Monday, January 17, 2022

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #3: Murder Today, Money Tomorrow


Jefferson Boone, Handyman #3: Murder Today, Money Tomorrow, by Jon Messmann
August, 1973  Pyramid Books

The third volume of Jefferson Boone, Handyman is a little better than the previous two, because Jon Messmann backs off on the “international terrorist” angle and delivers a mystery plot that’s more in-line with his cerebral protagonist. It was kind of hard to buy the whole Jefferson “Handyman” Boone concept in the earlier books; as I wrote, he just came off a bit too much like “James Bond meets Frasier Crane” to be believable. Messmann also slightly tones down on the introspective musings, which is a help, but he also turns way up on the casual misogyny. 

Again, I don’t virtue-signal lightly (or ever, really), but in this case there’s no other word for it but misogyny. Messmann is kind of a creep in how he typically treats his female characters, as has been noted in reviews of his other novels (as well as in the comments sections). And I’m not talking about how he objectifies them, how he always mentions their breasts – I mean I encourage stuff like that from my men’s adventure authors; these books should come straight from the male id. What I mean is how many of his male protagonists are just total assholes to women. Constantly putting them down, snipping at them, mocking them, etc. Murder Today, Money Tomorrow goes further in this regard than any previous Messmann novel I’ve read, with the ultimate effect that Boone (or “Jeff,” as Messmann most often refers to him in the narrative) comes off as a dick, and the “taming of the shrew” angle ultimately makes no sense in the context of the book. 

There’s no pickup from previous volumes, and in fact Messmann gives a bit more background on Jeff this time. Not too much, but in dialog Jeff relates how he decided to become an international “handyman” after the murder of his diplomat father. In fact we’re told his dad was “killed right in front” of Jeff. This volume overall really ties into Jeff’s past; when we meet him he’s waiting in the dark in rural Virginia for a childhood friend named Roger Van Court, an eccentric guy Jeff never really liked. Jeff’s dad and Roger’s mom were apparently having a bit of a fling when the two boys were kids, and Jeff would spend every Christmas at the Van Court estate. And we’re really in the upper-crust world of the filthy rich; this series has always traded on the jet-set world, and Murder Today, Money Tomorrow makes it clear that Jefferson Boone grew up in the lap of luxury. This of course makes his current role as a total bad-ass a bit hard to buy, but whatever. 

That bad-assery is displayed posthaste, though; first Boone is approached by a “truculent” young blonde with an “elfin” build who appears to be with Roger. Jeff immediately dislikes her, for reasons Messmann never really makes believable. She’s protective of Roger, clearly, but Jeff suspects her of foul play or somesuch. Roger does appear, but only momentarily, as some guys with guns show up and start blasting at him. In the pitch dark Jeff manages to turn the tables, killing off the thugs with his pistol. Here Messmann introduces a new gimmick to the series: Jeff drops a “little gold toolbox” onto one of the corpses. In other words, the calling card of the “Handyman.” Meanwhile, both Roger and the girl have fled. Jeff goes back to DC for some good lovin’ with a chick he’s been checking out at cocktail parties over the past few years; Messmann develops this curious subplot where the girl, Fran, she of the “full-bosomed, long-legged loveliness,” wants to be Jeff’s steady, but the relationship is broken off within a few pages, due to jealousy. Fran calls Jeff up next morning and discovers another girl on the line. This is Cassie, the “elfin blonde” who was with Roger the night before; she’s lost Roger as well, and will hang out with Jeff for the duration to find him again. 

The funny thing about Money Today, Murder Tomorrow is that the back cover makes it clear that Roger Van Court, a geologist, has made a discovery that could lead to a new form of power. However, Jefferson Boone spends the entire novel not knowing what it is Roger’s discovered, nor why so many people are trying to kill him. Even more ridiculously, Cassie herself has no idea what Roger was up to, even though she’s spent the past year as his companion. The two had an “understanding,” one that Messmann plays out as a lame mystery for almost the entire novel. But it’s clear that she and Roger were close, and a recurring bit is that Jeff is just unable to see Roger being with this cute blonde with an elfin build…however, when Cassie comes over to Jeff’s pad and takes off her coat, Jeff sees that “the little elf had magnificently high, full breasts.” 

Poor Cassie can’t catch a break from Jeff or Roger. She goes around the world with Jeff, who treats her like shit the entire time. Putting her down, mocking her, disparaging her relationship with Roger. He’s constantly on the attack, too; I lost count of the number of times Messmann used the dialog modifier “tossed off” when Jeff spoke to Cassie. But then Roger was a dick to her, too, a condescending one at that. She’s from backwoods Tennessee (or maybe it’s West Virginia; Messmann can’t seem to make up his mind), and Roger met her while on one of his research trips. He took a cotton to her, took her under his wing; it was a podunk town and everyone always took Cassie for granted until Roger Van Court came along. But, we learn, he tried to give her culture, giving her books to read, teaching her how to act in “polite society,” etc, etc. Now that’s “mansplaining” folks. And of course done without any apology; indeed, Jeff is quite pleased with the progress Roger made on the otherwise rednecked Cassie! 

But see that’s the thing. Nowhere does Cassie act like a dumb hick, or do anything stupid, or do anything that would make Jeff dislike her. And yet Jeff does dislike or at least distrust her, and goes out of his way to attack her at all times. It makes him seem like a total asshole, and what’s weird is that you get the impression that Messman doesn’t think he is an asshole. I mean we aren’t talking like an anti-hero sort of deal here. Jeff is the hero, no questions asked. So he takes Cassie under his own wing and they follow the vague leads on where Roger could be holed up, and why. Given this, Cassie has a greater part in the narrative than previous female characters. But it’s a strange relationship for sure, and Jeff’s attitude toward Cassie would certainly get him canceled in today’s “believe all women” world. 

It soon becomes clear that Roger is into something deep and is hiding for a reason. Jeff is constantly followed; even when going to pick Cassie up, driving back into Virginia, he’s tailed by some goons, managing to lose them in some salt flats. It gets to be annoying, though, because every time Jeff gets close to Roger, the guy will either run away or send an emissary in his place, to the extent that it almost takes on the tone of a Monty Python skit. Roger’s sought out Jeff, though, because Jeff’s “Handyman” status has become legedary, and also even as a kid Jefferson Boone was known for his fortitude. The action is infrequent, but always handled in a realistic matter when it happens, however as usual Messmann never dwells on the gory details. After encountering a few random thugs, Jeff deduces that Portugal had something to do with whatever Roger was into, so he and Cassie head there. 

The jet-setting Eurotrash stuff is pretty thick, here; as I mentioned before, Jefferson Boone, Handyman is more akin to the trash fiction bestsellers of the day, a la Burt Hirschfeld and the like. Messmann shows restraint, though, in that Jeff does not conjugate with the ultra-hot, ultra-stacked beauty Maria De Vasquez, whom he first sees getting into a fancy vintage car outside of a restaurant. Through various plot developments, Jeff has settled on Maria’s wealthy uncle as someone who might know what Roger was up to. De Vasquez seems to have walked out of a Bond novel, a man of such wealth that he retains his own retinue of enforcers and who has a garage filled with priceless vintage cars. Even here though the battle of wills with Cassie is played out; De Vasquez invites Jeff and Cassie to a party at his villa, and Jeff keeps imploring Cassie not to go, telling her she’ll be “out of her league” and “make a fool of herself” in front of all the jet-setting Euroscum. Seriously, the guy’s a dick. 

But the “Pygmallion” stuff is only reinforced when Cassie, wouldja believe, comes out of her room ready for the party…and it’s as if she’s become an entirely different woman. She has just one dress – bought for her by Roger, of course, for when he took her to socialite parties! – and she’s gotten her hair done, and she of course manages to hold her own at the party. Indeed she holds it so well that Jeff finds himself ignoring super-stacked Maria to keep checking on Cassie! Now all along Cassie’s been telling Jeff there was “more to the story” so far as her relationship with Roger went, and that night she finally tells Jeff it all: due to a “childhood incident,” Roger was no longer able to, uh, rise to the occasion, thus he and Cassie had a sort of “student-teacher” relationship and nothing more. And folks you better believe she’s ready for some good lovin’. She and Jeff go at it in a fairly explicit scene that for once doesn’t play out with the Hirschfeld-esque metaphors and analogies of previous such scenes. 

And meanwhile, Jeff still ponders this unfathomable case, this “increasingly multifaceted rigadoon with death.” Yes, that’s actually a line in the book. I don’t think even prime-era William Shatner could’ve delivered that with a straight face. (Orson Welles probably could’ve…and then he’d take a thoughtful puff on his ever-present cigar.) Finally, on page 147, Jeff learns that Roger was in-line to a breakthrough in “thermal energy.” This he learns from his State Dept. contact Charley Hopkins. And, of course, De Vasquez and his minions are out for it. This leads to a nice action scene where Cassie gets in on it; a country girl, she’s more than familiar with handling a rifle, and uses one to blast apart some thugs they chase while Jeff handles the car. As I say, she’s a likable character, making Jeff’s treatment of her seem even worse…though of course by this point they’ve been to bed a few times together, so at least he’s nicer to her. 

