10 April 2010

The Mysterious Mister Nablo

The Long November
James Benson Nablo
New York: Dutton, 1946

I'm going to step out on a limb here and state, with confidence, that this was one of the most popular Canadian novels published after the Second World War. Evidence? I can offer nothing more than its publishing history, which over six years included three Dutton printings, two News Stand Library editions and a very attractive Signet paperback. And yet, we remember nothing of James Benson Nablo; The Long November, his only novel, has been out of print for over five decades.

Nablo's narrator is Joe Mack, a wounded, unarmed Canadian soldier hiding from Nazis in a half-destroyed Italian home. Don't be fooled, this is not a war novel, but Horatio Alger's nightmare. As Joe waits out the enemy, he looks back on his 34 years, playing particular attention to his efforts to make something of himself. It isn't that Joe cares so much about money, rather he sees it as a means of winning the love of his life, beautiful blonde Steffie Gibson. Like Duddy Kravitz, who would follow, Joe realizes his riches by "borrowing" the last bit of money he needs to achieve his dream – and, as with Duddy, he loses the girl as a result.

The Long November is a rough book, told in a style that resembles tough guy film noir narration; only Nablo uses words that would not pass the Hays Code. In a 1949 letter to Jack McClelland, Earle Birney provides a list: "Jesus Christ, Christ Almighty, By Jesus, for Christ's sake, goddamit, Bugger all, sonofabitch, suck-holing, stumblebum, crap, shacked up, quickie, a lay, shove it up your keister, tired of being screwed-without-being-kissed." May I add that in one of his many moments of self-recrimination Joe describes his work as "of much use as a tit on a spinster"? Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, John D. Paulus complained: "If this is modern 'realistic writing,' this reviewer will take vanilla."

And I'll take Rocky Road.

Nearly everything that's been written about Nablo is found on the book's dust jacket. Other references to the author are precious and few. In Imagining Canadian Literature, editor Sam Solecki provides nothing more than a fleeting footnote, referring to "J.V. Nablo [sic] (b. 1910)", an author who has not "been traced". Nablo was indeed born in 1910, making him exactly the same age as his protagonist. Here the future author is recorded in the 1911 census, as the daughter of George and Margery Nablo of 8 Centre Street in Niagara Falls.

I've found little else, though I can say that he never published another book. It seems Nablo left the world of letters for a life in film. In 1954, his short story "The Wheel Man" was adapted by a young Blake Edwards as Drive a Crooked Road. The flick has Mickey Rooney as an honest auto mechanic who finds himself driving the getaway car in a bank robbery. Blame it on a dame.

The god-awful A Bullet for Joey (1955) followed. Of the films made from Nablo's stories, it's by far the most interesting. Why? Well, for one it stars Edward G. Robinson as a French Canadian RCMP detective named Raoul Leduc. Need more? It's a Cold War thriller set in Montreal, and features George Raft as an American mobster who is hired by the Reds to kidnap a nuclear scientist. Who can resist?

A Bullet for Joey was followed by a forgotten western, Raw Edge (1956), which starred Vancouver beauty Yvonne de Carlo (née Peggy Middleton). One wonders whether Nablo lived to see it; industry reports from the autumn of 1956 refer to "the late James Benson Nablo".

The writer's executor seems to have had a busy time of it, selling options for Nablo stories like "Morning Star", which was to have been James Cagney's directorial debut. In the end, there was only one more film: a Victor Mature vehicle entitled China Doll (1958). Its release coincided with a "novelization by Edgar Jean Bracco of a screenplay by Kitty Buhler". Published as a 35¢ Berkley paperback, it makes no mention of James Benson Nablo.

Object: A fairly slim hardcover in green cloth with light brown lettering. What makes the book interesting is that Dutton changed covers for the second and third printings – both in March 1946 – replacing the battlefield landscape with an image of Steffie Gibson looking like a well-covered streetwalker.

Access: Fourteen copies are held in Canadian public and university libraries. It seems that the uncommon first edition exists only in rotten condition. The best copy currently listed online is a bargain at C$30; others lack dust jackets or are ex-library. Decent copies of the News Stand and Signet editions can be had for under C$10. I've yet to come across the 1957 Double Flame paperback.

