Monday, November 28, 2011
The Takers, by Robert Ackworth
January, 1979 Ballantine Books
They Lived By Movieland's Golden Rule: Do Unto Others...Fast!
Sporting the dumbest cover blurb in history, Robert Ackworth's The Takers seemed to offer everything I'd been searching for in a trashy novel set during Hollywood's Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s. It was a doorstop of a book, coming in at nearly 600 pages of tiny, tiny print, about three movers and shakers at the fictional Regency Pictures studio, with a focus on their lurid sex lives. Ultimately though the novel fell flat due to lack of characterization, lack of plot, and lack of description.
The three protagonists are Howard Stanton, who comes to Hollywood in the final years of the silent era and becomes Regency's top star through the '30s and '40s; Michael Baines, several years younger than Howard, an actor who too follows his dream to Hollywood and becomes a Regency star in the post-WWII era; and finally Tracy Gordon, a brunette sort of Marilyn Monroe who becomes Regency's sex goddess of the '50s. Howard Stanton gets the majority of the novel, with the Tracy Gordon sections taking up the least. At any rate all three of them connect in one way or another, with Michael Baines a huge fan of Howard's (yet still hoping to trump him one day as Regency's top star), and Tracy Gordon falling in love with both of them.
Stanton's tale in the '30s was the highlight for me, due to my interest in that era. He hobknobs with Regency's top star (like Baines later in the book, Stanton hopes to trump the current star when he arrives in Hollywood, and of course succeeds), and also becomes a surrogate son for the acting president of Regency. As his star climbs Stanton becomes friendly with a variety of ladies. I should mention here that Ackworth takes special relish in tossing graphic sex scenes into the novel, which gives it a nicely lurid touch. Sometimes it's laughable because the scenes just come out of nowhere, with no connection to the preceeding or following sections, as if Ackworth went through his manuscript and said, "I'll put a sex scene here....and another here..."
Stanton eventually falls in love with Leni Leibhaber, a sort of anti-Marlene Dietrich in that she's 100% pro-Hitler and spends all of her sequences denouncing the US and saying how great Germany is, thanks to the Nazis. All this of course occurs in the pre-WWII years, and despite her Nazi tendencies Stanton's still in love with her. (Also despite the fact that Leni spends a suspicious amount of time with her female assistant.) So then, we have with Leni Leibhaber a sex-crazed character who happens to be a lesbian Nazi; as I say, The Takers had all the makings of becoming a trash classic.
The problem is, it's all so boringly presented. Ackworth doesn't bother with scene-setting or placing his characters in a colorful world. He barely describes anything, and also given that he also doesn't pay much attention to characterization, it leads to colorless characters in a colorless world. Leni should leap off the page but in Ackworth's hands she's kind of dull, which is insane when you think about it. Not to mention that Ackworth hardly ever describes the films his characters work on, even down to the plots. Given the super-production of studio pictures back then, you'd figure Ackworth would have a field day describing the sets and everything, but he only comes close to this once, when Michael Baines first arrives on the Regency lot and walks through it, looking at the sets. But even here Ackworth is conservative.
Shortly before WWII Leni returns to Germany and refuses to come back to the US, so Stanton has no choice but to divorce her. He then marries another actress whom he's fallen in love with in the meantime; another blank slate of a character, this one named Georgina. By this time Baines is more in the storyline, coming to Regency to start off in bit parts. Unfortunately his storyline is a carbon copy of Stanton's, which we just read a few hundred pages ago. It's pretty much identical, with Baines lusting for stardom, hooking up with random ladies for some explicit sex scenes, and hoping to become top dog at Regency. Only Baines is drafted into WWII, so his storyline gets a bit different when he becomes a soldier on the battlefront; sadly Ackworth's powers of description fail him in these scenes as well.
Tracy Gordon too shares the same storyline, with the only difference that she's a girl, so Ackworth can write her sex scenes from a woman's point of view. She loves Stanton (who is divorced again) but marries Baines; the two men have a long rivalry for her. Eventually Baines and Tracy also divorce, which sets the scene for the 1962 reunion for the trio -- the novel opens in that year, with Regency about to celebrate it's 4oth anniversary, but it's a melancholy, dispirited affair, as the days of the studios are over, besides which all of the bosses and moguls from that time are long gone anyway.