This proves to be the action highlight of the novel. As befitting the mystery thriller Murder Today, Money Tomorrow really is, the actual climax plays out more on a suspense vibe. Jeff and Cassie return to Roger’s home, where they learn exactly why thugs were constantly popping out of the woodwork to tail them. In other words there was a traitor in Roger’s life, and this character is dealt with in an entertaining – if predictable – finale. And it’s also worth noting that Jeff pitchforks a guy in this climactic sequence. It’s also interesting that Cassie knows her fling with Jeff has a limited lifespan; at novel’s end she wants one more roll in the hay, then she’s off to live her life. 

But man, there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t even cover here…like the bit where Jeff and Cassie go back to Cassie’s home town and run into some rednecks there. And other stuff on Jeff’s highfalutin childhood and jet-setting life in DC. As ever Messmann packs a lot of prose into the small, dense print of the book, clearly trying to write a “real” novel instead of the third installment of an action series. And I have to say, I think he succeeded this time. It won’t float everyone’s boat, but Murder Today, Money Tomorrow was pretty entertaining…if you can put aside the main character’s rampant misogyny, that is.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Right Stuff: Illustrated


The Right Stuff: Illustrated, by Tom Wolfe
No month stated, 2004  Black Dog & Leventhal

Many years ago I was obsessed with “New Journalism,” ie that genre of journalism that brought elements of fiction to nonfiction. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was my introduction; I picked up a paperback edition of it in 1998 and read it at work, and really enjoyed it. From there I picked up more of Wolfe’s books, including his The New Journalism anthology of other writers. And of course Hunter Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was another of my favorites; I even sought out obscure stuff like Joe Ezsterhas’s Nark, culled like Thompson’s book from the pages of Rolling Stone, but not nearly as frenetic. 

Well anyway, despite my obsession I still never picked up The Right Stuff, which arguably was Wolfe’s most famous piece of New Journalism. Hell, I’d never even seen the movie. I was certainly aware of both the book and the film, though, but neither captured my interest because I knew the story concerned the earliest days of the Space Race. In fact, I was under the impression that the majority of The Right Stuff wasn’t even about space, but about the fighter jocks who preceded the entire space program. I’ve always been interested in space subjects, but I preferred something later, at least the Gemini era, so I just never sought out The Right Stuff

This of course has turned out to be my mistake, as the book is just as great as its legend would have you believe. And also, while it does focus on the early years of the Space Race, The Right Stuff only slightly focuses on the fighter jocks of the ‘40s and ‘50s. I finally got around to watching the film before I read the book, and the film is misleading in this regard; the film puts a lot more focus on Chuck Yeager and the test pilot program than the book itself does. As it turns out, the test pilot material is only at the beginning of the book, after which we get into the meat of the story: the training and eventual missions of the Mercury Seven, ie the seven military pilots who were ultimately chosen to be the first Americans in space. Yeager disappears throughout the majority of this, only to return in a gripping final chapter. 

Speaking of Rolling Stone, The Right Stuff started as an assignment Wolfe wrote for the magazine, which was published as “Post-Orbital Remorse.” You’ll often read that this piece was transformed into The Right Stuff, but now that I’ve read both I can tell you that hardly any of “Post-Orbital Remorse” is in The Right Stuff. For one, that earlier piece is written in an entirely different tone, with Wolfe himself the audience of the “collective voice of the astronauts,” and many of the stories concern Apollo missions. None of this is in The Right Stuff; Wolfe does not appear, and there is no collective astronaut voice. In fact it is told very much like a novel, only one with the typically hyperkinetic Tom Wolfe narrative style. And also there is absolutely no foreshadowing to the Apollo era; it is almost a real-time documentation of the period in which it is set, namely the late 1950s through the early 1960s. 

It's kind of suprising that The Right Stuff was such a hit. Maybe it’s because the book isn’t like your typical dry piece of nonfiction. Wolfe has clearly done his research, and met with many of the astronauts and their wives, but his usual tendency for exaggeration is in place, and there are no footnotes or anything to provide further details. But then those dry nonfiction books don’t feature grand setpieces like Wolfe delivers throughout the novel, many of which are courtesy his own gifted imagination. Take for example the flight of Ham, a chimp who was trained rigorously to handle a sub-orbital flight before an actual human (Alan Shepard) was sent up. This entire sequence of Ham being sent up is gripping and hilarious – and it’s entirely from the perspective of Ham himself. His thoughts and feelings and fears, up to the laugh out loud moment at the end where he’s taken out to the press pool to be photographed and thinks these photographers are more humans who are going to strap him up and put him through more grueling tests (“Fuck this!”). It’s some incredbile writing for sure, but obviously there’s no way anyone could know what Ham was thinking during the mission; it’s all Wolfe’s imagination, and it’s a lot of fun. Just one wonderful sequence in a book chock full of them. 

It’s my understanding that most of the astronauts themselves appreciated The Right Stuff (though hardly any of them liked the movie), save for one thing: Wolfe’s character assassination of Virgil “Gus” Grissom. In a sequence that still sets the purists off, Wolfe has it that Grissom “screwed the pooch” upon the return from his own suborbital flight, accidentally hitting the escape button and ultimately losing his own capsule, which sunk in the ocean. Wolfe builds up several charges in his case: Grissom was loaded down with coins and such that he wanted to take on his ride and sell later, and also he likely stood up to take the survival knife mounted inside the capsule as another souvenier – and it was mounted right beside the escape switch. Grissom died in the Apollo 1 disaster of 1967, so wasn’t around to defend his case when this book was published years later. However even in his own day he was exonerated: fellow Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra did in fact hit the escape switch, and it hurt like hell, leaving a bruise on his hand. There was no such bruising on Grissom. Wolfe doesn’t mention any of this; reading the book you get the impression that Gus Grissom was a screwup. 

I thought about this for a while, and finally I think I figured out what was going on. There was a reason, I felt, that Wolfe was overlooking all this and making Gus Grissom look like a bad guy. And that reason, I’m sure, is that Wolfe himself just didn’t like Gus. In the book Wolfe skillfully paints a portrait of each of the astronauts, and Grissom’s isn’t very flattering: he’s never home, he’s always ditching his wife and kids (even when they’re just a few miles away), and he’s kind of slow-witted. Wolfe also develops the theme that there is a rivalry within the Mercury Seven: on the one side there’s Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, and Gordon Cooper, and on the other side there’s John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. The rivalry mostly begins over “cookies,” ie the groupies who would flock around the astronauts. While the other astronauts thought this was just a fun perk, Glenn and Carpenter were sort of against the idea. 

Now, a curious thing about The Right Stuff is that the tone in it is very pro-American, very much what one might today deem “reactionary.” This is very surprising, given that it’s courtesy a Rolling Stone contributor. It becomes clear that Wolfe himself is on the side of Glenn and Carpenter. This is most obviously demonstrated because he keeps referring to Carpenter as “Scott” in the narrative. Whereas the other astronauts are generally referred to by their last names – and Wolfe lacks consistency in this, which is kind of messy and should have been caught in the editing stage – Wolfe will usually just refer to Carpenter by his first name. This actually took me out of the narrative the first few times; I’d be reading about “Shepard” and “Glenn” and then I’d see “Scott,” and I’d have to pause and wonder, “Wait, which one was named Scott? Oh – Scott Carpenter! 

One of the people Wolfe talked to during his research was Rene Carpenter, Scott Carpenter’s wife; I know this because you hear a bit of their 1973 interview in the 2020 documentary The Real Right Stuff. Rene and Scott were divorced at the time of the interview, but I’m under the impression that Wolfe also talked to Scott Carpenter, and found himself liking the former couple. Thus, both Scott and Rene come off very well in The Right Stuff. Scott Carpenter in particular is presented as the “explorer of the new frontier” that none of the other Mercury astronauts were, using his mission to investigate and relate back on his findings, often ignoring his real objectives – even up to the point that he ran out of fuel and was nearly lost in the return to Earth. Due to this he so pissed off the higher ups at NASA that Scott Carpenter never went into space again. And, Wolfe implies, this “ban from space” was also courtesy the rival click of astronauts, who went out of their way to imply that Grissom’s mission, despite the loss of the friggin’ capsule, was a success and Carpenter’s was a failure. 

But Wolfe builds up the case that Scott Carpenter was actually a superior astronaut to Gus Grissom: his heart rate and blood pressure never skyrocketed, even during the shaky return to Earth. Meanwhile, Grissom’s was soaring in all the tense spots. But the Shepard-Grissom-Slayton-Schirra-Cooper click was against Carpenter and Glenn. They couldn’t do anything about Glenn, who’d driven them nuts with his goody-goody nature during training; his orbital flight made him a hero, second only to the President in the unofficial power structure. But Carpenter wasn’t as famous, and Wolfe makes it clear that he was the sacrificial lamb that made Grissom look good; while Carpenter was drummed out of the program, despite having all the “right stuff,” Grissom was allowed to stay on, despite losing his capsule and not displaying the right stuff (ie the racing heart rate and soaring blood pressure). All this of course might not be a reflection of reality; I’m just going into it all to offer an explanation on why Tom Wolfe made Gus Grissom look so bad in The Right Stuff. It’s because he liked Scott Carpenter, and resented that Carpenter suffered for a “failure” while Grissom didn’t. 

