Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Rising Higher

Rising Higher, by Robert Stuart Nathan
No month stated, 1981  The Dial Press

I knew there just had to be a roman a clef about Rolling Stone Magazine, but over the years, despite all my searching, I was never able to find one. I could already imagine it, something trashy in the Harold Robbins vein, focusing on an upstart rock magazine and the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But I could never find such a novel, and after a while I figured the closest thing would have to be Norman Spinrad’s unsung blockbuster Passing Through The Flame. But then, in one of those flukes, I discovered this incredibly obscure novel, which, if you haven’t already figured out where I’m going, is a roman a clef about Rolling Stone!

Back in 2007 I picked up a nonfiction book on Rolling Stone titled Gone Crazy And Back Again, Robert Sam Anson’s 1981 study of the magazine, but never got around to reading it. The other month I discovered it in a box of other hardcovers and went online searching for info on it, which took me to this contemporary Washington Post article – which is where I learned of Rising Higher (by the confusingly similarly-named Robert Stuart Nathan). The uncredited Post reporter called the novel “unintentionally hilarious,” basically a “thinly-veiled” ripoff of Anson’s nonfiction book (which a few years previous to the hardcover had been printed as a series of newspaper articles), only transported into a shallow fictional context. Regardless of the strong criticisms there was no way I wasn’t going to buy the book, though, as it seemed to be all I’d been searching for. And I saw why I’d never heard of it before; I prefer my trash to be in paperback, and Rising Higher only ever received this 1981 hardcover edition. There was no paperback release, no other edition but this one. So safe to say it didn’t gain much of a readership. I’m not familiar with Robert Stuart Nathan, but he seems to be fairly prolific, so maybe this one was just a misfire.

To be honest from the get-go, the novel is a failure on many fronts. When it comes to a roman a clef, I think the first gauge to its success is whether the novel can stand on its own if you don’t know the real-world figures it’s based on. Take Robbins’s The Adventurers, which is sort of a sensationalized take on Onassis. You could read and enjoy the novel without knowing a thing about Onassis, as Robbins delivers his own world and his own characters. You cannot say this about Nathan’s novel, though. If I didn’t already know the famous Rolling Stone personages, I’d have a hard time understanding what was going on – most notably in the instance of Captain Billy Tiger, the novel’s analog of infamous gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter Thompson. In reality, Thompson was a larger-than-life character who defined the magazine in the ‘70s. In the novel, “Capt. Tiger” only appears a handful of times, in each instance defending his work against tyrannical magazine mogul Jed Roman (aka Jann Wenner)…and the only example we get of his work is a “puff piece” on…Barbara Streisand. WTF? 

As a document – or even an indictment – of the Woodstock Generation, the novel is also a failure. One does not get a good idea of the rock counterculture of the day. One also does not get an idea of what it would be like working in a guerrilla rock magazine environment in its early dopesmoking days. I envisioned a wild novel of roving rock reporters, with thinly-veiled analogs of the major rock groups interracting with them. I didn’t get that. Instead, I got a novel narrated by a cynical, entitled prick who seemed to have wandered in from some other book. And that’s the greatest failure of Rising Higher. The narrator, Nicholas Shade, is along the lines of the unlikable protagonist of another failed “rock novel,” The Armageddon Rag; you don’t ever get the impression that this dude even likes rock, and his constant pessimism and cynicism gets to be a drag. To the point that, after 296 pages of his bitching, I wished I could briefly transport myself into the world of the book so I could punch him in the face.

The book is also a failure as a rock novel. Now how can I say this without sounding like a sexist pig? The only two rock musicians we meet are both women – and they’re not even bona fide rock artists, at least not by my definition. One’s a bluesy Janis Joplin type and the other is a nightclub singer. I mean, couldn’t Nathan come up with a Stones analog? Some actual rock group who would go on some Led Zeppelin-esque hedonistic adventures? Speaking of the Stones, “Jagger” is mentioned repeatedly in the narrative, to the point that you wonder if he’s the only rock artist Nathan’s ever heard of. Otherwise, in true Roman a clef fashion, we’ll have casual namedropping of musicians throughout, ie “Joni was playing something on the piano,” or “I did a story on Neil,” and etc, but we never actually meet any of them. They’re always on the periphery, save for a late-novel appearance by…you guessed it, Mick Jagger, who says a couple of lines about the talentless chanteuse Jed Roman plans to turn into a mega star.

Rising Higher is also a failure so far as trashy escapism goes; it is written with a curiously reserved, almost bland tone, as if it were the product of today’s homogenized focus group world and not of the more hedonistic early ‘80s. The two female rock stars are barely even described, let alone exploited, and the few sex scenes all occur off-page. Even the rampant drug usage is treated matter-of-factly, with copious joints smoked in the office of Rising Higher Magazine, and the occasional mention of harder stuff (ie coke) being used by some of the more driven characters. That brings us another of the novel’s major failings – so much of the narrative is told rather than shown. This is particularly true of the magazine itself, and all the major rock events; earlier I referenced the “Woodstock generation,” but get this – Woodstock isn’t even mentioned in the novel. Nor are important plot-points like how Rising Higher even gets started. But we sure do get a lot of cynical, pessimistic navel-gazing from our buzzkill of a narrator.

Well, now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, on to the novel itself. Nathan never really outright states the dates but the novel seems to occur between March of 1968 (as evidenced by a mention of LBJ’s abdication speech being in the paper) and sometime in 1978, this latter date only determined due to the narrator’s vague reference early on that the events of his story started “ten years ago.” This span of years is of course the “Age Of Rock,” to quote the title of two awesome collections of vintage rock journalism Jonathan Eisen edited, but you’d never know it reading the novel. Rock is so peripheral to everything that I wondered why Nathan even bothered with the Rolling Stone conceit. The uncredited reviewer at Kirkus aptly summarized the novel as “lifeless,” further pointing out that “Nathan hasn’t even bothered to be inventive.”

I go off into this latest tangent because we never really understand why Nick Shade, a 23 year-old Time Magazine reporter who comes from money (his grandfather was an oil baron or somesuch), even leaves New York to work as an editor for new rock magazine Rising Higher. We know that he’s fond of newly-famous singer Carol Reese, a 19 year-old vixen who looks like young Elizabeth Taylor and whose record Shade spotted on the way to work one day. Basically he fell in love with the photo (of Carol in hot pants and leaning against a sports car) and I guess he must’ve liked the album itself; the entire setup is vague and not grounded in anything else. I mean, does Shade like any other groups? We never know, because he only mentions things via bitchery, like complaining that “Yummy Yummy” by the Ohio Express was at the top of the charts at the time.

Nick wants to do a profile on Carol for Time and, when the novel opens, he gets his wish; his lush of an editor comes into his office and tells him to go to Los Angeles and write the story on “the dumb singer with the big tits.” Imagine anyone at Time making such a statement today! Or in any other office environment, for that matter. The early quarter of Rising Higher takes place in a completely different world than our current one; Time is despised by the counterculture (and pretty much also by our narrator) for being “straight,” for actually defending the war in Vietnam and for supporting conservative values and politicians. What particularly draws Shade’s ire is how the reporters of the day misleadingly claim that peaceful protesters as anarchists, all to protect the establishment, and he’s especially sickened when the establishment politicians give orders to shoot protestors on sight.

And these are just harmless hippie protestors, so I can see his anger. I mean, it’s not like they’re burning churches, looting businesses, or shooting and killing innocent children. But as I say, it was quite strange reading Nick’s condemnations of the 1960s mainstream news industry in the year 2020, when reality is the exact opposite of the one Nick presents. With the exception being that the mainstream news still lies, of course. It’s just that now they’re lying for the other side. But heck, even the politicians in California are conservatives here, and Nathan eventually delivers a half-baked subplot in which Nick and his fellow Rising Higher shareholders attempt to back a left-leaning politician to change things up. In a further bit of prescience, the dude turns out to be gay, but of course this needs to be hidden.

Nick and Carol have instant chemistry, so we’re to understand, but it comes off more like an extended interview he does with her over the course of a few days, during which she begins to seduce him. This culminates in an off-page sex scene that takes place on a remote road on a mountain over the city, after which Nick and Carol begin a casual sort of romantic affair. The big problem here is we never understand why a famous and gorgeous singer like Carol Reese would be interested in Nick Shade – there’s nothing remotely likable about him. Practically every line of his dialog is a complaint or a condemnation. Of course he’s wealthy, but Carol doesn’t seem to be interested in that, only so much as it illustrates the huge class difference between them. At any rate, at a party with the rock glitterati – again, all of them on the periphery – Nick runs into a guy about his age with long blond hair who is busy rolling a joint. This turns out to be the casual, almost half-assed introduction to the novel’s main character/main villian: Jed Roman, aka Jann Wenner.

Jed wants to do a magazine for the counterculture and call it “Rising Higher,” which he says means how the entire generation will constantly be “rising higher” or something. No one in the course of the novel informs him that “Rising Higher” sounds more like an aviation magazine. Jed is about to start up in San Francisco and offers Nick an editorial role; less pay than he currently gets at Time – all employees will be paid the same in total socialist manner – but he will be able to do his own stories, write his own ticket, etc. Nick returns to the doldrums of Time and then after a page-filling trip back to the family mansion in Connecticut, he decides – pretty much off-page – to take Jed Roman up on his offer. Unbelievably, the action picks up a year or so later, with Jed now established in San Francisco and working on the twelfth issue of the magazine; we don’t even see how the magazine started (save for a brief flashback at the very end of the novel to the first issue rolling off the presses), we don’t see any of the early stories or coverage.

