The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 25: The Warriors (Sol Yurick, 1965)

Books left: 1. Weeks left: 3. (Hurrah! Only a little delirious.)

‘Well, now we move on like a war party, even though we wanted peace. Anyone could tell you we wanted peace. Well, now it’s too late for that.’ 

the warriorsThe bottle was finished. Bimbo flung it into the air toward where the trailer and the bitch skulked. It arched and shone high, but splintered short of the mark; the bitch and the Blazer bounced high over the fragments slivering along the sidewalk.
Now they moved out, swiftly, leader and brothers, all knowing exactly what to do, bonded into One. Muscle tightened, compressing body a little so that biceps bunched, and triceps tensed, fists balled, shoulder hunched, legs flexed, trunk tilting, every part taut to sense. 

It’s hot and the firecrackers are starting. It’s the Fourth of July and the gangs of New York are meeting for a convention led by Ismael, the city’s best-known gang leader.

A unprecedented truce has been called, so that all of the city’s hundreds of gangs can cross enemy turf. But when things go wrong, the Family – the Coney Island Dominators – are far from home and behind enemy lines.

The Warriors covers each hour of the whole, dangerous night it takes them to get back home.

The tension begins with the opening line and builds as the Family’s warriors complete the first leg of a long train journey, then having no choice but to put their faith in Ismael’s boys to lead them deep into unknown territory. There is a flash, a single moment, of hope for them and all the thousands of gang members assembled, a glimpse of a future of power and of unity – though it is but a glimpse, and devolves with lightning speed into chaos after a sickening moment of violence, an early climax that unlike other climaxes offers no subsequent relief, but more suspense as the warriors realise how far they are from safety.

The subject invites comparisons with other gang stories – the character-driven but hopeless charm of West Side Story; S. E. Hinton’s tragic but redemptive The Outsiders and Rumble Fish; Warren Miller’s 1959 gang novel The Cool World (again, yes, the one the movie was based on). Miller himself compares The Warriors to Lord of the Flies – in fact he says it is better.

Finally, of course, I was from the get-go comparing the book to its famous 1979 movie adaptation also titled The Warriors, though to be honest despite the movie’s cult reputation it never evoked any huge response from me – I barely remember it.

One thing I don’t remember was it being about evil. But this was evil. More evil than The Outsiders, whose soft hearts under their toughness make you love them. By the middle of this book the utter cold, shocking nastiness of the events unfolding was clenching my stomach. I began to see why Miller compared it to Lord of the Flies.

I read a lot of violent books, and I watch a lot of violent movies and TV shows, and I must say I do enjoy a good bloodletting. It’s usually tied to a genre, and follows a pattern. You know why it’s happening and usually it’s between a bad person and a good person. Eventually, usually, the goody wins.

This is different. It sure ain’t good clean fun like Jack Reacher or John McClane beating up a baddy. It’s not genre fiction. It gets under the skin of things and what’s under the skin is senseless, or at least, the sense it makes is unpalatable, depressing to contemplate. There is no nice clean line between good and evil. Yurik forces you into this uncomfortable, but inescapable space, so you find yourself disgusted at the warriors and at yourself for caring about them, but you can’t help it, because you have seen their minds and discovered that they are people.

Yurick uses the third-person omniscient to this effect, allowing you to know each boy he battles the hostilities of the night and also his other Family members. You see their interminable, wearying power struggles but also the comfort they find in being One, instead of no one. There is a pride in the Family they cannot otherwise access.

Those pins, they were the Family sign and they stood or fell with their signs, and it was the mark that a man belonged – they were one. To take them off was to be like any heartless slob coolie who wouldn’t take chances; without important affiliations. And so they must go along with the whole bit. It made them men.

Some of the boys remain impenetrable, but you see two particularly: Hector, who assumes the fatherhood of the gang when they are separated from Papa Arnold, and Hinton, the newest member, who stands always a little apart. It is his lonely, anguished soliloquy, stripped of masculinity, we eavesdrop on when he is separated from the others and forced to walk into the seemingly endless blackness of a railway tunnel, a memorable piece of writing.

Quick point of interest for fans: the story is inspired by the Greek classic work Anabasis, by Xenophon. Interestingly, Yurick says frankly in his introduction to this edition that The Warriors is not his best book. I get that. It was a fine book and well worth the reading, but I won’t keep it. It was certainly a better book than it was a movie, although doubtless the movie is more enjoyable. The movie is extremely watered-down in terms of violence – which is essentially what the whole book was about – and backs away from several other of the book’s central tenets, including turning an all-black gang into an improbably racially mixed one. Yurick, who after years of thought, experience and planning finally spat out this novel in an “intense” three-week writing binge that surely accounts for the headlong suspense of the reading experience, calls the movie “trashy, though beautifully filmed” and the dialogue painful and inauthentic, and said it deeply disappointed him.

After reading his book, I can see why. And yet, you cannot deny (and neither does he) The Warriors movie has endured in a way the simply has not. People want beauty. Perhaps they want a white gang leader. They don’t want horror and rape and violence. They want something a little nicer. Hell, while I was reading it, I wanted something a little nicer. You can’t blame people for that. But if you’re a fan of the film, do yourself a favour and check out the rawness, the reality of the original.

Keep or kill? I’ll pass this on for some Warriors film fan to come across in the op shop and get all excited, same way I did when I bought this. Feeling evilly smug at the shock they are going to get.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

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