Thursday, February 28, 2013

Edward Berner Is Alive Again!

Edward Berner Is Alive Again!, by Herbert Kastle
No month stated, 1975  Prentice-Hall

In 1964 Herbert Kastle published the paperback-only novel The Reassembled Man. In 1975 he published this hardcover-only revision. It’s almost a complete rewrite, and I’m not sure why Kastle didn’t just publish it as its own novel. But then, only the first hundred pages are new – after which the novel is basically just a complete reprint of The Reassembled Man. At any rate Edward Berner Is Alive Again! is maybe the most obscure of Kastle’s books, garnering only this hardcover edition in the US. (In the UK it was published both in hardcover and paperback under the title The Three Lives Of Edward Berner.)

The previous incarnation of this story started at the beginning, with Ed Berner leaving his house for a drive and then finding himself, days later, standing before some human-sized beetles from outer space. Space beetles calling themselves The Druggish who offered to make all of Ed’s dreams come true. Edward Berner Is Alive Again! dispenses with this and throws you right in, so that, like it’s protagonist, you’re not really sure what’s going on for a hundred pages or so.

This time though Ed has been given the chance to relive his childhood – the novel opens with Ed finding himself in his 15 year-old body, sitting in a class room in Brooklyn in 1938. He retains his memories, memories which span decades, of his wife and his kids and all that’s happened in his life, but he can’t understand how he knows such things, or how he came to be here. Every time he tries to ponder the issue, a sort of “calming hand” brushes his mind and the troublesome thoughts go away.

Realizing he’s been given a second chance, Ed (referred to as “Eddie” throughout these opening 100+ pages) vows to make life better for his family. He lives in a crumbling apartment building with his parents; his dad barely makes a living collecting payments for his office, and his mother is a housewife. Neither of them know how to cope with Ed’s sudden personality change; whereas just a few days previously (for them) Ed was your typical sullen teenaged punk, he’s now an overly-caring individual who asks them how they’re doing, kisses his mother on the cheek, and tells them he plans to work through the summer.

Kastle is a master at narrative and character, and he shines throughout this opening half of the novel, bringing to life the 1930s New York City which Kastle himself grew up in. His only failing is, again, Ed Berner himself. I said in my review of The Reassembled Man that the novel would’ve been stronger if Kastle had shown us more of Ed’s life before he became a Druggish-powered Superman, but even here, where the first hundred pages focus on Ed before he gains his superpowers, he still comes off as being obsessed solely with money and sex.

Never once does Ed sit back and relax and rejoice in the fact that he now has an opportunity to be a kid again, to not have to worry about going to work or paying the bills or taking care of the kids. Instead he bolts into action, realizing that with his decades-spanning knowledge he could become a titan in the business world of the 1930s. The only problem is, he has no money to start off his big dreams.

Here the novel sort of resembles Ken Grimwood’s later (and superior) novel Replay, with Ed winning money on bets – betting on sports outcomes with his future knowledge. Soon Ed has gotten thousands of dollars this way, a veritable fortune in late ‘30s New York, but it rings false because Ed bets on all kinds of sports stuff…horse races, track and field stuff, boxing matches, etc, winning against impossible odds each time because he knows who’s going to win. But it’s just goofy to believe the guy could retain that much trivial information over so many decades…ie, that the 1975 Edward Berner could remember who won the long-jump in a Brooklyn match in 1938.

Another thing consistent about Ed’s characterization in the two novels is that he’s too stubborn and doesn’t pause to consider his rashness. It’s obvious he’s heading for misery with his rampant betting, pissing off the local toughs, but Ed pushes on heedless, using an 18 year-old college student to do the betting for him. Ed couldn’t care less, though, because he’s also busy chasing his other main interest – sex.

In this ’38 sequence Ed does not have the “equipment” and hypnotic powers he’s graced with later in the book and in The Reassembled Man, but he still does nicely for himself, managing to talk the attractive lady next door into sleeping with him. Quite a feat for a 15 year-old…and, due to his future knowledge of how to please a lady (something Kastle states the average ‘30s guy was oblivious of), the lady can’t get enough.

Ed also chases after his lifelong love, a girl his age named Sheila who is currently dating an older boy. Throughout this section Kastle does a great job of having Ed do all those things he wishes he’d done…like using his future-learned judo skills to beat up the school bully and anyone else who gets in his way. In this fashion he’s able to win the heart of Sheila, taking her out and spending exorbitant amounts on her.

