“I did enjoy driving a tow truck. It’s not hard work, and most of the time you just sit around on your butt, gassing with the grease monkeys, or playing a hand of cards. And I never liked selling anything from behind a counter. You weren’t yourself back there. You were some sort of smiling joker, glad-handing every stupid son of a bitch who walked in to buy.”
I’ve recently become interested in vintage crime titles from the 40s and 50s from publishers such as Gold Medal Books, Ace, Berkeley (just to name a few). Bookscans has a great database for those interested, and that site is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to check out long-lost titles. I’ve begun collecting a few of these out-of-print gems–not that I have any particular pattern in mind. I buy random books as I find them with a preference for sleazy titles or covers. Some of the titles are pricey, and so far I’ve stuck to the cheap end. And this brings me to So I’m a Heel by Mike Heller–a book selected for its title, and its tagline: “Why shouldn’t I be a wise guy in a world filled with suckers.”
So I’m a Heel was published in 1957, and it’s a story narrated by a bitter WWII vet, a man named Hawkins who lives with his wife Mary and ten-year-old son Matt in the small California town of Laredo Rock. Hawkins was horribly disfigured in 1944 when a mis-loaded Howitzer sent a piece of steel hurtling his way. A dozen men were killed in the event, but Hawkins, considered ‘lucky’, is now missing his lower jaw. Labelled partially disabled, he got a settlement of “five gees” for his permanent disfigurement. Since the accident, Hawkins now wears a fake jaw which makes him “look like a man sucking on eggs or like a little boy drawing in his lower lip before he starts to cry. Or maybe like Andy Gump.”
Hawkins is a strange, complex character. He’s bitter, deeply distrustful, and thinks very little of his fellow-man. Thanks to the bad breaks he’s had in life, he has a huge chip on his shoulder. He can never get ahead and trades one mediocre job for another and is barely able to support his family. He’s used to people staring at his jaw with a range of reactions–pity, horror, even fascination, and over time Hawkins has learned to draw attention to his injury in order to generate sympathy:
I know Laredo Rock like you know your own face–and by the way, take a look at your face. How does your jaw look? Imagine the lower half off and a piece of dry flexible pink plastic wired on, complete with plastic gumline and false teeth. try smiling in the mirror with that thing, the top half of your face all lit up and the bottom a sort of half-sneer, half grimace. How would you feel? That’s how I feel. I tell you, it’s not funny.
When the novel begins, tow-truck driver Hawkins is fired for an accident:
I shouldn’t have been looking at the dame, I guess-she came jiggling her way across Wood Street, her hips rolling and jouncing and her ankles flashing, but even so it wasn’t my fault. I had the tow truck halfway up the ramp and headed for the open garage door when I took my eyes off the dame–she was one of those dames who don’t wear underclothes, you could see–and I saw this jerk coming along the sidewalk, lost in a dream. I honked and braked, but he took the next step anyway, and I bumped him.
Getting fired is a bad break for Hawkins, but that day a piece of luck seems to fall into his lap when he gets some dirt on wealthy lawyer, Otto Weylin. Weylin is a married man and a local political big-wig. By chance Hawkins discovers some explosive, damning information about Weylin, and Hawkins is sure that Weylin would be willing to pay $10,000 for his silence. The decision to blackmail Weylin leads to a complicated chain of events, and Hawkins is forced to examine his values and his priorities when Weylin pulls a few tricks of his own.
Here’s Hawkins eyeballing Weylin’s hot lonely, little wife, Millie–a woman who “wear[s] sex like a badge, like Times Square on Saturday night.” But Hawkins doesn’t think that Millie Weylin is just a hot little number; he also thinks she’s trash:
She looked like one of those who’d end up as nurses in nuthouses where on the q.t. they can get their kicks from some poor gassed-up World War I vet who’s maybe crippled up with bursitis, or else they’d set up their own stations at bars and pick up winos and slobbering drug addicts, rheumy-eyed old men and spastics and guys whose faces are carved up with fire scars.
So I’m a Heel is an odd, good little novel that runs to 144 pages. Reading the thoughts of this character eradicates the idea that the 50s were a more innocent time. To Hawkins, nice people are fake or suckers, and everyone is out for their own gain. Hawkins is bitter, world-weary and as it turns out, as nasty as they come, but the plot verves into the ‘uplifting’ zone before landing firmly into ambiguity. The ambiguity surrounds the actions of Weylin, and I can’t say more without spoiling the novel for any potential readers. I will just say that Weylin’s actions and motives are murky. On one hand, it’ s possible that the view of Weylin is warped by Hawkins’ world-view and attitude towards mankind in general, but on the other hand, evidence points to some very dark stuff going on at the Weylin house. This ambiguity is a very clever move on the part of the author. Since Hawkins is the narrator, we see the action through his eyes, and his perspective is clearly warped. However, there may be some truth to his suspicions about Weylin, and ultimately, the reader will chew on this troubling little tale after turning the last page. We can choose to think like Hawkins (and we know he’s warped) or we can choose to believe the best of people (and Weylin’s story) and enter Suckersville.
The novel’s twists and turns ratchet this book up over the average. The biggest beef I had with the book is Hawkins’ confusion (and possibly the author’s) between homosexuality and pedophilia. Two very different things.