In 1954, Harlan Ellison moved to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn with the intent of joining a street gang, research for his next tome. His experiences as "Cheech" Beldone, from his ritual deflowering of one of the Baron Debs to an Indian knife fight with a fellow Baron, are harrowing and disturbing images of gang life in the 50's.
Although the "when you're a Jet, you're a Jet" ideals are now "cute" compared to gang life in the new millennium, it's still horrifying. Memos From Purgatory is actually two books in one; Book One:The Gang deals with his gang life, while Book Two: The Tombs is an account of an occurrence six years later in which Ellison spends 24 hours in New York's jail system. Set up and tipped off to the police by a disgruntled acquaintance, Ellison is held on weapons possession (stemming from the weapons from his gang days that he used as display on his lecture tours about the book). It's at this point Memos From Purgatory loses me. Whine, whine, whine. That's all Ellison does in this second half. He does admit that there are those out there who would question his frenzied reaction at being incarcerated for only 24 hours (and acting like it's 24 years), and I suppose I'm one of them.
The whole time I was reading Book Two: The Tombs, I kept thinking, "Man, Ellison, calm down." He gives a good overview of the miserable conditions of jail in the Big City and the screwed-up judicial system that accompanies it, but the overreacting is just too much. I heartily hand it to Ellison for having the nerve to join a street gang and write about it, but Book One: The Gang should have stood on its own. Book Two: The Tombs seems a senseless afterthought, more so when Ellison admits that the inclusion of a one-in-a-million chance meeting with the head of the Barons, a fellow jailbird, was a fictional device suggested by the original publisher because he felt there wasn't enough linkage between the two halves of the book. Well, there still isn't.
Reviewed by S. Michael Wilson