Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Passing Through The Flame

Passing Through The Flame, by Norman Spinrad
January, 1976 Berkley Medallion

This is one obscure novel. Try searching online for it. You'll hardly find anything -- a few sites listing it for sale (with no plot outline) and a mention from Spinrad's bio in which he briefly recounts the novel's origin, how he was paid $10,000 to write it and had to fight to get it published in hardcover (which it was, in 1975). But that's pretty much all you'll find. Which is strange, as Spinrad of course is a relatively well-known author. But then, he's known for his science fiction output. Passing Through The Flame however is 100% trash fiction, a "Harold Robbins-type novel" so "Harold Robbins-type" that The Carpetbaggers is referenced in the hardcover's dust jacket copy.

I happened to discover Passing Through The Flame by a total fluke a few years ago, browsing through the sci-fi racks at a local used bookstore. There sat the mass market paperback incarnation, placed in the sci-fi section by some lazy store employee. In his online bio Spinrad states that the novel was intended to show "the death of the counterculture," and also that it was to be "popular fiction" in the syle of the time. A lot of genre authors turned their hand to lurid, sensationalistic, over-the-top trash fiction in the wake of Harold Robbins's vast success, Herbert Kastle being a prime example. So Spinrad too gave it a go, only it seems he was let down by publisher Berkley Medallion, which let the book die in obscurity; after the 1975 hardcover, the book received only one mass market papberback printing, one graced with a paltry two industry reviews. It's like Passing Through The Flame was a forgotten book as soon as it was published.

It's a shame, as despite its minor faults the novel proves that Spinrad would've made for a great trash fiction author -- he could've easily been hyped as a younger, hipper Harold Robbins. But Passing Through The Flame passed unnoticed and it was back to sci-fi for Spinrad. It's a big book in every way: 568 pages of tiny, tiny print in the mass market paperback, stuffed to the gills with an army of major and minor characters. It's further proof of his skill that Spinrad handles this huge cast with such ease; you have no trouble keeping up with the revolving cast of characters.

The novel takes place in 1971, during the death-throes of the counterculture movement and the psychedelic era. Spinrad perfectly and completely captures what Curt Purcell terms "the Groovy Age." This is a high-society world of ultramod decor and drug-fueled parties and lavish living, a world of psychedelic rock and fringe-religion acidheads. Spinrad takes pains to describe every setting, every detail, every article of clothing his characters wear -- and they're all dressed to the nines in the current fashions. Indeed, it's this overwhelming description which soons weighs heavily on the book, making it a bit of a trawl. But the first half, at least, is a wonderful ride, especially for those like myself who are obsessed with the groovy, swinging era.

Our ostensible protagonist is Paul Conrad, a hotshot young director who created an independent film in his native New York City and has come to LA looking for his big break. Instead he finds himself working as an assistant director on porno films. On one such set he meets the "leading lady," a beautiful blonde with a killer bod named Velva Leecock (with a name like that...) who herself dreams of becoming a superstar. The two become an item and Velva takes Paul along with her to a party in Hollywood that will be attended by the elite -- a party thrown by Jango Beck, a larger-than-life character who, among many things, is a millionaire record producer, president of a record label, and financer of a small army of Green Berets who traffick dope in Mexico (!). Velva had sex with Jango several weeks ago, and afterwards Jango invited her to this party; Velva insists that Paul come with her, as all the movers and shakers of Tinseltown will be there and therefore it'll be a great way for them to make connections.

The party is truly endless, going on nearly 100 pages. All of the principle characters attend, and again Spinrad masterfully juggles them. There's Paul Taub, a young record executive who wants Jango's assistance to oust John Horst, the executive of the film half of Taub's company. There's Barry Stein, a grungy "power to the people"-type who runs The Flash magazine. There's Sandra Bayne, Jango Beck's PR manager, a woman who eventually becomes romantically entangled with Paul Conrad. There's Chris Sargent, the leader of Jango's Green Beret squad, who's come here for Jango's ass, as he thinks the man has set him up.

