Thursday, May 12, 2011

Dreams Die First

Dreams Die First, by Harold Robbins
September, 1978 Pocket Books

Here's another latter-era Harold Robbins book which is basically forgotten today. And it's easy to see why, as the majority of Dreams Die First reads as if it came from the typewriter of a bored writer, banging out his first (and only) draft in a delirium of cocaine and caffeine...which, according to the bio Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex, is exactly how Dreams Die First was written.

As usual, the novel is more like three separate stories jammed into one. Our narrator/protagonist is Gareth Brendan, a down-on-his-luck Vietnam vet eking out his existence on an unemployment check. This doesn't stop him from banging the lovely receptionist at the unemployment office, a Hispanic lady named Verita who is an accountant at heart. Deus ex machina plays a larger role than normal in Dreams Die First; most Robbins books suffer from it but here it is very prevalent. Verita is just the first instance of it, as her accounting skills play a big part in Gareth's business successes.

Another instance is Gareth's uncle, Lonergan, who just happens to be some sort of underworld powerhouse, like the top ruler of all shady deals on the West Coast. It makes one wonder why, if Lonergan is such a powerful figure, Gareth leads such a miserable existence -- especially when you consider how Lonergan sends his men to pick Gareth up and basically forces him to take control of a failing news circular. It all appears to be Lonergan's plan to funnel illicitly-gained money, but Gareth goes along with it as he doesn't have anything else to do. His idea though is to turn the circular into a porn mag, a glossy full-color with a new covergirl each week. And, unlike the repeatedly-bashed Playboy, Gareth promises that his rag won't airbrush the lower regions of the models.

So now we have the makings of a plot. But Robbins, having snorted another line of coke, changes his mind. Instead, he now decides that Dreams Die First will be an action-adventure about transsexuals, s&m torture parties, mobsters, and New Age sex cults. Seriously. It's like we're suddenly reading The Sharpshooter, with Gareth's gay pal getting strung up on a torture rack in the middle of a tranny party, and Gareth going in with a .357 to save him. And Gareth, I realized, is basically a men's adventure novel sort of protagonist: a fomer Green Beret in 'Nam who goes around smashing faces with his fancy savate kicks. The funny thing is, there's not much difference between the rough-hewn writing styles of Harold Robbins and "Bruno Rossi." One could even make a valid argument that Rossi (whichever version) was a more innovative stylist (to say the least). However Robbins was paid millions and the various "Rossis" were paid squat. It's no wonder so many writers hated Robbins.

I forgot to mention: Gareth happens to be bisexual, something Robbins skirts over until an out-of-left-field sequence toward the very end of the novel. This is how he met his gay friend, a young rich kid whose dad is Father Sam, leader of that aforementioned sex cult. Ostensibly Christian, these people live in communes and smoke dope and practice free love. After rescuing the kid from the torture room -- and Robbins here goes into extreme lurid detail about the manner of torture the poor kid suffered -- Gareth learns that the rich trannies have hired a bunch of goons to kill him. Now Gareth is on the run, plus there's an added threat in that the mafia is also out for his blood; they want his now-lucrative porno circular, which sold out with the first issue.

So the plot changes yet again as Gareth hides on one of the sex-cult communes. Here one of the girls falls in love with him, so much so that in another sequence, again which seems to have come from another novel, she admits her insatiable sex drive to the brotherhood and undergoes "treatment" via an electric rod which supposedly orgasms the lust out of her. Weird stuff for sure. Did I mention that at this point Gareth has orange hair due to a rushed dye job?

This whole first section just gets weirder and weirder; again, the Sharpshooter connotations, as Gareth decides to take the war directly to his attackers. First he blows away a few of the hired goons, then he goes to Verita's cousin, who happened to serve under Gareth in 'Nam. Deus ex Machina again, especially when we discover that Verita's cousin happens to be a Latino warlord, commanding a minor army of thugs. Gareth takes a few of them for a midnight raid on the mansion of the thug-hiring trannies as well as an attack on a garage of mob-owned trucks.