Kastle as you know is a dark comedy master, and always has something up his sleeve…like when Ed finally achieves his lifelong dream and gets intimate with Sheila; he suddenly feels like “an old man” feeling up a teenaged girl, and basically goes nuts on her. Kastle’s also smart enough to make clear that you can’t go home again, with Ed discovering to his horror that the reality is nothing like the fantasy.

Another of Kastle’s strengths is weaving a bunch of webs and then pulling them together for a dark and unexpected ending, and he does so here, having Ed’s life spiral out of control, all the bad things he tried to prevent happening regardless, and indeed happening earlier than they did in his previous life. And just as it looks to be the end for Ed himself, he blacks out and comes to in a metal room surrounded by human-sized beetles from outer space.

Yes, it turns out that this entire opening section was nothing more than a dream, one made possible by Druggish technology. Ed, once again in his 52 year-old body, is irate – he remembers everything now, and he’d thought he would really live his life over, not just dream it, so he accuses the Druggish of screwing him over. But the Druggish make it clear that there’s no way they could reverse time for the entire planet, and in fact they argue that they upheld their end of the deal. Turns out though that this was just a trial run of sorts, and they still want Ed’s assistance: they want him to become a recorder of human life, and in exchange they will grant Ed’s wishes.

From here on the novel basically reprints The Reassembled Man, with only the most minor of changes and deletions. The dichotomy is pretty obvious because Ed never once reflects back on the 1938 section and indeed all of it comes off as superfluous to the rest of the book. But then, the Druggish have erased Ed’s memory of them, so there’s no way he could remember that trip back to his childhood. So, though it makes sense narrative-wise, it still comes off as troubling that we’ve read over a hundred pages that have ultimately no bearing on the rest of the book – which itself is just a reprint of an earlier novel.

Kastle does add one new page to this reprinted section, at the very end. Instead of ending on the “happily ever after” note of The Reassembled Man, he expands it to show that Ed, even though all of his dreams have been realized, will still always be plagued by doubt and “what could have been” fantasies; surely a little bit of commentary from our author.

So then, Edward Berner Is Alive Again! might be the superior of the two novels, if just for the opening sequence in 1938, which really is enjoyable, and doesn’t fall into the “new woman to sleep with” predictability of The Reassembled Man. And throughout Kastle’s writing is superb, bringing to life even the most minor characters, gripping the emotions and making the reader think. The guy was a hell of an author, and it’s a shame he’s so unknown today.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Invasion U.S.A.

Invasion U.S.A., by Jason Frost
October, 1985  Pinnacle Books

Who would’ve thought there would be a novelization of Invasion U.S.A.? A movie so stupid that it borders on genius, Invasion U.S.A. is probably the only Chuck Norris movie I can stand to watch – even as an action-obsessed kid in the ‘80s, I still thought Chuck’s movies were bottom of the barrel. I only watched them out of a misguided sense of obligation, given that for a few years I studied tang soo do in the Norris-fronted United Fighting Arts Federation.

However Invasion U.S.A. I actually liked; even as a kid I realized it was just so goofy and campy. Watching it now it’s mindblowing that the film was even released, as it’s almost surreally underwritten and underperformed; scenes aren’t set up or resolved, shit just happens for no rhyme or reason, the barest of plot elements are not described, and Norris waltzes through the proceedings with his standard blank expression (his only expression, actually), magically appearing to save people at the last second, like some micro-Uzi bearing Superman.

But the novelization is great!! Credited to “Jason Frost,” Invasion U.S.A. was actually written by Raymond Obstfeld, a seriously talented writer who’s churned out a plethora of novels, both series and standalone, starting in the 1980s. He even penned a few Executioner novels for Gold Eagle, a few of which I read back then (of course I didn’t know they were by Obstfeld), so I guess with this novelization I was sort of rediscovering his work. Anyway the Frost psuedonym is one Obstfeld used for the vaguely-post-nuke pulp series Warlord, so I wonder why he retained it for this novelization.

The movie was based on a story by Chuck's brother Aaron Norris and a writer named James Bruner, but the script is credited to Bruner and Chuck himself. My guess is that the script must’ve been a hell of a lot better than the actual film, thus giving Obstfeld a lot more to work with – or it could just be that Obstfeld wrote all of this himself, realizing the movie’s storyline was so bareboned. Obstfeld is known for inserting comedy into his genre novels, and there’s a bunch of it in this novelization, but have no fear it is very well incorporated into the story, so that it all comes off as fun and entertaining, not like some poser-produced spoof.