As for the things that made the real Rolling Stone so popular, ie the long interviews with rock artists, the comprehensive record reviews, the far-ranging reports on the counterculture, there is nary a trace. It’s always, “I’d just finished a story on such and such,” with us never actually seeing any of it. The record reviews are only mentioned much later in the novel, and only then merely to illustrate another of the lame subplots (basically, that Jed is cooking up shady business with a sleazy label and has slanted the reviews to be overly positive for Ocean Records). As for famous early RS personalities like Joe Eszterhas, Ben Fong-Torres, Robin Green and the like, there’s nary a trace of them, either, save for Sam Carney, a sixty-year-old music biz vet who is clearly based on Ralph Gleason. The only other one we get is the Hunter Thompson analog, Billy Tiger, and as mentioned he’s kept to the sidelines and always defending his work when we do see him. There’s absolutely none of the craziness of the real Thompson, and indeed Capt. Billy Tiger is presented as a “pudgy” joke. What’s more frustrating is that we’re constantly told of these great pieces he and others have written, in particular an essay on the “Satanic” vibe of Altamont which was Billy’s first piece for Rising Higher. But we never get to see any of them or learn more about them – even a few excerpts would’ve been fun, and a way to spruce up the otherwise bland narrative.

Sadly though more focus is placed on Nick’s boring relationship with Carol Reese. She flies around the country on tour and returns to his place at whim, Nick wondering what she sees in him as she could have anyone, etc. There are also signs that she and Jed might have something going on, as they were an item before Nick met her. The early half of Rising Higher gives us about the most we get so far as the rock world goes. My favorite sequence has Nick visiting a recording studio where a new group called Majority is working on an album, produced by Ocean Records wunderkind Nigel Williams. However, Nathan is another of those rock authors either incapable or unwilling to actually describe music, for the most part just giving vague details and focusing on the lyrics. We do get the interesting tidbit that Majority does a “funk-country” tune, which made me think of the awesome track “Easy To See” by the obscure group Bodine.

More importantly for a novel on the rock culture, there are a few mistakes here and there. Most glaringly we’re told that Jed does a piece where he theorizes that The White Album will be the last Beatles album. The only problem is Nathan has the album coming out after Altamont…and the piece turns out to be correct, as the Beatles split up after its release. Otherwise though as I’ve stated the actual real-world rock stuff is only given passing mention. The death of Jimi Hendrix is given the most focus – but then, only a couple lines at most – after which the ensuing deaths of Janis and Jim are merely mentioned. The death of Janis is mostly used to illustrate the fear Nick has that Carol will be next, and true to every cliched rock story you’ve ever seen or read, Carol’s a mess at this point. Soaring on various drugs, so out of it she collapses in the studio and Nick has to be called in to take her home. This leads to a huge blowout among the three main characters, as Nick catches Jed having sex with Carol, after which he throws a hissy fit and leaves Rising Higher, returning to Connecticut. 

At this point it seems to be 1972, and we’re informed that a year later Jed goes to one of Carol’s concerts in New Haven – again, the only concerts we see in the book are courtesy the two female characters – and she’s terrible. She basically throws herself on Nick afterward and he’s like “No thanks,” and next we hear she’s broken down and in a funny farm, out of the spotlight. The action picks up again in 1976 and Nick’s back at Time and it’s like a decade has passed, which adds to the unintentional comedy the Washington Post writer mentioned. Nick gets word that Rising Higher, which has continued to thrive, is moving to New York, and that Jed has bought two floors of the Empire State Building for the new office space. At this point Jed, who was never a well-defined character to begin with (why he started the magazine, what drives him, etc, is never displayed), has become a coke-snorting maniac. He offers Nick the chief editorial role at the magazine and, for reasons he doesn’t understand, Nick accepts.

This bit is prescient in that it comes off more like something set later in the ‘80s; it’s all coke-fueled glitz and tawdry showiness, with Jed’s office cluttered with expensive toys. The unsubtle subtext has it that the equal, socialist environment of the San Francisco office has been replaced by the crass avarice of Manhattan; Jed explains to Nick that their readers won’t mind this change of location because “The Flower Children moved to the suburbs and now have mortgages.” Jed continues to spiral into madness, lashing out at employees, firing them for no reason, throwing temper tantrums. This would be enough for a plot but we have a return of the young liberal Californian governor subplot, which brings Carol back into the story; the politician’s handlers come to Jed for help, as the governor needs a sort of pretend girlfriend to fool the public into thinking he’s straight. It would need to be someone a little famous, but not too famous, so Jed suggests Carol Reese, who is eager to get back into the limelight now that she’s gone through rehab and gotten herself together.

At this point Nathan has to bring out another subplot about another female singer, and the reader easily confuses them: the other is Melanie Lerman, who ten years ago married a friend of Nick’s but it now divorced. She wants to make it as a “rock singer,” which Nick finds ridiculous “at this stage of her life” (seriously, there is no joy in this motherfucker). So we have to read his pissy condemnations of her various nightclub performances and studio sessions – because Jed, meanwhile, has fallen hard for Melanie, and plans to make her a star, even producing her album. This part at least has the bonus that we have a brief scene in Jimi’s Electric Lady studios, which is where Melanie records her album. But even here our narrator has to bitch: “We stopped in the lounge – an orange and purple room recalling psychedelia at its most garish – and then went into the studio.” So that his incessant complaining is complete he also of course has to let us know that Melanie’s recorded work is “awful.” It turns out to be a huge seller when it’s released, though, same as Carol’s comeback album. 

The novel builds to a muddled climax in which coke-fueled Jed pushes everyone away; he’s already fired Billy Tiger long ago, but there comes another bit here in the ’76 section where Billy comes into the new office and asks to write for the magazine again…and just meekly sits there while Jed rants and raves that Billy will never work for Rising Higher again. Some Hunter Thompson stand-in this is. Carol and Nick have a one-night reunion, meanwhile, but our narrator can’t be bothered with her anymore; he’s also apparently got a steady girlfriend now, herself a daughter of wealth, but Nathan only gives her like one or two lines and she makes no impression on the reader.

The novel ends with Jed revealing that he’d been dealing with Nigel Williams of Ocean all along, and the two plan to start a new enterprise that will release albums, movies, etc. And Jed’s selling Rising Higher. But our narrator at this point is sick of it all and quits for good. No wonder he’s sick of it, as never once has he seemed to enjoy himself in the course of the novel. Again I go back to the Armageddon Rag comparison, as this novel has been given the worst possible protagonist. One gets the impression that he’s doing the various characters a favor by even acknowledging them, yet in each instance the other characters are much more interesting – and much more likable – than he is. The pessimistic tone so permeates the text that by the end of the book you just want this guy to go away forever.

It’s a shame Rising Higher was such a letdown, as there was a lot of material to be exploited. About the most I can say is that I did read it, all of it, with no skimming. The tame melodrama at least kept me turning the pages, especially with the potential opportunity that I might get more rock-world stuff. But honestly it was few and far between. And sadly, the rock magazine stuff was even less central to the plot, with the majority of it relayed via off-hand dialog…or, more frustratingly, via interminable sequences focusing on the advertising budget and sales figures. Just so much missed opportunity, and as the Kirkus writer put it, not even inventive when compared to the real-world Rolling Stone story. It’s no wonder the novel quickly faded into obscurity.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Get Nookie (Nookie #2)

Get Nookie, by Ross Webb
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

First we met Nookie, now we get Nookie, and it’s about damn time if you ask me. J.C. Conaway again serves as “Ross Webb,” credited as “Jim Conaway” in the Catalog Of Copyright Entries; the dude went by a ton of names. But if you’ve read one Conaway you’ve read them all, with Get Nookie coming off like a retread of the first volume, even down to the “Cast of Characters” we’re provided at the start of the book, with goofy clues as to which of them might be this volume’s villain.

It’s a little over a month after the previous book, with the action opening in late November and then jumping forward to Christmas, before wrapping up in the first few weeks of January. Nookie Narducci, our brunette bombshell American Indian/Italian beauty, is as ever strapped for cash, and hasn’t had a case since the last book. First though a moment to appreciate the cover photo; the nameless model perfectly captures how Nookie’s described, both sexy and innocent, though again the gun’s a fake as Nookie doesn’t even own one. Also the “hairy” puns of the cover copy ring false, because we’re reminded – within the first couple pages! – that Nookie, due to her American Indian heritage, lacks any body hair. And again surprisingly this doesn’t surprise any of the guys who boff her, given that this is the shaggy ‘70s and all…but then, Nookie only boffs the same two guys as she did last time, so they’re already aware.

I really enjoyed this one; it’s very much a goofy, light-hearted yarn instead of a violent thriller, but it’s not a straight-up spoof or satire. The humor comes more through the strange situations and Nookie’s disparaging comments about her love life or her lack of work. As I’ve written many times before, there is a lot of similarity between the writing styles – and plots – of Conaway and Len Levinson. Let’s add Martin Meyers, as not only is his writing style similar, but the plot of Get Nookie is a lot like the plot of Meyers’s fourth Hardy novel, Hung Up To Die: a killer is operating in a string of New York health spas, and our heroine goes undercover as a gym member to stop him. I guess at this point I’m familiar with Conaway’s style and wasn’t expecting too much of him, but again, don’t go into this one looking for thrills or action. Even the “tense” parts toward the end, with Nookie being chased by the killer, lack much bite, given the general light-hearted air of the entire book.

As if proving his “let’s take it easy” approach posthaste, Conaway sort of eases into the story; we open with Nookie still waiting for a job and checking out the newborn kittens over at the apartment of her GBF Sidney. The focus is more on Nookie’s lack of funds and her desperation for work, with only marginal efforts toward establishing tension or a plot; we do learn early on that Nookie works out in her apartment every morning with Johnny De Mann’s TV program. De Mann will eventually factor into the story, as he owns the “Swing Spas” which have recently opened in New York: gyms specifically catered to singles. You can even buy alcohol on the premises, which just struck me as strange. Nookie would love to become a member, as she’s worried she is putting on weight, but of course doesn’t have the money. One such Spa has just opened at the nearby Chelsea Hotel, which is where the previous novel took place and where the climax of this one will occur; little touches like this give the series a nice sense of continuity.

