A few years back, the story goes, a group of friends were at their Wednesday night drinking club airing their grievances over a couple of beers. “The job market was for shit, and we were all tired of having to smoke corporate cock to make a buck,” they would later write, in the introduction to their first fiction anthology, Danger City. Then, inspiration struck: they would publish their own books—pulpy, soused-up, badass books—and to hell with everyone else. They named their fledgling company Contemporary Press, and made their slogan “Fuck literature.”
Since then, this self-made band of raunchy ironists has written, designed, and published eleven novels, with titles like The Bride of Trash and How to Smash Everyone to Pieces, as well as two story collections, the second of which, Danger City II, is just out. Their work is not lyrical and it is not about the beauty of everyday life and it is not for kids. Rather, in their pages you’ll find an abundant cast of femmes fatales, goons, detectives with drinking problems, bloodied faces, zombies, sex, and guns—all served up with an acid smirk bordering on a sneer. The project isn’t so much to poke fun at pulp genres, though there’s plenty of that, but to use the outlandishness of pulp to blast away the banalities of hipster life, and to give voice to its frustrations.
Take “Delivery,” by Todd Robinson, a memorable story from the first collection about a “scumbag drug dealer” named Jamie who lives with his mother. Jamie’s existence is roundly miserable, but he is particularly oppressed by a ferocious heroin addict named Trezza. When Jamie brings a pot delivery to Trezza’s place, on the bad side of town, he notices that Trezza’s wife and five-year-old kid are both sporting bruises. Trezza also has a reputation for beating up drug dealers, like Jamie’s friend Ike. “Ike made himself some extra cash by selling fake G- 13,” Robinson writes. “Trezza knew the difference and took it out on Ike. That was over a year ago. Ike was still eating through straws.” It’s possible to think of Trezza as an extension of the corporate bullying that so disgruntled the Contemporary Press founders. As in almost all of these tales, the hero is an underdog who gets the last laugh, proving, perhaps, that fiction is the best revenge. After Trezza bashes in Jamie’s nose, Jamie shows up for their next transaction with a bag of Clorox, which he surreptitiously switches with Trezza’s heroin.
Without a doubt, the most crowd-pleasing story in Danger City is “Faggy on the Streets,” by Jeffrey Dinsmore. Like his fellow authors, Dinsmore likes his fiction rough, but he doesn’t take a word of it seriously. The title character, John Faggy, is a renegade investigator with an angry streak and “one badasssss cracker.” Dinsmore writes, “He’ll take you downtown on the Brown line and when he do, he won’t buy you no breakfast or cook you no Steak-umms, no way, baby. He’ll take you down to where you need to go and he’ll say to you, ‘Look, there, that’s where you belong, you maggot.’” Faggy teams up with a sidekick named Squeamish to orchestrate a drug bust, and by the time the story is through, Faggy has used his sexual prowess to pry information out of a prostitute, gunned down several of the cops in his precinct, and told a convict who refuses to squeal that “if you don’t tell me everything you know about the Enforcers right now, I’m gonna introduce you to the sweatiest, meanest bulldog in this place and laugh as he fucks you in half.” More than any other author in the collection, Dinsmore is able to mine misanthropy for belly laughs, and he nearly upstages the rest of the contributors. (He also has two Contemporary Press novels of his own: Johnny Astronaut, which he wrote under the pen name Rory Carmichael, and I, An Actress, a mock-autobiography of a trashy Hollywood actress named Karen Jamey, born Karen Hitler. His story for the second anthology, also a winner, is titled “The Alcoholic Monkey Who Took Over My Mind and Turned Me Into a Cold- Blooded Killer,” which pretty much says it all.)
On the whole, the stories in Danger City work like quick punches to the gut, with only a handful that drag or seem out of place. “Empire of One,” a goofy tale by Carl Moore about a slacker who clones himself by the thousands and takes over the world, doesn’t really fit the mold, but it comes as a welcome departure; after a while, all those seedy, hard-boiled protagonists start to blend together. In Danger City II, we get more of their ilk, but this time there is a telling trend: several of the main characters are not only drunken losers but drunken losers with artistic aspirations. In “The Jersey Devil,” by Mike Segretto (who also wrote three Contemporary Press novels), Lee Ronnie Lee, a foul-mouthed birthday-party clown, dreams of someday directing his own action movie called Mania 2: One Million and One Murders. (“Sequels always do better at the box office, so I’m skipping Mania 1.”) Lee Ronnie Lee then meets Satan, in the form of a vixenish clerk at the Gap. They strike a Faustian bargain: she gives him funding for the film, and he gives her a starring role. They shoot the movie, a snuff film with some incidental bestiality, in his mother’s basement.
But perhaps no story serves more explicitly as a metaphor for the writing life than “Balls,” by Tony O’Neill (who also wrote the novel Digging the Vein), about an unpublished memoirist who is castrated by a prostitute. Since he doesn’t have health insurance, he buys some bandages at Duane Reade, dulls the pain with heroin, and moves on with his life. In the end, he finds that he’s more appealing to women as a eunuch and scores an advance from Doubleday—the suggestion being that you have to forgo cojones to get a book deal in this world.
Elsewhere, sexuality is considered on its own immodest terms. “Rita Carter,” by Jess Dukes (also the author of Down Girl), describes a tween girl’s quest to achieve orgasm with whatever boy, girl, or household object she can find. Eventually, she settles on a bathtub faucet and almost dies, but even that doesn’t provide the pleasure experienced regularly by her friend Rita, who “somehow found out about her clitoris when the rest of us were still arguing over stickers that smelled like real buttered popcorn,” and whose escapades end with a nearly tragic episode of coitus with a hairbrush.
Rita’s misadventures aside, there’s something brazenly pubescent in all of Contemporary Press’s fiction. Perhaps “Fuck Literature” is the cry of that inner adolescent who would rather have been at home reading Sin City than in English class with a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, now grown stylish and world-weary without having bothered to grow up. The fun of these neopulp tales is that they give aggression and self-loathing an outlet in fantasy while toying intelligently with genre. They may not always provide the jolt that they’re intended to, but they’re consistently anarchic and self-knowing, and occasionally subtle. Then again, fuck subtle.