But there's no plot here, no forward momentum. It's sort of like the same story over and over again. Even down to the small details -- Stanton loses his virginity (as mentioned, Ackworth leaves no sex scene unexplored) as a teenager to a whore; a few hundred pages later, Baines loses his virginity to a whore. The scenes are identical. Stanton falls in love with an actress who turns out to be involved, yet he can't get her out of his mind. Baines a few hundred pages later falls in love with an actress who turns out to be married, yet he can't get her out of his mind.
Perhaps this is Ackworth's theme, the banality and repetition of the lives of Hollywood celebrities, but it makes for a dull affair. Even the lesbian Nazi is boring, and that is the most unkindest cut of all.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Taboo, by Elizabeth Gage
December, 1993 Pocket Books
Once again I must give credit to trash guru Martin Boucher for bringing an author to my attention. Elizabeth Gage is the author in question; she rose to a brief fame in the late '80s and early '90s before disappearing from the scene. According to the bio on the back of this book, "Gage" was a psuedonym, and as you can see in the link to Martin's site above, there are rumors that a few different authors might have been behind the name.
At any rate, of the various Gage novels Taboo was the one that struck my fancy, as it takes place in the "golden age" of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. This is a big tale (560 pages in this mass market paperback edition) about a trio of people in Tinseltown: Kate Hamilton, a pretty young thing who escapes a miserable background to become Hollywood's darling; Joseph Knight, a handsome entrepreneur who moves into the movie business with the aim of taking it over; and finally Eve Sinclair, a child star of the early '30s who, as Taboo opens, is on the verge of turning 18, and is looking to shall we say expand her horizons.
Unfortunately it takes nearly 200 pages to get to the Hollywood stuff; before that we must endure Kate Hamilton's woeful adolescent years, in which she is abused by her stepfather, gets thrown out by her mother, and ends up marrying a crook. All of it seems taken right out of an early '30s melodrama, one of the "women's pictures" that were so popular at the time. And indeed that may be Gage's intent. But regardless it's boring.
Also we have lots of material with Joseph Knight, how he uses his looks and his charm to build up his fortunes, running afoul of gangsters and causing beautiful women to fall into suicidal love with him. The only bearable character in this endless trawl is Eve Sinclair, the villain of the piece; a true scheming hellcat, she outs her secretly-gay costar (Eve's mid-30s popularity is due to a series of movies akin to the ones Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney made together), endures the sexual advances of a mogul, and upon turning 18 has her meddling mother forever cast out of her life.
Finally we get to the Hollywood section, where in an unintentionally hilarious sequence Joseph Knight pitches a lame movie idea to the production manager of Continental Studios (basically MGM). The guy loves the idea, which is about the Russian revolution (Gage seems unaware that several such movies were made in Hollywood in the early '30s), but sees in Knight the makings of a powerful enemy, and so has his lawyer concoct a scheme whereby they can steal his idea but not give him credit. However this was Knight's plan all along; meanwhile he goes to a smaller studio and pitches a more realistic idea, this one about the struggles people endured during the Depression (all of this occurs around 1940). This producer too loves the idea, and rushes the film into production.
As expected, Knight's small film trumps the big budget Russian revolution flick. Now he is a man on the go in Hollywood, producing and directing films. Eve Sinclair, her star ebbing, latches onto him and gets the lead in his next film. But given that she becomes infatuated with him (every single woman who even looks at Knight in this damn book falls in love with him), Eve throws tantrums and acts it up on the set, trying to draw attention to herself. Instead Knight fires her, and hires in her place Kate Hamilton, who up to now has been relegated to extra parts.
This of course invokes Eve's wrath. She plots her revenge, but meanwhile in a completely unrelated sequence Knight serves as a combat pilot in WWII. Honestly I had no idea why this section was even in the novel. Nothing comes to a head until, in 1946, Knight and Kate are about to make another picture together; finally Eve sows her vengeance.
According to that author bio, Gage "is the psuedonym of one of storytelling's brightest stars." This is hard to buy, as her storytelling skills are horrendous. I do not exaggerate when I say that 98% of this novel is written in summary. It's all "He had said," or "She had done," or "And so it had come to pass." Just on and on and on. It renders the novel a limpid bloat of a thing, with no forward momentum. Even when Joseph Knight finally arrives in Hollywood and makes his film, even that is written in summary, Gage telescoping the events of the next several months in huge blocks of paragraphs. There's hardly any action at all. Even of the sexual variety; these scenes too, which one might expect to be lurid or at the very least trashy, are overwritten to the point of banality.