Meanwhile, people are getting killed at the Spas. We get our first reminder of the sleazy vibe of the series when a swinging ad copywriter meets some babe on the gym floor and then immediately has enthusiastic (and explicitly described) sex with her in the steam room. But when she leaves for a shower, someone comes in, obscured by the steam, and stabs the poor guy in the heart. As the novel progresses there will be more murders at the other Spas around the city, most notably in one instance in which a poor woman has a thirty-five pound weight plate dropped on her head while she’s lying on the floor doing leg extensions. Lt. Ferguson, the hunky cop from the previous book, is working the case, but suggests that Johnny De Mann hire Nookie as a private investigator to figure out who is behind these murders. His reasoning being that Nookie, as an attractive young woman, would have a better chance of operating undercover in one of the Spas.

It takes a while to get to the central plot, though. Nookie smokes “dynamite grass” with Sidney and pines over her boyfriend, Pompie, hunky Italian owner of a nearby bar, as they’ve had a minor spat. We also learn eventually that she also had something going with Lt. Ferguson but it’s broken off because he’s so hung up on his ex-wife. It goes without saying that she re-acquaints herself with both men as the novel unfolds, and like last time Conaway gets fairly explicit in the sex scenes. As I’ve mentioned before, Conaway never learned to type (as revealed in an eBay auction I saw years ago – the seller apparently knew Conaway and had come into possession of all of Conaway’s author copies after his death), so he hired typists to take dictation. I always get a chuckle imagining him shouting out the hardcore sex descriptions to some poor old spinster of a typist.

After the first Swing Spa kill we flash forward a couple weeks and Nookie’s got a security job at a department store, posing as a shopper to spot shoplifters. She hates the job and lets most shoplifters get away, feeling bad for them, something which soon gets her fired. Meanwhile the only “mystery” she’s encountered is who broke into her apartment and stole her black-and-white TV. Later, in an arbitrary subplot, the drunk old hag who lives next door and works at a laundromat will help Nookie figure out who it was: Head, the drug-addled hippie who sits in a daze in front of the apartment building all day. This subplot ultimately goes nowhere, but seems to exist so as to introduce Head into Conaway’s ever-expanding Cast of Characters for the series. Speaking of which, Mavis, the “raucous black woman” from the previous book, still hangs around with Nookie, as ever making unsettling proclamations about her sex life, or lack thereof; most unforgettable being her comment that the sight of a well-hung patron at the Chelsea Swing Spa makes her “old pussy quiver.” Good grief!

We even get a veritable “Nookie Christmas” with our heroine throwing a party at her place – she’s so strapped for cash she even steals caviar at the grocery store! – complete with gift exchanges among her circle of friends. Pompie gets her a new color TV to replace the stolen one, leading to another sex scene. Finally, the day after Xmas, Conaway gets to the promised plot: Johnny De Mann comes over to Nookie’s office (in which she spends most of the day reading Playgirl magazine and Travis McGee novels) and hires her to figure out who is behind the string of murders at his Swing Spas. This entails Nookie going from one gym to another, meeting an assortment of red-herring freaks. Even here though it’s played on more of a goofy vibe, with the oddballs coming off more like bizarre shut-ins than dangerous murderers.

Eventually Nookie works the case alongside Lt. Ferguson, which is how things progressed last time. And of course they get friendly again, but Ferguson’s hangup about his ex-wife is pretty humorous, and intentionally so. And like last time Ferguson comes to the rescue in the end, though Nookie for once holds her own. She’s planted “mace guns” around the various spas, and when she uncovers the killer – actually killers, in the plural – she’s able to defend herself as they chase her through the deserted Swing Spa. She also manages to rescue Mavis, who is about to be drowned for overhearing the murderers as they plotted their next kill, but just like last time Nookie herself still needs to be. This time Ferguson tells Nookie he’ll “never let her go again,” so it seems apparent he’d be in the next Nookie, which never happened.

As ever Conaway attempts a goofy sort of literary vibe throughout, especially when it comes to metaphors and analogies. Some of them are pretty damn memorable, like a spa secretary’s frizzy blonde hair reminding one guy of “what Cloris Leachman’s arm pits look like.” Nookie’s little corner of Manhattan comes to vibrant, noisy life, and Conaway subtly captures the everyday craziness of the time, like how Nookie’s apartment building is mostly frequented by bikers and heroin addicts, yet she traipses around without ever once feeling in any danger. I also like the oddball little touches here and there, like the off-hand comment that the walls of Nookie’s bedroom are covered with “crunched aluminum foil” so as to cover the old pipes and such – an idea from her window decorator pal Sidney. Also this book might contain the earliest reference to HBO I’ve encountered in fiction; Sidney tells Nookie that if he ever strikes it rich he plans to get “the home box office” on TV, and goes on to inform her that on it you can watch new movies without commercial interruptions.

This was it for the series, but not for Nookie: she became a blonde and changed her name to Jana Blake, continuing her adventures for two more volumes over at Belmont Tower. Her cast of characters went along with her, also changing their names in the process: Sidney became “Charlie,” Pompie became “Gianni,” and Lt. Ferguson became “Lt. Lanahan.” It’s been too long since I read the Jana Blake books so I can’t remember if Mavis made the transition. Even Jana’s office was located in the same place as Nookie’s. Also as I argued in my review of Meet Nookie, it seems very likely that the cover of Deadlier Than The Male was originally commissioned for a Nookie installment. The depicted heroine is a brunette and wears a trench coat, the same thing Nookie wore throughout Meet Nookie (she doesn’t wear one in this volume, though). Of the two series, I enjoyed Nookie more, if only because it’s more sleazy.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Green Lantern and Green Arrow #2

Green Lantern and Green Arrow #2, by Dennis ONeil and Neal Adams
June, 1972  Paperback Library

This slim paperback collects two issues of Green Lantern, reformating the original comic book pages to fit in a mass market paperback format. Also, more importantly, it’s in black and white. It’s interesting that something like this was done so early on; as a kid I had a similar papberback, collecting early issues of The New Teen Titans, but this was in the early ‘80s. For this book it seems that Paperback Library was trying to jump on the “comix” bandwagon, maybe to attract people who wouldn’t normally read comics. This also extends to the material collected here, which wasn’t like most mainstream comic books of the day.

Back in the late ‘90s I got on a brief comic book kick; I’d been obsessed with them as a kid but had moved on. At the time I was really into ones from the Silver Age, especially DC. This was when eBay was first starting and I recall signing up so I could bid on various issues drawn by Neal Adams, the most famous DC artist of that period. I was aware that, with writer Dennis O’Neil (who very recently passed away), Adams had done a series of stories in Green Lantern in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that followed the vibe of Easy Rider, with Lantern as the square-jawed Peter Fonda and Arrow as the wild and wooly Dennis Hopper. But at the time those particular issues were overpriced, and I’m not sure if there was a trade paperback.

More importantly, one thing I vividly recall from this time, which I guess was around 1998, was that this storyline, which I believe was nicknamed “Hard Travelin’ Heroes,” was considered “dated” by the online comics community. This is because O’Neil and Adams brought politics to the forefront of their storyline. While Superman would be fighting the usual supervillains and Batman versus the Joker and whatnot, Green Lantern and Green Arrow would be encountering “real people” during a trip across the United States, a trip in which they wanted to confront the “moral cancer” of the United States. When I was reading about these comics in the late ‘90s, the sentiment from online geeks was that, while the art was great (though what else could be expected from Neal Adams), the dated politics really sunk the overall storyline…especially given that the majority of the stories dealt with racial issues.

As mentioned O’Neil and Adams were clearly inspired by Easy Rider, and GL and GA fit in the Fonda and Hopper mold, though admittedly Fonda’s Captain America wasn’t as much of a straight tool as Green Lantern is presented. Basically Green Lantern’s function, in his own series, is to act as the whipping boy for all of America’s original sin. Along for the trip is an old alien, one of the Guardians in Lantern’s orbit, but this paperback doesn’t even bother to inform us who he is or why he’s here. His main goal is to pass the occasional condemnation of America. Arrow’s main goal is to harass Lantern for always supporting “the system,” and he’s real eager to show Lantern how various minorities have been mistreated by America – specifically, by white America. But it isn’t all white-people bashing, all the time, as O’Neil and Adams somehow manage to get some action and drama into these stories, not to mention some uninentional humor.

For the irony here is that Lantern and Arrow are themselves white males, and do all the fighting and saving in these two stories. Of course, they’re the heroes of the stories, so they have to. And yet…O’Neil and Adams present the subjugated minorities as incapable of helping themselves in the first place. They need to be saved from those white devils, which sort of undercuts the entire “minority empowerment” subtext. There’s even a laughable bit in the second story where Green Arrow pretends to be an American Indian so as to encourage the real American Indians to stand up to their, uh, white oppressors. All this would be humorous if such topics weren’t treated so dead serious today. (Not to mention that poor old Green Arrow would be disparaged for cultural appropriation…I mean he even goes around in headfeathers and everything.) While these stories were rightly seen as “dated” in the more enlightened ‘90s, they’d probably be eagerly embraced in our current post-America society, in which the race button has been pushed past the breaking point.

As mentioned it seems that Paperback Library was hoping to get in on the underground comic movement of the day; the headline of the series has here been changed to “Comix that give a damn,” “comix” being the “hip” way all the heads referred to comic books in the ‘60s:

I’m betting this wasn’t in the original DC editions! And speaking of which, the two issues here are from 1970: Green Lantern #78 (July, 1970) and Green Lantern #79 (September, 1970). Another thing that set this storyline apart from others is the continuity. In the Silver Age the focus for the most part was standalone stories, with only the grander scene evolving across issues. It’s been decades since I bought a new comic, but I do know at some point this changed, with intricately-plotted storylines taking over, so that if you missed an issue you were SOL. O’Neil and Adams handle things much more professionally; I don’t have any of the earlier (or later) issues, but had no problem getting into the two stories and understanding what the main plot was. What I’m trying to say that the continuity, in the case of these two stories, didn’t detract from the overall pleasure of reading the stories.