And finally there's Bill Hovrath and his girlfriend Susan Howard. These two are the creative heads of a popular rock group which seems to be a combination of the Velvet Underground (with Jango Beck as their Andy Warhol,) the Jefferson Airplane, and the Doors. Hovrath writes the songs and Susan sings -- however when she sings she becomes "Star." In this character Spinrad reveals his sci-fi roots; when in the persona of Star, Susan is basically an empath: she feels the emotions of those around her and absorbs their fear or pain or paranoia, soaks it up and sends it back to them as love. This persona was created for her by Hovrath and Jango Beck, who basically were trying to spin her off as a sort of messiah of the Movement; however their creation has run amok, so that now Susan is no longer certain where she ends and where Star begins.

There are many fascinating moments in the novel where Susan becomes Star and walks about as if in a trance, a wholly different person, giving herself to those in need. And she truly "gives" herself -- one of Star's many delights is having sex with men in the greatest need. One of the novel's best moments occurs when Star meets Chris Sargent, the gung-ho 'Nam vet who has descended upon Jango's party in a red fury; Star is so overwhelmed by the hostility in the man that she basically runs with him to her Porsche so she can go back with him to his place and have sex. And Hovrath, her man, watches it all with bemusement and awe -- hurt because he loves Susan, but awed over the powers of this being he has helped create, this being named Star.

Then there's Jango Beck himself. The villain of the piece in a way, a self-proclaimed agent of chaos (to reference one of Spinrad's earlier novels). Beck manipulates and maneuvers the various characters throughout the course of the novel; he is the only character whose thoughts we never get to read. He always remains on the periphery, dealing with everyone but keeping his motives under his sleeve. It isn't until the final pages that we discover what Beck's intentions throughout have been. But he is one of those characters you could only encounter in trash fiction, a charismatic dynamo who has his hands in everything, able to move millions of dollars in various deals, able to hassle even the Mafia.

The party at Jango's estate is the best scene in the novel. As I mentioned, it goes on and on. Beck has designed his mansion so that it's become a series of sets, a random assortment of decor and style. We follow Paul Conrad as he rushes through each room, a movie idea coming to him. Spinrad details each room, and again, despite the overwhelming detail, it makes for an enjoyable ride for the connoisseur of the groovy: one room is nothing but blacklights, complete with a wall-sized, Day-Glo portrait of Jango; another is an incense-filled chamber with a bronze Buddha; another is nothing but a strobe light pulsing in a roomful of mirrors. On and on, with Paul rushing out of one set and into another. And drugs are everywhere, dope and bowls of pills, and the people in attendance are all rockers or movie stars or jet-setters. (Here Spinrad delivers a few in-jokes: Peter Fonda is mentioned as being in attendance, and one character, a record reviewer for The Flash, is obviously a caricature of Lester Bangs.)

Here the plot of the novel comes together. Jango, scheming alternately with Paul Taub and John Horst, concocts a plan to finance a flop of a movie, one along the lines of Woodstock, one about a festival/concert which will feature nothing but the groups on Jango's roster. But instead of a straight-up documentary, it will instead be a love story, one about a naive midwestern girl and a cynical New York guy falling in love amid the festival. Running into Velva at the party (he barely remembers her), Jango instantly asks her if she will be the leading lady, and if Paul will be the director. Paul of course suspects something amiss, but Velva is dewy-eyed; finally, her Big Break has arrived.

Unfortunately the middle half of the novel lags. It all comes off as a series of meetings between Jango and various characters, or scenes where various characters discuss their upcoming meetings with Jango. It's all very dialog and plot-heavy, and it's all rendered a bit frustrating because the novel just spins its wheels for a few hundred pages. Spinrad tries to liven things up a bit; we have a few pitched battles in Mexico between Chris Sargent and the Mafia, and, this being a Harold Robbins-type novel, the characters are appropriately oversexed, so there's a bit of graphic sex every several pages.

