Evening Sun Turned Crimson, The

by Herbert Huncke
(1980)
   This is Herbert Huncke’s major book, written in notebook form in the early to mid-1960s. Compared to Huncke’s journal, this book is more thorough and appears to be less cobbled together than its predecessor. Huncke’s third book, Guilty of everytHinG, is constructed from a series of interviews rather than from his notebooks. The Evening Sun Turned Crimson, then, is the most realized of his works. The book was published by Cherry Valley Books. Huncke had been a friend with the publishers, Pam and Charles Plymell, since the late 1960s. The first edition of 1,000 (in paperback) featured cover art of a junkie jabbing a needle in his arm as he sat atop a New York skyscraper. Huncke hated the cover and asked for a new edition, and for obvious reasons the original needleand-skyline edition is now very collectible. The second edition uses a photo of Huncke taken by longtime companion Louis Cartwright.
   The book covers Huncke’s life up to the mid-1960s. Two long autobiographical sections detail his early life and travels in the 1930s as a young man. As in Huncke’s Journal, many of the chapters are sketches of the fascinating characters whom Huncke knew and with whom he associated in New York from the 1940s through the 1960s, as well as characters whom he met in prison and in mental hospitals. The Beats are also a central part of the book. Huncke discusses his relationship with William S. Burroughs in two long sections, and he gives an account of the incident that led to his and allen ginsberg’s arrest in 1949. However, as is true of Huncke’s Journal, this book is valuable for many reasons other than the fact that Huncke was a friend of the Beats. Huncke, like Neal Cassady, made an art of his life.
   The title story introduces one of the book’s main themes: loneliness. T. S. Eliot called Huckleberry Finn’s the loneliest voice in American literature. Huncke’s voice is just as lonely. He is in many respects Huck Finn—a picaresque hero with a conscience and an acute sense of loneliness. Here, his parents leave the “extremely precocious” five-year-old Huncke alone overnight in a country cabin: “I felt the intenseness of my being alone,” he writes, “and although I’ve suffered acute awareness of loneliness many many times throughout my life, I’ve never sensed it quite as thoroughly or traumatically as on that evening when all the world turned into burning flame.” Many of the characters described in the book are desperately isolated and alienated, in part because of their fierce independence. In response, they form misfit bands of drug addicts, criminals, homosexuals, and artists. In many ways Huncke’s real “family” was the Beats and the members of the various scenes to which he belonged.
   Huncke’s actual family history is recounted in two autobiographical essays at the beginning of the book. He writes about his parent’s divorce, his father’s dislike of him, his closeness to his grandmother who taught him to appreciate the fineries in life, and his adventures with dissipated Chicago youth in the 1920s. His home life, he says, illustrates the difference between appearance and reality in the American family of the 1920s. His closest bond was with his maternal grandmother, who had lived on a ranch out West and told him cowboy stories. His father resented the grandmother’s affection and accused her of turning him into a “sissy.” (His father would later disown Huncke for his homosexual appearance and behavior.) Huncke watches his parents sail through the roaring twenties. However, the depression hit, and he says that the country under FDR “began coming alive with a whole set of new rules.”
   Living with his mother after her divorce, he is essentially free to do as he wishes—she is no disciplinarian, as the father was. The father remarries and has more children and neglects Huncke. He and his mother become more friends than mother and son. She was only 16 when he was born. He hangs out with other children of divorced parents, a particularly wild crowd of kids in 1920s Chicago. His jazz-age stories of sex, drugs, and alcohol show a side of life in the 1920s that you do not find in the comparatively tame (and upper-class) accounts by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, Huncke’s distinction as a Beat storyteller first and later as a writer is that he did tell these stories, not hide them or obfuscate them. This is all the stuff that the establishment writers left out, considering it unpublishable or subliterary. You certainly get that here in Huncke’s anecdote “New Orleans, 1938” in which a man asks him to watch him have sex with a prostitute. He does not pay her, but does pay Huncke a dollar for watching. In his sad story of the “Tattoeed Man,” he profiles “an ex-junky freakshow worker and poet.” One of Huncke’s most memorable portraits is “Elsie John,” a friend of Huncke’s during his youth in Chicago. Elsie John, a “giant” with long hennaed hair, bright lipstick, and eyelashes that he beaded with mascara, exhibited himself as a hermaphrodite. He was also a heroin addict. The cops bust Elsie John for possession, and Huncke gets off because he is only 17. Forty years later, Huncke remembers the cruelty of the police and Elsie John’s suffering. Huncke’s book is also particularly informative and entertaining about the history of drug use. He records, for example, how following the crackdown on “croakers” (doctors who would write false prescriptions) in the early 1950s, junkies began to commit more crimes and more violent ones—the kind of crime unheard of in the 1940s and earlier. Drug use leads Huncke into other absurd situations. One of the best chapters in the book is “Sea Voyage,” a comic misadventure describing Huncke and Phil White’s (the “Sailor” in Burroughs’s books) attempt to “kick” their junk habits by shipping out on a tanker bound for Honolulu. They immediately make friends with a young gay man who fancies Phil White and supplies them with morphine syrettes stolen from the lifeboat medical kits. In the Caribbean, they buy a white-faced monkey named Jocko. Of course, his use of illegal drugs has less humorous consequences—imprisonment, violence, sickness, the death of friends. After he is busted for possession one day after he has been released from a six-month prison stay, he vents his frustration against the system that so severely punishes “victimless” crimes.