The first story’s titled “A Kind Of Loving, A Way Of Death,” and opens with Black Canary – Green Arrow’s blonde-haired girlfriend, who dresses in fishnet stockings and boots – being accosted by some bikers in Mt. Ranier park, in Washington state. In humorously-vague backstory, we learn that Canary’s from another dimension(!), but now lives on the current Earth because she likes Green Arrow. Of course as a veteran comics reader I was aware of the various Earths, destroyed in the mid-‘80s DC retooling, but this must’ve been a mind-blower for the non-comics fan who picked up this paperback. “Heavy, man!” She manages to hold her own against the biker scum, then gets knocked out and her bike stolen – yes, everyone rides a chopper in this post-Easy Rider world.

We meet Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and their never-named alien pal as they’re hanging out in Washington state, and it’s a couple weeks later. They go into a native-run place that only serves beans, which leads to another unintentionally-humorous bit where both heroes thank the American Indian for the food, and he goes off on a tangent about “palefaces walking all over us for 400 years.” “The things I’m ashamed of about my race,” whines GL. This storyline goes away – to be replaced in the next issue – as the focus becomes Black Canary, who stumbles onto the scene, now a brainwashed follower of Manson-esque cult messiah Joshua. A “bargain-basement messiah” is how GA refers to him (he uses “bargain-basement” again in the next story, so he must’ve really liked the phrase). Black Canary says she’s happy with Joshua and “no thanks” to GA when he pleads with her to come back with him. There’s some goofy, pointless hero-fighting when ever-oblivious GL tells GA, “She just doesn’t dig you.”

Joshua is a one-dimensional character at best, but you’ve gotta give him some credit, ‘cause he’s damn determined in the finale, which sees him leading his all-white congregation on a race war. They’re all brainwashed, armed with pistols, and he sets them on the native populace and doesn’t back down for anything. GA’s shot in the main action scene, and GL manages to stop the hordes with his power ring, but the climax has to do with just Joshua, Black Canary, and Green Arrow, with Joshua commanding Black Canary to kill Green Arrow. Total miss on the author-artist part where Joshua orders Black Canary to “use your revolver,” and Adams draws a .45 automatic in Black Canary’s hands! When Black Canary refuses, Joshua ends up offing himself…and Green Arrow gets into a little victim-blaming, wondering how Black Canary could’ve let herself be brainwashed in the first place!

Next up is “Ulysses Star Is Still Alive,” which picks up on the aggrieved Native American subplot of the previous yarn. It’s a couple days later and our heroes are still in Washington, with Black Canary now atoning for her brainwashed sins by providing medical help at the local reservation (“They’ve been under the white man’s heel,” she eagerly informs everyone). Meanwhile the local lumberman’s union, run by a despicable cretin who looks a little too much like Clark Kent, is trying to clear out the “animals,” ie the American Indians who claim to own the trees the union’s trying to wipe out to build Wal-Marts and stuff. GL and GA are too busy having a pseudo-lover’s spat to help out much, even though they are of course both aggrieved by the racial grievances. GA wants to storm in and bust union heads, while GL as ever wants to use “the system” to effect change.

But Green Lantern’s kind of a fool. So basically the story has it that the grandson of the former tribe leader had a deed from the US government which told him these trees belonged to his tribe. But this guy, who is himself now very old, left the tribe ages ago. GL goes off searching for him – and finds the dude while his tenement house is burning up. So GL pulls him to safety…and then the dumbass asks the old guy if he has the paperwork which gave the tribe legal right to the trees. I mean dude, the guy’s house just burned down!! And of course this the old guy tells GL that the deeds of course went up in the fire, and our hero’s thunderstruck by this unexpected turnaround. He’s so damn clueless that not until the end of the story does he even put two and two together and realize that tenement fire was no accident. Frank Drebin was a better investigator.

Here comes the now-frowned-apart bit where Green Arrow goes around posing as the “spirit” of Ulysses Star, mythical warrior of the tribe, ages ago. In full “Native American warrior” regalia he goes around, giving pep talks to the tribe and sowing fear into the hearts of the union jerks. Adams’ art implies that “Ulysses Star” glows, but this is lost in the black and white reprint. At any rate it would be clear to even Green Lantern that this is none other than Green Arrow in costume…I mean “Ulysses Star” even carries around a quiver filled with trick arrows, which is, you now, Green Arrow’s main gimmick, and likely the reason he never showed up in the Superfriends cartoons I loved as a kid. I mean nothing says “safe entertainment for kids” like a guy who fights with bows and arrows. Oh and apropos of nothing, by far my favorite of all those Superfriends series was Challenge Of The Superfriends which ran in ’78, and my parents (this was so long ago they were still married) had one of those cable boxes on the TV at the time, with a switch that would go to either HBO or “the Superstation,” aka TBS – which was how Ted Turner became a bujillionaire (and married Barbarella), because his local station rode HBO’s signal. Anwyay, TBS broadcast Challenge Of The Superfriends, and even though I was so young I knew to switch it over to the Superstation at 4:30PM on weekdays to see it. And also apropos of nothing, I bought the DVD set of the series years ago, and am now watching it with my kid, who seems to love it.

Okay, I’m back on track now. But as you can see the subtext is ruined; these proud native warriors, trampled by “palefaces,” are incapable of stirring themselves to action until a white man poses as the spirt of their famous ancestor. So they’re both cowardly and superstitious. But who cares, because in the final confrontation it’s actually Green Lantern versus…Green Arrow. Yes kids, our two heroes bash each other into oblivion as everyone watches on…O’Neil trying to invest mythic dimensions with the two fighting to purge themselves of the sins of their race.

To make it worse, blind luck saves the Indians in the end; we’re told in a hasty epilogue that “a confessed arsonist” came forward and said he’d been hired to burn down that tenement building…hired of course by the labor union and other assorted white devils. So they’re hauled off to jail, GL’s conviction to go “by the system” somewhat upheld, even though neither he nor Green Arrow did anything to really help in the course of the story. Other than to beat up a couple union toughs and scare a few corporate types. And now that I think of it, the “confessed arsonist” is also white, thus by confessing he has saved the brutalized Indians…so once again it’s white people to the rescue, irony and hypocrisy be damned. But then irony and hypocrisy are generally lost on propagandists.

As mentioned Adams’s art shines, despite the lack of color and the re-jiggering of the page layouts. If anything the editing brings out the drama and motion of Adams’s panels, as seen in these two arbitrary page shots:

Looks like this was the last of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow paperbacks Paperback Library published; there’s an ad in the back for the first one, the cover of which has our heroes being shamed by an old black guy. Man, talk about prescience! Oh and speaking of which, the cover of this one doesn’t illustrate a scene in the actual book…I kept waiting for these two losers to be crucified for the sins of their ancestors, but sadly it never happened. But anyway, it is kind of fun to wonder what it would’ve been like if Fonda and Hopper had actually made a movie out of this, replacing their Easy Rider choppers with spandex. Wait, no – I wouldn’t want to see that at all.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Lone Wolf #1: Night Raider

The Lone Wolf #1: Night Raider, by Mike Barry
October, 1973  Berkley Medallion Books

About five or six years ago Marty McKee hooked me up with the full run of the Lone Wolf series, all 14 volumes, an incredibly nice thing of him to do. On his Craneshot blog he only reviewed a few of the volumes, but told me he’d read all of them and knew they’d be right up my alley. I of course thanked him for it…and for whatever reason kept putting off actually reading the series, even though he’d occasionally ask me via email when I was going to get around to it. All I can say is I’m incredibly lazy…but man, juding from this first volume, Marty knew what he was talking about.

In some ways, again just judging from this first one, Lone Wolf comes off like a surreal spoof of the men’s adventure genre. To specify, I mean of course the ‘70s version of men’s adventure, ie sleazy crime yarns instead of the “commandos vs commies” men’s adventure of the ‘80s. To be sure, Barry “Mike Barry” Malzberg doesn’t play it too much on the nose, but the careful reader can clearly see that he’s mocking the conventions. And in many ways, Night Raider also comes off like a play on The Hunter; just as the hero in that first Parker novel worked his way up the rungs of the Outfit to get his money back, each confrontation coming off more and more like Hunter climbing the corporate ladder, so too does hero Burt Wulff work his way from the foot soldiers of the heroin trade up to the corporate bigwigs who run the show. Actually the similiarity is more to Point Blank, ie that surreal film version of The Hunter, with a strange vibe to everything.

Malzberg doesn’t waste time with backstory, which is one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about ‘70s men’s adventure. First of all though, there’s no mention in the text that Wulff has white streaks in his hair, per Mel Crair’s awesome cover. (Crair had a thing for painting action heroes with white streaks in their hair; a decade later he’d do the same thing on The Specialist). All we know is that Wulff is tall and like 200+ pounds of muscle. We get a brief, almost terse prologue in which we learn that Wulff’s a ‘Nam vet who became a cop, worked on the “narco” section, then got in trouble with the brass because he busted an informant. While they were trying to figure out what to do with him, they temporarily assigned him back on squad car duty, pairing him with a young black cop named Williams. On their very first night out together, they received a call to check on an OD in a Manhattan brownstone – only for Wulff to find the corpse of his girlfriend, Marie. Wulff starts ranting that the drug-dealers killed her, throws away his badge, and storms out of the house, plotting his revenge.

