Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The Adventurers, by Harold Robbins
1966, Pocket Books
I keep mentioning Harold Robbins in my trash fiction reviews, so I thought it was time I actually focused on one of his novels. It's hard to imagine now, but at one time Robbins was a true bestselling heavyweight, famous around the world. Today he is forgotten. Robbins was at the height of his fame in the '60s and '70s, but by the '80s his star had begun to wane; I read a lot even as a kid in the mid-to-late '80s, and I'm not sure if I'd ever even heard of the guy back then. If I did, I probably assumed he wrote James Michener-type novels or other "boring" stuff. If only I'd known...
The Adventurers is considered one of Robbins's "best" novels and also his last "good" one. Critics were never kind to the man and it's easy to see why -- simply put, this is some of the worst writing I've ever come across. The narrative is clunky and overstuffed, the characters are one-dimensional, the dialog is bad, and there's no rhyme or reason to anything. POV-hopping, something I hate as much as the Nazis, is all over the place, and not just between paragraphs; there are a few places where we go into a paragraph in one character's point of view and come out of it in another's. The events in the novel occur over a span of decades but there's no grand design; characters pop in and out of the narrative with little explanation or care. And the strangest thing is the lack of scene-setting or topical detail; our jet-setting characters roam about the world to all of the international hot spots, but Robbins never bothers to elaborate on the scenery or make us readers feel as if we are there with the characters. So there goes the escapism one would expect.
But I couldn't stop reading it!! Even though there are looong stretches of boring, endless business discussions and meetings, static scenes in which nothing much happens -- despite this I would continue to read on as if hypnotized. Also, every several pages Robbins has a sex scene, or some "dirty" language, and in these sections it's as if he wakes up and writes. Especially with the vulgarity, where he shows some true originality with vernacular. It's like a 13 year-old boy who has just learned to curse. The standard opinion is that after The Adventurers Robbins's novels became mostly just porn, sloppily churned-out porn at that. But since I think the "dirty" stuff is the only material he writes well in The Adventurers, I have a feeling I will enjoy his later novels more.
A few months ago I spent an absurdly small amount of money on a box filled with 19 Robbins mass market paperbacks, each of them appropriately damaged and worn from heavy reading. I chose to start with The Adventurers as last year I became acquainted with the 1969 movie version (aka the greatest movie ever!!). The tagline for the film was "Nothing has been left out of The Adventurers," but that's a total lie: the movie is nothing like the novel. And not just because the film was set in the 1960s, whereas the novel takes place decades earlier. No, so much was altered that pretty much only the names of the characters was retained; most everything else was drastically changed. So, fellow fans of the unintentionally campy film will be in for a jolt if they ever attempt to read the source material.
Our nominal hero is Dax Xenos, born into the revolutionary strife of fictional South American country Corteguay in the early 20th Century. The novel is split into a handful of "books," with the first and last written in Dax's own narrative; these two sections are the best in the novel, as Robbins is unable to POV-hop when caught in the stranglehold of a first-person narrative. Dax, still a child, witnesses the slaughter of his mother and sisters in yet another of the endless skirmishes which has ravaged Corteguay. Dax's father is a respected lawyer trying to broker peace, which gradually comes with the inaugaration of "el Presidente," former revolutionary and now president of Corteguay. Through this sequence we have many thrilling moments, as a young Dax learns how to survive in the jungle. Here he also meets two characters who will become important throughout his life: Amparo, a blonde-haired Corteguayan girl his age who is the dauther of el Presidente, and Fat Cat, a heavyset revolutionary who moves as silent as a ninja and who becomes Dax's bodyguard/best friend/father figure for life.
In fact, this opening section is taut and harrowing and at times even emotional, such that you wonder why Robbins had a bad rep with the critics. But then the second "book" jumps over to Paris, where Dax and his father and Fat Cat have been transplanted, so Dax's father can act as the new Corteguayan ambassador. Here Robbins employs a third-person narrative and it's as if the care and thought he put into the previous section has been jettisoned. The reader is confronted with an army of characters, which would be little problem if the author had bothered to give them personalities or at least plan out their various trajectories through the narrative. Instead we are confronted with around 500 pages of random characters appearing and disappearing while planning various business deals or talking about sex.
Besides Dax there's the DeCoyn clan, a wealthy Parisian banking family with a stern patriarch and a son named Robert, who is Dax's age, as well as a precocious sister. There's the Hadley family (removed from the film), aka The Kennedys -- an American family with a strong-willed father and his many sons, each of whom he plans to get into politics. There's Sue Ann, one of Dax's many wives and "the richest girl in the world," completely different than the version presented in the film (there she was a virginal waif, here she's a foul-mouthed whore). There's Marcel, a Frenchman who initially serves as an aid at the Corteguayan embassay in Paris but eventually goes about the world in various business pursuits. There's Sergei, son of former Russian royalty, who after acting as gigolo to rich older women becomes a world-famous fashion designer. And there are various movie actresses, politicians, and etc.
Again, it's not the size of the cast that's the problem. It's just that this entire sequence is such a damned mess. I actually came to respect the film version all the more, as the producers were able to fashion something from the chaotic sprawl Robbins has given us. Worst of all is that the Dax we met in the opening sequence is lost to us; he becomes just as blank as the other characters, an automaton walking about the various big events of the early 20th century. One thing the novel does moreso than the film is live up to its title -- the filmmakers wisely stuck to Dax's story in the movie, making one wonder why it was titled The Adventurers, plural. The novel focuses on all of the various individuals in Dax's life, so that at least makes more sense. It's just too messy and lacks any direction.
But to repeat...I couldn't stop reading, regardless of the boring meetings, the bland dialog, the setups which had no payoffs. Finally the last half arrives and for the final book Robbins goes back to a first-person narrative for Dax. The novel is once again good. Dax returns to Corteguay and becomes involved in the sordid world of el Presidente and his heroin-addicted daughter Amparo. Robbins, known for his "filthy" stuff, saves all of it for this last book. To be sure, there are many sex scenes throughout, but Robbins usually "fades to black" when they occur; The Adventurers isn't very graphic at all. Save for one scene, at the very end, so bizarre as to be hilarious -- Dax stumbles in upon el Presidente "punishing" his own daughter with a strap-on dildo. "You're just in time to help!" el Presidente happily tells our hero.
The finale plays out much like the film, with yet another civil war ravaging Corteguay. And the ending too is the same, but I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the movie or read the novel. It came to me that you could just read the first and last books of The Adventurers and be done with it, skipping the majority of this 800+ page doorstop of a novel. I mean, I read the whole thing, but I can barely remember any of it other than the opening and closing books. It's all like a drunken blur.
Since finishing The Adventurers I've started in on Robbins's 1984 novel Descent From Xanadu, and it's a thousand times better. I'll report back on it once I'm finished, but for now my advice, at least for this Harold Robbins novel, is to stick with the movie. It's a camp-lover's dream.