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Obituary: Michael Avallone

FEW WRITERS this century have committed more gross acts of grievous bodily harm upon the language of Milton, Shakespeare and the Authorised Version than Michael Angelo Avallone Jnr, a.k.a. Dora Highland, Max Walker, Stuart Jason, Priscilla Dalton, Edwina Noone, Troy Conway (specifically when turning out such epics of literary tackiness as The Blow-Your-Mind Job, The Cunning Linguist and A Stiff Proposition), and a host of other more or less absurd aliases.

Self-crowned "The Fastest Typewriter in the East" (he lived most of his life in New York and New Jersey, eschewing until 1995 the clement weather and, to him, too liberal - "all perverts and pinkos" - life style of the West Coast) and "King of the Paperbacks", Avallone published over a period of 40-odd years an enormous quantity of books in all manner of genres: crime, Gothic, sex, romance, spy, horror, private eye, movie and TV tie- in. Possibly as many as 250 (reference books credit him with a hundred less, but what do they know about Avallone's end of the market?) were pounded out on his electric typewriter from 1953 through to the late 1980s.

Despite this fecundity (perhaps because of it) Avallone had major problems with his raw material: words, and the uses to which they can be put. He had problems with sentences, syntax, subordinate clauses, alliteration, assonance, dialogue, indeed virtually anything that was not simply subject- verb-object - and he could sometimes be uneasy with those. He was not, in short, a man with an innate Sprachgefuhl.

It was his facility for the mind- boggling non sequitur, however, and the preposterously and, as he once put it, "eye-explodingly" (he meant the eyes of his hero opened wide in startled surprise) inept simile that made him, in the words of the novelist and genre-fiction commentator Bill Pronzini, "out of all the bad writers of the century, pre- eminently top of the heap - the Big Guy".

As for instance: "The next day dawned bright and clear on my empty stomach" . . . "Dolores came around the bed with the speed of a big ape . . . She descended on me like a tree full of the same apes she looked like" . . . "The door chimes were still whirling Beethoven in his grave when I rushed to meet him" . . . "I didn't know it then but a real big key to a door I didn't even know existed was staring me in the face" . . . "My bewilderment took on a couple of new glands" . . . "Her gasp almost blew the door down" . . . "Her hips were beautifully arched and her breasts were like proud flags waving triumphantly" . . . "She . . . unearthed one of her fantastic breasts from the folds of her sheath skirt".

Avallone was also known as "the Biggest Mouth in Pulpdom". This was not self-inflicted although, typically, he was never offended when the epithet surfaced (as it did fairly regularly in the letter columns of various professional writers' journals or fan-magazines, for instance, of which he was an assiduous peruser, ever on the alert for mention of his name). How could he be upset at such a description? As he customarily argued (blind, as always, to the false premiss), "Biggest is another name for best." Behind his typewriter he was a man of outsize opinions, enthusiasms (especially for old private-eye movies) and prejudices - though rather less so when met face to face; in fact, quite a decent cove with a good sense of humour and a fund of tales about the pulp-fiction giants of earlier times.

Michael Avallone was born into a large Lower East Side Catholic family (four brothers, three sisters) in Manhattan in 1924. The son of a stonemason and sculptor, he was brought up in the Bronx, attending Theodore Roosevelt High before joining the US Army at the age of 19. He earned a battle star, reached the rank of sergeant, served in Europe in the US Army of Occupation through to 1946. While working as a stationery salesman in the late 1940s he started to write, earning nothing until he sold a short story to a sports magazine in 1951, cracking the old pulp-magazine markets just as they were sliding into oblivion (killed off by comic books and the aggressive new medium television).

The 1950s, when Avallone launched a full frontal assault on the editorial offices of Manhattan, were the decade of the "paperback original" - a piece of fiction of 60,000 to 80,000 words in length, aimed at the paperback carousels in supermarkets, drugstores and greasy-spoons (here, usually to be found leaning like wobbly Towers of Pisa in the corner by the pinball machines where fat kids with fierce acne could gaze at the semi-nude girls on the paperback covers).

In the main the stories were crime-orientated, majoring in teen gangs, the Red Menace, narcotics and nymphomania, with lurid, eye-grabbing cover art by a host of scuffling young illustrators who were all to become celebrated decades later: Barye Phillips, Stanley Meltzoff, Ben Stahl, Stanley Zuckerberg, Robert McGinnis, and the brilliant James Avati, whose "poor white trash" covers (executed in oils on prepared hardboard) created a whole new sub- genre of illustration. The only problem most of these artists had was in trying to gauge precisely how much decolletage to depict before a nervous art editor (only too aware of all these small-town "Purity Committees" in the Midwest) reached for the air-brush.

So far as the writers of paperback originals went, there were two paths to success. One was a path of despair that led inevitably to the gallows or the chair: the Hardyesque "Life's a bitch and then you die" scenario followed by such poets of paranoia as David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich (William Irish), and the old doom-meister himself, Jim Thompson. The other path was considerably lighter in both substance and tone, far more zany, where the jester was king. Here resided the Kanes, Frank and Henry (no relation), Richard S. Prather, Brett Halliday and Michael Avallone.

Avallone never had any pretensions to being a great writer - though it is often forgotten that at least two of his thrillers were written for Marcel Duhamel's prestigious Serie Noire, published by Gallimard in Paris (although, it has to be said, so was a good deal of ersatz hardboiled tat, the French even having the curious notion that Peter Cheyney was a High Priest of Existentialism). Avallone wrote to amuse and for the cheque: the rule of every halfway successful popular writer.

Why was he so popular? Two reasons. One, his books were 40 minutes' worth (roughly the time needed to speed-read them) of knockabout thrills and farce, unfailingly full of Avallone's obsessions such as baseball, breasts and old movies. His principal detective Ed Noon's wildest caper, Shoot It Again, Sam (1972), features one of the most bizarre assassination plots in sub- literature, involving, as it does, Chinese brainwashers made up to look like Clark Gable, Peter Lorre and James Cagney who convince Noon he is really Sam Spade as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart (after that it just gets complicated). The other reason (far more important to editors with production deadlines than precious prose that was late, late, late) was that he delivered. In a medium notorious for its goofballs, drunks, liars and conmen, he was reliable.

Michael Avallone wrote anything and everything, "to prove that a writer can write anything". He also ghosted: "Liner notes, music biographies, personality articles, poetry, cover copy, all of these . . . because of a long-standing love affair with the English language". This was all perfectly true - although whether the English language reciprocated is quite another matter.

Michael Angelo Avallone, writer: born New York 27 October 1924; married 1949 Lucille Asero (one son; marriage dissolved), 1960 Fran Weinstein (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 26 February 1999.