Now it’s three months later and Wulff has “hit the streets to kill a lot of people.” What’s curious is that Night Raider does not address the murder of Marie, nor even if she was a junkie in the first place. The entire topic is off-limits for Wulff; Marie’s name is only mentioned once or twice, and late in the novel when Williams tries to bring it up Wulff tells him to drop it and never mention her again. What we readers learn is that the mob – at least the portion of the mob Wulff hits this time – had nothing to do with Marie’s death. In fact one mobster seems to know what happened to her, and says the circumstances of her death were “another thing entirely,” but again Wulff isn’t listening and the backstory is left vague. As the novel progressed I started to suspect Wulff himself might’ve killed her, because it's soon clear he isn’t playing with a full deck.

We aren’t talking “full psychotic” like Bronson or Magellan, but still, throughout the novel Wulff will say stuff like “I died three months ago,” and constantly thinks of himself as a dead man. But what makes it strange is that there’s no effort at all on Malzberg’s part to bring Wulff’s murdered girlfriend to life – no backstory for her, whether her OD was a murder or just a bad fix because she was a junkie and Wulff’s in denial. Otherwise Wulff is more akin to Joe Madden in his carefully-plotted course of revenge, and the series itself is similar to The Vigilante, but with less of a “how-to” sort of vibe. I mean in The Vigilante, we’re with Madden every step of the way as he begins his war against murderers and criminals and whatnot. In this one, Wulff has already done his share of killing in ‘Nam, and now looks forward to breaking the rules he had to follow as a cop.

Malzberg brings grungy ‘70s New York to life in the pages of this book; in many ways it’s reminiscent of Len Levinson’s work of the period, only replacing Len’s goofy charm with a strange surreal edge. And a darker one; New York is a hellzone, the barbarians already over the gates and just a matter of time, in Wulff’s view, until the entire city spirals into crime and corruption. There’s a part late in the book where Wulff hides out in a dingy furnished room on West 97th, and the surroundings outside his window look to Wulff like a wartorn country. Many of these ‘70s crime novels capture the malaise of New York, but Night Raider goes further than most, though again the implication is that it’s all filtered through Wulff’s viewpoint. And also it adds to the surreal vibe of the novel.

Marty’s reviews indicate that eventually the Lone Wolf books will become even more surreal, more immersed in Wulff’s headspace. That’s already apparent here; there are frequent cutaways to minor characters, with pages being padded out with their thoughts. This is the same thing Marc Olden is known for, particularly in his Narc books. It’s not as egregious in this one, but I can see where it might eventually become a problem…same as it did in the Narc books. I guess these men’s adventure authors start off strong when the concept is fresh, but over time have to almost desperately pad the pages to meet their deadlines. At the very least Malzberg doesn’t seem to just be arbitrarily page-filling this time, as there’s a definite sense he has something grand in mind for the series. I do know the last volume reaches a definite conclusion, and it seems likely Malzberg has it in mind from this very first installment, particularly given Wulff’s fatalistic resolve.

At any rate Wulff sets off on his vengeance quest with nothing more than his service revolver, a .38 that has both a silencer and a safety! This is put to use in what passes for the novel’s first action scene; Wulff easily slips into the car of a guy who is on the lower rung of the drug trade – he collects cash from a pusher and moves it on up the line. Wulff manages to get the pusher in the car, too, occasionally beating the two men around so they know he means business. Once he gets the desired intel – throughout the novel Wulff’s sole quest is to understand how the drug trade operates – Wulff finds himself on a precipice. He could leave both men be and get out of the car, or he could take out his gun and kill them both. If he does the latter, he knows, it will set him on a course he’ll never be able to change. Of course, several more volumes were to follow, so he blows them both away.

Here we get to the Hunter vibe; the next guy in the chain waits in a bar for the cash-collector to come to him, and after savaging him a bit Wulff gets the name of the next guy up the line: Marasco, who lives in a big house on Long Island. Strangely Wulff goes in without a gun and proceeds to have a conversation with Marasco…this after Marasco has had a flunky killed, right in front of Wulff. Initially I thought all this was a ruse on Wulff’s part, but he really gets up tries to simply walk out, as if they’ll just let him leave! Instead Marasco has his blond-haired thug take Wulff and put him in his handy basement chamber. Speaking of which there’s more dark comedy in the relationship between Marasco and the blonde thug; the latter is a bit of an idiot, and there’s a lot of humorous banter between the two, with Marasco openly mocking him.

My only real issue with Night Raider is Wulff’s escape here just comes off as a bit lame – I mean he really goes into Marasco’s house-fortress without a weapon. Instead he realizes that the glue used in the construction of Marasco’s house is cheap and burns easily(!?) and succeeds in starting a fire and burning down the house. So it’s not a gun-blazing action scene. Nor is Wulff’s eventual encounter with the blond thug, who comes along with another guy to drop the hammer on Wulff in revenge. Speaking of familiar faces, Wulff’s former partner Williams also comes by, having tracked down Wulff, and offers to be his inside man – to help Wulff do the stuff cops can’t do. Wulff immediately turns down the offer, but Williams sort of succeeds in talking sense into him, though this scene is not played for sap at all. Williams does end up helping out Wulff in the finale, giving him the plans to another mobster’s house.

That’s another issue I had with the book. There’s no big finale, and Malzberg blows any potential for suspense; we read that this latest mobster’s house blows up…and then in the next chapter we flash back a few days to see how Wulff goes about the painstaking process of planning and executing the job. And yes, that’s two mobster houses Wulff manages to destroy in the course of one book, which comes off as a bit repetitive. The novel concludes with Wulff pulling a sniper job on some other minor figure of the drug world and taking a list from his corpse; this list, we’re to understand, will tell him where to go next. But as mentioned there’s no resolve to the death of his girlfriend, nothing but a vague sense that there’s much more to that particular story than what we’ve been told.

Really Night Raider is more of a piece with the average crime novel of the ‘70s, with less of the vibe of, say, The Executioner. Even The Vigilante is more action-focused. Malzberg’s writing is key, though; there’s a darkly humorous undercurrent to everything, not to mention the surreal edge I’ve mentioned way too many times now. There’s a promise here that the series will build into something very memorable…I don’t want to blow any surprises, but I do know the series heads for a memorable conclusion, at least, so it will be fun to see how we get there. Thanks again to Marty!

And finally, is it just me or does it look like Wulff’s blowing away famous impressionist Rich Little on the cover?? “That’s what I thought of your Carson impression, prick!”

Monday, June 22, 2020

True Love Scars (Freak Scene Dream Trilogy #1)

True Love Scars, by Michael Goldberg
No month stated, 2014  Neumu Press

Generally I stick to older books, so this will be one of the very few recent books I’ve ever reviewed on the blog; it’s the first of a trilogy, and I discovered it after some random Googling. I can’t even remember what I was looking for…probably a rock novel, preferably one set in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Somehow I was taken to a site discussing True Love Scars, first in the Freak Dream Scene trilogy, by Michael Goldberg, former editor at Rolling Stone and founder of early music-review site Addicted To Noise (which I remember even reading way back in the day).

Well, True Love Scars isn’t a “rock novel,” per se, but it is about a kid who wants to be a rock critic, and who thinks about rock music and culture 24/7. It’s also set in 1972, with rampant flashbacks to previous years, with the majority of the tale being an extended flashback to the late ‘60s, when the narrator was in high school. His name is Michael Stein, alias “Writerman,” and when the novel opens he’s just starting his sophomore year of college. He’s been publishing music reviews in the school paper, and runs into “Thee Freakster Bro,” Lord Jim, a paunchy dude sporting a Black Sabbath t-shirt who’s the paper’s other music reviewer.

The two go back to Lord Jim’s dorm room, play some records, and get stoned. Rock mags and posters are everywhere, and all the talk is about the music of the day – Michael’s not so much into Black Sabbath, but the two at least share common ground in that they’re both fans of the Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds. Goldberg, because he was the same age at the time, perfectly captures how rock culture was so important to the heads of the day, however Michael insists that he and his kind be referred to as “freaks,” as the entire social awakening spawned by rock in the ‘60s, in his opinion, spawned the “Freak Scene Dream.” It’s all very cool and vivid, and makes the reader excited to see Michael get further into the rock-reviewing biz; he even mentions a sort of mentor in the field, “the Sausalito Kid,” who J.R. Young style wrote a short story review of Pet Sounds.

But unfortunately, True Love Scars isn’t that novel; apparently, the next novel in the trilogy is. This one’s more concerned with Michael’s sad tale of how he lost his “Visions of Johanna chick,” Sweet Sarah, his high school flame who was his soul mate, one true love, all that jazz, and how he blew it with her. Personally I was much more interested in the college stuff; in fact, after a couple hundred pages of flashback to Michael’s sad-sack high school days, the novel returns to this opening ’72 section, and things pick right back up. But Michael wants us to learn who he is and where he came from, thus we are pulled away from this more-interesting opening sequence and back to 1968, when he was fifteen and living in Marin County.

There was an old episode of Saturday Night Live where Michael J. Fox hosted, and they did a parody of Family Ties and the infamous “flashback” episodes of that series. Only, it was flashback upon flashback. I bring this up because the opening of True Love Scars almost approaches that vibe; even in the opening 1972 portion, Michael is flashing back to random things in the past, making for a bumpy experience for the reader, who just wants some stable narrative ground to stand on. But this does have the bonus of capturing the druggy haze of the time; as anyone knows, dopesmokers are incapable of following a single train of thought, so it would only make sense that their novels follow suit.