   Two characters familiar to the student of the Beats receive full portraits here—Vickie Russell and Burroughs. Huncke shows himself to be uniquely sympathetic to the lives of women of the Beat Generation. “Detroit Redhead, 1943–1967” immortalizes Russell, who became famous as the six-foot-tall pot-smoking redhead described in newspaper accounts of the arrest of her, Little Jack Melody, and Ginsberg when they tried to outrun the cops in a stolen car, wrecked the car, and were eventually busted. Huncke first meets her at Bickford’s restaurant when she is about 18 years old, and she tells him her life story, which epitomizes in many ways the double standards applied to women and men in the 1940s. Such standards literally force women such as Vickie to live outside of the law. Vickie becomes hooked on junk, loses her apartment, and moves into an apartment building on 102nd Street that is the weirdest building of all in which these people lived—complete with stairways that lead to dead-end walls and a colony of out-of-work midgets. Huncke provides a complete portrait of her, as he did for many of the women of the Beat Generation (in contrast to other Beat writers, who merely sketch Joan Vollmer and Elise Cowen but who are fully and sympathetically treated in Huncke’s memoirs). The last time he sees her is at the trial revolving around the Ginsberg affair. Later he learns that she broke down and asked her father for money and help. Years later when Huncke talks to a mutual friend of theirs in 1967, he finds out that Vickie is a housewife and head of the PTA in a Detroit suburb. Huncke, himself never able to make such a transition in the “normal” world, ends the piece wondering “what she has done about all her dreams and how she managed to curb her enthusiasm for excitement and adventure.”
   Through Vickie, Huncke met Bob Brandenburg, and it was through Brandenburg that Burroughs first met Huncke and White. In “Bill Burroughs” and “Bill Burroughs, Part II,” he tells the history of their friendship. Huncke and White had just returned from the sea voyage during which they had unsuccessfully tried to kick their habits and were living in an apartment on Henry Street when Brandenberg brought Burroughs by. When he first saw Burroughs, cold-eyed, conservatively dressed, and ignorant of the underworld lingo, Huncke thought that Burroughs could be from the Federal Bureau of Investigation or an undercover cop. However, when Burroughs told them that he had two cases of morphine syrettes that he wanted to unload, they dropped their reserve. Burroughs, recalled Huncke, asked if either knew how to use the syrettes, and if so would they show him. Burroughs and White became friends immediately. A week later Huncke saw them together and they told him that “they were making the hole [stealing from drunken businessmen in the subway] together as partners, with Bill learning to act as a shill and cover-up man for Phil.” Within a couple of months, Burroughs had a drug habit that, according to Huncke, he approached in the style of scientific research rather than as “kicks.” Through Burroughs, Huncke became good friends with the core Beat writers.
   Of all the members of this group, Joan Burroughs was Huncke’s favorite. She was beautiful and brilliant, but Huncke was never convinced that Burroughs loved her. Therefore, when the close group of friends broke up in 1946, with Ginsberg going to sea, Kerouac home to his mother, and Burroughs and Joan to Texas, Huncke chose to accept their invitation to Texas, less for Burroughs’s friendship than for Joan’s. In fact, he may well have been trying to protect Joan as he had done with other women in relationships with men he did not trust.
   The Evening Sun Turns Crimson is marked by epiphanies in which Huncke replays crucial insights that he has gained at the expense of his own suffering and humiliation. Throughout the book, Huncke applies the “factualist” eye of the junky but combines that with a recall of the emotional memories stirred by the facts, thus making the book quite different from, say, Burroughs’s emotionless, hard-boiled account of many of the same incidents in junky.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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