Regardless, this is a great book. It’s history made exciting. There are so many memorable moments, from the bizarre and hilarious training the pilots go through as part of the astronaut selection to the indidivual trips each takes into space. Alan Shepard, the first American in space, features in a bravura sequence where Wolfe, again in Shepard’s thoughts and feelings more so than “standard” nonfiction would dare to go, relates that it’s all sort of underwhelming…at least when compared to the training sequences! The John Glenn launch, orbit, and ensuing fanfare is also great, and the patriotism here, the love for the “single-combat warrior,” was so palpable that I felt myself almost getting as misty-eyed as the tough New York cops who wept openly during Glenn’s parade through the city. What’s interesting about the book is that it’s not hero-worship of the type Life doled out during the era itself…and yet it’s clear that Wolfe himself has immense respect for these men, and there’s none of the sting or satire he’d bring to previous subjects. Even Gus Grissom, all told, is presented in a fairly heroic lot, despite Wolfe’s clear intimation that he screwed the pooch. 

The story goes that Wolfe spent some years working on The Right Stuff; actually per an interview he did with Rolling Stone in 1980, Wolfe spent six years researching but only a few months writing, with more time taken to edit. His original goal was to cover the entire Space Race, from the era documented here in The Right Stuff all the way through the mid-‘70s Skylab missions. But, again so the story goes, by the time Wolfe finally finished The Right Stuff, his wife told him, “Congratulations, you’ve finished the book,” and Wolfe decided that he’d just let this be it and not spend more time on the rest of the program. You’d have to think, though, that at least at some point over the years Wolfe must’ve thought about returning to this topic. I mean The Right Stuff was published in 1979 and Wolfe died in 2018; that’s nearly 40 years in which he had the opportunity to revisit the subject and give us a sequel to The Right Stuff

Perhaps the book’s fame gave him pause; maybe he felt that whatever he wrote would always be considered in the shadow of The Right Stuff. Or maybe he just lost interest. Whatever the reason, it’s literature’s loss that Tom Wolfe never wrote the epic he originally envisioned. Who knows how great some multi-volume work might have been, with The Right Stuff merely the first installment. There are bits and pieces throughout that indicate Wolfe originally planned the book as just the first part of his chronicle; for example, the first lead character we meet is Pete Conrad, a test pilot with an awesome sense of humor who tries out for the program but ultimately isn’t chosen – no doubt due to that time he took his colostomy bag into the general’s office and complained about all the intrusive tests that were part of the selection process. Conrad then disappears from the book, only to appear again toward the very end, as one of the “New Nine” astronauts who have been chosen for the Gemini program. Conrad would’ve been a bigger character in ensuing volumes, as he commanded the Apollo 12 mission to the moon. None of this is even intimated in The Right Stuff, and it seems clear that it’s because Wolfe figured he’d document it in the next volume. 

Then there’s Alan Shepard, one of the main figures in The Right Stuff. We only learn toward the end that an ear issue takes him out of the program, but again there’s no intimation that within a few years he would return to the fold, and ultimately go to the moon himself. For that matter, Neil Armstrong is barely a presence in the book; first we have a random mention of a pilot seat at Edwards Air Force Base with “N. Amrstrong” on it, and then much later in the book he too is casually mentioned as one of the New Nine. And while Wolfe never states that Amrstrong will be the first on the moon, he does try to compare him unfavorably to Chuck Yeager. Personally I’d say Armstrong, with his war record and test pilot skills, had more of “the right stuff” than any of the other pilots in the book. But Wolfe details a sequence where Armstrong, who has a tendency to rely on data and thus represents “the new breed” of test pilot, comes off poorly compared to flying vet Yeager: Armstrong wants to do a trial run on a certain river bed, which per the reports should be dry enough to land on, but Yeager insists, through nothing more than his own experience, that the river bed won’t be dry enough. And sure enough he’s proven correct, with the two of them stuck in the mud. One can almost hear the goofy “wah-wah-waaaah” on the soundtrack. 

So then “Post-Orbital Remorse” is the sequel to The Right Stuff that we never got. It’s a heck of a lot shorter, and some of it is a retread of material mentioned in The Right Stuff, but it also features a lot of stuff on later Apollo missions, up to and even including Edgar Mitchell’s ESP experiments on Apollo 14. Mitchell isn’t even mentioned in The Right Stuff, yet in “Post-Orbital Remorse” we’re informed he has “the Rightest Stuff of all,” with a war and test pilot record that outdid anyone’s…despite which he turned out to be the most “unusual” of all the astronauts, performing ESP tests with collagues back on Earth. Mitchell isn’t in The Right Stuff, but given the focus on him in “Post-Orbital Remorse” one can only assume he would’ve had a bigger role in the sequel(s) Wolfe unfortunately never wrote. 

What’s curious is that “Post-Orbital Remorse” has never been reprinted. You’d think at least one of the innumerable editions of The Right Stuff would feature it as an appendix, but as far as I know none of them have. It hasn’t even appeared in a Wolfe anthology to my knowledge. But as I mentioned in the link above, you can actually download a PDF of the entire article here, and it’s highly recommended reading for anyone who enjoyed The Right Stuff. It covers some of the same Mercury Seven material (though not as elaborate or comprehensive), but it also dwells on the actual flights to the moon and the experiences the astronauts went through on the lunar surface and upon their return home. I’m of the opinion that Wolfe would’ve titled his sequel (or at least the Apollo volume, if he was indeed going to do a separate volume on Gemini) “Post-Orbital Remorse,” but that’s just my suspicion. Wolfe talked to several of the astronauts and other NASA people for his research, so who knows what other stories he had set aside for future volumes; given that Pete Conrad supplied him with so much of the early section of The Right Stuff, I can only imagine what other similarly-ribald stuff Conrad might’ve divulged about the Gemini and Apollo eras. 

Given the fame of The Right Stuff, I’ll end my usual overly-comprehensive rundown and focus instead on this particular edition. This summer I picked up Moonfire, a Taschen Books abridgement of Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon that was, in typical Taschen style, stuffed to the gills with photography. I went on the hunt for something similar, and discovered this obscure “illustrated” edition of The Right Stuff. I say obscure because I could hardly find anything out about it; there are about a zillion reviews of The Right Stuff online, but none for this particular edition. I wanted something that would be a feast for the eyes as Moonfire had been, and thus finally decided to give The Right Stuff a read. Luckily this illustrated edition can be found relatively inexpensive online. 

In a nutshell, The Right Stuff: Illustrated is the reverse of Taschen’s Moonfire: the narrative is incredible but the photos are subpar. No disrespect to those at Black Dog & Leventhal who put this book together, but this illustrated edition is somewhat of a missed opportunity. Whreas Moonfire contains dazzling full-color photos, mostly taken from Life Magazine, The Right Stuff: Illustrated is mainly comrpised of black and white shots, hardly any of them displaying the artistic finesse of those Life shots. And for that matter, Life featured a ton of photos of the Mercury Seven astronauts and their training, the majority of them taken by gifted photographer Ralph Morse, and any number of them would’ve been perfect for this book. And yet, hardly any of them are here. Indeed, you will find better full-color photos of the Mercury Seven era in Moonfire, even though the Mercury Seven astronauts are not the focus of that book. On the other hand, the shots here do the job and provide photographic documentation of the people, places, and things discussed in the book. And also, at least the publishers didn’t put photos over two pages so that the spine would jack up the image, as Taschen did. 

So far as other production issues go with The Right Stuff: Illustrated, it’s worth mentioning that there are occasional typos in the book. Otherwise, the narrative is printed on double-columned pages; The Right Stuff is longer than I thought it would be, coming in at 304 pages of dense, double-columned print. I took my time reading the book; each morning I’d get up with my kid, give him his breakfast, and sit on the couch and read a few pages while he played. He’d come over and look at the book occasionally; he got a big kick out of the photo of Ham the astrochimp (below). That picture really cracked him up for some reason. I was sorry to see The Right Stuff come to an end, and wished someone out there had done a similar approach to the Gemini and/or Apollo eras, but it doesn’t look like anyone has. So in the end I decided on Andrew Chaikin’s well-regarded A Man On The Moon (1994) as my next Space Race book; it doesn’t appear to have the literary verve of The Right Stuff, but makes up for it by being a very comprehensive study of the Apollo missions. And, like Wolfe, Chaikin met with many (if not all) of the surviving Apollo astronauts as part of his research. 

Now, on to some photos – these are just random examples of what you’ll find in The Right Stuff: Illustrated. While the photos themselves are somewhat lacking, at least when compared to the ones in Moonfire, the book itself is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.












Monday, January 10, 2022

The Adjusters #5: The Temple At Ilumquh


The Adjusters #5: The Temple At Ilumquh, by Jack Laflin
No month stated, 1970  Award Books

Someone at Award Books must’ve decided The Adjusters still had legs, as three years after the previous volume was published the series returned. Several changes are evident, though: for one, a real author is credited, whereas the previous four were credited to series protagonist Peter Winston himself, a la Award’s far more successful Nick Carter: Killmaster series. Also, the cover design has been changed. Most importantly, though, the entire premise has been changed, with The Temple At Ilumquh having almost nothing in common with the previous four volumes, other than Peter Winston himself. 