But anyway, when our narrator jumps back to tell us his sad tale of losing Sweet Sarah, and we go back to 1968…even here there’s a flashback to another incident, how he met this Bob Dylan-obsessed gal before he met Sweet Sarah. I’ll admit I’ve never been into Dylan’s music, but I appreciate how people of the era were obsessed with him. Back in the ‘90s I got an original pressing of Highway 61 Revisited for a whopping fifty cents at a used bookstore (and it was in fine condition, too, so no idea why it was so cheap – maybe the store owner wasn’t a Dylan fan, either); I played it maybe once and it’s still stored somewhere. Michael – who hates to be called “Mike,” which is what his parents call him – meets this gal while browsing the Dylan section at a local record shop, and this leads to a picnic sort of date. Nothing much happens here, as the gal has a college-age boyfriend, then a few weeks later Michael’s at a meditation center and sees a pretty “teenage Ali McGraw” across from him, and the two share a mystical moment as they look in each other’s eyes.

This is “Sweet Sarah,” as Michael will refer to her, aka his “Visions of Johanna chick,” yet another Dylan reference I didn’t get and had to look up. I should mention that in the novel, especially in this extended flashback section, we are very much in Michael’s head throughout. One of the online reviews I came across for True Love Scars said it was like the novel Lester Bangs never wrote, and that’s very much on the mark…not just for the constant rock references and the literary aspirations, but also for the rampant navel-gazing. In one of those posthumous Bangs anthologies there’s excerpts from some unpublished novel he wrote, can’t recall the title, but it was all about his cough syrup addiction or something. That’s kind of what you get here…while the era is fascinating, Michael’s so wrapped up in himself that nothing else really comes to life. What makes it worse is occasionally he’ll slip in tidbits like “I saw the Stones at Altamont,” or some other now-historic concert, but this stuff is only relayed in a few off-hand sentences…and the reader’s like, can we read about that instead of your teen romance?

But these are just my feelings, for as mentioned I was more interested in the framing sequence, set in 1972, which gets away from the whole teen thing. I’ve never really been into novels about teen protagonists (see also Go Mutants!). It seems to me that Goldberg is attempting a Proust for the Woodstock Generation (sorry, Freak Scene Dream nation), with three long books documenting the era through the lens of an overly-sensitive young man. And also I’ve gotta say, there are a lot of parallels to 00individual’s blog; both he and Michael are around the same age, live in California, and saw a lot of the groups of the day. The only caveat is that 00individual is a little more focused on the music, and a little more fun-loving in his narration; Michael’s a bit too serious, too stuck in his head, and it takes away from a lot of oppportunities; for example, late in the book we learn he’s started a band with this buddy of his who looks like Manson, but other than one or two rehearsals (which are focused more on Michael’s thoughts about a female backup singer, not the actual music being played), we don’t really learn too much about it.

The focus is the relationship with Sweet Sarah, and we know from the ’72 opening that Michael did something to betray her, and it still haunts him. There’s also vague mention of a mental breakdown. The title comes from a moment where Michael and Sarah cut each other’s palms, giving themselves scars to show their true love. But these two have one of the most darkly humorous relationships I’ve read. They’re both just kids, and Sarah’s still a virgin, but Michael manages to get her pregnant…without them even having sex. This leads to Sarah’s “liberal” parents freaking out that they have to get their kid an abortion. Then, shortly after this, the couple decides “what the hell, you’ve already had an abortion,” and start having sex…and Michael gets her pregnant again! And their parents once again have to go Dutch on an abortion…! Somehow their parents don’t forbid them from seeing each other (not to mention they live like 30 miles from each other or something and need to get rides to see each other), and the two stay together, but as time goes on Michael starts to act increasingly irrational from copious dopesmoking and gets a roving eye.

Goldberg introduces an interesting concept here with Michael always seeing a pair of magpies when something bad’s about to go down; he calls them Doom and Gloom. At this point the novel almost seems like it’s set in the early ‘90s instead of the early ‘70s, with Michael like a proto-slacker – there’s even more of an early ‘90s vibe later in the book, where college-age Michael hooks up with a proto-Goth gal. In fact I found myself flashing back on my own late high school/early college days as I read True Love Scars. Michael is around twenty years older than me, as I was in college in ’92, but the characters act and dress like the slackers of that time, with the only difference being the music they’re into. But even that’s a fine line, because I personally was listening to the same sort of stuff as Michael when I was his age, twenty years later – I mean I sure as hell wasn’t listening to Pearl Jam. 

At any rate, the romance with Sweet Sarah sort of fades, Goldberg using the poisoned relationship to demonstrate the sour vibes of the bummer early ‘70s; there’s a part where Michael hangs out with his Manson-lookalike pal on a houseboat, and there are a few girls there, one of them a 14 year-old who tries to play the seductress for Michael, and Sticky Fingers is playing on the stereo. Goldberg well captures the hedonistic vibe of the time, but even here Michael can’t catch a break, as the girl, Samantha, is more into herself than Michael. At this point our hero has spiralled into complete fuckup-ery; he’s been writing bad checks left and right, even attempting to move out into his own place in an abandoned building. Then he writes a bad check to finance a trip to LA with another preteen girl, Mercedes, but realizes when he tries to put the moves on her in a sleazy hotel that she’s just a scared little 14 year-old girl. Then he’s arrested on the plane when they return to San Francisco for all those bounced checks.

This leads to the psycho ward hinted at in the opening sequence, Michael’s there a couple weeks, during which he learns that Sweet Sarah has dropped him. And a crying Michael confronts her to ask why! Jeez dude, maybe it’s because you flew a 14 year-old to Los Angeles to score with her in a sleazy hotel. Luckily after this we get back to the college stuff, in 1972, and immediately the book improves in a major way. After smoking those joints with Lord Jim, Michael ends up running into a pretty brunette with black nails and a skull necklace; her name’s Harper and they go back to his dorm room for sex, the first time either of them’s decided to have sex with someone they just met. Harper with her skull and black nails totally seems of a different era – namely, mine – I mean all she needs is a Nine Inch Nails shirt. She only appears in the novel in the final pages, and succeeds in stealing the entire book; she is much more of a living, breathing character than Sweet Sarah ever was. In fact, Sweet Sarah kind of bored me, and never really seemed to come to life.

Harper and Michael go back to his dorm room, and in his interminable rambling narrative style Michael constantly informs us that Harper’s a liar, untrustworthy, etc. Who cares – she’s hot and her fingernails are painted black. I mean dude, go for it!! Apparently she pretends to be French, to have had sex with tons of guys, etc, but Michael tells us he’ll soon learn that most of this stuff is a lie. Again, who cares; Harper comes off as more interesting than any other character in the book. She confronts Michael throughout, basically taunting him into sex, even going through his collection of skin mags and telling him how she found her dad’s Playboys when she was a little girl and how they excited her. And yet still Michael takes his good old while to get there; when he does, we get the most explicit sex scene of the novel, and it comes off more like a battle of wills between the two.

And like a slap to the face, the novel ends here, just when it’s really picking up. As for Michael aka “Writerman’s” budding career as a rock critic, it still hasn’t even happened. This is of course what drew me to this trilogy in the first place; you all know I love my vintage rock criticism. And the stuff that’s here is cool; Goldberg of course knows his stuff, and peppers the novel with all kinds of arcane rock info…Michael and Lord Jim even discuss the “recent” reissue of Pet Sounds, and Goldberg is so confident his readers know what he’s referring to that he doesn’t even bother mentioning the album it was paired with, in ’72: Carl And the Passions – So Tough. And I have this exact 2LP release, but could never really get into either album, though back in the late ‘90s when Pet Sounds was rediscovered by the hipsters I bought the CD and loved it…until I realized one day that it sounded like Christmas music. I remember once around that time excitedly snatching up a copy of The Beach Boys Love You in a store, and my buddy was like, “Dude, you’re gay.” (This was back when that was an acceptable off-hand putdown among friends; today you’d probably go to jail for it.) These days if I listen to the Beach Boys, it would either be one of the Smile fan recreations (this one is by far the best I’ve heard in 20 years of collecting such mixes) or Surf’s Up, which I think is their best album (“spaced heavies,” as it was referred to in an industry ad upon release).

So yes, Goldberg here writes the rock-world novel Lester Bangs never did, and he definitely captures the setting and the scene, but still I wanted more of it and less of the “Sweet Sarah doomed romance” stuff. Again though, this is me – I’m just not into such stories. Now a character like Harper, I could read about her all day. I do know that the next volumes dig deeper into the ’72 sections, with Michael venturing into the rock critic field, so I’m definitely eager to read the next one, The Flowers Lied.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Traveler #7: The Road Ghost

Traveler #7: The Road Ghost, by D.B. Drumm
September, 1985  Dell Books

With this seventh volume of Traveler, Ed Naha, who previously wrote the first volume (the only installment I don’t have!), returns to the series; John Shirley would only return for one more installment. Naha’s a veteran writer but he’s new to me; in his hands Traveler takes on more of the feel of a post-nuke epic, and while it still has a bit of the dark comedy of the previous volumes, it’s totally lacking the punk rock vibe Shirley gave it. Which is curious, as one thing I know about Naha is that in 1978 he handled a revised edition of Lillian Roxon’s 1969 work Rock Encyclopedia, so you’d figure his book would burn with as much rock and roll power as Shirley’s did.

Well anyway, once again I was pulled out of the fictive dream in the early pages with my pendantic quest to understand when the hell this series takes place. At this point I can only conclude that whoever at Dell Books wrote the back cover copy either goofed, or misread the text of the actual books, or possibly just didn’t give a shit. Because the back cover states that it’s 2016, and in the book we’re told at least a few times that WWIII was “seventeen years ago.” Which would indicate it happened in 1999. We’re also confused in the beginning because when we meet Traveler, he’s wandering alone in the desert, befuddled, and it’s like he’s returning to the world after a long absence. Initially I thought it really was 2016, and thus ten years after the previous volume, which ended with Traveler and his girlfriend Jan heading off into a happily ever after on a yacht; the impression we get from this opening is that Traveler’s been gone a long time.