If you know the movie, you know the story, but again it is delivered here much, much better. Rostov, a crazed Russian commando who specializes in sowing revolution, infiltrates the US with a horde of multinational terrorist commandos in tow. Rostov is old enemies with Matt Hunter, a mysterious former CIA agent who nearly killed Rostov a few years ago, but had to let him live due to the usual politics bullshit.

The novel does a better job of explaining the Hunter/Rostov rivalry. “It’s time to die,” is Hunter’s oft-spoken threat to Rostov (and you have to love how robotically Norris delivers this line…and, well, every other line), and here in the novel we learn that this line is actually due to a sight gag; since he knows he must let Rostov live this time, Hunter takes out his knife and carves an “H” on Rostov’s wrist, right where Rostov wears his expensive watch, so that everytime Rostov checks the time he’ll know that soon it will be time to die.

Now of course Rostov has a burning-hot lust – uh, I mean hatred – for Hunter, and his first order of business before launching his invasion of the USA is to kill him. Cut to the rural sticks of southern Florida, where Hunter, retired from the agency, now wrestles alligators with an old Indian named John Eagle (unfortunately not the Expeditor). The attack comes much as in the film, with Rostov leading a squad of terrorists on air boats as they descend on Hunter’s shack, but in the novel it goes on longer, and better. Hunter actually fights back here, taking out several of the terrorists – and Obstfeld also does a superb job of filling us in on who many of these terrorists actually are, and how they came to be here.

Another thing better worked out is Rostov’s actual plan. In the film it comes off like Rostov just invades Miami and his thugs wander around killing people while the government does nothing. Obstfeld works it up so that Miami is just the entrance and Rostov sends out six-man terrorist squads to each state, where they cause much hell. We learn throughout the book of some of their atrocities, and Rostov’s ultimate goal is to sow an internal revolution so that America tears itself apart. In order to do this he stages racial killings (like sending terrorists dressed like Nazis into a synagogue), attempts to break open prisons, and even has his men impersonate cops and the National Guard, who then murder the citizens who think they are there to help.

Also Hunter’s one-man war on Rostov’s army is given a more realistic showing (comparatively speaking, that is). Instead of Hunter appearing just in the nick of time to waste the terrorists before they commit their latest evil deed, in the novel he follows clues, tracking down Rostov and taking on his various lieutenants in well-done action sequences. Along the way Hunter also must avoid the cops and the Feds, who attempt to track down this “vigilante” who is sowing further dissent in the already-chaotic mire that has overtaken the country.

Probably the biggest improvement of the novel is the character of the female reporter, Dahlia McGuire. If you’ve seen the film, then you certainly remember this completely useless character, who bears ultimately zero influence on the film, and indeed seems to only be there so the producers could put a female name on the cast list.

Dahlia sparkles in this narrative, and it’s a damn shame that her character wasn’t given any room in the movie. She has a direct influence over what’s going on, and her interactions with Hunter have much more depth. In the film there’s no depth between the characters, with Hunter saving her in his Superman fashion and Dahlia cursing him out in return, making her character seem pretty despicable. The novel fleshes this out, and there’s even a believable romantic development between the two, complete with the customary sex scene (nothing too graphic, mind you). But again, all of this was gutted from the movie…either that or it was never there in the first place, and Obstfeld added it all himself.

In fact Dahlia makes possible the conclusion…the film climaxes with Hunter wandering around in some business office, blowing away several terrorists before getting to Rostov, and you have no idea how the hell he got there or what’s going on. The novel explains. Dahlia pretends to set up Hunter, so the Feds and cops take him away. This also explains that otherwise nonsensical part in the film where Hunter is arrested while he’s sitting alone in a hotel room watching an old sci-fi flick – even here the character of Dahlia was gutted from the movie. But in the novel it’s her staged set-up which leads to the news announcement that Hunter has been caught and is being held in a hotel room; a news announcement that Rostov of course sees, and he takes the bait and heads for the hotel.

So now, the climax occurs in this hotel, with Hunter taking out Rostov’s goons one by one before dealing with the man himself. (He kills him the same way as in the film, though, blowing Rostov away with Rostov’s own grenade launcher.) But whereas the film ends right here, the novel continues on, giving us an actual wrap-up of what the hell happened to Rostov’s army and what the US is going to do to get a little vengeance. Adams, Hunter’s old CIA contact, informs Hunter that the government intends to form a strike squad, with Hunter as the leader, and the ending intimates that Hunter is going to take him up on the offer.