Unfortunately the second half of the novel isn't as fun. Picking up a few years later, Gareth is suddenly mega-wealthy. Now the plot is all about his purchasing a resort in Mexico! The crazed momentum of the first half is lost and indeed the mob-attacking events go unmentioned. How Gareth got so wealthy is glossed over in half-assed flashbacks, but long story short he started up another magazine, Macho, which comes off like a dirtier version of Hustler, which is really saying something. The two main gimmicks with Macho are its blue-collar mindset -- Gareth realizes the hoity-toity tone of Playboy turns off many of its readers -- and, brace yourself, "The Supercunt of the Month," which is a centerfold blowup of the the genitalia of each month's cover model. To this I say "hmmm," but in the world of Robbins it equals instant millions for Gareth.

And make no mistake, we learn the entirety of Gareth's revenue and expenditures. In an obvious gambit to fill pages, Robbins actually shows the breakdowns in handy columns of how much printing and distribution costs Gareth, how much revenue will be earned, etc. Robbins was a bookkeeper before making it big as a novelist, and here he serves up "Accounting 101." He doesn't do this once, but several times throughout the novel.

I never did figure out how the resort-buying stuff fit into the larger plot, but it doesn't appear that Robbins did either. Needless to say, it's just an excuse for Gareth to soak up the rays while smoking dope and having sex with a few women in between business discussions. But in a late development we discover that a branch of Father Sam's cult is down here. It appears that a local drug runner is using the kids as field hands, keeping them doped to their gills; one of them escapes -- the same girl who fell in love with Gareth way back when he was hiding with them -- and it starts to look like we'll have another slam-bang action sequence, with Gareth serving up some blood-soaked payback. Instead, Gareth takes the girl home...and Robbins picks up two years later, with the girl now adapting back to a normal life and Gareth even more wealthy from a new magazine line.

But it doesn't matter, as Robbins is now in the home stretch. In quick succession all hell breaks loose in the Mexican resort, a few major characters get killed "off camera," and Gareth tells one of the surviving women that he loves her. The end.

It was all like a fever dream, really. But still it was kind of enjoyable, especially the first half. It's hard to believe this was a bestseller, not only due to the lurid content but also because it's just so damn choppy. But then that's the power of a famous name; at this point people would buy anything that had "Harold Robbins" stamped on the cover. I hope Robbins enjoyed it while it lasted, as within a few years he would lose both his bestseller status and the majority of his readers, who slowly realized he was turning out lazy first drafts.


Tim Mayer said...

It astounds me that so few people remember this writer. Even Squeeze sang about him.

Remus said...

Amazing that anyone could write such a novel, but even more amazing that anyone could read it. Ah, well, somebody's got to do it. Truly, you are doing the Lord's work, Joe!

John Nail said...

This was the first Harold Robbins novel I ever read and from then on I was hooked. I re-read it(!) a few years ago and still enjoyed it, though this time it was for the novel's camp value (love the electric rod treatment sequence), not the explicit sex. It sort of the print equivalent of one of those Joe D'Amato Emanuelle movies with Laura Gemser. In fact, I even imagine scenes from Dreams Die First having the same hazy, washed-out look that so many of those Emanuelle movies have. The 1977 PB copy I purchased for re-reading promoted an upcoming movie from AIP, but to my knowledge a movie version of Dreams Die First was, sadly, never made.

Joe Kenney said...

John, thanks for the comment. You summed up the feel of these '70s novels perfectly -- I too could see a sorty of washed-out look for the movies that play in my mind as I'm reading these books.

A few years ago I read the book "Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex," and I think it went into the various planned you say, none of them happened. Robbins himself started a film company, and at one point he was trying to option the Baroness series! (This isn't mentioned in the Harold Robbins book, but instead was revealed in an interview with Donald Moffat, the author of the series, on the Baroness Yahoo fanclub.)

Also, there was a TV movie made of the Pirate, starring Franco was more of a miniseries in a way. I picked up a blurry DVDR bootleg, and was surprised how anemic it was. They gutted ALL of the trashy stuff, but then what would you expect of mid-'70s US television.

John Nail said...

I had been curious about the TV treatment of The Pirate, another '70s-era Robbins fave of mine. I like Franco Nero but your assessment is pretty much what I feared it would be: neutered. My all-time favorite Robbins movie adaptation is The Lonely Lady. Harold Robbins + Cheap Production Values x Pia Zadora = Trashgasm!

Elaine Campbell said...

The book stunk. What was he thinking?

Felicity Walker said...

I’ll agree with John Nail about The Lonely Lady. I saw it on TV when I was growing up and I had no idea what to make of it, but I loved it. Plus it has Jared Martin from the 1980s TV series War of the Worlds!