Most frustratingly, Spinrad wastes a lot of pages on Barry Stein, editor of The Flash. Stein still believes in the Movement and, together with countercultural heroes Ivan Blue and Ruby Stein, forms a committee to take control of Jango's upcoming festival, Sunset City. The place will dwarf Woodstock, being an entire community of shops and houses; Stein and his colleagues plot to take over the concert and turn Sunset City into the first self-supporting "free republic" of the Movement, where drugs will be free and where "the people" can live free of "the Man."

However, Spinrad's own thoughts on the Movement are quite apparent -- Stein and his fellows are idiots, fools given over to a fantasy that has already died. What's worse, they infight the entire time, with Ruby and Ivan hating one another, and Stein and Ruby becoming an item. But Jango, somehow always knowing what's going on, tasks Chris Sargent with infiltrating the committee. Sargent approaches them as a drug-dealer who commands a small army; he will help them train recruits on how to take the festival stage. Ruby falls for Sargent, and there develops this endless subplot where Stein is jealous of Sargent, Sargent keeps sleeping with Ruby to aggravate Stein, and etc.

Paul Conrad meanwhile finds that he has been handed a steaming plate of crap. Somehow Jango Beck has already made this movie a bomb, even before a single frame has been shot. (Paul, remember, doesn't realize that Jango wants the movie to fail.) Paul finds himself saddled with Velva, a terrible leading lady, one only capable of emoting as if she were in some 1950s tearjerker. And Jango has further saddled Paul with an even worse leading man: Rick Gentry, a once-popular actor now reduced to TV specials, a man who instantly despises Velva, a man incapable of portraying the manly-man character Paul has written -- because, it turns out, Gentry is a homosexual (of the flaming variety). In truth this makes for some funny sequences, as Gentry prances through his scenes and Velva blunders one line after another; Paul keeps groaning over how terrible the film will be -- even a fool would see the leading man and woman hate one another -- but he never realizes that he has in his hands the making of a camp classic. As a connoisseur of bad cinema, I'd love to see this movie!

It all finally comes to a head at Sunset City, with Paul filming the final scenes of his film. Again this sequence is funny, but Spinrad stretches it out too much; Velva realizes that the only way she can act is if she has sex with Paul again, so she begins vamping it up on-camera to entice him. But then, Gentry does the same thing. So hilarity ensues as Paul finds himself the sexual object of both his leading lady and his leading man. Meanwhile Stein and his compatriots move into the final stages of their takeover, with Sargent and his Green Berets smuggling in M-16s and bazookas -- Sargent has been further tasked by Jango to destroy the master tapes of the festival's concerts. Again, we have no idea why Beck would do this; he's nearly a god here, moving human pieces about a chessboard.

Bill Hovrath and Susan are also here; they have agreed to play a certain song which will be the signal for Stein and his fellows to take the stage. Susan meanwhile has been slipping further into the Star persona. As she sings this song, the Movement people storm the stage, Sargent blasting away with his M-16. Paul meanwhile catches it all on film. And here we see that the Movement has truly died, as the million people in attendance begin screaming for Barry Stein and Ivan Blue and the others to get the hell off the stage; they have no interest in the "free republic" the group proposes. Jango's renta-cops descend in armored helicopters and a smallscale war ensues; here again Spinrad delves into some magic realism as Susan, fully into the Star persona, begins to sing amid the combat. She takes a few hits but sings on, and we're to believe that her voice is so moving that the bullets cease and love prevails. Which is a bitch, because I figured at least a few people would buy it in the climax.

Anyway, a long novel warrants a long review -- and like my review, this novel could've benefitted from a little pruning. It's just too needlessly overwritten. Many scenes are identical to one another; it's saddening when you realize that Barry Stein is obsessing over the same stuff about Ruby in the final half of the novel as he was back in the middle. I wonder if it was this stuffed-to-the-gills element which engendered the novel's obscurity; maybe readers just didn't respond to it, maybe the length turned them off. But no -- people read back then, it wasn't like today when the average reader is only capable of absorbing something the length of a text message. And Harold Robbins's novels, bestsellers all, were just as long as Passing Through The Flame, some of them even longer.

