s writing. Always controversial, sometimes golden hearted, sometimes grade A  jackass, a leading social rights crusader and staunch supporter of the ERA only to them negate all that credence in a shocking infantile public display of sexual objectification (by groping fellow science fiction grand master Connie Willis onstage at a Worldcon awards ceremony no less). Spanning a career over 60 years and garnering every conceivable genre award imaginable, his talents extend to award winning television screenplays and even comics.

He is vocal on every subject that touches rights and freedoms, a voice for writers and pay equity, and with a litigious bent, he’ll make sure you notice him if you ever cross him in any way. He’s pretty hard to ignore and while you may disagree with some of his ideals, you have to respect the writing.

He’s one of the few authors for whom I can read any of his speculative fiction as well as essays (for example his discourses on television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat).

His introductions are sometimes just as entertaining (and volatile) as the book’s content. All this to say that he is one of those writers for whom I will read (and enjoy) anything he writes, on any topic, in any genre or style.

Memos from Purgatory is one of his earliest books, following in the vein of his first book Web of the City where Ellison revisits the topic of juvenile delinquency and street gangs. But this time it is a non-fiction recounting of his few weeks infiltrating a New York gang for the sole purpose of documenting the goings-on, and indeed writing this book. As circumstances would later dictate, the book became a two-parter, when years later the remnants of his gang days come back to haunt him.

He begins by moving into hostile neighborhood in 1954 where he quickly wriggles his way into a teen gang, The Barons. He rapidly digests the culture, rules, and roles of all the hopeless souls that inevitably fall prey to such gangs, sometimes because there is nothing else to occupy the time, sometimes by sheer necessity and choosing the lesser of alternate evils. There among the others with nicknames like Pooch, Flo, and Fish he transforms into ‘Cheech’ Beldone for a number of weeks. But in order to be a member of the gang he must endure several initiation rites, making new friends and enemies along the way. His final initiation test is to take part in a rumble against a rival gang, and when that day arrives, having absorbed all he could handle and then some, takes a beating and an exit to gang life, in that order.

The world of the gang life is richly described in terms of the anguish and misery that most if not all of his new found ‘friends’ toil in. A world of homemade ‘zip guns’ (when the real thing is not available), junkie fixes, ad-hoc leadership and stringent turf boundaries. A grimy existence, temporary for the author, but not those who have to live in the ghettos. Above all else is the violence from both within and outside the confines of his gang Harsh,unrelenting and sometimes deadly.

Once Harlan wrote the book the first time around, he then took to holding public lectures about his experience and even going on television at some point. Part of his lectures included shocasing his cache of weapon which included an unregistered gun. It was holding onto that gun that led to his arrest five years later and then being thrown in jail overnight because of that illegal (yet explicable) faux pas.

While he did garner some sympathy even from the arresting officers, he then met a foe that for a time seemed just as fierce as his gangland rivals; the mind bending legal system and how ‘justice’ is meted. The latter half of the book (now edited to include this second chapter) describes in sordid detail the de-humanization sustained once caught by the system, where “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean you have to be treated with kid gloves until you get that verdict. Abased equally with some real criminals, drunks, psychotics, and others probably just as innocent (if not just as stupid) people as he was, they are all human trash for that time.

The one common thread to the entire book is the utter despair he found in both situations, neither of which some innocent people can escape as he was able to do, freely being able to simply move back to a decent neighborhood when it was time to leave the gang, and having friends being able to come up with a sizeable bail when he needed out of jail (the crime subsequently being stricken from his record).

I have to admit that while the reading was interesting, I found it nowhere nearly as compelling as all his other books and stories I’ve read over the years (over a dozen books including The Essential Ellison, a massive collection of his then 35 year career of short stories and novellas). While the energetic dynamo of a writer is in evidence, he was still a bit green at this point in his profession. A good book but not as nuanced and seasoned as the writer most of us are familiar with. So with some caution, I would say that this book is fine for Ellison fans, but if you’re not familiar with him there are many other books of his you really should be reading before this one.

While I have not seen it myself, the initial story was optioned and picked up as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, however it was significantly altered from what he wrote.

And last but not least, I would be remiss if I did not include a link to my one and only bizarre encounter with the man himself and how that encounter presented it’s own typical Ellison dichotomy. You can find it here, but you’ll have to scroll way down into my lengthy 2006 Worldcon report (and excuse my early faltering attempts at blog writing):


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