Hoods and Whores

William T. Vollmann and Nick Tosches talk tough.

Perhaps the neighborhood's become a wee bit friendlier. Last time the residents ran off the fire department, they did it with fireworks instead of the usual fusillade of bullets. It's a colored neighborhood in the dark heart of urban-suburban New Jersey, not far on the map from where I grew up, but worlds away in atmosphere and style. Not quite a slum, it's a ghetto nonetheless, and except for my companions and me, there isn't a white face in sight, at least until we get to our destination.

It's the bar--name and location of which will not appear here--that brings me back. I don't make it there often (the place requires a specific frame of mind), but when I'm there, I'm never short of amazed. An oasis of tranquility in a desert of urban despair, it's a seedy little dive, bursting with vice and friendly to a fault.

The girls on stage are fully nude (mildly illegal), the shows are full-insertion (illegal), and the dancers do their fair share of back-room dirty work (definitely illegal). The drinks are strong and cheap, the bartenders friendly and fast, and what can't be bought at the bar can be purchased just outside the front door (see Omar). The entertainers are quite evidently female, but the racially-mixed crowd is easygoing about preference, as evidenced by the Gordon Liddy lookalike making out with a cute black trannie. And if the general good-naturedness of the patrons and staff is almost baffling, perhaps it's the tell-tale bulges vaguely visible in waistbands, ankles and armpits that ensure the high level of civility.

Except for a dirt-floor Indian bar in Juárez (where a mother tried to rent me her daughter with the closer, "Ella tiene 15 años"), that joint in Jersey's the seediest I've ever seen, and the kind of place where the hoods and whores created by Nick Tosches and William Vollmann would feel right at home.

Born in Newark and "schooled in his father's Jersey City bar," Tosches knows the neighborhood. Cut Numbers, his debut novel, was originally published in 1988 to glowing reviews and then inexplicably lost, just now appearing in paperback. Like his later novel, Trinities, Cut Numbers explores the underworld with gritty intensity. But where Trinities' hoods aspired to international dealings, the scumbags of Cut Numbers are street-level thugs, eking out a meager existence in the bars and back alleys of New Jersey and New York.

There's Louie, the small-time loan shark and numbers-runner struggling with love and failed ambitions, caught in a double-cross cooked up by his uncle. There's Joe Brescia, alias Joe Brusher, the amoral insomniac who performs murder for hire. There's the ragtag gang of scurvy alcoholics and degenerate gamblers whose day-to-day existence is consumed by the never-ending struggle to make the vig and stay alive. And then there's the supporting cast of ex-cons, pornographers, crack whores and street punks who gather regularly at an unlicensed after-hours bar, where last call doesn't mean the place is closing, it just means the place is changing.

Tosches, who also writes finely-honed non-fiction (see his Vanity Fair piece on his unrequited search for an authentic opium den, or any of his fine biographies), has a real ear for dialogue. His characters' invective-filled banter, amusing and chilling, reeks of authenticity. And he's got an uncanny ability to portray his unsavory characters with a certain level of dignity.

Not surprisingly, the one exception in Cut Numbers is Joe Brusher, the insomniac hit man. In one scene, Brusher commits murder with lighter fluid and flame, and Tosches renders the whole thing so vividly you'll smell the smoldering flesh long after you've closed the book.

WILLIAM Vollmann's The Royal Family (available now in paperback) mines the same fertile territory of earlier works like Whores for Gloria and The Butterfly Stories.

It's the story of Henry Tyler, a mildly unsuccessful private dick pining over the death of his sister-in-law, a Korean wench that Tyler may or may not have slept with. In his search for redemption, Tyler embarks on a semi-mythic search for the Queen of Whores, a diminutive black woman named Africa who protects and nurtures her mangy Royal Family on and under the streets of San Francisco. Africa may or may not possess supernatural powers; among other talents, she nourishes her girls with her bodily fluids.

Caught in a downward spiral of guilt and depression, Tyler descends willingly into the Queen's world, becoming her friend and later her lover. It's a world filled with various and sundry pieces of human detritus washed up on the shores of the Tenderloin district, most compelling of whom is Dan Smooth, a creepy and utterly fascinating pedophile/weapons expert/police informant who purchases severely retarded young girls for a Las Vegas sex emporium.

Vollmann, a powerful and prolific writer (at least 13 books and scores of articles for mags as diverse as Forbes and Gear), has written elsewhere about his real-life experiences with whores, and this hands-on history shines bright in the gory authenticity of The Royal Family.

Pungent and provocative, muscular and mad, Cut Numbers and The Royal Family are masterworks of burly storytelling.

And my sweet seedy bar in Jersey? Turns out it's run by cops. Finally, some civil servants who understand the true meaning of public service.

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