So again I propose that it was Berkley Medallion which did a disservice to this novel. If it had been printed by Dell or Avon, I figure Passing Through the Flame would've gone through a few more printings at least. But then, there could be another reason for its failure, one that only occurred to me toward the end of the novel. You see, for this to have been a true "Harold Robbins-type novel," a true piece of trash fiction, then Jango Beck should've been the protagonist. In his wheelings and dealings, his larger-than-life stature, Beck is the true hero, the type of character the average popular fiction of the time would've focused upon. Spinrad instead makes Beck the de facto villain. I don't mean this as an insult -- Spinrad is obviously the more gifted writer -- but I can only wonder what sort of novel Harold Robbins might've given us with a character like Jango Beck.

Anyway, for a thorough glimpse into the final days of the Counterculture, filled with plenty of sex and drugs and rock, with three-dimensional characters and a definite sense for period detail, you should certainly check out Passing Through The Flame.


James Reasoner said...

I used to own a copy of this book but never got around to reading it before it went up in, well, flames. But it sounds pretty interesting. I loved Harold Robbins' early books like THE DREAM MERCHANTS and A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER. Didn't care for the later ones near as much. You're right about how he would have handled this material as opposed to Spinrad's approach.

Joe Kenney said...

James, thanks for the comment. I was hoping others knew about this novel. I'm really sorry to hear you lost yours in a fire! As for Harold Robbins, I've recently made the decision to start reading his work. I won an auction for 19 of his paperbacks for a whopping $7 plus shipping. Perversely, I'm more interested in his latter material, when by all accounts he was so coked up he couldn't even keep track of his own plots or characters. Right now I'm halfway through his 1966 doorstop "The Adventurers," and so far so good!

James Reasoner said...

THE ADVENTURERS is kind of a turning point for Robbins as far as I'm concerned. It was the last of his books that I really liked, although some of the later ones were still fairly entertaining. I remember vividly sitting in study hall in high school reading THE ADVENTURERS when it was new.

John Nail said...

Finally finished this one, and though it took me an embarrassingly long time to do so, I have to say I liked it, but with strong reservations.

I agree with you that it's overwritten. As I was reading this book I found myself mentally editing it, slashing whole paragraphs. As you mention, Norman Spinrad thoroughly details settings and characters' attire often at the expense of the story's momentum. There were too many times where I thought he was rephrasing a previous paragraph just to make doubly sure readers got the awesomeness of the setting (e.g., listing all the vehicles in line to enter the Sunset City parking lot, then, in the following paragraph, listing still more vehicles in the exact same traffic jam). Some judicious editing could have cut this thing down from a patience-trying 569 pages to a briskly-paced 400.

Speaking of patience-trying, I have to say I was less enamored by the Susan/Star passages, with all her fretting over vibes, auras and shit. It got to where I dreaded the chapters focusing on the Velvet Cloud because I knew it meant wading through paragraph upon paragraph (at times, pages upon pages) detailing her hippie-dippy fugue states. At one point, when Spinrad was going on about the bummer vibes threatening to cave in Star's pretty skull, I may have even mumbled, "No wonder Nixon got voted into office."

Passing Through the Flame is a pretty engrossing story and though it's overwritten it's also well-written. I think Spinrad's Achilles heel just might have been that he took the project too seriously. He could have dropped all concerns about making a statement and cynically pushed the hedonism even further, making it more of a Harold Robbins-type novel (it's not like Harold ever gave two shits about making statements anyway). Or he could've adopted a more satirical tone, turning Passing Through the Flame into the print equivalent of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He wouldn't just be spoofing Hollywood but the very genre on which he's trying to cash-in! Your suggestion of making Jango Beck the main character would work perfectly with either tack.

Thanks again for exposing us to this novel. I am glad I read it, but I thought it fell short of being Glorious Trash. If anything, it wasn't trashy enough.