Jack Laflin is also new to the series, but in the mid-‘60s he wrote the five-volume Geoffrey Hiller spy series for Belmont. I have every volume but still haven’t read any of them yet. Overall his writing is good if a little too fussy. He’s one of those authors who likes his long sentences, which to me doesn’t much suit the genre, making what should be a tense sequence instead come off like a long list of “this happened and then this happened, and furthermore this also happened.” Also he changes the setup in a major way; The Temple At Iluquh has more in common with the Joaquin Hawks series than with The Adjusters, as in this one Peter Winston spends the entire novel in disguise as “Yusuf from Alexandria.” 

Laflin starts the novel in the middle of the action, with Winston already on the job in Yemen and several of his contacts murdered; there’s mention of a professional assassin named Hamid and a “joy girl” named T’Shura, but no setup on who any of them are. This cold opening only served to make me confused, particularly given how different everything was to what came before – I mean, Winston’s always been more of a James Bond type, going around the globe in a secret agent capacity. He’s never been embedded in a foreign country and trying to pass himself off as a local. Then we have the necessary flashback and learn that Winston was elected for an “experimental unit” at White and Whittle (the firm that employs Winston as “A-2”), one in which he’d receive heavy training in Arabic life, language, and religions, with the goal that he and fellow Adjusters could ultimately be dropped into the Middle East and pose as natives on a moment’s notice. 

So the Peter Winston we knew from previous books is gone; part of his training entailed letting his beard grow, and he spends the entire novel in robes and such. However he still carries his not-very-secret-agent .357 Magnum, which he uses in the occasional action scene…but Laflin’s over-fussy style tends to rob these scenes of much impact. We know Winston’s training lasted some months, and he was put back into normal duty before the call came in and he was shipped off to Yemen. The entire setup is ridiculous and has nothing in common with the previous books. It’s more of a desert yarn with Winston, posing as Yusuf throughout, meeting a ton of natives, adopting their various customs, and trying to figure out what nefarious Red China activity is going on here. 

The novel is prescient in how Laflin predicts the radical movements that would overtake the Middle East in the ‘70s. Winston’s been sent here due to word of a new jihad that’s about to be started, one that would shake up the pro-West mindset of the current leaders. Laflin doesn’t miss the opportunity to tell us a lot about local customs and Moslem beliefs, either. Winston gets in periodic gunfights and chases, as a lot of his contacts turn up dead and he tracks down the killers. We have here another sad indication of how much more vile our modern world is; the radical Moslems, despite hating the West and wanting to start a jihad and such, still aren’t suicidal nutjobs who are willing to strap bombs onto themselves (or their children); they’re more of a crafty and cunning lot, concerned about saving their own skins. 

Laflin adds a lot more sex to the series than previous volumes, and all of it’s courtesy T’Shura, the 18 or 19 year-old dancing girl who acts as another of Winston’s local contacts. It’s not super explicit, but Laflin does use words like “orgasm,” which is pretty unusual for the era – the sequences in these mainstream paperbacks would usually be a bit less blunt at the time. And boy do Winston and T’Shura go at it a whole bunch. She’s a “part-time joy girl” who has had a ton of men in her time, but relates to Winston that he’s the first to ever truly satisfy her. Of course he is! This means that she’s constantly wanting to hump him, but Laflin leaves most of it off-page after the initial act. In fact the novel even ends with T’Shura struggling to unzip Winston’s pants; she’s clumsy with zippers, given that all her previous clients wore robes and such. And also this is the only time in the novel that Winston’s in Western garb. 

Winston is initially sent to Yemen because two local contacts have been killed, and ultimately this leads to the uncovering of the Red China plot. It takes a while to get to this, though, and a lot of the first half of The Temple At Ilumquh concerns Winston ingratiating himself into the Yemen community as “Yusuf” and trying to find out who has murdered his colleagues. Laflin has done his research on the land and the customs and he wants you to know it. He treats Islam with a fair bit of respect, other than Winston’s grumbling over the “stupid custom” of not drinking alcohol. But man it’s like we’re suddenly reading an entirely new series, and one wonders why Award even published this as an Adjusters yarn. It could’ve just as easily been a standalone, or even the start of a completely different series. 

What makes it worse is that the cover promises an almost sci-fi sort of plot (“half-men, half-machines”). This however only refers to the radical Muslims Winston eventually encounters, who as mentioned are a lot less radical and violent than the ones of our modern era. They congregate around the titular Temple of Ilumquh, deep in the desert, which is a sort of headquarters for assassins. Ilumquh, we’re informed, was an ancient goddess. Chief among the assassins is Hamid, and Winston has a few run-ins with this guy, before finding out that his fellow Americans are somehow involved. Winston shadows a State rep and Hamid out into the desert, and this is how he finds out that the Chinese archeologists here, ostensibly for a dig, are really enemy soldiers and spies. 

The finale is a big action sequence, bigger than in any previous Adjusters yarn, and features Winston blasting away with his .357, a machine gun, and some grenades. He even gets in a few protracted kung-fu fights; Laflin explains that this is a form of “Chinese in-fighting.” Humorously, Winston gets the better of his martial opponents by resorting to old-fashioned “pugilism,” bashing away with his fists. He makes several kills, but it isn’t violent in the least, at least in that there’s no gore or anything. Winston also proves himself to be a bit of a subpar secret agent by getting captured twice here in the final quarter. But by novel’s end he’s having one last roll in the hay with T’Shura, who previous to this has begged Winston to take her with him back to America. However by novel’s end she seems to accept that she’ll never see Winston again. 

As it turns out, it didn’t matter, as Peter Winston never returned, and this was truly it for The Adjusters. Ultimately I found this series a bit too generic, despite the cool setup. Only the first volume, clearly by Paul Eiden, really kept me entertained throughout. The next three, which I’m assuming were all written by someone named Jim Bowser (Eiden’s hand is only evident in the first volume, at least), were more along the lines of tepid mystery novels, and I found them boring. But this fifth and final volume was by far my least favorite of the series, and I’m hoping it’s not an indication of what Laflin’s Geoffrey Hiller novels are like.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Every Which Way But Loose


Every Which Way But Loose, by Jeremy Joe Kronsberg
January, 1979  Warner Books

Here’s another one to file under, “They did a novelization of that?” The Every Which Way But Loose tie-in is kind of special, though, in that it was written by Jeremy Joe Kronsberg, who not only wrote the script but also had a minor role in the film as a biker. Kronsberg also wrote the script for the 1980 sequel Any Which Way You Can, but didn’t write a novelization for it (and also didn’t appear in the movie). 

I’ve never seen Every Which Way But Loose, or if I did I was very young and don’t remember it. I was aware of it and the sequel, though. Actually, it’s the sequel I was probably more aware of, as I was 6 in 1980 but only 4 when Every Which Way But Loose came out in late 1978. I knew the name of the movie, though, and also that there was an orangutan in it. I grew up in West Virginia, and you can just imagine how popular these movies, with their country music-listening heroes and redneck shenanigans, were with us “poor, illiterate and strung out” West Virginians. I seem to recall these movies making a big impact at the time, and I probably just figured they were along the same lines as The Dukes Of Hazard, which I also wasn’t really into. 

Despite the rural vibe, the movie (and novel) takes place in Los Angeles, and Kronsberg brings the place to life, calling out specific spots and locations. But really it feels more like a smalltown than a big metropolis, particularly given that so many of the characters are redneck yokels. For one there’s hero Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood), a truck driver of sorts who listens to country music on a radio he’s taped to the dashboard. When he isn’t truck-driving he’s either working on cars at his place or getting in fights in country bars. He’s tall and described as being more brawny than Eastwood himself was (6’4” and 220 pounds); in fact, with the redneck vibe and muscular protagonist, I got the impression that Every Which Way But Loose was more suitable for Burt Reynolds. I had a hard time picturing Clint Eastwood in many of the scenes in this novel, but obviously audiences didn’t, as I’ve read that this was his highest-grossing film. 

But then, that could be just because the movie so tapped into the zeitgeist. Every Which Way But Loose, at least in the novel, is very ‘70s; not so much in the sleazy shag rug aspect, but in its loosey-goosey approach to “plotting” and its burned-out, mind-fried characters. I was well into the novel before I realized there really was no plot, and in fact what passes for one is cribbed from innumerable country songs: a guy keeps getting burned by his untrustworthy girlfriend, all while other problems pile up on him. The problems are a gang of bikers, a pair of sadistic cops, a hot-tempered old lady, his girl’s jilted ex-boyfriend, and a horny orangutan. Philo deals with all this stuff while trying to get his woman back – that’s pretty much the entire plot. 

Kronsberg treats his story on the level in this novelization, but it’s clear he’s intended it as a light comedy. Those sadistic cops, for example; while at one point they get some guns with the intent to take out Philo permanently, there’s never a moment where you are concerned for our rangy hero. And for that matter, Philo’s frequent – very frequent – fights, while almost apocalyptic at times, are never overly violent or have any repercussions. I mean the dude walks through the movie getting in a jillion fights without barely a dent, sort of like the average Bruce Le movie (that’s Le, not Lee, ie the star of the most bottom-of-the-barrel Bruceploitation flicks). But then the novel doesn’t become a slapstick farce, either, as despite the lack of tension things actually matter to the characters themselves. 

