Monday, May 23, 2011
Tracker #1, by Ron Stillman
September, 1990 Charter/Diamond Books
This must've been one of the last gasps of the men's adventure genre, and what an ignoble death it was. Even the cover belies its true roots, making Tracker look like some sort of military sci-fi deal. But the misleading cover is the least of the book's problems. Simply put, Tracker #1 suffers from some of the most juvenile prose, plotting, and dialog I've yet encountered -- men's adventure or not. This is the sort of book that actually contains sentences like: The following morning, Natty hopped in his F-15E and headed for Colorado Springs. It's as if the novel was written for kids, by kids.
What's especially strange is that amid the childish mentality there are acts of total savagery. Women are raped in graphic detail and killed. Then we'll have scenes with our hero hobknobbing with Navy SEALs and joking around. Yes, this is one strange book. I'd hoped for something along the lines of TNT -- also published by Charter Books, and also sort of a spoof of the genre, going to insane extremes. But at least TNT was written (make that "translated") well. Snatches of Tracker #1 are well-done, but on the whole it falls flat. And hard.
The major problem is our hero, Nathaniel "Natty" Tracker. The man is too idealized, even given the genre. Tracker can do no wrong, and always comes out on top. He's more invincible than Superman. Even when he suffers he's still in charge; there's a scene where he's captured and his finger is cut off, and Tracker still makes jokes about it...while it's happening. He's so cocksure and arrogant that he annoys the reader.
Tall, muscular, handsome, and a genius to boot -- whereas other men's adventure protagonists at least have a sort of "Q" who develops their gadgets, Tracker does it all himself. Hell, he's even a self-made millionaire! Tracker's gimmick is that, in the beginning of the novel, he's rendered blind in a car crash. The reader knows what he's in for when, in the very next scene, Tracker awakens in the hospital, discovers he is blind...and proceeds to hit on and then sleep with his attendant nurse.
Nothing fazes Tracker; soon enough he has devised high-tech sunglasses which allow him to see again. (They apparently look nothing like the goggles on the cover, though.) A former Air Force hotshot pilot, Tracker uses his government connections to become a sort of undercover commando; he will go on dangerous missions the government wants kept secret. His first assignment is to infiltrate into Libya and rescue a downed pilot, a guy named "Rabbit" who happens to be Tracker's best bud.
Rabbit's kidnapper is The Ratel, a South American revolutionary who works as a mercenary. He's been hired by Qadafi and now holds the downed pilot in a fortress in the Libyan desert. Tracker flies in on a contraption of his own devise, straps on his Mac-11s, and kills a bunch of Libyans. The action scenes come fast and furious and aren't grounded in the least by reality. Setpieces go down that would look unbelieveable even in the fantasy world of a summer blockbuster. And again it's all rendered bland because Tracker can do no wrong and it's never in question that he will defeat the foe and save his pal.
But in true fashion it's Tracker's companions who suffer most. Tracker's ostensible girlfriend, Fancy Bird (!), also gets captured by Ratel, who proceeds to rape her. This sequence is very much at odds with the tone of the novel. Tracker vows revenge and goes about attaining it. Another head-scratcher is the anticlimatic end, which goes on and on and on, detailing Tracker's (eventual) escape from Libya.
Tracker #1 also shows the complete neutering of the men's adventure genre. Published in late 1990, the novel suffers from the burgeoning "politically correct" movement. For example, in an early sex scene it's inferred that Tracker wears condoms. It's difficult to imagine say John Eagle Expeditor pausing to slip on a Trojan before getting busy. And similar to the Expeditor, Tracker was raised by the Apache -- only Stillman is careful to refer to them as "Native American," and speaks of them with total deference; a far cry from the talk of "Indian savagery" one encounters in the Expeditor books! And finally, later in the novel Tracker is awarded a million dollars by the US government for achieving one of his missions. Tracker donates half of it to AIDs research. There are a hundred things I could see Johnny Rock doing with half a million dollars, but that isn't one of them.
Such things show how much the genre (and the times!) had changed within two decades. But then, men's adventure novels were known for going over the top. The lurid nature was part of the charm, and I'm betting most readers never took these books seriously, anyway. Trying to tone the genre down into a "softer, gentler," more socially-conscious sort of thing can only lead to failure. If anyone wondered why men's adventure novels dropped by the wayside, then Tracker #1 offers many clues.
I want to say the novel's a spoof, but slogging through it you have to wonder. It would be one thing if Tracker was a parody of the superheroic men's adventure sort of protagonist, but the parody isn't fully carried through...leaving the novel a muddled mess. But there are things that make you wonder -- like when Tracker meets some Libyans who beg him to convince the President to have the US military invade Libya!
Anyway, the series lasted 8 volumes, and I have them all. Later installments appear to be more pulpish, so here's hoping. "Ron Stillman" by the way is Don Bendell, a writer and poet. Bendell wrote the first 6 novels, then was replaced by someone else who finished up the series with the final 2. Whoever it was, he couldn't have done much worse.