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  1. It is Great book. and Nice post . sometime i serious . i will a book.
    thank you. i get well soon.

  2. Great stuff - hope "A Bullet for Joey" is available; expect not.

    I can add a couple of more reviews. One of them is a rare mention of a News Stand edition.

    The review in the University of BC student paper of the Export edition introduces the book by noting that “it can be obtained as a pocket book published by an organization called the News Stand Library. The book is full of typographical errors and transposed lines, but it’s worth it.” After a summary of the plot the reviewer’s opinion is “the book shows that Canadian novelists are finally beginning to show some originality and vigour.”
    An article in Quill & Quire has a very different opinion of the book, describing the book as trash. The reviewer continues with “[the book has] been drawn to trade attention through the excitement caused by masses beating a path to the bookseller’s door in full purchasing heat”, that “it is at least interesting to bookmen to note how well received is a writer whose main character exhibits psychopathic tendencies” and “it would be interesting to know Mr. Nablo’s own war record.”

  3. I've seen a A Bullet for Joey turn up from time to time over the years, first as on VHS and later as a DVD. Used copies are cheap.

    My thanks for the reviews. No surprise that I agree with the UBC student. The Quill & Quire review seems very peculiar, leading me to wonder whether there might be more to it than meets the eye. After all, Nablo worked for ten years in the Toronto publishing world at Longmans Green. Mention of Joe Mack's "psychopathic tendencies", followed by the insinuation regarding the author's service record strikes me as vindictive.

    I'll add that Joe Mack in no way meets the definition of a psychopath. He's certainly no Bruce Darwin.

  4. About the Q&Q review - I agree. One of those "says more about the reviewer than the book" articles.

  5. Thanks for the insight on The Long November. I actually picked up a ragged copy of the 1957 Double Flame edition as part of a $1 bag of books at a local (Michigan) thrift store after being intrigued by the blurb/summary in the front:

    "This bitter indictment against the great depression era expresses the social conscience of a brilliant author.

    "The biting, lusty dialogue is dramatically typical of the times and the people-- from Rosie the whore, to Steffie the sweet but impatient virgin-- the story packs a punch that is both crude and powerful.

    "This is not cheap fiction, flirting with censorship for the sake of sensationalism, but contemporary prose at its best. Uninhibited? Yes! Bold and realistic? Yes! Nablo swings his pen like the sword of Damascus. He cuts to the quick with his rapier thrusts at convention and seeks to find his characters as they live and love in the wilds of Canada and the slums of Chicago."

    To be perfectly honest, the nondescript green cover and that description had me thinking it was somebody's grandfather's erotica. Regardless, this is some of the first information I've been able to find about the novel and its author, so thank you. If you'd like any other information from the Double Flame edition, I'd be happy to help if I can.

  6. Lola, my thanks to you for all this information. Valuable stuff, to be sure. I note that since writing this post a Saskatchewan bookseller has listed Double Flame's The Long November. At C$35 it seems to be priced fairly - I've never before seen the edition on offer. It seems so odd that Nablo's novel, which began with Dutton, ended its life 11 years later with Double Flame. The little I've read of the Hollywood publisher indicates that it specialized in "uninhibited fiction" (Call House Madam by one Serge C. Wolsey was one of its few titles). I can't imagine how disappointed the purchaser would have been with Nablo's story.

    I do have one question: Would Double Flame's The Long November be stapled? I ask because it seems the publisher's other titles use this binding method.

  7. Yes, it's bound with two staples-- almost like a playbill. It looks like this was a deliberate design choice. From the back matter:


    The books bearing this imprint are selected from the finest in uninhibited fiction. Produced in limited quantity for controlled distribution through selected dealers, they are private printings and are manufactured of the finest materials in a special format and style that is easy to handle. Double Flame titles are adult reading only.

  8. Again, my thanks, Lola. Your The Long November seems such an odd item. Particularly interesting is the notice that "Double Flame titles are adult reading only." Certainly no warning of this nature appeared on the Dutton, NSL or Signet editions. None of these publishers were known for selling risque material (though, I suppose, NSL skirted the boundaries). As I say, anyone hoping for something particularly spicy would have been disappointed.