The Lovomaniacs, by Rona Barrett
August, 1973 Bantam Books
Okay, I really did judge this book by it's cover -- I mean, look at it! The cover of this mass market paperback taps right into the early '70s occult revivalism, complete with naked chick worshipfully sitting before an astrology chart. It's a cover NEL Books would've been proud of. (High praise indeed.) Even the original hardcover printing from 1972 retained this theme, featuring a drawing of a nude woman kneeling with arms upraised. So it all had me hoping for something like "Harold Robbins meets Kenneth Anger." Sadly, it's nowhere close...hell, it's not even close to Harold Robbins.
I don't get much enjoyment bringing these forgotten books to light and then bashing them, but sometimes the job must be done. Rona Barrett is mostly forgotten today (I only discovered her via this book, which itself is forgotten), but at one time she was quite famous. One of the original "gossip queens" who it seems godmothered our current "celebrity worship" culture of Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition...hell, even the regular news is nothing but celebrity gossip these days. Barrett was one of the first of these types of TV hosts, also publishing a monthly magazine all about celeb gossip. She then branched out with her first (and I think only) novel, The Lovomaniacs, which of course was duly hyped as a roman a clef from a woman who knew "the true story" of what went on behind the scenes.
Only, Barrett forgot to give the novel any sort of drama or excitement or depth. It's all as bland as bread, with a storyline that would be considered too dull for a TV movie, let alone the "torrid blockbuster" of the cover blurb. This is one of those novels where you read over a quarter of it and wonder why the hell you're wasting your time...but you perservere. But when you're over halfway through and you're still wondering, then you know you're in trouble. Especially when the novel runs to nearly 500 pages.
One thing the novel has going for it is that Barrett tells the tale in an unusual style: rather than a basic third-person narrative, she instead hops from the minds of one character to another, getting us right into their heads. This almost gives the novel the feel of an oral biography, sort of what James Robert Baker did in his 1989 opus Boy Wonder (to this day the greatest work of trash fiction I've ever read, and a novel I need to re-read again and review here). But here's the big problem: each and every one of the characters in The Lovomaniacs sounds exactly the same. All of the characters have the exact same Mommy or Daddy-issues; all of them have the exact same fears and hopes and opinions.
There's no tonal variety as we hop from the thoughts of Johnny Valentine, a Frank Sinatra-type singer-cum-movie mogul, to the thoughts of Irving Dahlberg, Johnny's nemesis and himself an old- school movie mogul. The sons of these two men, Buddy Valentine (a wanna-be singer with a talent for flying airplanes and engineering studio recordings) and Jack Dahlberg (the presumed new president of his dad's movie studio, but a little dweeb consumed with self doubt), also sound identical. Then there's David Strauss, by far the most wearying narrator in the book...a washed-up drunk of an actor with homosexual tendencies who spends his sections whining about his life. You'll learn to hate him quick.
The two female characters, thankfully, are a bit better. First there's Sandy Hallowell, an astrology-practicing stewardess (I assume that's supposed to be her on the cover) who falls in love with Buddy Valentine and is really the only likeable character in the novel. And second there's Dolly Diamond, a rail-thin singing sensation who carries on an affair with Johnny Valentine. Dolly's scenes are the only in the novel that come close to what we expect from trash fiction, as she tokes dope, performs autosex with "The Lover" (aka her vibrator), and drops acid with her in-crowd friends. If there'd been more of Dolly and her escapades, the novel might've been more enjoyable. As it is, though, this is just a tiresome trawl in banality.
The dramatic thrust is nonexistent, but here's the plot in a nutshell: Johnny Valentine wants to own a movie studio and he's currently locked in a deal with Irving Dahlberg, who himself wants to make an old-time epic about WWII, and tasks his son with getting it together. Jack Dahlberg however wants the studio to make big budget X-rated films (hey, it was the '70s). There's a lot of scheming between all parties concerned, and Buddy Valentine, the perpetual loser, comes up with a harebrained scheme to get his mom and dad back together. But it's all so boringly presented.
One of the main rules of fiction is "show, don't tell," but Barrett "tells" us in each and every case. The opening of the novel is a data-dump of hellish proportions, as each character tells us right off the bat their history, their thoughts, what they hope to do. And this follows throughout the novel -- so many interminable scenes of characters telling us their plans. The novel is so "tell"-crazy that even when Buddy and Sandy fall in love, their romance is glossed over; we get the sequence where they spend time together on Christmas Day...but then in their next sections they're suddenly in love, reminiscing about their new sex life, etc. Why couldn't we have seen it happen? But this is the problem throughout The Lovomaniacs. The old saw is that nonfiction writers can't do fiction, and I have to say that Barrett proves the theory true here. It's like we're reading a overlong gossip column throughout, but one that's not very enticing or torrid.
The astrological basis promised by the cover is delivered mostly through Sandy Hallowell, who knows from her charts that she'll die before 30 on, possibly, an overseas flight. Also the novel itself is relayed in astrological "houses" rather than chapters -- ie "The First House," "The Second House," and so on that the characters experience, complete with bolded "predictions" courtesy Ms. Barrett on the outcome each character will face. In a preface and postcript, Barret, speaking as herself, further informs us how these characters are all caught up in the same astrological tapestry. The way she handles this throughout is incredibly contrived. Each section begins and ends with a hyphenated sentence, the character's thoughts beginning and ending en media res, with the next character picking up the thread; each of course thinking about something different but using the same word or phrase as the previous character. This goes on throughout this endless novel and it gets to be laughable fast.
Finally, for a "sensational blockbuster" about the jetsetting Hollywood elite, The Lovomaniacs is quite pedestrian. No glamorous parties or lavish villas or any of the other expected tropes of the trash fiction genre. Instead pretty much everything takes place in nondescript houses or hotel rooms, with characters sitting around and talking to one another. So much for the escapism one would expect from a novel like this. Even the mandatory sex scenes are tepid, again killed by Barrett's "tell, don't show" style -- we never read anything as it happens; we only get a character's thoughts after the acts have occurred.
The learning here I guess is that sometimes you really shouldn't judge a book by its cover. It's a shame, though. Makes me want to write my own novel based on that cover. "Harold Robbins meets Kenneth Anger"...
A note on the title: The book is titled The Lovomaniacs, no hyphen. However it's displayed as "The Lovo-Maniacs" on the cover, which means that online booksellers have the novel listed under either title. I've also seen it listed as "The Love Maniacs" by one seller who totally didn't get it.