Shabby Street (Beacon, 1954)

Hitt - Shabby StreetOrrie Hitt had just begun his career a year earlier when he started his long-term publishing relationship with Beacon Books, an imprint of Universal Distribution. First he had one title with their Uni-Books series, Cabin Fever (1954) and then had the first in the Beacon series, #101, with She Got What She Wanted.

Shabby Street is #104, the third.  Hitt would later publish more than half his output with beacon, mostly originals and a few reprints.  Kozy was his second major publisher, followed by Chariot.

Hitt - She Got What She Wanfted

Shabby Street is a little different in size and scope than Hitt’s other books — this one is nearly 300 pages, about 90K words rather his normal 60K, in small trim digest (Beacon published their first 40 titles in this format); the chapters each have a title heading, unlike his usual style…

Other than that, this is classic mode Hitt — the first person narrator, Johnny Reagan, is a young womanzing heel out to find the fast way to climnb the economic ladder from his shabby beginnings on Clarke Street, the town’s notorious slum for white treash, prostitution, juvie gangs, drunks, drugs, rape, and the plain old hopeless lower class working drones who will never go anywhere beyond Clarke Street.

Not so with Johnny.  We find him, at the top, working the day shift desk at a fleabag hotel.  He has a knack of lifting $5-10 from the till when he needs it, and putting it back before the weekly audit; like when he takes out the hotel’s phone operator, Julie, for a night of sloppy boozing and even sloppier, tawdry sex.

When $10 goes missing, Julie takes the fall for him, because, damn her, she has fallen in love with the heel.

He manages to talk Old Man Connor, an insurance broker with money, into giving him a chance to try selling insurance.  He’s a quick study, getting his license in 3 weeks and within months, making a bunch of money with his fast-talking ways. He also starts to worm his way into the guys’ daughter’s heart, Beverly Connors, recently graduated from college — Johnny tells us she’s plain-looking face-wise but has a good body that makes him look twice.  But his interest is in getting into the family, and the family biz.

Connors and his wife decide to take a year off and tour Europe, leaving the company in Johnny’s hands.  The first thing Johnny does is fire a lot of old deadweight, office receptionists and geriatric agents, and then embezzle funds for a get rich quick scheme.

His plan: “borrow” $12,000 from the Connors Insurance Agency to open his own company in the neighboring town, as a franchise of a large life insurance agency out of New York; make quick money and put it back before Connors returns.

But things never work out as planned for any Hitt (anti)hero.  First he gets Julie pregnant–one was a false alarm, the other is a miscarriage.  Julie goes to work for him at his new agency and, as revenge, she embezzles $6,400, leaving his bank account empty and boucning checks.  Then the NY company reveals its nefarious plan to swipe all the new accounts he’s created, taking the annual payments for their own.  For all the conning and stealing he does, Johnny sure gets pissed when the tables are turned.

Then old man Cnnors has health issues in Europe, hospitalized in Rome, so plans to return early.  Johnny needs to get that money back fast, so starts doing some illegal wheelin’ and dealin’.  He also marries Beverly, this way it’s all in the family — plus it seems Beverly is pregnant anyway, so he was going to have to marry her.

There’s a third woman, Janet (always three dames in a Hitt book), a girl who also came up from Clarke Street, trying to make a name for herself, and she has a baby from who knows who (she’s the girl on the cover).  As much as Johnny tries to make and play her, she knows who he is frm the old days; and when she thinks he’s changed his ways, she is disappointed when she discovers the embezzled funds, knowing he married and knocked up Beverly so her old man won’t put him in jail, leaving his daughter without a father and husband.

It’s hard to sympathize for Johnny.  With other Hitt heroes, even when they’re doing some sneaky plan for money or murder, we still feel for them, because they are backed against a wall or hood-winked by some sultry evil wench.  In Johnny’s case, he’s just greedy.  Maybe that’s his make-up from his upbringing.  He’s also a cad, a heel, sexist and misogynistic, slapping any womn around who gets on his nerves, plyimng them with drinks and sweet talk to get in their pants, not caring if he knocks them up.

In the end he does have some sort of conscience and tries to make things right, so he’s not all that bad.  Some of these Hitt anti-heroes, we find at the last chapter, are telling their stories from prison — not so with Johnny; he manages to squeeze out of tough jambs, and Beverly has a still born baby, so that’s the end of that.

Still, a damn good novel, full of tension, well-paced, well-told.  Hitt lets us in on the strange ways of the insurance racket, and makes you wonder how real these scams are.  Hitt was an insurance agent himself. The game is to tell any lie to get a policy, hoping the people are too dumb to read or understand the fine print.  The game is to get the money, keep the payents flowing, but do everything to not pay out a claim.

Is this true today?  We all know insurance agencies have adjusters whose job it is to find loopholes in a claim, or prove a false claim, to either not pay out or pay little.  Anyone who has ever dealt with any kind of insurance claim, life or medical, know that the agencies will stretch it out as far as they can to pay, often waiting until there’s a lawsuit…or try to issue a large payent into smaller annuities over 10-20 years (people never realzing that if the company goes kaput, the claim wipes out).

Recommending highly for a good vintage sleaze read!

4 Responses to “Shabby Street (Beacon, 1954)”

  1. […] Shabby Street by Orrie Hitt Reviewed here. […]

  2. Brian Ritt Says:

    Shabby Street is my favorite Orrie, an aspect of which is undoubtedly because it was “my first” (blush, blush).

    I also like it because I get a kick out of Orrie’s 1st-person, amoral male protagonists. They flaunt their sociopathy with no self-conscienceness and remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that they’re even doing anything wrong.

  3. Brian Ritt Says:

    Make that “self-consciousness”, although “self-conscienesness”, in a different way, probably applies just as well.

  4. […] the heel, the cad, the pussy-hound, but we don’t hate him too much, like the narrator of Shabby Street, who had zero redeeming qualities.  He even muses: One girl I had been with one night — I […]

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