Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Once Is Not Enough


Once Is Not Enough, by Jacqueline Susann
July, 1974  Bantam Books

I’ve referenced her here and there in my reviews, but this is the first actual Jacqueline Susann novel I’ve read. This was also her last published work, the hardcover coming out two years before her death from cancer in 1975. Along with Harold Robbins, Susann ruled the world of mainstream fiction in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and like Robbins she’s been mostly forgotten in the past years – though unlike Robbins her novels have recently been reprinted by a major publisher.

Writing wise I’d say Susann is a slightly “better” author, but she lacks the outrageous firepower of Robbins. But you do get a bit more characterization, and her characters don’t just come off like walking stereotypes. Also she is very much in the soap opera/category romance arena; parts of this book were like a novelized episode of As The World Turns, endlessly detailing the love lives of bland but photogenic protagonists. There are long stretches of Once Is Not Enough that are pretty boring, without even a bizarre-and-unexpected sex scene (as in Robbins) to liven things up.

This is mostly due to the main protagonist, who herself appears to have walked out of a category romance. January Wayne is our hero, and despite being in her early 20s right at the height of the free love era, she has all of the morals and mindsets of a 1950s housewife. This isn’t all her fault, though; coddled by her father Mike, a famous and successful Hollywood producer, January grows up with significant Daddy Issues in that she is so in love with her dad that no other man will ever be able to win her heart.

But this is only one of her issues. Susann opens the novel with a harrowing scene in which January, just turned 18, goes to Italy to spend time with her father, who is shooting on location. Jealous of the Sophia Loren-type actress who is hanging on her father (January’s mother committed suicide years before, jealous herself over her husband’s frequent affairs), January grudgingly goes on a date with an Italian gigolo. When the guy tries to sleep with January but discovers with shock that she’s still a virgin, he races her home on his motorcycle and crashes, and January is seriously injured.

This part is shocking enough, but also serves to draw you in enough that you care about January throughout the book, something that can rarely be said about Robbins’s protagonists. At any rate, she spends a handful of years in some exclusive rehab center in Switzerland, effectively cut off from the rest of the world. While she’s away the ‘60s become the ‘70s and the world changes in numerous ways, though January doesn’t know this. When she can finally walk again and leaves the clinic, she finds the world vastly different than the one she new.

Meanwhile her father has fallen on rough times and has married uber-wealthy Dee, so now he’s a kept man. He’s done all of this so as to save up a nest egg so January can have a nice life – turns out Mike’s luck ran dry right after January’s accident, and after diminishing returns on his next films he found himself without any more jobs in Hollywood so has had to take desperate measures to continue living the lifestyle he’s grown accustomed to.

January wants to make her own way in the world, and gets a job at an up and coming magazine which is run by an old school friend named Lisa, the only character in the book who brings to mind the antics of Valley of the Dolls. Foul-mouthed, opinionated, and sexually carefree, Linda is everything January isn’t, and Susann continuously hammers us with the differences between the two, Linda’s modern woman values (or lack thereof) up against January’s old-fashioned prudishness.

Really though the novel plays out like a soap opera, and January is very much in the vein of a romance comic book heroine. Everything shocks her, she just wants to find true love, and she’s completely in love with daddy. This is the other theme Susann plays up in the book, the true love story being between January and her father, but like the characters this theme comes and goes; Susann often introduces concepts or characters and then drops them for a few hundred pages.

For example, there’s Karla, a Greta Garbo analogue who is a retired and reclusive screen idol; David, Dee’s cousin and January’s ostensible paramour (he takes her virginity one disastrous night but they decide to only be friends) carries on a secret affair with her, but we learn later that Karla is having an affair with Dee, too. But Karla, given so much focus in early chapters (complete with an unecessary and incidental sequence covering her pre-stardom life in Europe during WWII, a sequence which features a wholly-exploitative scene in which a bunch of nuns get raped), just disappears for like a few hundred pages, suddenly reintroduced toward the end as if she’d never left.

January sort of muddles around while life goes on around her, doing her romance heroine schtick and searching for true love. This eventually occurs in the person of Tom Holt, a famous and rugged author who is Hemingway in all but name. But more importantly he’s actually a few years older than January’s dad Mike, so now she has the perfect daddy replacement.

This storyline takes up most of the novel, with January falling in love with Tom and following him to LA and getting sex tips from Linda. It was all very much like a romance novel, and I kept wondering where the Jacqueline Susann I’d read about had gone; where was the lurid stuff, the crazy stuff? Other than January’s addiction to “vitamin shots” (which turn out to be laced with meth), there isn’t even any of the campish charm of Valley of the Dolls.