And Philo is a very ‘70s hero; he’s so comfortable in his zero-goal life that he’s achieved a sort of zen. He doesn’t even have his own place, living in the back yard of his toothless pal Orville and Ma, Orville’s grumbling mother who spends the entire novel trying to get a driver’s license. Then of course there’s Clyde, Philo’s orangutan, which he won in a fight. Philo fights for money, but really for “fun;” in a rare bit of backstory we learn that he could’ve gone a professional route, but prefers fighting for self-entertainment or such. There’s no bitter history or personal loss Philo’s hiding from, as there would be in one of today’s over-thought films; he’s just a guy who likes to listen to country music, drink beer, and get in fights. That all changes the night he sees singer Lynne Halsey-Taylor performing at a country club. 

It was only after I finished the novel that I realized Kronsberg was likely parodying the subject matter of most country songs, as Lynne is forever leaving Philo in the lurch and he’s always going after her. She is a very curious lead female character, as she has none of the expected qualities: she’s self-involved, she lies, she’ll drop Philo without a moment’s notice or even an explanation. But at least she’s pretty, and apparently this is why Philo becomes so hooked on her; plus he enjoys her singing. Ultimately we’ll learn that Lynne is from Colorado and has a goal to open her own bar, where she’ll of course be the featured entertainer, but she needs a few thousand dollars for the down payment. She’s always in search of this, while Philo is always in search of her. 

We get an idea that this won’t be your standard romance when Philo meets Lynne after he sees her singing, and they hit it off, and she invites him back to her place…and then informs him when they get there that she has a boyfriend, but Philo can come on in anyway. A stunned Philo backs off, and spends the next several pages pining over Lynne and trying to figure out how he can steal her from her boyfriend. Meanwhile he runs afoul of various people: first the Black Widows, a biker gang, and then a pair of cops who get in a bar fight with Philo. In both cases the other parties start it: first the Black Widows throw a cigar in Clyde’s face, and later the two cops are drunk and start hassling Philo. However they’re not in uniform, and the fact that they’re officers is only revealed later. 

In each case Philo is so superhuman that, again, there’s no tension. The “action scenes” are the only part of the novel that truly approach slapstick; for example, when the two bikers toss a cigar at Clyde, Philo rounds them up, beats the stuffing out of them, and jams them headfirst into a garbage can. Later on, when the cops finally track down Philo and grab their guns to wipe him out permanently, Kronsberg plays out the scene for laughs, with Philo about to land a big trout and more annoyed at the interruption than concerned about being shotgunned to death. And once again, his fate isn’t at all in doubt. No one’s killed in the novel, and in fact blood is rarely mentioned. It’s basically just a goofy comedy about a guy who enjoys fighting a lot, and doesn’t have any of the darker connotations that such a story would have today. 

Even the sexual material is inexplicit; when Lynn and Philo actually “do the deed,” it’s kept off-page. Kronsberg for that matter doesn’t much exploit his female characters, and overall the novel has a very PG mentality. It’s almost like a slightly more “mature” Dukes Of Hazzard, now that I think of it. Much of the narrative is taken up with Philo and Orville trading goofy banter, but there are also several sequences from the perspective of lesser characters, for example the Black Widows. In many ways the novel reminded me of Sylvester Stallone’s novelization of Paradise Alley, not in content but in tone. Both books are almost liked warped representations of reality in which street bullies grow up to be adults but keep acting the same. There are no real-world concerns and everything can be solved by an old-fashioned fight. 

Kronsberg opens things up with a multi-state journey in which Lynne abruptly takes off, Philo follows after her (Orville and Clyde coming along – and on the way they pick up a hippie-country chick named Echo, who takes to Orville), and meanwhile both the cops and the Black Widows follow after Philo. Even here the romance doesn’t pan out as you’d expect; there’s no emotional reunion between Philo and Lynne (she literally just drives by him as he’s walking along a road), and the untrustworthy babe again leaves Philo in the lurch. She’s a quite unlikable character and it’s hard to understand Philo’s obsession with her. 

We also get a nice climax in which Philo takes on the legendary bar fighter Tank Murdoch, whose legend is occasionally mentioned throughout the text, Kronsberg craftily setting up the novel’s climactic confrontation. This is the only part of the book where Philo shows much depth, as he realizes that, if he were to win, he’d be plagued with endless challenges, like Tank himself now is. Otherwise there’s no big wrap-up for Every Which Way But Loose. Overall the novel was pretty good, and I appreciated the downhome, easy-going way Kronsberg told his downhome, easy-going story, but truth be told the novelization didn’t have me raring to finally see the movie itself.

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Aquanauts #9: Evil Cargo


The Aquanauts #9: Evil Cargo, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1973  Manor Books

Manning Lee Stokes loved his in-jokery, and this ninth volume of The Aquanauts features his biggest in-joke yet, as Manning Lee Stokes himself guest-stars in Evil Cargo. Sort of. I knew something was up when the prologue featured a few quotes on the definition of “karma,” and one of the people quoted was Kermit Welles – a pseudonym Stokes used in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But as it turns out, Kermit Welles actually appears as a character in this Aquanauts yarn, and one can only wonder how much the character is based on Stokes himself. 

The novel occurs between September 1972 and January 1973. There are a few allusions to previous volumes, but the biggest development here on the home front is that crusty Admiral Coffin, boss of the Secret Underwater Service, suffers a heart attack and is taken out of commision for the duration of Evil Cargo. This happens early in the book, as Coffin is briefing Tiger Shark and Captain Tom Greene on “Code Coke,” their new SUS assignment: someone’s stolen a Yankee-class Soviet sub, and it’s being used to run heroin and coke into the US. Coffin has a heart attack before he can finish the briefing – we’ve been told since the beginning of the series that he’s way past retirement age – and control of SUS falls on Greene’s shoulders. He will prove to be a pretty weak-ass boss, and luckily Coffin’s back in action by novel’s end. Given the lack of much continuity in the series, I wonder if Coffin’s heart trouble will even be mentioned in the next two volumes. 

As usual though Coffin, Greene, and Tiger Shark himself almost come off like supporting characters. As I’ve said in just about every Aquanauts review I’ve written, this series has more in common with the standalone crime paperbacks Lyle Kenyon Engel “produced” in the ‘70s, with the “underwater commando” stuff almost an afterthought. This is especially prevalent in Evil Cargo, which doesn’t even bother with the Cold War intrigue at all; it’s really just a crime novel, with the main characters a pair of Mafia creeps who come up with the “drug run via sub” plan. Actually, Kermit Welles is the character who comes up with the idea, but more on that anon. 

The entire novel is almost a prefigure of Stokes’s later Corporate Hooker, Inc., which was in fact one of those standalone BCI paperbacks. It’s got the same setup, with a scheme involving waterborne Mafia nefariousness and a twisted love triangle. Here it’s Dom Caprio, hulking and hirsute New York mob boss, who in a brief opening chapter meets meek Harvard student Harvey Fletcher in 1962. Dom hires Fletcher, we’ll learn, to be his accountant, but Fletcher ultimately doesn’t factor much into the novel; his subplot has him coping with the fact that he’s gay and going to a tough “leather” guy for kicks. After this opening we flash to 1972, and learn that Dom, now a successful mobster, is “banging” Harvey’s wife Anita for kicks – and it was interesting to see that “banging” was being used for sex in 1973. 

This is certainly the sleaziest Aquanauts yet. Dom and Anita get right down to it in full-bore detail, in a crazed matter almost equaling The Nursery. There are some back door shenanigans, you see…that is, after Anita literally measures Dom’s 9 inches with a ruler, and then implores him, “Please, honey, fuck me in the ass!” Stokes was in his early sixties when he wrote this novel – as is Kermit Welles, we’ll learn – so it was great to see he’d only gotten more sordidly kinky with age. But then it’s all even more in-jokery, as we’ll learn that Dom himself is an “inveterate reader of paperbacks,” going through “three a day” at times; he especially likes ones with “plenty of gore and sex,” and judges their quality by how big of a hard-on they give him! 

After this escapade Dom heads back to Manhattan but takes a wrong route and ends up in a “hick town” near Montrose, New York (or perhaps it is Monstrose – Stokes isn’t clear), and, stopping in a bar, meets once-famous author Kermit Welles. Manning Lee Stokes himself lived in Montrose, or near it (according to his Wikipedia page he died in Peekskill, New York, which is just a few miles from Montrose), so it’s clear that he based Kermit Welles somewhat on himself. Further evidence: Dom’s favorite Welles novel is the one where “the lady got her head sliced off by the Jap sword.” Yes, friends, this is The Lady Lost Her Head, the title referenced by Welles himself. In the real world, The Lady Lost Her Head was published under Stokes’s own name, so it’s curious he referenced this book in Evil Cargo and not one of his actual “Kermit Welles” novels. 

But the Kermit Welles of the novel is more successful than the real-world Manning Lee Stokes; we learn that Welles’s The Lady Lost Her Head was made into a movie fifteen years ago, but Hollywood “butchered” it. That was then, though; now Welles is basically a lush, spending most of his time and money in a dingy bar here in this “hick town” in upstate New York. He makes his living off residuals or foreign reprints of his old books, and when Dom meets him Welles is in the process of begging the bartender to accept his check. It’s a down and out caricature of Stokes for sure, or at least I assume so, perhaps along the lines of the self-caricature William Shatner played in Free Enterprise. One must wonder if the description of Kermit Welles matches the description of Manning Lee Stokes:


Unfortunately Welles isn’t in Evil Cargo nearly enough; he pretty much steals the novel as is. He speaks in a sort of highfalutin tone, trying his best not to correct Dom’s poor grammar. He’s also a bit of a coward, but this is understandable given that Dom’s a brawny mobster who has an army of thugs at his disposal. The crux of Welles’s storyline involves Dom coming up with the bizarre idea of hiring Welles to write a novel – for ten thousand dollars – with Dom intending to use the manuscript to come up with schemes for his underworld empire(!). And of course Welles is to tell no one of this, not even the woman he’s “shacked up with.” Stokes’s biggest misgiving is that he doesn’t properly explain Dom’s scenario, and even worse we don’t get to read any of Welles’s manuscript. This would’ve been opportunity for even more metatextual in-jokery, but all we learn is that it concerns a submarine…run, apparently, by a bunch of horny women! 