How about what isn’t in the novel? Well, for one the movie has more carnage – I think I read somewhere that the film has like a killcount of 160. The action scenes here are more smallscale – and by the way, Obstfeld doesn’t play up much on the gore. (Despite which there are actually more action scenes in the novel.) And unlike the film Hunter does not go into combat with a twin pair of micro-Uzis; Hunter does his fighting in the book with either a shotgun or a Hechler and Koch MP5 submachine gun. Some of the more infamous/goofy moments from the film are also absent from the novelization: there’s no scene, for example, where Rostov and his comrades blow up a bunch of peaceful homes with their missile launchers! Also no scene where Hunter saves a school bus of kids, tearing the bomb off their bus while driving – indeed, we learn in a news broadcast in the novel that a busful of schoolkids has been blown up. And most importantly, in the novel Hunter doesn’t have a pet armadillo!

But man, if the film had been like this novel, Invasion U.S.A. would today be considered an ‘80s action classic alongside Commando, a movie this novelization has much in common with – the same kind of one man army protagonist who doesn’t take himself too seriously, the same sort of near-homoerotic burning hatred between our hero and the villain, the same sort of snarky banter between the hero and the female character, the same sort of irreverent spirit mixed with over the top action.

In fact I almost wish someone would just buy the rights and remake Invasion U.S.A., only base it off this novel, and do it old-school style: a solid R rating, no cgi, tons of James Glickenhaus-style blood squibs, and a pulsing synthesizer soundtrack. But that would never happen; instead the remake would be PG-13 and loaded with bad cgi, and for the Matt Hunter role they'd get someone like Channing Tatum, a guy who has all the onscreen charisma of a rectal tumor. (Actually the tumor would probably have more charisma.) But he's young and "hot" and looks like he just walked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch ad, so the producers would snag him because he'd appeal to the target audience of girls and sexually-confused tweener boys who currently rule our entertainment world, and so the remake would do great at the boxoffice, and they’d follow it up with a sequel that would be even worse, and the cycle of bullshit would just continue twirling on.

Sorry, I got a little lost there. I’ll wrap up yet another overlong review by stating again how much I enjoyed this novel – and not just because Obstfeld even found a way to reference Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, having Dahlia read it. Just another indication of Obstfeld’s comedic skill, really, having a character reading a brainiac book in the novelization of an idiotic movie.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Z-Comm #2: Killpoint

Z-Comm #2: Killpoint, by Kyle Maning
February, 1989  Leisure Books

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get back to this series, which was courtesy the fevered imagination of David Alexander, posing under the psuedonym “Kyle Maning.” Whereas Z-Comm #1 was a bit too padded and uneventful until the final third, Killpoint fires on all cylinders from the first page, racking up a gory deathcount that rivals anything Alexander delivered in the Phoenix series.

One thing missing though is the characterization from the first volume. Whereas previously Alexander spent a lot of time introducing the five members of Z-Comm, particularly the “living weapon” Sam Profitt, here all of them are reduced to ciphers, even Profitt himself, who barely has any dialog. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. Normally I complain about “too much action” in an action novel, but when the action’s being written by David Alexander, there can never be too much.

And make no mistake, Killpoint is an action onslaught, as action-heavy as Phoenix #3. Alexander piles on his customary gore and over-the-top descriptions, but for the most part plays it straight with the blood and guts. To be sure, there’s a ton of ultra-detailed sadism and violence here, but very little of the goofy death descriptions you’d find in the Phoenix novels, or even Z-Comm #1. In fact it seems Alexander here tried to play up more of a “realistic” portrayal of violence – still taken to outrageous extremes, mind you – showcasing the horrors of terrorism in an almost absurdly overblown way.

This time Z-Comm is called in to handle a possible terrorist action in Venice, during a highly-publicized meeting between the US president and the Soviet premiere. Intel has it that the infamous Vulture, a Middle Eastern terrorist leader known for his horrific torture methods, has put together an army and is already holed up on one of the innumerable islands which surround Venice, planning his attack.

Of course, everyone else is too incompetent to track down the Vulture and stop him. Enter Z-Comm, who arrive on the scene and immediately begin kicking “scum sheik” ass; Alexander doesn’t even bother with a mission prep this time, and introduces Z-Comm leader Logan Cage while he’s en route to Italy on the Orient Express – on the same train, of course, as a pair of would-be robbers, whom Cage deals with in bloody fashion.

