DECEMBER 10, 2018
JUST ABOUT ALL we know about Clarence Cooper Jr. is that he deserved better. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much: records indicate Cooper was born in Detroit in 1934 and worked as an editor in Chicago during the 1950s after a two-year stint in a Michigan reformatory. Between 1960 and 1967 he published several novels. Soon afterward, he largely withdrew from public life and was found dead on the streets of New York City in 1978 after years of struggling with a heroin addiction.
All we have left are the texts. The Scene, Cooper’s first book, was published by Random House in 1960 to critical acclaim. His next three novels were published by Chicago pulp houses. Harlan Ellison was his editor at Regency, one of these Chicago publishers, and has been quoted as calling him “a very literate, very troubled individual.” Though Cooper returned to mainstream publishers in 1967 with his final novel, The Farm, it gained little attention and would prove to be the last work he published during his lifetime. The Syndicate was his second novel; originally published in 1960 under the pseudonym Robert Chestnut, it attracted a minor cult following in the years after his death. Molotov Editions’s 2018 reprinting, which includes an afterward from Gary Phillips, marks the first time it’s been published in the US market under Cooper’s real name.
Andy Sorrell, the protagonist of The Syndicate, is both unlikable and unpleasant to read at first. These novels live and die on their protagonists (and more specifically, their narration), and from line one — “Anyone could tell at first glance that Brace Lilly was a fairy. His smooth skin and neat little lips just didn’t sit right on my stomach” — Sorrell comes heavy and unsubtle as a sack of bricks. His mission’s simple: Sorrell’s been sent from New York to Hollisworth, a beachside city near Los Angeles, to find three men who double-crossed the titular Syndicate and stole $500,000 from the big boss’s private safe. Sorrell’s out for blood, not answers; Lou Pulco, one of the Syndicate’s upper-level fixers, has given him directions to kill the three thieves for $10,000.
It doesn’t take long for Sorrell to join everyone else with knowledge of the situation and begin going after the money. The Syndicate has a tight cast of characters, all of whom are either involved with the Syndicate or close confidants of the men who are. The density of the chase and the intricate relationships between the participants leads to an orgy of double-crosses and twists, with Sorrell in the middle of it all as an outsider useful to everyone due to his ability to be used to their own ends as muscle, strategic diversion, deliveryman, and scapegoat. Sorrell seems to always be the one who’s least informed about the situation he finds himself in, and watching him try to navigate this plot while always one step behind is the best part of The Syndicate. The setting of Hollisworth brings to mind the Poisonville of Hammett’s Red Harvest in its miasma of corruption and decay. Sorrell describes it as a “solid little city […] [that] belongs to the syndicate, lock, stock and barrel,” and everywhere he goes feels part of a larger body of evil. Some of this will feel familiar to readers; see for example the police chief sitting in a “boudoir-office” with a “lingering scent of perfume and the half-open door leading off to another room,” telling Sorrell that “if you’re still in town after three o’clock, we’re going to kill you.”
As stated earlier, Cooper wrote The Syndicate under a pseudonym, and Sorrell’s race is never explicitly described. Still, knowing who Cooper was, the early parts of the book bring to mind the bombast of blaxploitation films. Sorrell has a heavy-handed swagger that’s more brutality than charisma and is most prominently applied on women. The Syndicate’s two sex scenes are framed in terms of conquests, with Sorrell acutely aware of the power dynamics involved in a way that feels like a precursor to that particular tradition of Civil Rights–era thought that said liberation could come through sexual conquests, especially of wealthy white women. Of course, this isn’t specific to black masculinity — reinforcing masculinity through sex as conquest has been a thing since forever — but still. The first encounter is an explicit sexual assault, the second is in some gray area where a physical assault leads to sex, and they’re both brutal.
Sorrell becomes a more interesting and enjoyable character when he moves from hit man to detective, trading raw violence for a more familiar investigative role. It’s almost funny how quickly his fortunes flip; no longer chasing down strong leads on the three thieves but behind the curve on finding the money, he becomes a hapless character. We learn more about Sorrell though this evolution; how much punishment he can take (a lot!), how well he can talk himself out of a jam (fairly well!), his inner life and background (tortured!). Sorrell as a hit man thinks and talks as a goon, but from the moment he begins to find himself down and vulnerable, his thoughts change with his circumstances. When delivering the beatings, we get flat rage. When he’s caught flat-footed and beaten to a pulp by Hollisworth policemen, he’s still got enough pluck to taunt them with “love, thy sting doth fill my heart!”
Sorrell’s two formative tragedies are his past relationships with a woman and his father, who both loom over his every act. Carolyn is a vague outline — a former lover who died bearing Sorrell’s child, she comes through as a collection of curves in Sorrell’s memory (“twisting thighs and big soft breasts”). He’s wracked by emotion over her loss, and she colors every encounter he has with a woman. “Why the hell,” he says at one point, “did every woman look like Carolyn to me now?” A similar dynamic is at play with his father, but here his memories also offer chances for peace and progress. Brief recollections of his childhood with his late father are the closest Sorrell’s narration gets to tranquil; his memories of the old man and the sea generate depth of feeling with less of the accompanying rage that comes when he thinks about Carolyn. He’s spent time on the water, he tells us: “I used to live on the sea, long ago. My pop used to take me out on a trawler when I was just a baby; I can still remember it. That was a long time ago, and it was just Pop, never anyone else. Like I was something dirty no woman would own.”
Which brings us to the water, The Syndicate’s emotional center. The book starts and ends with salty air, and it’s when on or thinking about the sea that Sorrell becomes an entirely different kind of narrator. Water brings moments of wistfulness punctuated by a kind of pride; thanks to his time on the water he’s a capable boat hand, able to commandeer a skiff for his recon needs. This is an entirely different kind of work, one that gives a glimpse of a different kind of inner life. It’s not all good, of course; the water is linked with his past loss, as seen when repairing a skiff brings his father to mind again:
I pulled my shirt off under the sun. The sweat started popping out all over my body, and I began to feel goddamn good. It was like my boyhood, on the sea with my old man, him saying, “Watch your work, boy. You love her right, fix her right, and she’ll never let you down…” It was real good. I took the skiff off the dolly and turned her belly up. I got me some sand in the bucket and a piece of the canvas rigging, and I began to rub. I rubbed until her goddamn belly was slick and wood new, and all the time I was listening for my old man’s approval, his nod. All of a sudden, I was looking out to the sea, and my old man was dead, and I was wondering. Why, why, you sonofabitch up there, why’d you have to take my old man? […] I began to feel funny. I wanted to crush something. I got down in the sand and grabbed two handfuls. I squeezed them until the sand was nothing in my hands, like all three of those people. I looked out on that big sonofabitch of a sea and I could hear things, voices, and they got louder and louder, and I stood up and hollered at them, like I’d hollered at that guy who came to get me after my old man had died.
You get the picture. The tension between these two separate but equally important moods keeps The Syndicate going, but there are times when it lurches rather than glides. The plot builds to an effective final act that comes to a head on the shore, but there will doubtless be readers too put off by some of the blunter earlier chapters to make it there. Yet I think it’s still very much worth reading — imperfect as it may be, The Syndicate is tight and uniquely compelling in a way that makes it easy to understand why it attained its cult status. We may be doomed to always know too little about Cooper the man, but Molotov’s reprint gives us one final opportunity to learn something more about the author.