Given that the novel is told out of sequence, we already know at the start that Dom got this “impossible idea” off the ground (or under the sea, I should say), managing to use some underworld contacts to steal a Soviet sub in Cuba. Welles pretty much disappears from the narrative at this point, and not to spoil anything but he’s still alive at novel’s end; Dom upholds his offer and gives Welles the ten thousand. Welles then ditches the woman he’s been living off of, moves back to Manhattan, and the last we see of him he’s planning to start writing again. “Early sixties wasn’t old, not for a writer.” The same age as Stokes at this time, so one wonders again how much of Kermit Welles here is a reflection of the real-life Manning Lee Stokes; we already know from Will Murray’s 1982 article on Nick Carter: Killmaster that Stokes was “industrious but hard-drinking,” so certainly there’s a bit of truth to Welles’s tendency to be a lush. We also get the tidbit that he doesn’t write as well drunk as he used to! 

And that is reflected in Evil Cargo itself. Because believe it or not the “heroin sub” is kept almost entirely off-page, and Stokes spends more time on the twisted Dom-Anita-Harvey love triangle. There’s a lot of kinky stuff here, all very sleazy ‘70s. For example Dom practically begs Anita to “go down” on him, but she refuses…then one night he sneaks into her place and discovers her giving some other jerk an enthusiastic bj. And meanwhile as mentioned we get some stuff with Harvey visiting his gay acquaintances. In fact, Stokes writes all the sex material for his one-off characters; poor Tiger Shark is celibate this time. We do however get the casual TMI mention that Greene, as ever pining for his wife Evelyn, has had a “wet dream” about her! 

Tiger Shark? I almost forgot about him…even though he’s ostensibly the star of the show. The funny thing is, despite the focus on lurid love triangles and lush pulp writers, Evil Cargo actually contains the best underwater action scene yet in The Aquanauts. Certainly the most brutal. Tiger Shark is sent into Cuban territorial waters to spy on the stolen sub, which the SUS has already tracked down…but at this point Greene’s in charge, and the weak-ass gives Tiger the order to swim over to the sub, pound out a message in SOS on the hull, and tell them they’re all under arrest!! Tiger chafes at this stupid idea, just wanting to blow the damn sub up, regardless of the loss of life – and he’s certain this is how Admiral Coffin would’ve played it. But he’s a Navy man and he follows orders. 

As expected it goes poorly, and for once Tiger Shark is caught unawares. Four frogmen come out of the sub and surprise attack him, leading to a very tense sequence that just keeps going. Stokes, despite his padding, really knows how to ramp up action scenes and take his protagonists through the ringer, and he does so here. In fact Tiger’s so outmatched that he kicks off his gear and races for the surface, 240 feet up, knowing it will be certain death due to the bends. But at least he’ll have a chance, unlike down here. There follows a crazy survival setup where Tiger staggers around a small Cuban isle, finds someone who will help him (in exchange for future payment), and jury rigs his own decompression chamber, using an old car and an air hose. It’s crazy stuff and very tense, but again Stokes pulls this weird gimmick as he always does and, next time we see Tiger, it’s some time later and he’s safely back at SUS HQ. In other words, Stokes completely cuts out the escape sequence itself. 

But then, another tidbit: “Welles had always been good at that – everything first draft and six weeks to do a book.” No doubt more real-world insight into Manning Lee Stokes’s writing method, not to mention possibly explaining why there are often so many missed opportunities in his books. Oh, and not content to sort of feature himself in the book, Stokes also finds the opportunity to slyly reference his own name; we get an off-hand mention of the law firm Birnbaum, Fenster, Stokes, and Engel. Double in-jokery at that; “Engel” of course a reference to Lyle Kenyon Engel. If you can’t tell, I would’ve enjoyed an entire book about Kermit Welles…it could’ve been a more serious take on The Last Buffoon. But as mentioned Welles isn’t in the novel nearly enough, and by book’s end we learn he’s in Federal protection – he himself is innocent so far as Dom’s plans go, as all Welles was hired to do was write a book, with no idea of Dom’s grander plot. And, naturally, it’s a Federal agent named Frank Manning who informs the SUS of Welles’s innocence in the plot! 

The out-of-sequence narrative takes away a lot of the tension of the book, and also Harvey Fletcher isn’t properly focused on, so that his face-off with Dom at novel’s end could’ve been more powerful than it is. Speaking of which, Captain Greene’s foul-up with nearly getting Tiger Shark killed isn’t properly focused on; by the time Admiral Coffin’s back in charge, it’s understood that Greene should have just ordered the damn sub blown, but his plan was “understandable” given that he’s not nearly as cold-blooded as Coffin is. Or something. The helluva it is, Tiger’s finally ordered to torpedo the sub to hell at novel’s end…well, sort of. First, for undisclosed reasons (possibly to pad more pages), he’s ordered to tail the sub in his KRAB submersible, back to the sub’s secret base near Iceland. This is a cool scene at least, with the action taking place on a stormy sea. But at the same time it’s just more padding, as the entire plan for tailing the sub to its base is pointless – and quickly disposed of. 

Stokes scores points by working the title into the novel; we’re told that the sub is carrying an “evil cargo.” Would’ve been cooler if this was the title of Welles’s manuscript for Dom, but as mentioned we don’t get much detail at all about the manuscript. The concept alone though is really out-there; I mean a mobster hiring a pulp novelist to write an entire novel for him, so that the mobster can mine the manuscript for ideas! And Dom wants a full novel, not an outline, as Welles suggests. But what is such a wild concept isn’t properly exploited…I thought Stokes would go all the way with it, and have a fictional underwater service as the good guys in Welles’s manuscript, and etc, but I guess he didn’t want to play it too on the nose. As it is, Evil Cargo is entertaining for the peek at Manning Lee Stokes himself. And also the battle between Tiger and the rival frogmen is the best action scene yet in the novel, or at least one of the best. 

Two more volumes were to follow, and judging from the titles and back cover synopses they get into more of a sci-fi realm, with sea monsters and mermaids(!). Stokes was clearly invested in the series, so I’ll be sorry to see The Aquanauts come to an end.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Total Recall


Total Recall, by Piers Anthony
June, 1990  Avon Books
(original hardcover edition 1989)

While it didn’t make much of an impression on me when it was released, Total Recall has gone on to become one of my favorite Schwarzenegger movies, second only to Commando. In hindsight one can see it as the apotheosis of ‘80s action movies: a big budget, the biggest action star of the decade, gory violence, one-liners aplenty, good special effects, an incredibly dark sense of humor, and a positively hard R rating. After this Schwarzenegger and Stallone and the other ‘80s action stars went for a “kinder, gentler” approach in the ‘90s, so in many ways Total Recall was the end of an era, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time. 

I was 15 when it came out in the summer of 1990, but I didn’t see it then – either the commercials didn’t do much for me or I couldn’t get an adult or guardian to take me. It feels like a million years ago that Hollywood would churn out mega-budget flicks that were 90% targeted toward teens, but put an R rating on them, thus blocking out that target audience. I finally saw the movie on VHS shortly after it was released in that format, over at a friend’s house, but I recall not being able to get into the movie at all. In fact I had this eccentric friend – it was a group of us watching the movie, I remember – and at the climax he said, “I think this is the part where we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats,” and then literally jumped onto the edge of his seat. Super stupid I know, but not only is this an example of this kid’s eccentricity (I think he went on to become an airline pilot), but it’s just something that’s stuck with me over all these years, despite how super stupid it was. 

Somehow my opinion changed over the years, watching the movie on TV or laserdisc…I had another weird/eccentric friend (I’ve had a bunch of them, honestly), and this one who was a major movie fan, particularly anything with Schwarzenegger or with copious gore. So as you can expect, he was in seventh heaven with Total Recall. He was really into laserdiscs and I seem to “recall” I watched the movie again in that format some years later and realized how good it was. In retrospect, it’s the action movie Terminator 2 should have been; while T2 was a massive hit, in hindsight you could see it as where Arnold’s movies would be headed in the ‘90s – softer, less darkly humorous, less violent. Total Recall is the complete opposite, and in fact it’s a smarter movie than Terminator 2, and smarter than most action movies, given its multiple layers. 

Everyone who enjoys Total Recall likes to engage in the “did it happen or didn’t it?” game, or even wonder if the entire thing was just a dream. There will never be a correct answer to this, as Paul Verhoeven pointedly directed each and every scene with “both realities” in mind. So you could just as easily argue that the movie is on the level as you could that it’s all a delusion, a “schizoid embolism” that gets out of control until the hero is lobotimized at film’s end (ie the flash of white before the credits). Or you could argue the entire movie is just a dream, given that it opens and closes with a dream – the last line even a winking reference to this: “Kiss me quick before you wake up.” But then, I’ve found that it’s just as easy to take the movie at face value, that it’s all really happening to Douglas Quaid, a mild-mannered (but herculean-sized) blue collar worker who finds out he’s a secret agent with an erased mind who holds the key to a planet’s survival. 