As I read this novel I couldn't help but think that there was a better tale within. Eve Sinclair is the true star here: she's callous and manipulative and fun to read about. Unfortunately she disappears for long sections, and we must endure the boring lives of Kate Hamilton and Joseph Knight. These two are taken from the realm of Romance fiction; as mentioned, Joseph Knight is so perfect as to be laughable. There are innumerable scenes where women -- who have only gotten a glimpse of him -- will find themselves dreaming of him, fantasizing about him. And Kate Hamilton is super boring, incapable of endearing herself to the reader. Had Gage reversed this, made Eve the star of the show and Knight and Hamilton the supporting players (and if she hadn't written the entire thing in summary), she might've had one heck of a novel.
Gage's first novel (and biggest success) was A Glimpse of Stocking, a doorstop of a book which again dealt with Hollywood, only in the modern day. I've got that book too, and thumbing through it, it appears that it doesn't suffer from the summary syndrome as much as Taboo. I'll get to it one of these days.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Boy Wonder, by James Robert Baker
January, 1990 Signet Books
(Original hardcover edition, 1988)
I had such a great time re-reading James Robert Baker's unsung masterpiece Boy Wonder. I loved it the first time I read it, but this time I really got caught up in the entire world Baker has here created, an OTT world of the movies and America. Baker's sense of humor and attention to detail are so mind-blowingly spot-on that the nearly-600 pages of this frantic tome speed by like a bullet train. In fact I was depressed when it was over, as both the novel and the characters had become a part of my life. I was sorry to see them go.
Told in the format of an "oral history," Boy Wonder is comprised of dialog from around 20 or so characters ("those who loved and loathed him the most"), detailing the crazed life of Hollywood producer Shark Trager. Born in 1950 in a drive-in theater, Shark grows up in a hardscrabble, white trash world to become a warped Hollywood genius, producer of artistic films and commercial blockbusters in the '70s before his crash and burnout in the '80s. We learn from page 1 that Shark has suffered a "sudden spectacular death" in 1988; the novel appropriates the format of Citizen Kane, with each character giving us their own impressions of Shark and their adventures with him. Baker is such a gifted writer that the characters soon appear real; I almost wanted to check imdb.com for more information on their work.
"Boy Wonder" was the nickname of Irving Thalberg, production manager at MGM through the '30s; Thalberg put his own stamp on his films and passed away before he was 40, victim of a weak heart. Though he isn't mentioned much in the novel, Thalberg is an obvious inspiration for Shark; so too is David O. Selznick, an independent producer who had his hand in King Kong, Gone with the Wind, and dozens of others. (Baker even has Shark reading Memo From David O. Selznick, though unfortunately he has him reading the book a few years before it was published.)
Like these men, Shark puts his own stamp on the films he produces. The novel takes us through them all, from the uninentional camp classic he directs in the late '60s in college (which nevertheless is heralded as a new Citizen Kane), to a sleazy tale about a hippie cult of killers which prefigures the Manson murders, to lowbrow comedy hits in the '70s; a decade which culminates in a mega-budget, ultra-gory bloodfest about a childhood friend of Shark's who became a serial killer. This scene alone takes in all the excess of late '70s Hollywood, with Shark and his comrades coke-snorting sociopaths who make Apocalypse Now-era Francis Ford Coppolla look like Frank Capra.
Early on the reader sees that Shark's films and his life are a mirror of whatever was going on in America at the time. And just as the drug-fueled '70s reached burnout in the early '80s, so too does Shark suffer a horrible crash and burn, ending up as a literal beach bum. But in true heroic fashion he builds himself back up, his comeback film a saccharin blast of psuedo-religious bunk that would probably embarras Steven Spielberg; of course it's a hit. But Shark's obessions soon return until his final blowout at the 1988 Oscars ceremony -- another stellar sequence from Baker. And if more Oscar ceremonies were like this one, people would actually watch them.
But that's just the film side of Shark's life. This isn't mentioning his Right Wing nutjob of a father, his meek, insane mother who commits suicide on Christmas Day when Shark's still a boy, his succession of stepmothers (one of whom is so racist she's booted from the Nixon campaign administration!), and most importantly, his lifelong obsession with Kathy Petro. Kathy is one of the stars of the novel, a vapid Californian blonde who becomes the "It" girl of the early '70s; she meets Shark when both are teens and Shark is consumed with thoughts of her. And it truly is a sick relationship, with a speed-popping teenaged Shark secretly filming Kathy in all sorts of compromising situations; these films keep coming back to haunt Kathy for the rest of her life.
