Monday, October 31, 2011
Quickies, by Joe Goldberg
October, 1974 Dell Books
This is a gem of a novel, and it's a shame it's so obscure. I've had my copy for nearly a year now and only just read it, and I'm sorry I didn't sooner. It's a breeze of a read, not even 200 pages long, but it packs a wallop and it's a ton of fun. And it's very well written, literate and witty and laugh out loud funny at times. In fact it's right up there with William Hanley's equally-unsung classic Blue Dreams.
The two novels are also a bit similar; just as the protagonist of Blue Dreams was obsessed both with sex and with films (particularly classic cinema), the protagonist of Quickies, Arnie Walker, is too obsessed, only Arnie is actually involved with the business. Or as he refers to it, "the showbiz." Arnie is a NYC advertising director who comes to LA in 1970 (in a satirical preface Goldberg states that Quickies is a "historical novel," taking place in the "long-ago" era of 1970), looking to get his break into the biz by making porno flicks.
Don't be mislead, though; what this novel refers to as "porno" today would moreso be termed "softcore," where the nudity is real but the sex is simulated. Arnie gets a job directing for a Russ Meyer-type sleaze mogul named Von Peterson, a mountain of a man who lives in opulence, having raked in millions with his softcore films. Arnie applies his filmschool learnings to Von Peterson's dime-budget productions, his first picture a Western Von Peterson has named Box Canyon. The star is a self-proclaimed full-blooded American Indian dazzler named Ramona, a veteran of skin flicks, and a lady Arnie of course promptly lusts after.
Though Ramona soon becomes Arnie's lady, even helping him purchase a Von Peterson-financed mansion in LA, Arnie is obsessed with Bonnie, a statuesque blonde model he has worked with in New York. Arnie is determined to not only bring Bonnie to LA but to sleep with her. He convinces Von Peterson that Bonnie is the next big thing; after perusing some photos of her Von Peterson agrees.
Bonnie arrives and pretty much every man who sees her promptly falls in love. She even lives in the mansion with Arnie, but only because she's been hoodwinked; Bonnie, despite posing nude for photos, has no interest in acting in sex flicks and indeed is rather puritan about things. She's also wise to Arnie's intentions and reminds him often that she has been studying karate.
But she has been properly conned; she has no money and Von Peterson only purchased a one-way ticket for her. Bonnie has no choice but to star in the film Arnie has envisioned for her: Jungle of Desire, based on the Shee-Ra serials Arnie loved as a kid. Bonnie will play the jungle queen; her "costume" is so small it fits in the palm of her hand. When Ramona sees the looks Arnie is giving Bonnie, she realizes that she has competition for her man; Arnie takes advantage of this and casts Ramona as the villain, the movie climaxing in a lesbian brawl between the two women.
Between the filmmaking there are many entertaining scenes, such as when Arnie's parents come to visit (they leave with the certainty that their son is now a pimp, given all the gorgeous women who know him by name), and also a great scene where Arnie puts together a film comprised of cast-off scenes from previous Von Peterson films. Goldberg really shines here with inventive titles for these fictional skinflicks. (I think my favorite is the s&m feature Tame Me, Maim Me, Mamie!)
Arnie continues to obsess over Bonnie, who refuses to give him the time of day. At first I feared her character would become annoying, but she proved to be one of the best in the novel, constantly spatting with Arnie and the slackjawed gawkers she's always leaving in her wake. Gradually Arnie realizes his chances with Bonnie are nil. But meanwhile he has become obsessed with another girl, a short and slim blonde he meets early in the novel during a casting call. The girl refuses to appear nude in a film and storms off, but Arnie is consumed with fantasies about her for the rest of the book; he only knows her name is Sam.
Realizing Bonnie will never be his, Arnie concocts the idea to create his own star, just as Harry Cohn supposedly "created" Kim Novak when he couldn't cast Rita Hayworth in a picture (again, Quickies is filled with allusions to the film world). So Arnie decides to create his own star -- a woman that will be his both on the screen and in bed. After various casting calls (filled again with yet more witty dialog), Arnie finally discovers her -- you guessed it, Sam, who shows up at one of the calls. Arnie has found his star.
The novel climaxes in a cinema verite-type film, cashing in on the arty trend of then-current Hollywood, where six people confront one another with a sort of Truth or Dare game between the sexes, where the men will ask the women questions, and vice versa. The contestants are Arnie, Sam, Von Peterson, Bonnie, Ramona, and Olliphant (a famous TV writer who pops in and out of the narrative, he is the source of pretty much everyone's ire). Arnie has also deemed that this will be a film where the sex is not simulated. If a contestant fails to answer three questions, he or she is out of the game -- but first he or she must have sex with the person who beat them.
Not surprisingly for a novel consumed with sex and nudity, there isn't much heart in Quickies. But it slowly builds in the narrative, as Arnie realizes he's become so jaded that even during the casting call, where countless nude women parade before him, he's no longer even aroused. What he seeks is actual love, and he believes he has found it in Sam. It's to Goldberg's credit that this budding romance does not go down in the hackneyed fashion one might expect. Indeed Quickies ends on a mournful, sad note, very much at odds with the goofy tone of the rest of the novel.
As mentioned, this is a quick read, but certainly an enjoyable one. Goldberg writes in present tense and carries it off very well. Also the chapters are short, Richard Brautigan-type deals that are four pages max, further playing in on the novel's title, I would imagine. I did some research on Goldberg and it turns out he published a few other novels in the 1970s, as well as a nonfiction book titled Big Bunny: The Inside Story of Playboy, which details his years as a Playboy editor. He's definitely an author I'll enjoy reading more of one of these days.