But Alexander is only getting started; immediately after this we have an ultra sick scene where a trio of terrorists have their gruesome way with a hooker before engaging in a suicide attack on Venice, complete with one of them blasting away at tourists with an Ultimax machine gun with explosive-tipped bullets. The scene with the hooker rivals the infamously gross denoument of Phoenix #2, and will either have you running for the hills or laughing (like I was) at the incredibly dark and violent humor Alexander excels at.

Cage and his four comrades (Bear, Sam Profitt, Zabriskie, and Domino, the Smurfette of the group) basically waltz around Venice, tracking down clues, getting in frequent firefights, and beating information out of known Vulture accomplices, one of them being an exiled American mafioso. Each of them gets their share of the action spotlight, and for Domino there’s even action of the sexual variety – whereas it’s customary in the genre for female operatives to flaunt their wiles in order to distract a mark, but never going all the way with them, Alexander instead has it that Domino really gets into this aspect of her job, and therefore screws an Arabic terrorist supporter in uber-explicit detail while the rest of Z-Comm listens in on their radios.

The novel soon appropriates the feel of Invasion USA, with the Vulture’s followers launching catastrophic attacks on the citizens of Venice, who blithely go about their daily lives. By the climax of the novel the terrorists have apparently wasted half of the populace in surprise attacks on commercial areas or tourist venues, but regardless when the Vulture launches a full-on assault on the city, people are still sitting around in movie theaters or going to the mall, easy pickings for the terrorist kill crews. Again, it’s all so goofy and overdone that you can’t help but laugh…sort of like Invasion USA, in fact.

The action scenes are plentiful, but they’re also varied, from hand-to-hand combat to even fullscale military stuff, like when the Vulture wages a naval war on the wharves of Venice. And as in the previous volume it quickly appropriates a comic book feel, with each member of Z-Comm the equal to an entire army of terrorists, blowing away hordes of them with nary a scratch. But all of the plentiful action scenes are fun (and insane), especially one where Z-Comm launches a "hard probe" on a diplomatic function, a mission which of course quickly devolves into massive bloodshed and destruction.

Alexander also excels in scenes of outrageous sadism, and in addition to the aforementioned hooker-murdering there are extended bits where we see the Vulture’s infamous torture techniques, as well as another incredibly gruesome scene where Z-Comm discovers the mutilated corpses of a couple who worked as informants for the terrorists. (Humorously, Alexander has the Z-Commandos unfazed by the horrific sight.)

As you’ll note, I haven’t really gotten into the plot much. That’s because there isn’t much of one. It’s just Z-Comm following leads, getting in firefights, killing tons of terrorists, and moving on to the next attack, with an occasional topical detail about Venice on the side. There really is no plot other than that. But come on. It’s David Alexander. It’s great!

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Reassembled Man

The Reassembled Man, by Herbert D. Kastle
No month stated, 1964  Fawcett Crest Books

Before he hit mainstream success in 1969 with his “sell-out novel” The MoviemakerHerbert Kastle published a variety of novels, from literature to genre fiction. As far as I know, The Reassembled Man was his only science fiction novel – but then, it’s only sci-fi in its trappings. In its execution the novel is basically soft porn (and “soft” due to the year in which it was published, I’m sure), not much different than the average Harold Robbins novel.

In fact, you could consider The Reassembled Man the story of how a regular loser becomes an alpha male, Harold Robbins-type protagonist. Our “hero” is Ed Berner, a 38 year-old sap who has been beaten down by life. Married to a shrew, the father of two prepubescent kids, Ed makes a moderate living as a copywriter at a Manhattan ad agency. Yep, just like Darrin on Bewitched -- and really, this novel is very much like a twisted episode of Bewitched. Like, if Darrin had asked Sam to make him ultra-human, and then decided to start sleeping around with every woman he met.

Kastle doesn’t make us spend too long with the loser version of Ed. This in fact might be one of the novel’s failings; Ed’s later actions come off as so self-centered that the book quickly descends into an endless string of softcore sexcapades, Ed living out the dreams previously denied him. But at any rate, as the novel opens Ed goes out for an evening drive, and comes to days later, having driven all the way from New York to New Mexico.

He’s been brought here by the Druggish, aliens who apparently look like Japanese Beetles, only human sized. Kastle well captures the purported experiences of UFO abductees, with Ed coming to himself as he sits in his parked car overtop a hole in the New Mexico desert, out of which pops these giant beetles; the ensuing dialog with the aliens occurs with a sort of casual-meets-bizarre vibe.