This I think is just one of the many things that makes Total Recall so entertaining. And the gore, action, occasional nudity, and super-dark humor doesn’t hurt. (“See you at the party, Richter!” is still my all-time favorite Arnold line, and it pops in my head at random intervals.) But it would be difficult to carry this “is it a dream or is it reality” vibe in a novel, and truth be told Piers Anthony seems for the most part to treat everything on the level in this tie-in, first published in hardcover in 1989 and then in softcover when the movie came out. Given that his book was published a year before the film was released, Anthony most likely was working from an earlier draft of the film; most notably, the protagonist is named “Douglas Quail” in the hardcover, but this has been changed to “Douglas Quaid” in the paperback to reflect the movie. (The Avon editors did a good job of changing almost all the “Quails” to “Quaids” in the paperback, but they did miss one – on page 58.) 

Quail was the name of the protagonist in Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” which “inspired” Total Recall. Verhoeven I believe is the one who changed it to “Quaid,” which is a more fitting name for a Schwarzenegger character. The script had been in development hell for some years, with a tide of writers, directors, and actors becoming involved with it, making changes, and then jumping ship. Once production began someone must’ve thought it would make sense for this new story, which was wildly different from Dick’s original (I was going to write “the original Dick,” but thought it would sound too sophmoric), to receive its own novelization. Piers Anthony somehow got the gig, and as mentioned this one even received a hardcover edition, meaning it received appropriate industry coverage in 1989 – even a review in Kirkus

I’ve never read any of Piers Anthony’s sci-fi, but I have read his Jason Striker series, and his Total Recall novelization is of the same caliber: a fast-moving plot with good description, but an occasional tendency to overexplain things, either through exposition or authorial lecturing, plus an inordinate fondness for goofy puns and malapropisms. The lecturing especially tends to make the story come off as a bit too stuffy and ponderous at times. To be fair to Anthony, he had his work cut out for him, trying to make sense out of this film; it’s my understanding that the third act of Total Recall was the most problematic in the development stage, and Anthony does his best to give more depth and explanation to what’s going on. Indeed, he works in a galactic threat in the finale; Mars and the rest of the solar system will be wiped out if Quaid doesn’t prevail. There’s also an entire storyline about the aliens who lived on Mars eons ago. But then again, perhaps this material was in the script Anthony was working from – it’s also my understanding that a lot was cut from Total Recall for budgetary reasons. 

If you have seen the movie, the book really isn’t all that different. In fact it’s a classic example of what a tie-in should be: it tells pretty much the exact same story as the film, only with minor changes, and also fleshes out the characters and the world a bit more. The question here though is how much of this extra stuff is Anthony’s imagination or stuff that was never filmed. For example, one of his most notable changes blows the most memorable moment in the film – a moment which was blown in the trailers, too. I am of course talking about the heavyset woman disguise Quaid wears when he enters Mars, which goes haywire and keeps saying “Two weeks.” The audience is just as surprised as the people in Mars in the film, but in the novel we already know Quaid’s in the costume; but then, in the novel we’ve also seen his trip to Mars, which we didn’t see in the film. 

And also to his credit, Anthony does cater at times to the idea that this is all a dream; Quaid, even though on the run, constantly questions things and wonders over how bizarre everything has become. But unfortunately in many cases Anthony will then go out of his way to over explain what’s happened, or why it’s happened, or how it could have happened; this is why I say he mostly treats the story on the level, as he seems to be at pains to work out every little detail and make it fit. Of course in dreams (or schizoid embolisms, I assume) things don’t always fit, so what could be seen as gaping plot holes in the film (ie changing an entire planet’s atmosphere in minutes) could also be seen as just the usual random events of a dream. Even here though Anthony will over-explain how indeed an atmosphere could change so quickly, so the book would be beneficial for those who do take the film at face value but want to understand how all of it could have really happened. 

The novelization also world-builds more than the film does. We’re not told what year all this is occuring, but we are told that the solar system has been colonized, and the 1980s are now considered “ancient” history. Interplanetary travel is common, and technology is so good that you can have real-time videophone conversations between Earth and Mars. We’re also told of things like “Venusian wine” and glasses that are cut from perfect crystals grown in zero-g. Anthony also finds the time to work some left-wing sermonizing into the text; we’re lectured on how gas-guzzling cars were finally banned (even though the government didn’t want to!), and it was about time because they were destroying the atmosphere and such. Indeed, getting rid of them allowed the ozone layer to “finally repair itself.” That one really took me back; I’d completely forgotten about the ozone layer panic, which was the early ‘90s version of climate change. Actually the world of Total Recall is the one we’re rapidly heading toward: a vaguely-socialist overpopulated hellhole of crime and poverty, ruled over by mega-corporations that are outside of the law. 

I’ve gone this far and haven’t mentioned the tone Piers Anthony uses throughout Total Recall. Just as the film was for the most part aimed like a heat-seeker for a young male audience, so too is Anthony’s novel. I hate to use modern progressive terms, I mean they’re just such passive-aggressive bullshit, but folks the “male gaze” is strong as hell in this book. And in fact, the only way we’re going to win this culture war is to appropriate the other side’s words, sort of like how us Americans supposedly took the insult “yankee doodle” from the damned British and wore it as a badge of honor. So yes, the male gaze runs rampant throughout Total Recall. We are told of the breasts and appearances of every female character we meet, with even ruminations on what their sex lives must be like. Mind you, this isn’t a complaint; I loved the unbridled testosterone of it all. I mean here’s just one example – a notable example, though. Here’s Quaid in bed with his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) at the beginning of the novel:


This my friends is an author who knows his readership is made up of similarly-horny men. Lori’s “impressive architecture” will be mentioned throughout the novel, even in sequences where she’s not even around. Here we have the novel’s sole sex scene, as Quaid and Lori enjoy a little roll in the hay before Quaid heads off for work. I found it difficult to imagine Schwarzenegger in such a scene, so it’s just as well there’s no more such material in the book; I recall reading years ago that his character was supposed to kiss Vanessa Williams in Eraser (1996), but this was cut, because per Williams it just “didn’t work:” 


Quaid’s still so turned on by his hotstuff wife that he almost considers round two, but knows he’ll be late for work. Here we have a bit more world-building than in the film: we’re informed that Quaid and Lori have been married for eight years, and she’s well above him in the social strata, a daughter of wealth who for inexplicable reasons fell in love with meathead Quaid. He assumes it’s because she was turned on by his muscles! And as you can see by the mention of the “dream woman” in the excerpt above, the novelization follows the film; Quaid has just awoken from a dream of Mars, in which he explored a structure with some beautiful, brunette woman (whose bust, we’ll eventually learn, is “fuller” than Lori’s!), and then he was separated from her and fell into a chasm. 

And indeed, the book just goes on to follow the film as faithfully. Quaid seeing the Rekall commercial on the crowded subway to work, going there himself, and freaking out before the implant can happen. From there the novel, just as the film, turns into an extended chase sequence, with Quaid’s former work friends the first who show up and try to kill him. Here we see one of the biggest differences between the film and Anthony’s novelization: the book lacks the ultra-gore of the film. While there is a lot of violence and killing, Anthony does not dwell on the sprays of gore and whatnot; the action scenes are more nondescript, along the lines of “Quaid shot down two of them.” In that regard, it would’ve taken someone like David Alexander to write a Total Recall tie-in that matched the ultra gore of Verhoeven’s film. 

But even here Anthony is at pains to explain things that the film doesn’t; Quaid is such a bad-ass, able to kill three men with his bare hands in a few seconds, because of his “hidden, alternate self.” Throughout we will learn that this “alternate self” will come to Quaid’s rescue when his survival instincts kick in gear, even imbuing him with a sixth sense at times. Ultimately this will of course turn out to be “Hauser,” the “real” Quaid, same as in the film. Anthony even explains around this: near novel’s end we’ll learn that Quaid’s full name is Douglas Quaid Hauser! I don’t believe this was stated in the film. Again, maybe it was in the script Anthony worked from. It’s just another example of his striving to make everything “make sense” in the book…otherwise the reader might question where the name “Quaid” came from, if “Hauser” was the guy’s original name. But this too comes off as clumsy, as why would all of Hauser’s old colleagues keep referring to him as “Quaid,” even when the cat’s out of the bag and Quaid is aware he’s nothing more than a “personality construct?” 

