Russ Meyer said that when people watched his movies, he wanted them to know “where they are” five minutes into the viewing (umm, you achieved that, Russ). Orrie Hitt may or may not have expressed that same desire concerning the experience readers had poring over his novels, but he wrote like he wanted that to happen. You always know “where you are” in a Hitt novel.
Or do you?
Meyer and Hitt, although masters of two different media, had many other things in common as artists, besides the immediacy of their works. Primarily, they both achieved a rare duality of both embracing and transcending the possibilities involved in producing exploitation fare. On one level, Meyer’s films were just celluloid excuses for a big tits-obsessed guy to have his female characters’ huge jugs bouncing all over the screen. Similarly, in Hitt’s novels we never get too far from the matter of sex – characters are pretty much always either having it, talking about it, longing for it, or suffering some kind of repercussion as a result of it . . . and Hitt clearly loved writing about it.
But whereas many can make a titillating (pun intended) softcore film or write a steamy pulp novel, there are things in these two men’s work that set them apart from the sleazy pack. They were both visionary artists. Laugh at me for making this claim if you want, and I’ll laugh right back while knowing I’m right. There is genius behind Meyer’s dizzyingly abrupt film cuts, and in his outrageously over-the-top characters. With Hitt, the artistry has to do with his uncanny ability to capture a certain corner of the human experience, and to write novels that flowed seamlessly while being effective on different levels simultaneously. Outside of all the hanky panky, Hitt’s books are simply ultra-realistic, gritty, often moving human dramas. His characters are so believable that you hate some of them, care about others, and pity many. His portrayals of these peoples’ life experiences are engaging. His tales reel you in on page one and keep you interested throughout.
Like Meyer, Hitt tended to keep things basic with regards to his characters and settings. Many of his male leads sell insurance, fix cars, toil in factories and the like; the women serve customers at greasy spoons, dance in clubs, or take modeling jobs; and many of both sexes are hotel and farm employees. The towns (usually rural New York or thereabouts) depicted in Hitt’s novels are often clearly split between the “good” and “bad” sections, and it’s the latter that generally get covered in the books. Often, there is one particular, shameful street in the burg, where all the prostitution, drug dealing, and such occur, and this is the street where many of Hitt’s characters work and live. Some of his people try to break out of the ghetto while others give in and fully engage in the life there, but few of them bear any illusions about the possibility of a wholesome happily ever after for themselves.
People in the books talk plainly to one another (Hitt was an absolute master at snappy dialogue, and this is a constant source of pleasure in his books). They’re all hot to trot, and if you see somebody who gets you all bothered in your pants, you just tell them so and make a go for it, and this is true of both the male and female characters (and sometimes it’s a woman who gets another woman feeling that way). People hook up and either the guy can be “careful” or they can let go and engage in the act all naturally, then run the risk of the girl getting big in the belly, at which point they can either bring into the world another mouth to feed, or find some way to come up with three hundred bucks to get the situation handled. Likewise, most everybody is out to make a few dollars wherever and however they can, even if it means cheating or exploiting your neighbor, everyone knows this and there is no pretense between them about any of this. Life is broken down into these few basic elements.
One thing that sets Hitt’s novels apart from rank and file exploitation fare is the sympathetic nature of some of them, and social consciousness. His 1966 title Women’s Ward isn’t one of his better-woven stories, yet it’s a great example of the kinds of twin currents that often run in his books. On the surface, the story is about a violent and sex-hungry female psychiatric ward patient. The tale is narrated by a hospital aide who gets involved with that woman, while simultaneously conducting a hot affair with her equally lustful sister on the outside. All through Women’s Ward, though, Hitt uses his narrator’s voice to express great sympathy for the mentally ill; he lashes out at the public’s ignorant misunderstanding of them, and medical professionals’ misdiagnoses of them. Similarly, other books by Hitt contain elements wherein he shows concern for people who are societally disadvantaged in various ways.