But in the last hundred pages things change in a major way. After a plane crash takes out some major characters (and I wonder how that plane crash sequence went down with vacation-bound readers of the novel??), Susann apparently regains her sordid powers and launches into overdrive. Coming very quickly here, we have rampant drug use, a ritual orgy, more rampant drug use, and a full-on psychedelic ending which features UFOs!

The ritual orgy is lots of lurid fun, with January attending a hippie party, getting blitzed on LSD-spiked punch, and having sex with some random dude while she and he are hoisted up in the arms of the other hippies, with chanting and clapping going on all about them. I should mention that this random guy is only the third man January has ever had sex with, the other two being David (a one-time only deal), and Tom Holt (who, in pure let’s-skewer-Hemingway’s-rep fashion, lives his roughneck, boozer lifestyle in order to overcome the fact that he has the equipment of a prepubescent boy). The climax of this sequence is the highlight, with January orgasming, screaming “I love you, Mike!”, and then passing out. I can bet you Susann was chortling to herself as she wrote it.

But the UFO stuff is even better. Still frazzled on drugs, January goes to the beach and sees one in the night sky. Through the final hundred pages of the novel Susann works in this theme where January keeps seeing a blue-eyed man in her dreams, a man who bears a vague resemblance to her father. But this ghost proves dangerous, at one point a dazed January almost falling out of her skyline apartment to be with him. And now he appears to her on the beach, beckoning her into the waves…

The finale of the novel sticks with you, and leaves you unsettled. Susann masterfully writes it so that January’s fate is up to you – did she die of drowning, or did she get spirited away to some other world? Interesting to note that Susann’s original ending for the novel was completely different; the Mike-looking figure turned out to be an alien, who took January away with him into space, where the novel turned into a star-spanning love story! And it wasn't just some dream sequence or drug trip; according to the biography Lovely Me, Susann wrote fifty pages of this, most of it taken from her then-unpublished novel Yargo, which was written in the early 1950s but went unpublished until after Susann's death. Indeed, many fans believe that Yargo can be read as the sequel to Once Is Not Enough.

I find it hard to believe that this alternate version of Once Is Not Enough has never been published. I’d love to read it. As vapid as she can be, as lovestruck or spineless as she comes across, you actually get to like January, even to feel sorry for her. As such, you wish she’d been given a happier end. (For Susann’s part, when asked in interviews about January’s fate, Susann claimed it was her interpretation that January died. What a bummer!) But then, the ending Susann delivers does affect you more than anything else in the novel, so it’s a fair compromise.

As for her prose, Susann certainly likes her ellipses and hyphens. I’m not exaggerating when I say this book reads like a 1970s romance comic, like My Love or something; the characters all speak in that same sort of breathless and melodramatic style. Susann’s narrative style reminds me more of Burt Hirschfeld than Robbins, and having read one of her novels I can now see where Hirschfeld got a lot of schtick. (I still prefer Hirschfeld, though.)

Anyway, an enjoyable novel for the most part, but a bit too long for its own good (this Bantam edition is over 500 pages, with tiny print). One of these days I’ll definitely read Yargo, if only to see if it provides “the rest of the story.”

4 comments:

Peter Brandvold said...

This one is right up there with FEAR OF FLYING, which I read as a young Lutheran acolyte after finding a beaten up copy in a monastery dresser drawer. (True story.) Erica Jong is really just Jaqueline Susann with a handful of literary feminist pretensions. I still haven't read FIRE ISLAND yet but I'm going to hunt down a copy soon.

Tim Mayer said...

Truth: When I first heard the X song "Adult Books" I thought the "Jack and Susan line was a reference to Jaqueline Susann.
It actually makes better sense.

Stacy Helton said...

Really loved your review! The nun-raping scene was a real "where did that come from" moment...a question though? What does the book cover represent - it's so horrid - it seems that the Grove Press re-release could have been freshened up!

Susann Fan said...

Atrocities suffered by Karla during WWII as a child in a Lithuanian convent, her rescue by the young Russian soldier, and the birth of her daughter help us to understand Karla. Karla is a main character--both Dee and David Milford are obsessed with her.

The book is a very interesting commentary on so many things. We have an Electra complex, May-December romance, traditional values vs. the sexual revolution, the anguish many middle-aged men faced before viagra. We get a peek at the lives of the idle rich and we understand the allure of the amphetamine shots dispensed by Dr. Max Jacobsen to many major celebrities of the era including President + Mrs. Kennedy.

Altogether a very interesting anthropological document of the early 1970s.

And they did a good job with the movie, unlike the ones supposedly based on her two prior novels.