The aliens (who initially speak in beatnik, having assumed it was the standard Earth language from their research) inform Ed that he’s been chosen to be their “recorder” of life on Earth. They wanted an average guy living an average life, and Ed fit the bill. In exchange they will grant him his wishes; anything Ed has previously longed for will be given him.

Ed’s checklist is pretty basic. He wants to be better looking, he wants all of his hair back, he wants to be stronger, he wants women to find him attractive, he wants to have a lot of sex, and he wants a bigger dick. Oh, and he wants the ability to persuade people, and maybe even some empath powers to boot.

Ed emerges from this a superman, very similar to Tony Twin, from TNT. Kastle loses me here, though, because the Druggish make it clear that they want Ed to be an “average” human, and though they say they can only boost his inherent potential (in other words, they can’t make him fly or anything, because humans can’t fly), Ed still comes out of this a not-very-human being, able to read and influence thoughts and capable of superhuman feats, from lifting cars with one hand to breaking long-jump records with ease.

The Druggish have removed themselves from Ed’s memory – something they’d told him they’d do, so as to assure an unbiased report from him – so he comes back to himself in this new and improved body here in New Mexico with no idea how he got here. Pretty soon Ed gets to take his new body out for a spin with all the expected tropes; he nearly beats to death a pair of would-be robbers and quickly talks an attractive waitress into leaving work and going to his hotel room for some sex!

This first sex scene is just a taste of what the novel will become, just an endless string of sequences where Ed will meet some girl, affect her thoughts with his own so that she’s overcome with lust for him, and then take her to his place where he will bang her for several hours. Again just like Tony Twin, Ed is insastiable and can last for hours and hours, wearing out women until they’re in a stupor of ecstasy. He also apparently has a sadomasochistic bent, and Kastle hints at “experiments” Ed will put various women through. De Sade is even mentioned. But again due to the era it was published, the novel does not get into details.

Ed quickly discovers he can control others. He takes care of his previously-domineering wife, satisfying her with Herculean bouts of sex to the point where she’s in a daze. Meanwhile Ed sets his sights on Gladys, the attractive next-door neighbor with the loutish husband. This scenario is given the most setup of all of Ed’s conquests, as he goes to great lengths to get the couple over to his place for some barbecue and brandy, ensuring that Ed’s wife and Gladys’s husband pass out so Ed and Gladys can be alone.

His new powers also give Ed an advantage in the workplace. Whereas before he was a nonentity, by the end of his first week Ed has gotten his old boss fired and has taken over the department. This is very Bewitched/Mad Men as Ed hobknobs with wealthy clients and attempts to win over their accounts. But Ed discovers one strange drawback to his new condition – he can no longer handle booze; just the thought of drinking it is enough to make him puke. Which makes it pretty unfortunate that his agency mostly deals with licquor accounts!

Another thing Ed learns is that he quickly becomes sick of women once he’s conquered them. Again, the novel is very repetitive with Ed going from one woman to another, and you’re left with the unpleasant thought that the majority of these women are sleeping with him because Ed has influenced their thoughts. Once Gladys has been moved to the background, the biggest romance in Ed’s new life is Beth, a pretty 18 year-old heiress who is much wiser than her years would imply; after one night with Ed she calls to tell him that, while she likes him, she has a feeling she’s been used somehow. Beth is easily the strongest female character in the novel, and Ed soon becomes self-conscious around her, as she’s the only one who appears able to detect that there’s something different about him.

Meanwhile Ed discovers a much bigger problem with being a recorder for the Druggish. Right before landing a huge account, Ed loses his mind, steals a car, and comes to days later in New Mexico. Turns out his reports to the Druggish will be monthly; when the allotted time is up – which, remember, Ed will never know because the Druggish erase themselves from Ed’s memory – Ed will drop whatever he is doing, find the closest means of transportation, and get to New Mexico, where the Druggish will be waiting for him, all of it timed to their busy interplanetary-traveling schedule.

When reunited with the Druggish Ed remembers all – and instantly realizes that his life will have problems. What if he’s overseas when the monthly call comes to return to New Mexico? Since he’ll have no memory of the Druggish, he’ll blindly go on with his life, not realizing that once a month he’ll be expected to drop everything and get to New Mexico, where he’ll remain for days.