Another thread that ties many of Hitt’s books together is the matter of the parents of the main characters. The lead players in his novels – both male and female – almost never have positive parental situations. Either one or both parents is long since dead, or they live far away from their kids, or they’re alive and inhabit the same town and/or home as their children, and they’re just no damn good. An obsessive writer who tended to hammer away at the same themes and situations over and over in his various novels, Hitt clearly had an interest in what became of people who got a raw deal in their upbringing.
Hitt’s books generally end happily, at least for some of the characters, with a few of the people somehow coming through everything still with the hopes of being blissfully married to a person they love, setting up a happy home, and pursuing a life that will see them making a living doing something legitimate. But others don’t fare as well, either landing behind bars or dead in an alleyway. The reader has to guess which characters will wind up on each end of this spectrum, and this is part of the adventure in following the tales.
So that’s an overview of Orrie Hitt, the writer. But what about the man behind the books with titles such as Shabby Street, Panda Bear Passion, The Excesses of Cherry, etc.? Hitt’s readers might have been surprised to learn that, while the leading men from his novels are often playas who get lots of girlie action while carefully avoiding nuisances such as wives or children, Hitt (who was known to family and friends as Ed, his middle name being Edwin) was a steady family man. He and his wife Charlotte raised their four children in the small town of Port Jervis, New York.
“He often enjoyed the stories of women who would approach him sexually, assuming that he had great sexual prowess!,” tells Joyce Gordon, the oldest of Hitt’s four children and one of two still alive today. “He was not a man with a roving eye; he was a man with a vivid imagination. Our mother was the love of his life.”
Hitt was born in 1917 and passed away in ’75. Aside from his writing pursuits, other professions he practiced included: insurance salesman, radio announcer, and manager of a private hunting and fishing club (he used situations and settings from those jobs in many of his novels). Once, to help defray the medical expenses involved for his ailing son, he took a short-term gig managing an airport club in Iceland. Although his pulp novels didn’t start appearing until 1954, he was a published writer as early as his high school years, when an article of his ran in a fishing and hunting magazine (an unsympathetic teacher of his submitted a piece of writing to the same publication and got a rejection, to Hitt’s delight).
Once Hitt got going with the pulp novels, he pumped out a ridiculously large number of titles. Don’t ask me to count them. His terrain was the world of the paperback original. The covers of his books would make an excellent pulp culture art exhibit. He wrote for outfits such as Kozy Books, Softcover Library, Beacon-Signal, and Domino. Not surprisingly, daughter Joyce remembers that, “His biggest problem was getting his checks from publishers and dealing with his agents.”
“He most always wrote at the kitchen table with his cigarettes and iced coffee, as the furor of life with four children surrounded him,” Joyce remembers now. “At one time he established an office on the second floor of our home and used a dictaphone to dictate stories, which were then typed by someone else. This didn't last long; he came back to writing at the kitchen table and writing full time.”
Nancy Gooding, Hitt’s youngest and his other surviving child, tells, “I loved the sound of the typewriter clacking day and night when his thoughts were all connected to produce an interesting story, and sometimes felt that others were jealous of his intellectual mind and how he ticked.”
On the back cover of the Kozy Books edition of his 1962 novel Violent Sinners, Hitt himself is quoted as saying, “All I do is write. I usually start at seven in the morning, take twenty minutes for lunch and continue until about four in the afternoon.” He also says, in that space, that he is married to a woman “who understands me,” and, “I’m just an average guy.”
As a writer, Orrie Hitt achieved a much-harder-than-it-looks duality of authoring stories that could both satisfy the joneses of readers out for a good lusty tale, and engage someone up for a compelling human drama. As a man? Well, I can only hope that when my two daughters are grown, and if someone mentions my name to them, they will light up the way Joyce Gordon and Nancy Gooding do when you talk to them about their dad.
