Book Review: X-Rated by David McCumber

  • X-Rated – The Mitchell Brothers: A True Story of Sex, Money and Death
  • by David McCumber
  • Publisher – Pinnacle Books
  • Copyright 1996
  • 539 pages

Rating – 6.5/10

Summary – The Mitchell brothers were two California hustlers who came along at just the right moment (the 1960s) to become pornography kingpins. The times and their fun-loving ways made them counterculture heroes. But the good times faded and one brother ended up dead, shot to death by the other. David McCumber recounts their story in the “pretty-good” book, X-Rated.

Review – In 1940s central California, two brothers (Jim and Artie Mitchell) are born into a family of transplanted “Okies”. The Mitchells are a little different; father, J.R, is a professional gambler who makes a nice living playing lowball. Still, the boys do reasonably well in school and don’t seem headed for any particular notoriety.

Enter the 1960s. Searching for their ways in the world, Jim and Artie fall into pornography which booms as society’s mores change. The Mitchells’ panache and love of a good fight leads them to produce the first porn epic (Behind the Green Door) and makes them hippie royalty.

As time passed, the brothers’ paths diverged. Jim was the levelheaded brother who “made the trains run on time.” Artie was the eternal teenager, partying nonstop. Unsurprisingly, tensions arose. In February 1991, Jim went to Artie’s home where he shot and killed Artie. X-Rated traces the Mitchell brothers’ story up to the end of Jim’s criminal trial for the killing.

Big, Rambling Book

Author David McCumber does not use the “just-the-facts” approach favored by many true-crime authors. Rather, his style is both more literary and more partisan. The “literary techniques” bring to mind Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. As was true of Norman’s Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, X-Rated contains many diversions and, as a result, kills quite many trees. For instance, an entire section details Artie Mitchell’s many, twisted relationships with women. While a bit jarring at first, the segment is excellent; it reveals both Artie’s complex personality and the reasons so many women became involved with him.

Other strong material details Artie’s final days. It’s detailed and graphic, but you can’t stop reading. The sad story of an addict’s end reminded me of the end of Wired, Bob Woodward’s biography of John Belushi.

Clunky Prose

While McCumber (or someone) did a great job of gathering material, his writing is often weak. Simply put, he gets in the way of the story. Rather than simply telling an excellent tale, McCumber wants the reader to know that he’s a hipster who enjoys the Mitchells’ attacks on the bourgeoisie. One of the readers on Amazon.com called McCumber a “wannabe Hunter S. Thompson.” That’s a pretty good way of describing the book’s shortcomings. Like Thompson, McCumber’s feelings about events are central to the story; unlike, Thompson (at his best), McCumber’s views are seldom insightful or interesting.

(To be fair, I cannot fathom the one-star reviews on Amazon. X-Rated is imperfect, but there are enough hooks – “Sex, Money, and Death” as the cover states – to rate at least three stars).

A final criticism is that – after a tedious recount of Jim Mitchells’ trial – the book ends before fully resolving the criminal case and the lawsuits that followed. I can understand why McCumber had to go to press, but readers will have to “Google” the Mitchells to tie up the loose ends.

Merry Pranksters – or Degenerates?

People will have varied reactions to the Mitchells. Some will see them as harmless, life-of-the-party types who lived a stoned version of the American dream. Others will see them as pimps who made money from desperate young women. Your opinion may reveal more about you than it does about Artie and Jim. My feelings are ambivalent. The Mitchells were fun. Reading about Artie’s debauched nights in San Francisco made me want to head for the nearest bar. At the same time, the Mitchells often were ruthless users.

Another disturbing aspect of the story (little explored by McCumber) is how quickly  Artie’s friends forgave Jim once Artie was dead and no longer useful to them. Since many of the friends worked for the Mitchells, it seems that they voted with their wallets when they decided that they didn’t need to be too vocal about demanding “Justice for Artie.”

One Story – Two Books

Back in the 1990s, I read John Hubner’s account of the Mitchell Brothers’ story, Bottom Feeders. Hubner takes a much-dimmer view of the Mitchells.

For almost all readers, one Mitchell Brothers story will suffice. Which one would I recommend? I enjoyed both books, but Bottom Feeders is fuzzy in my memory. For the simple reason that Bottom Feeders is about 100 pages shorter, I’d probably choose it. X-Rated has better material, but it’s weighed down by McCumber’s awkward style and personal statements about the culture wars.

Judged on its own merits, X-Rated is a pretty-good book. You have to wade through some of it, but it’s a memorable, “Only-in-America” story.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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