Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) is mostly known for his work as a science fiction author and essayist. While going through U.S. Army basic training in 1957, Ellison wrote his first published novel called “Web of the City” that was initially released under the title of “Rumble” in 1958 when juvenile delinquent novels were a hot property. Hard Case Crime reprinted the novel in 2013 while also adding three of Ellison’s street-gang short stories to the volume.
“Web of the City” is a novel about a fictional New York street gang called The Cougars. Ellison claimed that he researched the book by going undercover in a Brooklyn street gang called The Barons using a fake name, and he served as “war counselor” for ten weeks before leaving. For the record, I think that story is somewhere between wildly exaggerated and complete bullshit. Nevertheless, he wrote a memoir about his supposed street gang internship called “Memos from Purgatory,” a 1961 release before fact-checking of outlandish claims was a thing.
In the novel, 17 year-old Rusty Santora declares that he wants to leave his position as president of The Cougars, but his former street gang members have other ideas. In order to prevent his desertion, gang members stomp Rusty down, and convince him that he’s good as dead if he doesn’t fall in line. Meanwhile, tensions are mounting between The Cougars and their arch-enemies, The Cherokees (the Brooklyn variety, not the Native Americans). As you may have guessed, a rumble is inevitable.
The juvenile delinquent genre tropes come at the reader fast and furious in this thin novel. You have the high school shop teacher with the heart of gold encouraging Rusty to leave the street life behind and pursue a career as an industrial designer. Rusty’s sister is following in his footsteps as an up-and-comer in The Cougars Girls Auxiliary (“The Cougie Cats”), and he’s terrified that she might never see adulthood. Some of the tropes are quaint - much of the drama takes place in soda shops and the gangbangers use switchblades and broken bottles when violence explodes at the teen dances.
Eventually, an actual plot emerges when gang activity hits close to home for Rusty. His sense of grief and street honor compel him to seek revenge, and Ellison treats the reader to a compelling vendetta storyline that keeps the tension mounting until the final climax. It’s nothing you haven’t read before, but this iteration is extremely well-crafted.
The fight scenes - and there are many - are vividly drawn and offset the corniness of the story. It’s a fun read if you’re looking for a throwback to a simpler time when guys were guys and dolls were dolls. I’m sure it was written as a serious sociological peek behind the curtain of an grim urban subculture devoid of hope. These days, it’s just a bit overwrought and a mostly entertaining time capsule.
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