(Some) Greatest Hitts
Ok, I’ve only read a small fraction of Hitt’s novels – about 30. But here’s a rundown of my favorites from those:
Call Me Bad (1960): Sherry Jenkins and Harry Barnes want to get married to each other. There’s just two pesky things in their way: Harry’s wedded already and Sherry’s a call girl, and both have been hiding these things from each other. Harry’s a traveling beer salesman and Sherry conducts her work on her back at Ma Williams’s notorious Central Hotel. There are other problems for Sherry, like her bum of a father who doesn’t work and who uses money Sherry gives him to buy booze and entertain girls Sherry’s own age. And then there’s the fact that Sherry’s a pretty, well-endowed girl whom guys can just never leave alone.
Violent Sinners (1962): On the same day that 20-year old Art Lord gets laid off from his factory job, his live-in girlfriend Marie informs him that she thinks she’s pregnant. Marie was already on him about them getting married, and now she’s really going to amp up that pressure. The only work Art can find is the job of general handyman out on an onion farm. The owner of the farm is a 50-year stubborn cuss, who is married to a buxom girl Art’s age. Art has to live on the farm to work there, but he’s not allowed to bring Marie because they’re not married. Oh, and Art learns that the last three guys all left the job after only working on the farm for a short time, and while he doesn’t have the details right away, he gathers that they all bailed because of something having to do with the farmer’s wife. Art’s about to find out what drove the other fellas away.
Wayward Girl (1960): Sandy Greening is a 16-year old high school dropout who looks like sex on wheels. She slings hash at a diner and makes more money selling her voluptuous body to the joint’s customers after closing time. Her dad’s in the pen, her mom’s no good, and her boyfriend is stupid enough to kill a member of a gang that rivals the one to which he and Sandy belong. For a teenager, Sandy has seen a lot. But she’s about to see a whole lot more at the “progressive” reform school to which she gets sent after she’s arrested for hooking.
Dial “M” for Man (1962): One oft-repeated storyline in Hitt’s novels is that of a young, workaday guy getting involved with an equally youthful woman who is married to an old, rich, mean-hearted man (see Violent Sinners capsule above). The guy is an honest type, and smart except when it comes to women, and the girl is sexy and a manipulator. In Dial “M” for Man, an example of this type of story, narrator Hob Sampson is the owner of a TV sales and repair shop. He’d like to expand his business but he needs a bank loan to do that, and he can’t get the loan because he has a personal enemy who sits on his bank’s board of directors. That foe is a 60-year old, dirty-dealing real estate tycoon who has it in for Hob because Hob’s dad once tried to bust up the man’s racket. The tycoon is married to a 22-year old hottie who just happens to have a TV set in need of repair, on a night when she’s all alone in the palatial estate she and her hubby inhabit. Hob makes a house call and things happen, natch. But what’s really at play here? Is she using Hob or is it the other way around? Or could it actually be love between them? Hmmm . . .
This Wild Desire (1964): A good example of a twin-currents Hitt novel. On one level, This Wild Desire is an aching story about a man at a personal crossroads. Brad Norton is (partly) still grieving over his ex-wife, who cheated on him, only to have the other guy kill her, then himself, when she got pregnant by him. Brad owns a small radio station, and while he is knowledgeable and passionate about the business, his outfit is on the brink of collapse due to a dearth of advertising income. When a well-to-do businessman whom Brad covets as an advertiser, invites Brad to an extended stay at his mountain house for some deer hunting, Brad knows he better come away from that excursion with a fat new account. On another level, the book is a sex romp. The prospective client’s daughter and his live-in cook are both bodacious honeys who like the looks of Brad and the feelings are mutual. Throw in a visit from the sweet thing who works for Brad and with whom he has an on-again, off-again love/sex affair, and Brad’s going to have to become wildly efficient if he’s going to be able to make his big sales pitch while tangling with all the babes.
Brian Greene's articles on books, music, and film have appeared in 20 different publications since 2008. His writing on crime fiction has also been published Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, and Mulholland Books. Brian's collection of short stories, Make Me Go in Cirlces, will be published by All Classic Books in late 2013 or early '14. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, and their cat Rita Lee. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.