Web of the City, by Harlan Ellison (Review)

Web of the City, the first novel by legendary author Harlan Ellison, may not be his best work, but it's certainly never boring.

Jesus H. Christ; Harlan Ellison is terrifying.Full disclosure: when Den of Geek asked me to read and review Web of the City, I had never heard of Ellison before. I make this admission with a great deal of shame. Anyone with my ridiculously overpriced education in literature should know the man. He has, quite literally, won ALL the awards. He has been writing for ALL the things (print, TV, etc, etc) since the 1950s. Web of the City is actually a rerelease; an abridged version was originally published as “Gutter Gang” in the 1957 issue of Guilty Detective Story Magazine. The full length version was published a year later by Pyramid Books under the title “Rumble”.Why does this make Ellison terrifying? No, just being prolific does not inspire fear. Being a badass does; let us count the ways:1. Web of the City is the story of Rusty Santoro, former Prez of the Cougar gang, and his efforts to escape thug life. In order to depict a New York City street gang with accuracy, Ellison went out and joined one.2. By his own admission, Ellison wrote Web of the City while he was in Ranger Basic Training for the U.S. Army. He would train all day, and then go to the latrine at night with his typewriter and pick out Rusty’s story.3. Other trainees did not care for Ellison’s late night typing. Ellison settled those arguments with his fists.4. Once, Ellison mailed a dead rodent to a publisher.Look, I was in the Army. I went to Basic Training. I was lucky if I had the energy to pick my nose after a full day of learning how to bayonet plastic dummies. Do you have any idea how much harder RANGER Basic Training is? Multiply normal Basic by 100 and you start to get an idea. Now try to remember that Ellison was drafted. In the 1950’s. Who do you think he was scrapping with in the middle of the night so that he could keep writing? Hard cases. Other draftees? Sure; but you better believe there were also kids like the ones he had met in that street gang. Kids who had been court ordered into the military instead of prison.Dude. I met a Sergeant First Class who had been court ordered into the Army under the condition that he remain posted outside the U.S. for TEN YEARS. And that was in 1996, not a time when boot camp was known for its badassery. I am pretty sure that Drill Sergeants could still beat you reasonably close to death in the 1950’s.   This is a 79 year old man who could probably still beat me into incontinence today. So it is with a heavy heart that I type these words: Web of the City is hysterically awful.Blame the author’s youth. Ellison does as much in his introduction. These are the first efforts of a fledgling writer who was determined to write what he knew. He knew his protagonist and he knew his violence. If there is one thing that comes through in Web of the City, it would be the sheer freaking magnitude of Ellison’s balls. They are epic.Unfortunately, Web of the City is about two acts too long. Is it engaging? Sure, but the entire time I was reading, I was wondering what in the hell had caused the story to suffer from such massive bloat. When I finished, I was happily surprised to find the original version of “Gutter Gang” in the back. The abridged version of Rusty’s story makes more sense. Ellison had much more control over the smaller, bite sized, content. The larger narrative just got away from him.In “Gutter Gang,” Rusty decides to quit the Cougars, finish high school, and stay out of trouble. The gang, however, is loathe to give him up and the new Prez challenges him to a brutal knife fight as a way to cement his own reputation.Web of the City spools well past these events; Rusty’s sister Dolores, a member of the Cougie Cats (the girl’s auxiliary of the Cougars), gets raped and killed in some convoluted plot twist about heroin. I had a difficult time reading the words “Cougie Cats” without giggling. I tried to imagine Ellison appearing to punch me in the kidney every time I snickered, but it was no use. No amount of street cred, gangland violence, or left hand turns in the plot were going to get me to take the Cougie Cats seriously.And just how violent did the book get? Think Joe Pesci in Casino. Yeah, that violent.Where does that leave us? Usually I do not like to mix up my opinion of a writer with my opinion of their work. Based solely on the Hard Case edition of Web of the City, would I read/recommend other works by Ellison? Yes. Sure, the plot was goddamn awful. Sure, I found myself asking “what in the hell is going on here?” Sure, I giggled. But I never once got bored. I gobbled that book up in a couple sittings and I honestly enjoyed the writing style. I am especially interested to see how his work matured over the course of the next five decades.Knowing what little I do about Ellison and how he birthed this hot mess has given me a tremendous amount of respect for the cantankerous old bastard. Sir, it would be an honor to get a punch in the kidney AND a dead rodent from you (and a boob grope if I ever win a Hugo).How to rate this for Den of Geek? Honestly it deserves to be rated twice.Web of the City gets two stars for being goddamn awful, but Harlan Ellison should get five stars for his massive balls alone.Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!