It's another credit to Baker's mastery that Kathy emerges as a genuine character, smarter than other characters (or even the reader) give her credit for. A subtle note I only caught on this re-reading: Baker speaks as "himself" in the preface, thanking all of the (fictional) people who spoke to him for the book. He closes with a loving appraisal of Kathy, and it becomes clear that he too is smitten with her. This only becomes more of an in-joke when one reads the novel and notes Kathy's predilection for becoming involved with men who turn out to be gay, which Baker himself was (more on that later).
So much happens in this novel that the reviewer doesn't even know where to start. How can I convey the insanity that occurs on practically every page? This is comedy of the most outrageous sort -- there aren't many novels that can cause the reader to laugh out loud, but Boy Wonder pulls off this feat over and over and over again. Humor of every sort, from low-brow scatalogical stuff to more high-browed material; Shark being involved in the movie biz, Baker therefore skewers a host of "Hollywood types," and the greatest thing is that he so nails the high-brow "film critic" types that you can read their dialog as full-on farce and as the sort of self-wankery that movie reviewers are known for. (My favorite being the description of Josef von Sternberg's work as "deadpan narcotic camp;" not only is this a great spoof of something you'd come across in say the ultra-serious work of Andrew Sarris, but it's also a perfect description of Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich.)
Baker's comedic skills and his sense of timing are just incredible, particularly the way he will set up and pay off his jokes. One example of many: one of Shark's '70s films is to be a modern take on John Ford's classic The Searchers. Shark reveals to one of the characters the "hidden meanings" of Ford's movie: that John Wayne's character wanted to rape his niece at the end of the film, after rescuing her from the Indians. The look in Wayne's eye as he says "Let's go home;" Shark claims that if you study the Duke's face, you'll see what he really wants to do to the girl. Several pages later, there's a scene where Shark gets in a fistfight with Jack Petro, millionaire president of Petro-Chem and the father of Kathy Petro. As they fight, Kathy's bikini comes undone and her breasts pop out -- her father of course sees this. Through the novel Kathy and her dad have had a bitter relationship; after Shark leaves and Kathy helps her father to his feet, he gives her this look, then utters in a strangled voice: "Let's go home."
A few hundred pages go by after that and these same words are spoken by Hector the Talking Donkey in Shark's blockbuster mid-'70s comedy Looking For Lupe -- Hector saying the words to Lupe herself, a (human) female character whom the script heavily implies he has had "relations" with. (This isn't even mentioning the original plan for that Searchers remake, where instead of American Indians it's inner-city blacks who kidnap the white girl, complete with a scene where the John Wayne character visits a clinic where previous kidnapped white girls are held, their hair corkscrewed, yelling "What you lookin' at, mothuhfuckuh?" And when the producers realize they could lose money by offending blacks, they change the villains to less-revenue-risky lesbians!)
This is just one example of how Baker will play a joke out through the novel, and there are hundreds of such instances. I mean, halfway through the novel you're feeling winded. Just so much has happened you need a breather. But then, "like something out of a gross screwball comedy," a drunk Shark pukes off his hotel balcony in the middle of the night, and moments later a violent pounding comes at his door. It's a livid Carol Van Der Hof, clubfooted heiress, and she's covered in Shark's vomit. (Of course, she talks exactly like Katharine Hepburn circa Bringing Up Baby.) And it just goes on, Carol now a central part of Shark's life after this disgusting "meet cute," the novel barrelling on with no regard for the reader's staminia. It's almost too much of a good thing.
In fact the first time I read the novel I began to get burned out in the third half, when a post-crash Shark starts up an opium-fogged relationship with Maya Dietrichson, a blonde punk singer who bears a striking resemblance to Kathy Petro (one of the running jokes in the novel is that most of the girls Shark becomes involved with resemble Kathy, many of them turning out to have been winners of regional "Kathy Petro lookalike" contests). During that first reading I thought this sequence could've easily been cut from the book, but this time it turned out to be one of my favorite parts. In a way Shark's life here is almost idyllic, living in a furnished room adjacent to the projection booth in a repository theater; here he lounges all day, running the projector, enjoying a perfect view of the classic films playing below him.
