Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Blowtop

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, August 29, 2001

“Something about your attitude reminded me of something I once saw in a Mischa Auer movie. This Greenwich Village artist gets thrown out of his room and moves into the apartment of a friend. First thing he does when he moves in, he throws a vase out the window--without even bothering to open the window. What’s the idea? the friend wants to know. It was ugly, says the artist. I didn’t like it. All right, says the friend. But if you had to throw it out, couldn’t you at least open the window? Open the window? the artist exclaims. My friend, I’m an artist. Not a mechanic!” Sheean chuckled. “You see what I mean? You and that artist got a lot in common.”

First published in 1948, this “original Beat novel” has been revived by the author and Olmstead Press, and advertised as “classic!”, “Legendary!” and “Incendiary!”

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorAlvin Schwartz
Length240 pages
Book Rating6

I picked this book up after speaking with the author at the San Diego Comic-Con. LPC Group, the parent or alter ego of Olmstead, had a tiny booth manned by a couple of friends of mine, at least one of whom was presenting at the Comic Arts Conference. I first met Alvin Schwartz on-line, when he, a comic book writer from the golden age of comics, submitted a comic book script to my web site in the hopes of getting back into writing comics. Later on, the publisher of “An Unlikely Prophet” contacted me for assistance in using the Internet for marketing purposes, and I recognized the author’s name. When I found out that Schwartz was going to be at the Comic-Con, I dug out my copy of “An Unlikely Prophet” and brought it down to be signed. I rarely care about signings, but I thought it would be fun to finally meet him in person. We hadn’t talked on-line in years, but as soon as I gave him my name he remembered me.

I’ve been reading a lot of these things. A few months ago, another friend of mine told me I “had to read” another seminal but largely unknown today novel, “Ask the Dust” by John Fante. Like “Ask the Dust”, Schwartz’s novel had its following among other creative types. The back cover and introduction claim that it was a bestseller in Paris, “taken up by the followers of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir” and that it “became a cult classic among Columbia University students including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg”. Schwartz says that Jackson Pollock “was convinced he was the painter protagonist”.

The story about how the book was published and then torpedoed by the publisher is worthy of a hard-boiled book in its own right.

In the introduction and through his characters, Alvin Schwartz calls this a book about “the things that are left over”. It is ostensibly a murder mystery, but if you go into it expecting a murder, a sleuth, and a solution you will be sorely disappointed. The book’s action takes place in Greenwich Village in the forties. The main characters are of the drug-using Bohemian crowd, and this is the first novel I’ve ever read where the descriptions of marijuana use show an understanding of both the drug and the drug’s users (unlike “Ask the Dust”, where the drug was called marijuana but seemed a lot more like heroin, indicating that the author got most of his information from the newspaper articles of the time that used racism against Mexicans to promote prohibition).

The title character (a “Blowtop” is either police, Greenwich Village, or New York slang for some kind of jerk) is just the unknown murderer. “Some blowtop pulled this, all right. And the Village is full of blowtops.”

The book starts out with Archie Grau deciding not to return to work. “Having made this decision, Archie was suddenly faced with such limitless freedom that the problem of enjoying it became as burdensome as the duty he had postponed.” So he goes to the local bar and meets Phil White, the local marijuana dealer, who dies, practically, in his arms. A fairly standard opening. Through the rest of the book he and his friends wonder who did it? Was it one of them? Was it their gun? Will the cops figure it out? Will the cops trace the weapon? Will they go to jail for something they didn’t do? What did Phil White do to deserve death? Because “most of the people we know are hardly alive enough to be murdered.”

What the author picks up on fifty years later in the introduction is the notion of “the things that are left over”, how Giordano the painter describes his painting, and Archie decides is one of the keys to the mystery of life that this book is really about. The New York Times called this an “existentialist novel, maybe the first conscious one in America”. Alvin Schwartz writes that, looking at it fifty years later, “I find it rather marvelous in the way the story reveals the possibility of transcendance.” Transcendance becomes more central to his much later book, “An Unlikely Prophet”, which is the protagonist’s (who is, literally, himself) search for something that transcends, and yet is, “reality”. “The Blowtop” is more simply a search for a more fulfilled reality than the one the characters inhabit at the start of the story in the Village.

“The Blowtop” is not a mystery, nor is it a complicated plot in any other sense. It is a relatively short, simple book with few characters and few scenes. It doesn’t really live up to the cover blurb “The Book that Sparked the Beat Generation!” nor is it by any reasonable definition “Incendiary!” But it is a good, throught-provoking story, and worth reading.

The Blowtop

Alvin Schwartz

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

If you enjoyed The Blowtop…

For more about Alvin Schwartz, you might also be interested in An Unlikely Prophet.

For more about hard-boiled, you might also be interested in Casablanca, Shaft, The Night Stalker, The Seven Samurai, The Usual Suspects, Tokyo Drifter, and Bordersnakes.