I discovered the paperback novels of Jack W. Thomas, an author whose work is well overdue for reappraisal, only a few years ago and purely by chance, while I was scrounging through the shelves of a local Goodwill store, the elderly Jewish woman with the bright blue dress and blinding red hair rinse grinning at me from behind the counter, sticking out like a cartoon character from the otherwise drab surroundings. Giving a cursory glance over the titles relegated to the twenty-five cent bin, I spotted a rather tatty looking spine emblazoned with the title High School Pusher and knew I had to investigate.
I had never heard of Jack W. Thomas, but the appearance of High School Pusher certainly piqued my interest. The cover art, featuring a young, groovy looking Californian couple posing by their surfer van, looked very much like the work of James Bama, even though it was unsigned (Bama was a particular favourite of mine thanks primarily to his magnificent work on the box covers for many of the classic Aurora monster model figure kits produced in the 1960s). The book also sucked me in with its titillating cover blurb (‘The savage novel of a teenager’s first trip into hard drugs and far-out sex’). I happily plunked down fifty cents—twice the asking price—onto the counter and left the little old Jewish cartoon character to her blissful, bemused indifference.
I started reading High School Pusher on the train ride home that day, and after getting less than ten pages into it, I was hooked, and immediately made a mental note to start looking out for any other paperbacks bearing the name Jack W. Thomas, as well as any biographical information on the author himself. As an Australian who started high school in the late-seventies—when many of his books were written—Thomas’ work captured an exotic, dangerous and sexy teenage environment which (real or imagined) I had always felt that I had missed out on experiencing, as a kid growing up obsessed with so many aspects of American trash culture, but trapped in the reality of a strict Catholic education system.
Not a whole lot is known about Jack W. Thomas. Born in Seattle on October 24, 1930, Thomas served in the United States Navy until being honourably discharged in 1954. Enrolling in the University of Arizona following his military service, he graduated with a B.A. in 1957, and by 1959 was penning the screenplays for B crime films and westerns such as Lone Texan (1959) and 20,000 Eyes (1961).
Returning from an extended Egyptian vacation in 1964, Thomas settled into a new profession that would not only provide him with a more regular stream of income, but the inspiration for many of his future novels—that of a deputy probation officer in Los Angeles, California, a position he would hold down for the following six years. During this time he was witness to a multitude of urban teenage nightmares that would find their way into the pages of the paperbacks he began writing in 1969.
Reading like lurid versions of those tacky after-school television specials, which were so popular in the 1970s and early eighties, Thomas’ books revolved around the low rent, soap opera lives of America’s lost teenagers, who always seemed trapped in a perpetual world of cheap dope, pills, alcohol, disinterested parents, violence and sexual angst.
Adding a significant amount of appeal to Thomas’ paperbacks—both to buyers at the time of publication and to collectors today—is the stunning cover art which accompanied them. On the editions issued by Bantam, these were often provided by James Bama. Time capsules in themselves, Bama’s portraits really help the reader visualise and bring the characters of Thomas’ stories to life.
Thomas eventually authored nearly a dozen teen exploitation novels between 1969-1984, taking time out in 1976 to co-write the screenplay to the Rock Hudson/Barbara Carrera horror film Embryo (a novelisation of which was authored by Louis Charbonneau and published by Warner Books). He also self-published a collection of his poetry, titled Waking the Waters, in 1978, and is rumoured to be living in Palm Springs, still typing away and looking for a publisher for his most recent novel, Fire-Rock, Live-Finger.
Want to know more? Pick up a copy of Hip Pocket Sleaze: The Lurid World of Vintage Adult Paperbacks by John Harrison.
Charts the rise of sleazy pulp fiction during the 1960s and 1970s, taking an informed look at the various genres and markets from this enormously prolific era.