Wednesday, November 23, 2011
The Last Ball
The Last Ball, by Charles Rigdon
June, 1973 Pocket Books
For some reason this novel (first published in hardcover in 1972 by Trident Press) was promoted as Charles Rigdon's "first," despite the fact that Night Games was published in 1969. But given that sleaze purveyors Award Books were behind that one, I'm guessing Rigdon and his publishers figured "don't ask, don't tell." At any rate The Last Ball is mostly superior to that previous novel; it's a big trashy tale that comes recommended by none other than my man Burt Hirschfeld, who must've been so impressed that he provided both front and back cover blurbs.
The Last Ball is actually very similar to the work of Hirschfeld; Rigdon has the same talent for the long-simmer tale, putting a bunch of rich characters together in glamorous settings. Like some of Hirschfeld's work, it's also a bit too long for its own good, filled with uneccessary scene-setting and padding. Two things set Rigdon's work apart from Hirschfeld, however: first, he tends to be a bit more literary. There's a fair bit of "word painting" in The Last Ball, particularly in the descriptions of the countryside and the weather, some of which is so florid and verbose that it would shame a 19th century travelogue writer. The other difference between Rigdon and Hirschfeld is that Rigdon, when he wants to be, is a whole hell of a lot trashier.
The "last ball" in question is an annual converging of the entitled elite at a charity ball in New York City; traditionally it has been helmed by Jessica Eldridge, daughter of a president and royalty in all but name. Jessica though is quite advanced in years and won't be able to handle events this year. Meanwhile a group of jet-setters squabble amongst one another, anticipating the ball.
The odd man out in the group is John Hartman, "the lion of wall street," a tough-talking bastard who has made his millions but has never been accepted as part of the rich set. He's only married into it; his wife, Leah, is a drunk who enjoys giving herself away to other men while John can only stand by and seethe. Leah's father is one of the richest of the rich, so it only adds to John's frustration that he isn't even accepted as part of the group by his own in-laws. So, John plans his vengeance by determining to become the master of the ball this year; in this way he will be the leader of this elite pack, and get their goat in the biggest possible way.
A lurid cast provides the framework for the story. There's an over-the-hill socialite married to a wealthy but gay member of royalty; a sly coutier who harbors homosexual tendencies of his own; a vicious gossip columnist obviously modeled on Rona Barrett; a political hopeful who must cater to the wealthy to support his platform; The Baron, a sordid and corpulent fellow who serves as a sort of hustler and supplier for the jet set; and finally Crista, a jet-setting playgirl with a lurid past who eventually falls in love with John Hartman.
The novel starts off uber-trashy. We have John and Leah spatting because Leah has just slept with another man; Rigdon provides the incredibly lurid detail of Leah relishing the aftertaste of the man's shall we say "effluvience" as she fights with her husband. After that, we have a bit where our bisexual courtier throws a ribald party in which a mannequin is offered forth as an effigy of the faux-Rona Barrett columnist, and everyone rips it apart in a bacchic frenzy. Then we have an out-of-left-field bit (which is never mentioned again in the novel) where Crista, high and drunk, hops in her sports car, speeds through NYC in the twilight hours, ends up in Central Park, finds a pair of homosexual lovers who are in the midst of getting busy, and thrusts herself into their coupling.
This obviously sets reader expectation very high for a lurid extravaganza. Sadly though the novel gradually becomes solely focused on John Hartman's bid to become the chairman of the ball, as well as his burgeoning romance with Crista. Eventually the novel is merely an overblown romance, with all of the lurid stuff forgotten, as John and Crista fall in love and etc, etc. The other characters disappear for the majority of the novel as John and Crista go to Jamaica (an unecessary scene which nevertheless has a nice Hirschfeld-esque moment where the couple swim with a pair of dolphins), then return to NYC where they shack up in Crista's secluded lovenest. This section goes into the yawn-stratosphere with endless descriptions of the verdant countryside outside her window and etc.
It's only in the latter third that the lurid stuff returns, but it's merely a pale reflection of what came before. The Baron tries to take ownership of the ball from John, spreading malicious gossip about John's "untoward interest" in one of the boys there. (Another saccharine sequence, where John and his bombshell of a secretary take one of the orphans on weekly trips to the beach.) The vengeful courtier steals Crista away from John via a ruse with disastrous results, setting the scene for a maudlin and melancholy finale which the reader could see coming a few hundred pages earlier.
So it's overblown and tepid at times, but the lurid stuff saves it a bit. However it is a bit frustrating that the ball itself is given short shrift; after all the build-up in the novel, Rigdon sort of rushes through it in the end. Despite all of which I still enjoyed his writing; like Hirschfeld he has a way of getting you inside the hearts and minds of his characters, so that you feel enveloped in the tale. I just wish Rigdon had kept up with the trashy pace of the opening section. If he had, The Last Ball would be a trash fiction classic.