Monday, March 26, 2012

Mace #2: The Year of the Snake

Mace #2: The Year of the Snake, by Lee Chang
February, 1974 Manor Books

I've been taking my time getting back into the Mace series. After reading the first volume, The Year of the Tiger, I felt about as beaten as one the opponents of hero Victor Mace. The action onslaught whipped me but good, and we have of course Joseph Rosenberger to thank, posing here once again as "Lee Chang."

Thankfully The Year of the Snake is slightly better than its predecessor. Whereas the first novel followed one single plot -- some Mafia thugs wanted to use a boat which belonged to Mace's uncle, and Mace kept beating them up -- this one opens things up a bit, but not much. Mace is now in New York City's Chinatown, called here by one Tong leader to handle the problems caused by the Blue Devils, another which has connections to the Chinese mob. Not that the mob or its soldiers or anyone poses much of a threat for Mace, who again is presented as a superhero, incapable of being harmed, let alone defeated.

Rosenberger dispenses with character development or plot development, and it goes without saying that the reader gets little feel for Chinatown or its inhabitants. He does however sprinkle the narrative with a host of goofy characters and also doles out an endless array of WTF? metaphors and analogies. If a case were to be made that Rosenberger's novels were parodies of the men's adventure genre, then his Mace books would make for Exhibit A.

There is absolutely no way the man intended this book to be taken seriously, and the nonstop fighting is just the first clue. Rosenberger even manages to insert slapstick into the book, sometimes going in and out of the perspectives of various minor characters (usually right before they're killed by Mace), taking the opportunity to write in a goofy POV-style (ie, It was like, Death, man -- far out!).

And you'd never think that in a book about a kung-fu master Rosenberger would be able to indulge in his own metaphysical interests, but he does; in the obligatory flashbacks to Mace's training at a Shaolin temple in Hong Kong, his teacher even finds the opportunity to discuss how the Egyptian pyramids were "really" constructed, via esoteric sound-manipulation techniques!

But for the most part The Year of the Snake is just fight scene after fight scene after fight scene. It's my opinion that martial arts combat doesn't make for an easy transistion to print; it's much easier to read (or write, I'd guess) gun-blazing action scenes, but how many different ways can you write about one guy kicking or punching other guys?

As usual though Rosenberger steals the show. For one, his enthusiasm is contagious. Whereas the other writer might back off on the fights a bit and work on the plot, Rosenberger instead barrels full steam ahead. I can almost see him hunched over his typewriter: "All right! I'm gonna write another action scene!" And then pounding away at his keys as he launches Mace into another pages and pages and pages-long kung-fu fight sequence.

In another "you'd never believe it" moment, Rosenberger also delivers a straight-up sex scene, featuring a heavyset Chinese gangster and his black American concubine. The scene is written from the lady's perspective, complete with description on how the gangster likes to "service" her and etc, and what's hilarious is that Rosenberger writes it all exactly like one of his action scenes, with exclamation points ending every other sentence.

And again Rosenberger puts his all into the book. It's 190 pages of tiny print, each page packed from top to bottom with copy. In other words, the man never shirked on his writing duties -- no big copy, no "white space" for him. But as usual, a whole bunch could have been cut from the novel and it would have benefited from it. Especially Rosenberger's strange fetish for explaining incidental things -- usually in flashback -- that don't even need to be explained. (For example, how Mace planned to escape from "oriental" Chinatown into "occidental" Manhattan.)

Another staple of the Mace series is the endless battery of racial slurs. I'd say the only other book that might use the word "chink" more than The Year of the Snake would have to be a manual on how to repair medieval combat armor or something. As in the previous novel, Rosenberger breaks out the slurs while writing from the perspectives of various of Mace's enemies, but what's strange is that most of them are Chinese themselves. It would be like a white character blasting away at another white character while thinking to himself: "I'm gonna waste that honkey!"

But then, the politically-incorrect vibe embraces a host of ethnicities in The Year of the Snake, not just Asians. Again it could all be a sign of spoofery, but moreso it's just a sign of its times. Like many of its men's adventure brethren, The Year of the Snake is a kind of book that couldn't be published today.

Which admittedly makes for part of its charm, at least as far as I'm concerned, but still. You need more than a non-PC vibe and goofy analogies to make for a good book. The Year of the Snake just left me feeling as beaten and exhausted as its predecessor did.


Zwolf said...

I still haven't read 'em yet, but I've got a couple of Rosenberger's "Murder Master" books, which were his bid at blaxploitation. Seeing how crazily he handles Asian characters, I'm almost afraid to see what he'll do with Black ones...

Rosenberger's fascinating... dunno if that's for the right reasons or wrong ones, though! :)

Karlos said...

Books 3 & 5 are the best of the Mace series, I think, but yeah, the racial epithets are unfortunate.

I think Rosenberger hated everyone equally though, so it's kinda alright!

BTW, this might be right up your alley, Joe:

You'll need to hit the "CC" button to get the subs up.

GREAT men's adventure flick you may not have seen!

Joe Kenney said...

Karlos, thanks for the link. That's a Shaw Brothers movie I've never heard of! I'm definitely going to check it out.

The Mace I'm most looking forward to is the sixth volume, which is the only one by Leonard Levinson. I asked him if he knew anything about Rosenbgerger, by the way, and he told me he'd never even heard of the guy!

Karlos said...

Hope you enjoy it, Joe – I think you will!

It’s a shame Shaws only made the one modern day war flick before they folded as a film making co. – but at least it was a good one!

Regarding Rosenberger, it’s somehow apt that the two main accounts I read of him as a person totally contradict one another.

One guy online said he lived near him back in the 70s. Claimed he wore a gold jogging suit all the same time and lived with his sister. Very friendly guy, too, he says.

Another said he was an ultra paranoid, vehemently racist misanthrope who seldom spoke to anyone at all. Think this account was from someone who worked with him in some capacity.

Of course, both could be completely made up - I guess we’ll never know – although the second one does chime in a lot more with other things I’ve read about him over the years.

So, Mace #5 was his last book in the series? Make sense, as he goes out with a bloodbath – even by Mace standards!

Matt T. Dalldorf said...

A little off-topic, but the video is no longer available; could someone tell me what the movie is?