Like any true satire, Boy Wonder is both tribute and spoof of trashy fiction. Baker's writing and his attention to detail alone place the novel in the realm of Literature, but at the same time more lurid stuff goes on here than in the most exploitative book you could name. It's all here: drugs (Shark does practically every drug known to man), sex of all persuasions (one of the subtle jokes is how forthcoming these characters are about their sex lives with their "interviewer" Baker), ultra violence (including a self-decapitation via chainsaw), hippie terrorists, a messy encounter between Nancy Reagan and Hector the Donkey in the White House, pitched battles with Yakuza and Muslim terrorists, a castrated serial killer who "masturbates furiously" everytime he glimpses bloodshed, neo-Nazi students who pose as retarded schoolchildren to get into movies at half price, and on and on and on. Again, there's such an overwhelming amount of great, insane stuff that the reviewer doesn't know where to begin.
That isn't to say Boy Wonder is all vicious comedy and no heart. There are some genuine moving moments in here. A ten-year-old Shark opening presents by himself on Christmas morning as the paramedics take away his mother's corpse, the long-simmer love story between Shark and Kathy (which is both twisted and touching at times), even the finale of the novel, which builds to an appropriate moving climax as, despite all the horrible things he has done, you can't help but feel sorry for Shark as he suffers his "sudden and spectacular death." But then Baker again shows the mastery of his vision by undercutting the maudlin sappiness with the very last sentence of the novel. That alone was nearly enough to bring a tear to my eye.
In a perfect world, Boy Wonder would outsell the Bible. But it was only a modest success, scoring middling reviews from the critics (the funniest of them all being the dweeb at the New York Times who claimed the book "just isn't funny," which says more about him than the novel). Reading these contemporary reviews, it appears obvious to me that none of the critics actually read the entire novel; the majority of them only mention the beginning and the end, glossing over the entirety of the book's events. Commercially the novel scored a mass market paperback incarnation, but even it was graced with half-assed endorsements. And from there the novel went into oblivion, only to be resurrected as a cult classic. Admittedly this aspect adds to the novel's charm. Boy Wonder is one of those novels the reader of forgotten fiction can snidely hold forth as a certifiable classic, a great novel that went unnoticed, too smart and too funny for the common masses.
Boy Wonder and Baker's first novel Fuel-Injected Dreams are mainstream fiction, though Baker himself was gay. Six years after Boy Wonder, Baker "came out" with Tim and Pete in 1994, a novel which was taglined by reviewers as "a gay Natural Born Killers." Tim and Pete was savaged by the critics and did untold damage to Baker's career. At least, so the story goes. I've always found something strange about the story. If ever there was a time for a gay novelist to come out, it would have been the early '90s. But the story goes that Baker's coming out as a homosexual proved the undoing of his literary career. He took the final horrible act of killing himself in 1997.
I read a lot, and it's not something that happens to me often, but Boy Wonder is one of the few novels where I wish I could write the author a note, even just to say "Thanks." It has everything I could ever want in a book: great writing, smart comedy, three-dimensional characters, and a perfectly-realized, self-contained world. It's the type of novel that could send a reader right down the rabbit hole of obsession. There should be mini Wikipedias out there solely devoted to the world Baker has created, a self-referencing counter-America of the 1950s through the 1980s, a world of such films as Red Surf, Sex Kill a Go-Go, Method To Her Modness, Blue Light, Stews On Wheels ("They quit smiling the night the Angels ripped off their wings"), and on and on. (Baker not only references real films -- he shows a certain fondness for the work of Josef von Sternberg, whose movies happen to be among my own favorites -- but the breadth of his pop culture knowledge even encompasses chop-sockey Bruceploitation, with the awesomely-titled This Movie No Star BRUCE LEE.)
Well, I've raved enough. I'll surely read Boy Wonder again within a few years, and will probably post yet another review. It's one of the few novels that rewards multiple readings; there were a host of things I caught this time out that escaped me the first time. All that's left for me to say is just stop reading this review (easy for me to say now that I've finally reached the end) and go buy the book. There are a few editions to choose from: the original US hardcover from 1988, the 1990 Signet mass market paperback, and the 1988 UK paperback published by Futura. There's also a later UK printing which features a homoerotic cover, capitalizing on Baker's cult status as a gay author. Unfortunately this gives the wrong impression of the novel. It's misleading, like putting a photo of a guy holding a machine gun on the cover of In Search of Lost Time.
