Monday, November 19, 2012
The Ninja, by Eric Van Lustbader
No month stated, 1980 Fawcett Crest Books
This read has been decades in the making. I bought The Ninja fresh off the racks in the mid-‘80s, desperate like other kids my age for anything about ninjas. Even the cover of the mass market paperback seemed to suggest Sho Kosugi, who came to brief fame via Cannon’s Enter the Ninja -- which, I seem to recall reading, was rushed into production to jump onto the ninja bandwagon which was kicked off by the runaway success of this very novel.
But here’s the thing…as shoddy, goofy, and bad as Enter the Ninja sometimes is, it’s still a hell of a lot better than this novel. Comically overwritten, The Ninja is one of the more pretentious reads I’ve ever had the displeasure of enduring, as if Dow Mossman, after penning his similarly-overwritten Stones of Summer, had decided to take a stab at writing “something Oriental.” You’d think I was joking if I told you that a novel about a ninja was boring, but there it is – I tell you the truth. The book should come with a pack of No-Doze.
What makes it so funny is the story is quite simple; it’s just been overblown to staggering extremes. Our hero is Nicholas Linnear, improbably-named modern day ninja of caucasian and Japanese descent. Nicholas (and no, it’s never just “Nick”) is one of the more stoic/boring/unmemorable protagonists you’ll ever encounter, lacking much spark. Raised in Japan, Nicholas eventually came to the US (after becoming a ninja, though Lustbader keeps it a “mystery” for several hundred pages), where he apparently got a job at an ad agency (just like Darrin on Bewitched!). Not that it matters, for as it opens Nicholas has resigned his post after a breakdown...or something.
Anyway, it’s all just a convenient setup so that, when we meet him, Nicholas Linnear is a broken man, despite only being in his 30s, sort of living like a bum along the beach outside of New York City. Meanwhile, people around him are being murdered. Nicholas pays no heed, until he meets dropdead gorgeous Justine, who just happens to run into Nicholas on the beach…and several pages later they’re having sex in incredibly overwrought prose. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to get hot beneath the collar or consult a thesaurus.
Gradually (and I do mean “gradually”), Nicholas learns that Justine’s father is mega-wealthy, mega-infamous bad guy Raphael Tomkin. Nicholas gets dragged into Tomkin’s story when it develops that someone, apparently a ninja, is trying to kill him…and Nicholas incorrectly assumes that the mysterious muders going on around his beachhouse are due to the simple fact that Justine lives nearby – the murders are signs from the ninja that even Tomkin’s family is in danger.
The reader, of course, realizes that these signs are for Nicholas; in the occasional scenes from the evil ninja’s perspective, we learn that this guy has it in for Nicholas and is using this Tomkin job as a convenient way to kill the proverbial two birds. So he goes along murdering people Nicholas knows, most of them fellow Japanese who have moved over to the US, many of them martial arts instructors and etc.
Sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the narrative style is so torpid as to rob the story of all tension. Seriously, everything is drawn out here, put through the metaphor/analogy wringer, until it all comes off like the literary equivalent of an unintentionally campy film. Even if a character merely looks out of a window, Lustbader will go on for a full paragraph or so, comparing this to that and that to this. Pretty soon the entire story collapses beneath the onslaught of fluffy prose.
But wait, it gets worse. Not content to wheel-spin in the “present” (apparently, 1979), Lustbader will often jump back to the late 1940s and early '60s, so we can witness Nicholas’s youth. But this portion too is unintentionally hilarious, because Lustbader only tries to come up with more “mystery” to keep us reading, but it’s all just so uninvolving. I assume Lustbader is trying to set up storylines for future volumes, as he leaves all sorts of things vague…for one, Nicholas’s mother appears to have several skeletons in her closet, not to mention her “sister,” who is married to an evil bastard who turns out to be a ninja.
Then there’s Yukio, a Japanese girl of Nicholas’s age, a nympho with the mouth of a truckdriver; incapable of loving or showing any emotion, she exists only to screw, therefore giving Lustbader opportunity to write a bunch of unsexily-rendered sex scenes. Speaking of which, there’s a whopper of one a quarter of the way through the book, where Gelda, Justine’s hooker sister (and a lesbian to boot) has sex with a female client…a jawdropper of a scene involving a bathtub and a revolver. Truly, even Harold Robbins would have been impressed.
But even these flashes of perversion are lost in the deluge of pretension. Dialog also suffers, with characters, no matter how minor, given to grandiose, poetic speeches about life, love, or what have you. I mean, it would be fine if one or two characters spoke this way, but every single character speaks exactly the same. Even Croaker, a tough New York City cop who works with Nicholas in the novel, is given to prosaic utterances that seemingly have no end. And don’t even get me started on the “wizened Asian types” who proliferate through the narrative; the older they are, the bigger their bluster.
As overwrought as the dialog is, the characters themselves are just as bad. Early scenes featuring Justine are probably the worst; the victim of several unhappy romances, Justine now distrusts most people and is reluctant to get involved with Nicholas. So ensues soap opera-etic drama between the two, culminating in an uninentionally hilarious scene (one of many, really) where Nicholas, breaking the news to a heartbroken Justine that he’s going to work for her father, falls to his knees and begins to weep…! All he needed to add was a little teeth-gnashing.
Another priceless sequence is when Nicholas and Justine later reunite, in an honest-to-God disco… a scene that contains Lustbader's overwritten-but-nonsensical prose in spades. Such as:
Somewhere was the bar, obscured behind a forest of raised arms, swirling hair, shiny mindlessly concentrating faces. Dance dance dance: the imperitave was clear, treading an atavistic path, the primitive’s tribal revivals, an ecstatic communal orgy, trivialized to the point where all possible consequence was nullified.
Seriously, what does that even mean? This entire scene is hilarious, given the lengths Lustbader goes in describing the “modern hell” that is the disco…and the lyrics he writes for the blaring music is just the icing on the cake.
This is one of those novels where you start to root for the villain, if only because he does you the favor of killing off all of the annoying protagonists. So then, evil ninja Saito was a godsend for me, popping up from the shadows every once in a while to do in some colleague of Nicholas’s. Unfortunately Saito himself is lost in the turgid shuffle, to such a point that even a late scene, in which we see his own perversions (namely, taking a heroin-LSD combo and sodomizing young boys), loses its impact due to the torpor which has overtaken us.
But wait, you ask, isn’t this a novel about ninjas? Well…sort of. In actual fact, the ninja stuff takes up around 10% of the narrative. The rest is given over to elaborate backstories, elaborate philosophizing, and elaborate prose. Nicholas gets in a few quick scuffles here and there, but actual ninja warfare stuff doesn’t occur until the end, when Nicholas and Saito have their expected confrontation. But it too is anticlimatic, over in just a few pages, and lacks any novelty save for a part where Saito uses a handy corpse he keeps nearby to fool everyone into thinking he’s been killed.
And yet, The Ninja was a big seller, and indeed spawned a series of five more novels, each of them doing well. But then who am I to judge, given that the bestsellers of today are things like the Harry Potter or Twilight books; at least back then adults were reading novels for adults.
Summing up, while the storyline in no way justified the overblown prose and dialog, I still found some enjoyment in The Ninja; namely, the same sort of sick enjoyment I get when I watch overblown turkeys like Valley of the Dolls…bad films that were treated by their creators with such gravitas that you can’t help but laugh. The Ninja is just like that, and it’s a shame a similarly-overblown film was never made from it. It would've been an instant camp classic.