The trip to Rekall is another fun demonstration of the male gaze at work. First there’s the receptionist, who same as in the film is changing the color of her fingernails with a stylus, but unlike in the film she’s also topless: 


You’ve gotta love how Quaid instantly decides Lori will need to get a similar top! Quaid is not only much more introspective in the novel, he’s also more horny. Earlier, when getting on the subway, we had a bit where he hoped that the X-ray machine would go haywire and he'd instead see the nude bodies of the women boarding, instead of their skeletons. Now, for no reason at all, he even broods over the sexual proclivities of the frowzy Rekall scientist who is about to put him under for the memory implant (this, by the way, after he’s imagined “being in bed” with the nurse who set up the IV): 


“He did not care to be victimized by her imagination.” Awesome! That’s how you turn the tables, folks! Another of the key bits that make Total Recall’s second half seem like a haywire memory implant also happens here: the technicians are able to recreate the spitting image of Quaid’s mysterious Mars woman, who is “wanton…and demure,” just like the woman of his dreams. In the film, we see her face on the screen before the implant procedure begins, and eventually will learn her name is Melina (Rachel Tictotin). However in the novel, toward the very end, Anthony also explains away this seeming incongruity; Melina, despite the fact that she and Quaid are at the moment running for their lives, mentions that she once “did some modelling” for Rekall! But then again, this could be another facet in the entire “did it happen or didn’t it?” scenario. 

However Anthony is at pains to tie up any loose ends the film might’ve had, no matter how minor. For example there’s the part where Quaid, hiding in the slums of the city, is contacted by a mysterious guy who has a package for him. We’ll learn that this guy is named Stevens, and he was “pals” with Quaid back in the Agency, ie the sadistic government agency which runs roughshod in this future – the guys trying to kill Quaid are all agents of the Agency. Chief among them is Richter (Michael Ironside), who is depicted here almost exactly as he is in the film. The only character who seems different, for that matter, is Mars boss Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), who in the novel is described as being nearly as muscular as Quaid is. Well anyway, in the film this mysterious helper leaves Quaid a bag and takes off. In the novel, we see that Richter eventually gets hold of him and kills him. We’re also informed that Richter has killed off the Rekall office workers who tried to implant Quaid. 

As mentioned the package has the “fat lady” disguise in it, and Anthony explains how it works. This all was a surprise reveal in the film, but here we know Quaid has it from the get-go. And we see him try it out when he boards a passenger spaceliner bound for Mars, a scene which also includes Richter and his Agency minions searching the ship for Quaid – who walks right by Richter, in the fat woman disguise. But here in the novel the mask’s glitch is it keeps asking “Where is my cabin?” instead of “Two weeks.” We also learn here that Richter is a passenger on this same ship to Mars, but Anthony doesn’t describe the voyage itself; Quaid decides to take the trip “in stasis.” I don’t believe we’re even told how long the voyage to Mars takes. The reveal of Quaid in the fat lady disguise is kind of the same as in the film, only as mentioned the glitch that outs Quaid is “Where is my cabin?,” which his mask keeps asking as he disembarks the ship on Mars. 

And again from here on it follows the film pretty faithfully. Other minor changes would be that Tony, the Resistance member on Mars who was played by a pre-fame Dean Norris in the film, is not stated as being a mutant. As fans of the film know, Tony in the film had a seriously mutated face, and thus was the recipient of one of Quaid’s more insensitive one-liners. (Tony: “You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face around here.” Quaid: “Look who’s talking.”) Here in the novel Tony just appears to be a regular human, as no mutation is mentioned. But I’m sure you all want to know about the most famous mutant in the film: the three-breasted lady, of course. Yes, she’s here, but curiously in the book she isn’t topless in her memorable intro: 


Dude, “farted and oozed.” WTF? Glad that wasn’t in the film! Melina comes off the same here as in the movie, though more of a deal is made out of how she is both “wanton” and “demure,” per Quaid’s request at Rekall – she merely poses as a wanton whore here in a cheap bar in the Venusville district of Mars, but in reality is a fiery member of the Resistance. The novel at this point really turns into a sequence of action scenes, but the most memorable bit is the visit by “Dr. Edgemar,” the Rekall rep who claims to be visiting Quaid in his mind and tells him all this is a “schizoid embolism.” This sequence plays out pretty much identically to the film, as does most everything else that follows. Only the violence is minimized; for example, that “See you at the party, Richter!” part in the film features Quaid memorably holding aloft Richter’s severed arms before tossing them away. Richter meets his fate with both arms intact here in the novel. 

By far Anthony’s biggest change is to the explanation of what happened to Hauser. Not only does Anthony provide a long backstory on who the Martians were, but he even includes a subplot that Hauser was not a double agent, as revealed in the film’s finale, but really a triple agent. The film has it that, as Cohaagen’s minion, he ingratiated himself into the Resistance, and then “Quaid” was created to truly get in their confidence and to bypass the mental probes of the mysterious mutant leader Kuato. Anthony however develops a whole new plot out of this: Hauser actually fell in love with Melina, who made him find the good in himself, and thus he tricked Cohaagen by going along with the “Quaid” gambit, all in the hopes of wiping out his mind and protecting Melina and the Resistance from the truth he, Hauser, discovered in the ancient ruins. 

And this is the other big change. When Kuato does his mind-meld with Quaid, we are treated to a long chapter that comes off like its own separate short story. This part is the most “sci-fi” bit in the entire novel. Hauser, when separated from Melina while exploring a massive pyramid on Mars, discovered a cavern built by the ancient Martians who lived here 50,000 years ago. He enters into a chamber which takes him on a mind-meld sort of trip into Mars’s past, were he sees the No’ui, ie the human-sized bipedal telepathic ants who once lived on Mars. A “star seeder” race, the No’ui looked forward to the future and realized that the humans would one day come to Mars, and so have prepared this test sort of chamber thing, and it all works out that now Mars can either be saved – the atmosphere turning into one like Earth’s – or both it and the rest of the solar system could be destroyed by an artificial supernova the No’ui also prepared all those eons ago. It’s all very unwieldy and hard to grasp, and comes off like an entire change to the storyline in the eleventh hour. The question is whether it’s all Anthony’s creation or was material excised from the film. 

And that really is the main problem with the final quarter of Total Recall. Anthony tries to develop this massive galactic threat, with his hero outed as a former sadistic agent who found redemption in love and now can save the entire cosmos. It’s just too much to keep up with, and feels ungainly, not helped at all by the massive amount of exposition. I mean Quaid explains – sorry, “mansplains” (remember, we’ve gotta co-opt those bullshit terms) – everything to Melina as they are running from Cohaagen’s goons. But we do get the stuff from the film, like the cool watch that projects a hologram, complete with even the goofy as hell part where Quaid fools the dumb soldiers into thinking he’s a hologram when he isn’t. Anthony seems to have his tongue in cheek while writing this scene; it’s very clear that the author himself thinks the whole sequence is ridiculous, but he dutifully transposes it from the script. 

But as mentioned the changing of Mars’s atmosphere is explained here (actually, over-explained); it’s just something else the all-mighty No’ui set up all those millennia ago, and Quaid’s hand is necessary to trigger it. There’s even more exposition here as he and Melina ponder, “Can an entire atmosphere change in only ten minutes?” But then that’s one of the few areas in which films trump books; this whole sequence can be handled by fast cuts and crazy CGI (ie the eyes bulging out of heads on the surface of Mars), but poor Piers Anthony has to make sense out of it all. Oh and something I forgot to note – one of the biggest clues that the second half is just a Rekall program is the Rekall tech’s off-hand comment, when Quaid is about to be implanted: “Blue sky on Mars – that’s interesting!” This line does not appear in Anthony’s novelization; in fact, the entire “it’s all a figment of Quaid’s mind” scenario isn’t nearly as on the nose as in the film, and really only comes up via Quaid’s own pondering. 

But then to me a big sign that it isn’t all a Rekall mind trip is because Quaid kills all his friends in the opening act, and his wife is outed as a secret agent – indeed, he further learns that he’s only been married to her for six weeks, which is how long Hauser has been Quaid. The Rekall salesman, who is just as sleazy in the book as in the film, offers the “secret agent” element as a bonus to the Rekall Mars trip, and further he insists that Quaid will not be able to tell between his real memories and the Rekall procedure upon his “return” from Mars. So then, killing his friends and finding out his wife is also an enemy would very much conflict with Quaid’s real-life memories…but then this also plays into the idea that a “schizoid embolism” is creating this new wrinkle in the Rekall program. Or it could also mean it’s all a dream, hence the opening and closing “blue skies” on Mars. 

In the end though, I think this constant questioning of what’s “real” only adds to Total Recall’s appeal. (Hey, that rhymed!) And also, as Alan Moore once asked, “Aren’t all stories imaginary?” But then to continue arguing against myself, at one point a sequel to Total Recall was planned, one that would use Dick’s Minority Report as inspiration. I’ve yet to find the script for it (it was written by Gary Goldman, who so revised the third act of the film that he received billing credit), but I’ve read that it features Quaid on Mars heading up a police unit of pre-cog mutants. So then if that film had happened, there certainly wouldn’t have been a question whether the events of Total Recall “really happened.” There seems to be no question from Anthony, at least; after Melina tells Quaid “Kiss me quick before you wake up,” Quaid takes her in his arms, and Anthony ends the novel with: “[Quaid] was through with dreaming; reality was much better.” 

Anyway, Piers Anthony does a good job of making sense out of Total Recall and conveying at least some of its manic spirit. His version of Quaid is just a little too ponderous, though, and the frequent bouts of exposition kind of take away from the fun. But Anthony definitely succeeds in making a 278-page book seem half its length. I wouldn’t say the novel is better than the film, but it certainly adds to it, expanding on the world and particularly on Quaid; it just lacked much of the movie’s blood and thunder. But then it also inspired me to watch the movie again, which I plan to do posthaste.