Pushover (Beacon, 1957)

Here we have ol’ Orrie firing on all pistons, at the top of his A-game.  While the usual elements are here — the heel juggling three dames, salesmanship and making money — the premise is not only unlike any other Hitt novel, but pretty damn unique. It’s not a sex or sleaze novel, not a crime novel…a con man novel?  A novel about a heel, about jealousy and revenge?

Danny Fulton heads up what is a borderline scam…they do offer a service, he and his team are not up-and-up about it and what kind of profit they actually make.  The game is the seedy side of publishing — offering up slapped-together books that cover the history of small towns or the police and fire departments in various towns, to be used as fund-raising means.  Danny and his cohorts play on the egos of people, their sense of place in history, and the notion that the “profits” will be used for charitable means, either for the fire department, the city’s social services, or churches.

This is what they do: they get an organization, such as the fire or police departments or a 4-H club or anything, really, to put up initial funds to get the book started.  Then Danny sells “ads” for the book for more income.  The people think he’s hard at work researching the history and doing a good academic job at it, but really he has one of his women — Madeline — in the town library, pulling out two decades old manuscripts commissioned through Roosevelt’s New Deal Work Project Administration, the Federal Writer’s Project.  That project, during the Depression, was designed to provide work for writers and academics during the Great Depression.

Established July 27, 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) operated under journalist and theatrical producer Henry Alsberg, and later John D. Newsome, compiling local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works. The most well-known of these publications were the 48 state guides to America (plus Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.) known as the American Guide Series. The American Guide Series books were compiled by the FWP, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state’s history and culture, descriptions of its major cities, automobile tours of important attractions, and a portfolio of photographs. The Federal Writers Project was funded and put to work, as a Public Works in and around the west coast, through Washington, Oregon and California.

FWP was charged with employing writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists and cartographers. Some 6,600 individuals were employed by the FWP. In each state a Writer’s Project non-relief staff of editors was formed, along with a much larger group of field workers drawn from local unemployment rolls. Many of these had never graduated high school, but most had formerly held white collar jobs of some sort. Most of the Writer’s Project employees were relatively young in age, and many came from working-class backgrounds.

Basically what Danny and Madeline do is re-type the manuscripts they find through the local project archives, send them to a printer to reduce the type and print off 1500-2000 copies of the book, which they hand over to the benefactor organization to sell for $2.00, making around a fifty cent-to-one dollar profit.

What they don’t know is the actual price of the printing — Danny has jacked it up so he has a profit — and that Danny prints a thousand or more copies than told.  Before the organizations can go out and sell their copies, Danny and his crew quickly hits the streets or phones and sell the books to the town citizens and take off with what they make — maybe a few grand, but that went a long way in the 1950s.  Thus, when the organizations try to sell their copies, they’ll have a hard time because a lot of people already have the book…

A very strange and original con, indeed, and makes one wonder if Hitt was involved in something like that. Such a con is not the sort of thing a writer makes up out of the blue; and since Hitt always writes about rackets he had personal experience in (resort hotels, insurance, door to door sales, radio advertising), this one sounds like a playbook out of Orrie’s past work history.

The novel opens with Danny and crew wrapping up their latest con in Waverly, NY (a town that shows up in various Hitt stories, like Affair with Lucy) and deciding he’s going to get out of the game.  He’s made good money and thinks he’ll head for sunny pastures, Florida or California, and find some other racket.

He also knows it’s only a matter of time before word gets around New York State how he has conned people, and no one will fall for it again, or he might even get arrested for fraud and tax evasion.

But his scouter has secured a huge job — the history of Port Jessup, NY, funding through all churches there for their benefit.  Port Jessup is no small town, has half a million, so they could possibly sell 10,000 copies and make a mint. One problem: Port Jessup is Danny’s hometown where he pulled his first book con with the police department, with a woman he had an affair with, Gloria.  When Gloria went on a trip to see a dying aunt, Danny skipped out on her.

It’s tricky, but Danny can’t pass up this last job that is sure to give him a nice nest egg to take off.  Gloria is married with a child now, too.

The third woman is Sally, a wealthy red-head who is steering the churches for this project.  She has heard a few rumors about Danny and his game, but goes along with it — right there, we have to wonder if Sally isn’t running her own con.  The question arises: who is the pushover?  Danny’s suckers, his women, or him?

James Reasoner, last March, reviewed Pushover at his blog and makes a few keen observations:

Hitt does a remarkable job of capturing the grubby desperation of these people, especially Danny and his two partners, one a young, beautiful blonde who’s separated from her husband, the other an advance man and salesman who misses his wife and family. All of them seem to be teetering on an emotional brink, and so do most of the people they encounter.

This is certainly true for many Hitt novels, especially the ones that deal with fast-talk salesmanship, people living day-by-day from the money they make that day (e.g., Diploma Dolls, Shabby Street, Two of a Kind, The Cheaters, Bad Wife, etc.); the same is true for Hitt’s books about young women falling into the sex trade (Three Strange Women, Sin Doll, Burlesque Girl, Run for Cover, etc.): everyone is desperate to fight off poverty and starvation, as they seek out love, family, and meaning in their often meaningless life.

And that’s what we get from Danny here: his life has to meaning, purpose. He’s tired of the con, tired of sleeping with women he doesn’t love but makes them think he does.  Sure enough, he’s a goddamn heel, and he hates it.  Reasoner mentions that whenever Danny does something good for someone, he’s surprised himself at how of character that is for Danny Fulton, selfish money grubber crook.

Reasoner also notes that the novel has little action, which is also true for many Hitt books.  For instance, in Add Flesh t the Fire, the story centers on gun running to Cuba, but we never see the actual gun running or Cuba, it’s only talked about or “happened last night.”  Hitt focuses on dialogue and relationships — real people, essentially.

Danny’s womanizing backfires on him…first, Gloria confesses to him that her child is his, and she made a deal with a man to be her husband so she would not be shamed.  But that’s not the case at all.  And then he convinces Madeline that they have a future — her husband is back from his Navy tour in Korea and wants her to move to San Diego with him, where he’s based.  But she asks for a divorce to be with Danny; only, Danny wants her to stay to finish the book project — he needs her more than he can admit: while everyone thinks he’s the writer of these books, she’s the one who does all the research and typing, formatting copy for the printer on a high-end IBM typewriter that justifies right margins.

But Danny has a fling with Sandy, and she professes love, and he is surprised to discover that he’s in love with her, and not because she’s worth half a million.  They plan a marriage after the book comes out.  When Madeline finds out, of course she feels betrayed.

The blow up ending is obvious but Danny is too much a conceited fool to see that his betrayal has infused a need for revenge in Madeline, to destroy him and his wedding to a rich lady…

The ending is a little strange…he winds up with the woman you don’t think he will, as Hitt heroes do.  It almost seems anti-climatic.  But it is different, like the whole book, from other Hitts.

On the Hitt scale, this is a 9.

One Response to “Pushover (Beacon, 1957)”

  1. […] And like Orrie Hitt’s Pushover, the con is a unique one, crossing the same territory as David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross: real estate scams, getting people to guy useless property; not in the Florida everglades, but in the Canadian tundra. […]

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