Thursday, November 8, 2012
Rich Dreams, by Ben and Norma Barzman
April, 1982 Warner Books
Harold Robbins was notorious for writing blockbuster novels about characters who were thinly-veiled analogues of real-life figures; I often wondered, then, why no one ever wrote a Harold Robbins-type novel about Harold Robbins himself. Well, someone did – Ben and Norma Barzman, friends of Robbins, who, after hearing Robbins's (fictional) life story, realized it had the makings for a perfect blockbuster novel. Rich Dreams was the ensuing book, a paperback original that apparently went unnoticed and was soon forgotten (I only discovered it via the biography Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex). However, it did succeed in pissing off Robbins, who quickly cut all ties with the Barzmans.
The Robbins analogue here is Arnold Elton, “sex-novel king” who, now in his forties, has reached the pinnacle of success. He’s relaxing in his villa on the French Riviera, enjoying the good life with his newly-pregnant third wife, and meanwhile brokering a deal to take over a failing movie studio. This is the “present” storyline of the novel, and the movie studio deal takes up a goodly portion of the narrative; like his real-life inspiration, Arnold Elton is more interested in business deals and making money than writing novels. Indeed, Elton’s novels are given short shrift.
Elton’s business acumen and wheeling and dealing are given most focus throughout these portions, and obviously this is a good indication of the real-life Robbins. But then, Elton is nowhere as colorful or memorable as Robbins. By all accounts, Harold Robbins was a drug-taking, booze-drinking lout who was more often seen with a hooker on his arm than one of his wives; a running joke in Rich Dreams, though, is that Elton is pretty much a square, looking for true love from his various wives, hardly partaking of anything stronger than a mixed drink.
In other words, our protagonist is boring. This is one of the biggest misses with the book, and the biggest puzzler. If the Barzmans had more fully captured Robbins the wild man, we would’ve had a hell of a book. As it is, Elton is more a businessman and less of a deviant, which makes for a mostly tepid read…not to mention an exhausting one, given the novel’s 526 pages.
The early portions are the best. We meet Elton en route to France, having bought out the entire first class compartment of a 747. Before the flight’s over he’s managed to talk a stewardess (still so-called here) into sleeping with a millionaire Texas oil man who happens to be back in coach – there because he couldn’t get a seat in first class. All so Elton can keep his precious deal from falling through. Long story short, Elton once worked for a movie studio, of the Universal/Paramount type, and the place is about to go under. With some trickery and chicanery, Elton can get it for a few million.
From there to Elton’s villa, where the reader finally gets a bit of some Harold Robbins-esque goodness; Elton is greeted by the sight of his nude Mexican assistant (nude save for a coke spoon which dangles from her neck, that is), who wants to have sex with him while Elton’s wife watches. And Elton’s wife approves; in fact it was her idea. Elton’s response is to throw the assistant out and rant and rave; he only wants to be with his wife. The reader sees that we have another 500-some pages to go, and the dread sets in.
We also must endure some scenes with Elton’s two children, both of them in their early 20s and both looking to their dad for some money to make a feature film with hardcore sex scenes in it. The kids are incredibly precocious and demanding and it’s a great commentary by the Barzmans on the type of children Harold Robbins might have had, or at the very least, a person who wrote his type of novels might have had – there’s a great scene, much later in the novel, where Elton has breakfast with the two kids while they are still pre-teens, and they start asking him about fellatio and the like, all of it stuff they learned about from his novels. (Elton’s uneasy response is to tell them his books are for adults.)
Midway through, the novel jumps back to Elton as a boy, and for a few hundred pages we read about how he came to be. Growing up in hardscrabble roots, he escapes into the navy, fights in World War II, and lucks into a job in Hollywood, at fictional Alliance Studios. The Barzmans don’t really bring Golden Age Hollywood to life, as Elton is too low on the totem pole to interact with stars or go to lavish parties. In fact, he finds most joy working in the accounting department – yet more tie-in to the real Robbins story.
After another break, though, Elton ends up writing scripts. When his first is rejected for featuring straight-up sex scenes, he’s fired and a writing friend advises he turn the tale into a novel. Elton does and the ensuing book is a huge success, playing up on the salient aspects and going over huge with the late ‘40s reading public. The most Robbins-esque scene occurs soon after, with Elton meets a fiesty agent who barges into his place, announces that she is going to make him huge, and later has him explore every aspect of her body before they have sex, announcing everything she feels during it – all “research” for Elton’s novel, for greater accuracy. Unsurprisingly, she becomes Elton’s first wife.
The majority of this portion of the book is about Elton’s married life. Again, his actual novels aren’t much covered; we’re just told they’re sexy and usually deal with characters who are successes in some arena. Now, this is obviously more commentary on the real Robbins, who likely just considered his own novels product for the masses. But still, Robbins was sure to pepper his novels with outrageous/sadistic/insane sex scenes, stuff completely off the map, stuff that no one else would ever think of let alone write. There’s none of that in Rich Dreams, and it’s all a matter of telling rather than showing.
Meanwhile, back in the “present,” which I assume must be 1982, Elton is told shortly before a grand party he’s hosting that someone has put out a contract on his life. You expect this would turn the narrative into more of a suspenseful or at least paranoid tone, but still the Barzmans give us endless scenes of people just talking about business deals and the like.
At this point the “naughty” stuff is totally gone, and the book is past the point of becoming a total bore. The worst part is that when the culprits behind Elton’s death contract are revealed, it’s not only stupid but anticlimatically resolved. (Spoiler warning: It turns out to be his damn kids. Why? Because Elton wouldn’t give them the money for that film. And what does Elton do when he finds out? He slaps them around.)
There are a few bright points here and there. The aforementioned uncomfortable breakfast scene is one, with Elton’s kids discussing the lurid details of his novels matter of factly. Also the Barzmans insert a few in-jokes; early in his career Elton is advised that, in order to keep from being sued when writing a roman a clef, just have a cameo from the real person he’s writing about in the book – ie, if you’re writing about a Hugh Hefner type, have a party scene later in the book and mention that Hugh Hefner’s there. The Barzmans then do just that, mentioning that Harold Robbins is vacationing nearby during Elton’s climatic party scene.
Still, it was a chore of a read, much too long for its own good and not nearly lurid enough. The potential was there, though, and it was fully squandered. Who knows, maybe Robbins was most offended by Rich Dreams because it made him seem so boring and domesticated?