But no – shortly afterward Traveler thinks to himself that the boat, ie the boat with Jan and his buddy Link and Link’s girlfriend, blew up, just “two weeks after setting out.” So poor Traveler didn’t get very far! And he’s lost Jan and the others in the melee and doesn’t even know if they’re alive; all he knows is a shadow passed over the boat as it toiled along the Pacific, and then Traveler was thrown into the ocean and the boat had blown up. But still, Traveler’s checking out how things have changed in the post-nuke world “since he’d been gone,” with the new President getting an interstate highway together in the U.S. and all that…and the reader’s like, “only two weeks have passed?” Gradually we learn that Traveler’s been gone for a year, not two weeks…apparently he was knocked for such a loop by the exploding boat that he’s lost track of how long he wandered. Which is all well and good, if a little clumsily delivered, but there’s still the question of the date, as the text specifically references December 20th, 1989 as when the nukes went down. This means that “seventeen years later” is actually 2006, not 2016. So again, someone at Dell just goofed…and seems to have goofed on the back cover of just about every volume.

Another big difference between this and Shirley’s previous books is that The Road Ghost is a much slower read, and is one of the more deceptively slim paperbacks I’ve ever encountered. It sure looks short, at only 172 pages, but boy does it have some super-small and super-dense print. This is not helped by the crush of sometimes-monotonous sequences and often-sluggish pace. Indeed, this sluggish pace, coupled with the “epic” vibe and the sudden focus on military hardware and strategy, really reminded me of another post-nuke series: The Guardians (a series I still haven’t been able to bring myself back to, even though it’s been like six years since I read a volume). Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Naha also wrote The Marauders, a sort of a sister series of The Guardians.

“The Road Ghost” by the way turns out to be a nickname “the locals” use to reference Traveler himself, the locals being Mexicans, Traveler’s legend so pervasive that they even know of him down here. The opening makes us suspect we’re in for a taut, Shirley-esque adventure; Traveler comes across a severely rad-burned survivor named Rat Du Bois, who speaks in ryhming slang and has a face so badly burned that he looks like a human fish. He rides a buffalo and wields a spear, and sort of acts as this volume’s stand-in for Nicholas Shumi. After Rat takes his leave, Traveler heads into the nearest small town and holes up in an abandoned restaurant, fashioning weapons from household items. As mentioned there’s more of a focus on weapon-making and survival tactics in this one; Traveler even works on a junked VW Bug for a week, gearing it up to cross over the border into the US and find out what’s going on.

The craziest thing is…we never even see Traveler drive the Bug. Instead, the Meat Wagon – ie his usual armored van, which he gave to old Army buddies Hill and Orwell last time – rolls up, his two buddies behind the wheel. There’s vague mention of the neurotoxin in their systems allowing them to track down Traveler. They catch our hero up on the progress of the rebuilt USA and also inform him what likely happened to his boat: the Glory Boys, ie the personal guard of former President Frayling, the crazed Reagan spoof who was blown away previous volume, have taken up camp down here in South America. And also they’ve put together a fleet of WWII fighters and other stuff, and they’ve been bombing boats all over the Pacific. No doubt one of them got Traveler. Curiously there’s no burning yearning for Traveler to go hunt down Jan or the others; he basically just figures they’re yet more loved ones who have died.

In fact there’s no female conquest for Traveler this time, possibly the hugest difference from Shirley’s volumes. The cover shows a hot blonde toting a machine gun, and one sort of shows up…piloting a WWII B-17 Bomber, too, just like the cover. Her name’s Veronica, and like Rat Du Bois she’s another interesting character who plumb disappears from the narrative. After getting in a couple firefights with the Glory Boys and a group of hooded monks who are led by Pope Gordon, Traveler and buds find themselves escorting a “very pregnant” young Mexican gal named Maria. Per some bonkers prophecy, her child will depose Gordon, and she’s been ordered dead. Traveler decides to take her in the Meat Wagon to safety in America, leading to some nice tension with the bumpy desert roads and the constant barrage of gunfire. But due to all the chaos Maria doesn’t make it very far, and our three heroes are carrying around a newborn baby; Veronica lands her B-17 long enough to tell Traveler, apropos of nothing, about her pilot father, Alexander, and provide some info about the surrounding area. After she leaves, Traveler gives the baby the same name.

So now Traveler, Hill, and Orwell are carrying this newborn, who doesn’t act like any baby they’ve ever seen with his mystical eyes and serene expressions, and hordes of Glory Boys and armed monks are after them. It’s basically a long chase scene, same as the Shirley books were, with occasional detours into horror fiction. But again, without the splatterpunk bite of similar scenes in Shirley’s books. Veronica also tells them about “The Chemical Mountains,” an area toward the border where all the secret US germ warfare labs blew up due to the nukes, and now the place is poisoned; the trio ride through, suffering realistic flashbacks to horrible events in their lives. There’s also a part where a bunch of mutant animals attack them, including a monstrous creature that’s half-human, half-bison or something; this part has a definite Shirley vibe, as a weary Traveler gets out of the Meat Wagon, sizes up the towering creature, and shoots its balls off with his HK91.

Traveler himself is soon in a bad way. During that fog of delusion in the Chemical Mountains, Hill flashes back to when some locals tried to lynch him as a kid in the south. He runs, shooting at the lynchers, and happens to hit Traveler in the hip. The bullet passes through but the wound gets infected; and conveniently enough baby Alexander has some mysterious infection at this point, too. Per Traveler’s orders, the kid gets all the antibiotics left in the Meat Wagon fridge, and Traveler just suffers through. This leads to him being captured, and finding out that the mysterious Scar, new ruler of the Glory Boys…happens to be, spoiler alert, none other than former President Andrew Frayling. Now he’s like a post-nuke Two-Face, with one side of his face and body scorched by high rad burns. He’s still nuts, though, and plots to take back over the US with his growing armada of WWII planes, bombers, and helicopters.

But truth be told, The Road Ghost gets to be a little wearying after a while. It’s a constant sequence of one step forward, two steps back. Traveler and pals will forever be getting a leg up on their pursuers, then hit some snag and be surrounded by them, or captured, or separated, and throughout you have this increasingly-unusual baby sitting serenely in the Meat Wagon and eventually using his mind to control mutant dogs. But there’s just too much repetition, too many parts that could be whittled down, and the constant striving for the vibe of an “epic” gets to be wearying as well. Again, parts of the book caused me to experience bad flashbacks of my own – to The Guardians.

What makes it worse is that Traveler basically just sits out the finale; through various contrivances he’s managed to escape Frayling’s men (only to be captured again, par for the repetitive course of the book), then Hill and Orwell show up with their mutant dogs, which do most of the fighting for them. Our heroes sit around while the bad guys blow up and stuff. Then we even have a repeat of the Chemical Mountain stuff we already read about before, with our heroes getting blasted apart by enemy gunfire in a situation that seems increasingly like one they faced in El Higuara, the fictional South American country in which they all gained their neurotoxin abilities, right before WWIII. Indeed, all three of them actually die…only to wake up in a field hospital, to wonder if it had all just been a dream. And meanwhile Rat Du Bois shows up again, to take baby Alexander off with him, and it seems as clear as you can get that the two will be returning.

As for Veronica, who knows. Personally I thought it was a big miss that we have this big aerial battle in the finale – Frayling’s Chinooks gunning for Traveler and his buddies – and Veronica didn’t make a Han Solo-esque return in her B-17. Perhaps she too will return in some future volume. I do know that, save for the next one, Naha took the reigns for the remainder of the series, which apparently gets into even more of a metaphysical direction; if I’m reading the back cover of the last volume correctly, Traveler even goes back in time in that one. But we’ve got a ways to go until we get there, and honestly I’m looking forward to Shirley’s return with the next installment. Especially given that the previous volume was basically his conclusion to the series. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Bang Bang Birds (Philip McAlpine #3)

The Bang Bang Birds, by Adam Diment
December, 1969  Bantam Books
(Original UK publication September 1968)

This was the final installment of the Philip McAlpine series to be published in the US, but at least it went out with a bang, so far as the cover goes, at least: this paperback edition sports one of the greatest covers ever. And for once it sort of illustrates a moment in the book, but as ever author Adam Diment is too busy buzzkilling all the entertainment factor with his pissy, dour, oh-so-cynical narrative tone. This one might be even more cynical and acerbic than the previous two, despite having the most pulpy villain and plot.

Diment was hyped as the “new Ian Fleming,” but as I mentioned before he isn’t nearly as gifted or talented an author. This is mainly because it’s clear that Ian Fleming actually enjoyed writing the James Bond novels. One doesn’t get that impression from the McAlpine books. Rather, you get the impression that Adam Diment hates the entire genre – not to mention the riff-raff who would even read such garbage – and goes out of his way to piss on everything. Any opportunity for some fun, colorful entertainment is constantly avoided or ignored; narrator Philip McAlpine is such a cynical ass that he’ll even find a way to bitch about a naked young woman. And here’s another way to put the entire series in perspective: In this one, McAlpine goes up against a global ring of mod cathouses which employ hot spy babes, many of whom prance around in jackboots and nothing else, toting submachine guns. And McAlpine brings along his pregnant girlfriend. It’s all such an inversion – or nonunderstanding – of what the average fan wants from this genre that it’s no wonder this was the last one to make it to the US.

There isn’t much pickup from the previous volume; when we meet narrator Philip McAlpine he’s in New York, working with the American Intelligence agencies in an outfit called Hun Sec 3. The angle of this outfit is that it’s computer-based, so McAlpine’s role is to collect all the communiques sent in by British agents and put them into the database. We get that old-school distrust of computers and gadgets, and I always appreciate these vintage reminders that once upon a time automation and “android brains” were dismissed as not nearly as dependable as human intelligence. McAlpine’s been sent here by Quine, his cunning boss in British Intelligence, and now reports to General Eastfeller of the US Army. The dialog of Diment’s American characters doesn’t always ring true; there’s a scene where Eastfeller calls in McAlpine for a talk, and at times it sounds like two British characters in discussion. The only problem is that Eastfeller has been presented as your stereotypical, cliched, “Commies are everywhere” American Cold War general, as if he’s stepped right out of Dr. Strangelove.