The Druggish give Ed more problems. Since their “recorder” is such valuable property, they instill deep fears in Ed of anything that might kill him; now he’s terrified to fly, and he can only drive his brand-new Triumph sportscar at 30 miles an hour due to his terror that he’ll crash it and die. And forget about taking on armed robbers or bullies anymore. But again, since the Druggish have wiped his memory, Ed has no idea why he’s so afraid of everything, just like he can’t understand how he got this new body and new skills.

But as mentioned, the novel by this point has fallen into a mire of repetitive situations. It’s salvaged though by Kastle’s masterful prose. Also, as would be expected he has more up his sleeve than delivering a wish-fulfillment fantasy. It doesn’t take long to realize that The Reassembled Man is really a morality play, the story of what happens when the male id is allowed to run rampant.

Ed Berner is not a hero, and Kastle doesn’t present him as one. Indeed you soon feel sorry for the other characters he manipulates and takes advantage of. But as the narrative moves on Ed begins to realize the errors of his ways, and also focuses on bettering himself – one advantage of his new form is that he requires little sleep, and so he spends many nights up reading the classics and philosophy.

Just as you realize it can’t go on much longer (sort of like this review), Kastle pulls out all the stops, delivering another of his dark comedy showpieces where Ed must drink a glass of fine brandy as part of the fulfillment of a new account – a scene that goes down with comically disastrous results. From here Kastle quickly wraps up his narrative, with some last-second changes of mind from the Druggish and a better future for Ed.

The Reassembled Man isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s enjoyable. Its biggest failing is that it starts off so strong, with a reborn Ed Berner living out every guy’s fantasy – getting the upper hand on bullies, telling his boss where to shove it, being desired by every woman he meets – but it soon falls into a rut.

Kastle must’ve realized some opportunities himself, as in 1975 he rewrote about 80% of the novel and published it as Edward Berner Is Alive Again!, a hardcover-only obscurity which I’ve just gotten via InterLibrary Loan. I look forward to seeing how different it is from its original incarnation.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

SuperBolan #98: Predator Paradise

SuperBolan #98: Predator Paradise, by Dan Schmidt
September, 2004  Gold Eagle Books

This was one of the last books Dan Schmidt published, and unfortunately it’s every bit as uninvolving as another of his latter publications, Devil's Bargain. If anything this just confirms my theory that the earlier these men’s adventure novels are published, the better, and also that authors in this genre will gradually achieve burnout. Because without question the earlier Schmidt novels I’ve read have been very enjoyable, particularly The Executioner #115: Circle Of Steel, which was damn great.

But again I wonder how much the author is to blame. Gold Eagle has clearly refashioned itself to ride on the current fame of Tom Clancy/Ops Center stuff, and this SuperBolan almost reads like a piece of military fiction. To wit, Mack “Executioner” Bolan, who by this point is a complete cipher, has been tasked (by the President no less) to infiltrate a black ops commando/Delta squad calling itself Cobra Force Twelve to ascertain whether they have ulterior, anti-US motives.

Just like the more memorable Alpha Team Six in Devil’s Bargain, Cobra is made up of hardened warriors who go about with colorful code names…just like Cobra from GI Joe, in fact. Hell, the leader, Colonel Ben Collins, even calls himself “Cobra Commander!” If only he wore a mirror-lensed faceplate. But again as in Devil’s Bargain the too-many Cobra black ops dudes run together, and all are basically clones of one another. Hence, the reader can’t tell them apart, and quickly loses interest.

Even the narrative is lifeless, which is odd given how action-heavy it is. The first 100+ plages are literally an endless action sequence, with Bolan riding shotgun as Cobra blitzes various terrorist compounds from Mogadishu on up through Africa and into the Middle East. Collins will send in three plucky Cobra bastards who will enter into a fake deal with some despot, distracting them, and then Cobra Force Twelve will descend in their bombers and gunships and M-16-toting squads and start blowing people away.

But the action scenes are plain boring, mostly because Schmidt delivers them so flatly, stuck in the heads of the characters while the action goes down. In other words, while guns are blazing, instead of detailing the carnage Schmidt will relay it all from Bolan’s point of view (or Collins, or another Cobra commando, etc), ruminating over man’s inhummanity to man and etc. The actual combat description is relegated to stuff like, “Bolan blew the guy off his feet.” And then it’s back to the ruminating.

Compare this to the gore onslaught that was Circle Of Steel, where the action kept moving and the heads kept exploding. I guess a guy can only describe a head blowing up so many ways; it seems obvious to me that a writer in the action genre is going to eventually get sick of it. Schmidt would be a prime example. Predator Paradise is a pale reflection of the man’s earlier works, offering up cardboard characters, repetitive and uninvolving action scenes, and a general sense of frustration.