But any edition you can find is worth buying. This is not a novel you want to check out from the library. You want to buy it and treasure it. Of all the novels I've read, there are three I would claim as my favorites: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, The Horrors of Love by Jean Dutuord, and Boy Wonder. Of those three, I'd place this one at the top. I almost want to take to the streets and evangelize for it.
Monday, November 7, 2011
A Study of Action-Adventure Fiction: The Executioner and Mack Bolan, by William H. Young
January, 1996 Edwin Mellen Press
Who would've thought that a scholarly tome was published about the Executioner series?? Well, one was, and it's one hell of a weighty tome, packed with detail and insight. The author, William H. Young, is a literature professor who has taken it upon himself to document the series, and while it's interesting to read one man's thoughts on the novels, the cost of the book is prohibitive. I got it via InterLibrary Loan, and I suggest you do the same.
The majority of the book is Young's summary of every installment in the Executioner series from #1 up to the final volume published in 1991, including the SuperBolans and Stony Mans. (Able Team and Phoenx Force are not covered.) This same information is of course available on mackbolan.com, in the reviews section; only there you get the perspectives of several reviewers rather than one man. And given that Young is a professor, you get more of a scholarly view here -- however not as much as I would've liked. Instead Young relays the plot of each volume and comments on the author's skill, how each ghostwriter's version of Bolan differs from Pendleton's (he vastly prefers Pendleton's work to the ghostwriters), and he also takes time to point out troublesome entries in the series (he very much dislikes the work of Dan Schmidt, E. Richard Churchill, and Peter Leslie; there are others he roasts but these are his least favorite).
What's odd is that Young often relents that so many latter entries in the series are "gory," as if he has no idea the genre he is reading. He even comments on the "regrettable violence" of some of Pendleton's originals, and shows much disgust with the scenes with the "turkey doctors." This book, published in 1996, bears all the hallmarks of the then-current Politically Correct scene, with Young apparently wishing for a "kinder, gentler" Executioner, and he also goes on about various "racist" bits he encounters...again not realizing that this exploitative, over-the-top nature is part of the genre's charm.
He ranks Mike Newton as the best of the ghostwriters -- further, he ranks Newton's Prairie Fire as the best Executioner novel ever, even better than Pendleton's originals. I have this volume but haven't yet read it.
Young shows special distate for Chet Cunningham's Baltimore Trackdown, spending two pages going on about that volume's "sadism" and gore. (Of course, immediately after reading this I got myself a copy of Baltimore Trackdown!)
The biggest draw to the book is the behind-the-scenes stuff, which admittedly isn't much. Young wrote this in the pre-Internet world and so didn't have access to as much info as we do now. (Ie, he has no idea who 16th-volume author "Jim Peterson" was, when a simple Google search today will tell you it was William Crawford.) Young instead gains insight from interviews with various authors, conducted by mail, which are published at the end of the book: from 1986 he has interviews with Don Pendleton, Mike Newton, and Chet Cunningham. Of the three, Cunningham proves himself the funniest, sort of poking fun at Pendleton's original books. Then from 1990 Young has another mail-conducted interview, this time with Mel Odom.
It's a bit frustrating in there's no rapport in the interviews; each interviewee was given the same set of questions to answer. We do however get a little information about the troubles Pendleton had with Gold Eagle, including a lawsuit in 1986. In fact twice he almost lost the rights to the series, first with Pinnacle (which resulted in the Jim Peterson-written Sicilian Slaughter, which Pendleton admits here to never having read), then with Gold Eagle, which increasingly distanced itself from Pendleton and his advice on the direction the series should take.
In summary, about 400 pages are given over to Young's rundown/commentary on the entire series up to 1991. Then we have a section on the Pinnacle cover art, where, believe it or not, Young comments on every single cover, explaining what they look like. This is followed by another chapter where he does the same thing for the Gold Eagle books! These two sections will be a trying read for most.
We also have another short section where Young looks at the Executioner's "competitors;" ie other men's adventure series. But this is a woefully short list; he is unaware even of the Sharpshooter series -- however he does list the Marksman series, commenting that it is only for "the very sick." (Honestly, Young comes off like a total wimp in this book.) And again he demonstrates his lack of research; in the entry for the Penetrator , Young states that he only knows that Chet Cunningham was one of the authors for that series, and he has no idea who the other author was. But all a person has to do is open up any odd-numbered entry in the Penetrator series, look at the copyright page, and there find "Special acknowledgement is given to Mark K. Roberts."