Meanwhile McAlpine has a new girlfriend: Marianne, a brunette model type. As McAlpine helpfully informs us, “I was immediately attracted to her because she was beautiful.” He’s already been with her for a bit before the novel begins; long enough, we’ll gradually learn, to knock her up. Oh but McAlpine also has a busty blonde secretary in his Hun Sec 3 office, Wendy, and he’s constantly putting down her offers for sex. I mean she’s beautiful and all, but McAlpine just can’t be bothered, as he’s afraid after one lay she’ll be planning their wedding. And he goes on and on explaining his reasoning to us. Shockingly, this won’t be the only time McAlpine turns down an offer of sex. At length one realizes this is indeed a spoof or at least piss-take on Fleming; there’s a part where McAlpine is taken on a tour of the Hun Sec 3 gadgets factory, a total parody on the Q sequences in the Bond movies, with gadgets like a trick lighter, a transistor radio that turns into a bomb, and etc, and he mocks them all, refusing to use any of them save for an AR-16 machine gun.

Though by contract he’s bound to a desk job only, McAlpine is asked to do a “favor” for Quine: deliver heroin to a junkie agent. He does the job, going into a dingy Manhattan bar, only for someone to pull a gun on him. McAlpine’s been taking all sorts of training, we’re informed, thus he’s able to duck and dodge and come up firing. Only, the guy with the gun turns out to be a fellow agent and this has all been a test from the General. McAlpine, despite the contract, is to go back onto the field: the General wants him to look into these Aviary Clubs that have sprouted around Europe, “kind of a super-charged Playboy Club” sort of thing. Basically high-tech, high-society brothels, run by a very Flemingesque individual: Count Vitconne, a hirsute Frenchman who likes to wear purple togas, showing off his copious red body hair and his pupil-lacking eyes. Diment will do his best to fumble this memorable creation, too.

The Aviary Clubs are hosted by lovely young women from around the world, and as part of the fee you can take them to a room upstairs or keep them for yourself for a few weeks. It’s all very Jeffery Epstein-ish. Vitconne is fantastically wealthy and has turned the Clubs into veritable feasts for the senses, with sci-fi esque imaging that changes the entire look of the interiors and also a top-tier chef who can whip up any obscure dish you could think of. The General despises the Clubs because they’re perverted and dirty, of course – again, he’s a walking cliché – but also more importantly because important men go to these Clubs (they’re insanely expensive to join) and Count Vitconne is likely getting info from these men. When scientists and other types who are privy to US secrets go up into one of the rooms of the “birds,” as the hookers are lovingly called, many of them begin to blab freely about classified data shortly after the adult activities have transpired. McAlpine is to infiltrate the main Club, in Stockholm, and get the list of all Americans who have visited the place.

McAlpine is to pose as wealthy young Boston heir Lexington Sullivan, Junior, with unlimited funds at his disposal. McAlpine’s already been studying the guy, practicing his voice and whatnot, so now it’s just a matter of going over there in his fab mod clothes, hobknobbing with all those sexy birds – and the real Lexington is known as a lady-killer, thus McAlpine will be expected to do his share of scoring as part of his cover – and fool the Count long enough to get the list. Sounds like a surefire Bondesque spy-pulp yarn, doesn’t it? Yep…then Marianne informs McAlpine’s she’s pregnant, and he decides to bring her along…to get a handy abortion in one of those Swedish clinics. For some strange reason I didn’t chuck the book at this point, likely because the cover’s so nice and my copy’s fortunately in mint condition so I didn’t want to damage it. But yeah, this is the one where McAlpine takes his pregnant girlfriend along with him. Oh, and a “.36 revolver with built-in silencer and telescope.” Actually he doesn’t take the latter along on the job, he leaves it in his apartment in New York, but I wish he’d taken it instead, even though such a thing couldn’t possibly exist.

We get more cursory catering to the Fleming form: even though McAlpine is a “fairly qualified pilot,” he still feels Bond-esque pangs of anxiety during the flight to Stockholm. The Fleming vibe is very strong in the ensuing sequence, as McAlpine is taken on a tour of the Stockholm Aviary Club, with nude women walking around and rooms that change décor and atmosphere in seconds, thanks to tricky light projection that’s never fully explained. The “birds” are all dressed in a variety of revealing costumes, including an actual Nazi She-Devil who leads around a Jewish guy on a leash (she only appears long enough for the shock factor). Meanwhile, McAlpine/Diment somehow finds a way to describe even the naked women in cynical, acidic tones. You almost get the impression the narrator is like an immortal vampire or something, just bored with humans in general, not a 20-something British spy in the height of mod fashions. Even the dude from Operation Hang Ten would think McAlpine was an arrogant prick.

But the Aviary Club is so cool sounding that it manages to capture the reader’s interest, despite the narrator’s constant dismissal of everything. At one point the entry foyer turns into a veritable Valhalla, complete with a tall, perfectly-proportioned and beautiful blonde in a sort of Classical World getup (McAlpine actually refers to her as a “blonde beast,” folks); next it’s turned into a reception hall complete with a half-nude Indian gal behind the front desk. McAlpine finally shows a little bit of a libido when he feels up one of the birds while riding in an elevator, but it’s all conveyed so vaguely that I didn’t know what the hell even happened. Here he’s taken into the presence of the Count, resplendent in his purple toga, and there follows another catering to the Fleming form as the Count delivers a long speech to the latest Club member, Lexington Sullivan, aka McAlpine. 

Sadly though the Aviary Club isn’t exploited nearly as much as it should be. Folks there’s honestly a part where one of the birds tries to get friendly with McAlpine, and he turns her down, actually informing us in the narrative that he has “plenty of sexy in my life without charming, practiced little professionals.” The girl actually has to pressure McAlpine into doing the deed (which is rendered off-page, as usual), saying that if they don’t it will look suspicious to the Count, who monitors everything. I mean even the brothel whore has to remind our “super spy” hero that he’s supposed to keep his cover identity intact, and she doesn’t even know he’s a spy! She later shows him around the Club and introduces the titular “Bang-Bang Birds.” These are the brothel gals who guard the orgies that occasionally go down in the clubs; per the cover of this US edition, they perform this role fully nude save for a pair of knee-high jackboots, carrying submachine guns to finish the look. Sadly, the author does absolutely nothing to exploit these characters. But then, the entire novel – and pretty much the entire series – is one missed opportunity after another.

McAlpine doesn’t spend too much narrative time in the Aviary Club. Instead it’s back to the apartment with Marianne, and also he gets in the occasional car chase; turns out some mysterious Russian agent is after “Lexington,” trying to kill him. Occasionally Diment cuts over to third-person for the sequences with this agent, and these are the best-written moments of the novel because at the very least they get us away from McAlpine’s pissy narration. Also these parts are very Flemingesque, and again makes one wonder if Diment were intentionally spoofing the style. With the caveat that Diment is more “British” in his tone than Fleming was, and also that, despite writing around a decade earlier, Fleming was actually more risque. Not to mention clearly more invested in his writing than Diment is. Reading The Bang Bang Birds, it’s no mystery why Diment dropped out of writing after the next volume (and became a recluse): he was already bored, and clearly so, while he was churning out this one.

McAlpine’s plan to get the list from the Club involves a huge batch of LSD and some amyl nitrate. He gets these from a hippie in a Stockholm bar, and unleashes them – with Marianne’s assistance – during one of the Club’s orgies. Here our hero again sort of has some off-page sex with one (or possibly two) birds, though he himself is a little affected by the LSD which has been dosed into the wine. He basically shrugs this off, as well as the amyl nitrate chaser, long enough to crack the safe and make his escape via helicopter. Meanwhile the Count, so heavily built up as a menacing villain, sits navel-gazing on a bed, hammered by the acid trip. It’s all so lame and anticlimactic. Despite his successful escape McAlpine gets captured, and is himself drugged, whisked across the world to the Tangier Aviary Club…and the Count interrogates him with LSD. Even here, in a dingy jail, McAlpine manages to score with a pair of birds, first asking them to join him in his trip and then having an off-page three-way with them.

This is as exploitative as the novel gets, as Diment has been saving his most egregious buzzkilling for the finale. That Russian agent has also been captured, and amid much fanfare the Count announces that he and McAlpine will have a gladiator fight to the death. So a pretty much nonchalant McAlpine has his “last meal,” then goes out to the arena…and defeats the Russian in like a sentence. There’s absolutely no suspense, no tension, no exploitation of the entire pulpy conceit. It’s like, “well I’d been trained in knife-fighting, luckily, so I knew what to do,” and after a couple ducks and dodges he’s felled his opponent. Then his ass is saved by a friendly bird, and he makes his escape, telling us in the conclusion that it all was, of course, yet more plotting via Quine that got him here, and also Marianne finally got that abortion at some clinic while the two were off on vacation.

And this would be it for McAlpine for a couple years, not returning until Think Inc. in 1971. I’ve got the UK paperback of that one and will read it eventually, at least to see how the series ends. Now you might ask, if I dislike this series so much, why am I reading it? And that’s a damn great question. Here’s the answer – back in the early days of the blog, I’d usually buy every volume of a series that caught my interest, before even reading a single installment. This is what happened with the Philip McAlpine books. I got them all about nine years ago, collecting them before reading them. With age comes wisdom, though (not that I was exactly “young” nine years ago), so these days I don’t go to the trouble…I get one, and if I don’t like it I don’t get any more. If I’d just read The Dolly, Dolly Spy when I got it, I wouldn’t have tracked down the others.