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Underground Reading: Happy New Year, Herbie by Evan Hunter

Happy New YearLike The Last SpinHappy New Year, Herbie (1965) is a collection from the versatile and multi-named Evan Hunter. However, unlike The Last Spin, this collection is less prone to wander across genres: the eleven stories contained within are all contemporary literary fiction.

The opening story, "Uncle Jimbo's Marbles", is the longest, and perhaps my favourite of the collection. A young man is convinced by his girlfriend to become a camp counselor for the summer. It is better for them to across the lake from one another at "Camp Marvin" and "Camp Lydia" than trapped in New York under the scrutiny of her disapproving father. At least, so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, Marvin himself - the head honcho - has other ideas. A polio scare means that he declares 'quarantine', and the two camps are no longer allowed to come into contact (except for passed notes). As Camp Marvin goes stir crazy, a new obsession arises: marbles. Soon, it turns out that one of the counselors - Jimbo - is a marble maven, and threatens to capture all the glassy loot available. The story describes the camp's slow degeneration into madness, as marbles become objects of current, despair and, ultimately, a sort of cultish fixation. Our narrator, grounded by (what we assume is) puppy love, is the only one to keep his head - but even he can't escape his bizarrely dystopian setting.

"Uncle Jimbo's Marbles" is a coming of age story, but also one that mixes an improbable tension with a heart-warming resolution. Definitely a camp story, but one that comes equipped with some strange life lessons.

"The Tourists" and "It Was Lovely That Summer" are slightly stranger stories. "The Tourists" follows a bickering middle-class couple as they encounter a very ominous antiques shop while on holiday. And "It Was Lovely That Summer" follows a similar (if less overtly argumentative) couple as they combine their banal everyday life with (perhaps literal)  medieval escapism. They are both weird stories, but stories that don't fully embrace the paranormal - instead, they're vaguely sinister and largely inexplicable, a shadowy halfway-house between genres, and none the better for it.

"On the Sidewalk, Bleeding" is, perhaps, the most similar to something out of The Last Spin. A young man bleeds to death in an alley. He foolishly wore his 'club' jacket on a routine errand to the shop, and got jumped by a rival gang. Now, from his (horizontal) perspective, he sees the denizens of his neighborhood come and ago. He's unable to cry for help, and, of course, his life flashes before his eyes. Again, this is a halfway story. It doesn't have the vicious condemnation of, say, Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs", but nor does it foster the empathy of Hunter's own "The Last Spin". Instead, like the narrator, the reader is left as a passive observer - frustrated, and looking for some sort of answer.

"The Final Yes" is on a slightly similar vein - a man revisits his life at the moment of his death. The differences, however, key. This time the man is middle-aged and living in his suburban home with his wife. And, more importantly, he's contemplating suicide. "The Final Yes" is reminiscent of John D MacDonald's grimmer moments, as the man contemplates the futility of his existence and his role as a 'cog' in some sort of societal machine. The one touch of magic in his life happened as boy, and he's spent the rest of his life growing further and further away from his dreams. Again, the reader is forced into the role of observer - unable to sway the narrator's final decision. But in this case, the story itself is about passivity and having agency over one's own life.

"The Innocent One" and "Pretty Eyes" are both shared with The Last Spin, and neither, honestly, are terrific. "The Innocent One" is a silly parable about a jealous Mexican farmer, undermined by the hokey sentimentalism of the setting. "Pretty Eyes" is, again, reminiscent of John D MacDonald, although Hunter is far more sympathetic with his female characters. A plain young woman is, essentially, harassed to the point of madness - ensuring that the 'good' man is drowned out by the crowd. It is an awkward - if well-meaning - metaphor, and would be more powerful if it weren't so contrived.

"Human Sharks" is a lighter story. A group of sailors strike up a long-running pinochle game and, as is the way of humanity, all try to screw one another over. One hustle turns into another, and the game descends into madness and, if not hilarity, at least a sort of wry smile.

"Million Dollar Maybe" is completely random. A magazine publisher finds himself owing a million dollar contest prize to a random hillbilly scientist who - no explanation given - flew to the Moon and back. Everything about this is nuts, from the concept to the execution to the climax. It isn't particularly funny and it certainly isn't tense: the whole thing is a series of goofy pratfalls that are all totally undermined by the central premise. Bizarre.

And, finally, the collection is bookended with its other particularly strong story: "Happy New Year, Herbie". The narrator and his wife are one of several dozen young couples all living on a tiny island in the East River. Their apartment building is a converted hospital that later became a dormitory and, then, for these few years, low-income housing for young professionals. The buildings are tiny and grubby, everyone is broke, they're all working two jobs... but somehow it seems like a type of summer camp. They're all part of their little community - on an "extended honeymoon".

The story describes the community - North Brother Island - as a moment in time. A group of people with similar lives and ambitions, all stuck together in their own tiny hipster utopia. At one point, the narrator reminisces about a flood scare, and how the inhabitants of the island all battened down the hatches rather than return to the mainland - not-so-secretly hoping to be isolated from the rest of the world.

But, alas. Enter Herbie. Herbie is a newcomer, and his presence upsets the status quo. He's older (late 30s), working class (training to become a TV repairman) and an 'immigrant' (he comes from the Midwest, not elsewhere in New York). As the narrator's neighbour, they share an awkward, pre-soundproofing intimacy. But Herbie is also a reminder that the rest of the world exists, and that, ultimately, the residents of North Brother Island are living a sort of fantasy. 

Everything comes to a head during the community's New Year's Eve party - not just the tension with Herbie, but also the impossibility of the company's collective existence. They've turned adulthood into childhood; their apartments into a summer camp. Eventually, the party needs to end.

Happy New Year, Herbie is a very uneven collection, containing, at best, three great pieces ("Happy New Year, Herbie", "Uncle Jimbo's Marbles" and "The Final Yes"), a few decent ones and a couple of outright stinkers. I suppose what's curious is that, as a collection of (largely) literary works, very few of these are reminiscent of the author's other work - they all stand alone, of course, but they're also all exploring moments and approaches not seen elsewhere. Herbie is certainly worth it for Hunter/McBain completionists, as well, as several of these - especially the very good ones - don't seem to have been reprinted elsewhere. 

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