Anyway, I wouldn't recommend this one as a purchase; I'd say get it via InterLibrary Loan like I did. However if you do buy it, it might prove valuable in the long run, as something you can often check back to for various (but scant) behind-the-scenes info.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
Doomsday Warrior #2: Red America, by Ryder Stacy
August, 1984 Zebra Books
This time out Ted Rockson, the Doomsday Warrior himself, must once again venture into the post-nuke wasteland of America to destroy a Soviet-operated fortress in which Americans are being brainwashed into Red soldiers. Honestly though, the novel, at least the majority of it, is a retread of Doomsday Warrior #1. It follows the same template as that previous volume, with scheming between KGB nutcase Col. Killov and American Premier Vassily for control of all Soviet forces, while Rockson meanwhile tests himself against the mutated flora and fauna of "the world of 2089 A.D." (I lost track of how many times that phrase was repeated in the novel.)
Pavlov City is the name of the place where sturdy American slaves are deprogrammed by the Soviet mind devices, turning them into hardcore warriors for the Red Army (as it's called throughout the book). As soon as Rockson finds this out (somehow, it's never explained), he takes up his "Liberator rifle" and "shotgun pistol," hops on his trusty hybrid animal, and leaves the relative utopia of Century City -- that is, after some purple-prosed sex with his Amazonian galpal Rhona. Here follows a stretch of survivalist fiction which again seems lifted from the previous book.
Rockson sneaks into Pavlov City but of course is promptly captured; while in prison he finds himself in the cell beside a gorgeous 18 year-old American girl named Kim who reveals that the next morning the Reds will take advantage of her before killing her. Given that she is a virgin, and also that fate has placed her in this cell beside "the Ultimate American," she begs Rockson to take her. And not only is she a blonde, she's a gymnast to boot, maneuvering herself around the cage for Rockson's benefit. Rockson falls instantly in love with the girl. Really, who could blame him?
Finally we have a big battle sequence as Rockson, through blind luck more than skill, breaks free and pulls a Die Hard on the Reds in their very fortress. He frees the Americans, arms them, and engages in a battle with the Russians, who nevertheless manage to trap Rockson and his army on the top floors. Just when it looks like the end, deus ex machina intervenes in the worst way, as Rockson's pals show up in a commandeered helicopter, blasting away Reds with their newfangled particle beam weapon (a gift from the mutated Technicians of volume #1).
After all of this, Red America gets pretty good. Once again it seems obvious that the two authors who comprised "Ryder Stacy" shared the writing duties. One of them focused on the battle sequences and the stuff with Killov, all of which comes off like a more violent version of the '80s Rambo cartoon (remember that??). These sequences suffer from piss-poor writing, with horrendous dialog and unforgiveable POV-jumping (the worst case being one paragraph that starts from Rockson's point of view but ends in Killov's!).
However the other author is very good, and excels in the more far-out stuff. In the previous novel, this author delivered the Technicians material, which was above and beyond the rest of the book. Here he improves on even that, with a crazed sequence involving a group of "Indians" who drive around the desert on choppers, speak in Beatnik slang, and worship a guru called The Ginsberg. All of this is well outside of the men's adventure norm, and all the better for it.
In this section we have meditation trips, more sex between Rockson and Kim (which veers stright out into astral-tinged purple prose), a ribald party in which the beer is spiked with psychedelic mushrooms, and a climax which is lifted from Beowulf (at least that's my take, as it starts with Rockson at the beer-hall, then has him fighting against a powerful creature and its dragon-like familiar). It is by far the best part of the novel, and makes one look forward to continue with the series, just to see how much more out-there this version of "Ryder Stacy" can get.
And again, the series spoofs the genre, with Rockson the "Ultimate American" no more than a monstrous freak who spouts patriotic, anti-Communist invective that Ronald Reagan would've been proud of. But the irony is that Rockson and his pals live in a utopia that is 100% communist, where all the people must serve the cause, sharing allotted duties, living together in complete communion. None of this is stated outright, of course, which only adds to the impression that it's all a subtle in-joke from the authors.
In a way this series kept alive the feel of the men's adventure novels of the '70s, with a self-mocking tone, twisted plots, and a lurid vibe -- there are at least three sex scenes in Red America, and they're all pretty hilarious. I just wonder if our authors can keep it up (so to speak) for another 17 volumes.