Also frustrating is that Bolan is a bit slow on the uptake here. He figures from the get-go that Cobra is up to something bad, but he tags along with them anyway. They waste a few Muslim terrorists, Bolan helps them catch a few leaders, some Cobra dudes make some evil insinuations, and Bolan just decides to keep going with it. Hell, there’s even a scene where one of the Cobra guys takes a shot at Bolan – right in front of everyone – and after killing the dude, Bolan still isn’t sure if Cobra is bad!

Of course, these guys do have an overarching plan for evil, but damn if it too isn’t muddled. I honestly couldn’t figure out what they had in mind. Something about corralling a bunch of warlords from Africa and the Middle East, taking them to a military base in Iran, and then doing something, like selling WMDs to Russians or something like that. Seriously, it was like the men’s adventure equivalent of The Big Sleep, just an endlessly convoluted plot with no satisfying resoluton.

And as mentioned, it would be one thing if we had some colorful personages here, but other than one or two of the Cobra dudes, none of them are memorable. They all have interesting code names, though, and Schmidt works it out that different code names mean they are in different level of Cobra, and therefore privy to different levels of the nonsensical Cobra scheme. But as for personalities, they have none. They all basically speak the same way, make the same threats; there are only three of them in particular, the ones who go in alone to each warlord and distract them before Cobra’s main force arrives, who have any spark, and Schmidt would’ve done well to just focus on them and get rid of the rest of the faceless Cobra masses.

It’s also frustrating that there’s a lot of potential here. A rogue team of black ops raising hell in Africa has the makings of at least an interesting plot, but it’s squandered with needless wheel-spinning and repetitive action sequences. It also would appear that “black ops team gone rogue” is something of an obsession with Schmidt, as I think every book of his I’ve read has concerned the same thing. So maybe by this point he had reached the end of the road, and could no longer find a new way to tell the same old story.

Repetition is key in this novel, so it will be in this review, as well – the earlier a book is published in the men’s adventure genre, the better it will be. And after a few decades of writing about terrorists getting their faces blown off by M-16 autofire, any writer will eventually achieve burnout. Hell, even David Alexander hung up his action-fiction-writing hat, and that dude could make an exploding head read like goddamn poetry.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Springblade #1

Springblade #1, by Greg Walker
October, 1989  Charter Books

This was the start of a 9-volume series detailing the black ops missions of Bo Thornton, a Vietnam badass who now heads a small team of “techno-commandos” who are hired out to the US government to do the dirty work. Series creator and author Greg Walker is a real person (ie, it’s not a house name); he himself has a special forces background, and has also published a few books on knife combat.

Springblade #1 is a strong start to the series, with a good focus on its main character. However as is customary for latter-day men’s adventure series, this first volume is much too concerned with scene-setting; in the ‘70s the first volume of a series would start right in, maybe doling out the origin in backstory (if at all). But by the time the genre was dying in the early ‘90s the focus was more on playing everything out. Hence, it takes a long time to get to the blood and gore in this book; in fact, there’s no major action until the final thirty pages.

Another indication of the publication date is that much of Springblade #1 veers a little too close to military fiction, at least for my taste. Another thing I preferred about ‘70s men’s adventure was that, for the most part, the protagonists were lone wolves. Teams were all the rage in series fiction in the ‘80s, and as the decade progressed the teams became more and more similar to your average Delta squad or SEAL team.

Anyway, our hero Bo Thornton is in his early 40s, unmarried, and now makes his living running a dive shop in California with Frank Hartung, an old war buddy. Thornton, like his creator, has a preference for bladed weapons and misses the rush of combat; after ‘Nam he did some special ops work for various agencies, and now an old DEA contact, a former SEAL named Bailey, calls Thornton while he’s on vacation in Oregon to see if he’d be interested in flying down to DC to consider taking on a special project.

A drug kingpin named Tony Dancer, no doubt modeled on Pablo Escobar but more fashionable, is plotting a new cocaine empire with which to take over the entire coke pipeline into the US. For reasons of bizarre coincidence, Dancer’s headquarters for this operation will be in Oregon! He plans to mask the place as a resort, and the intel the Feds have acquired shows that Dancer will host a party among his lieutenants on Christmas Eve, officially unveiling the place for business.

The DEA, through Bailey, asks Thornton to put together a special ops team to both destroy the coke lab and kill all of the occupants. This last order comes direct from the president of the US, who wants Tony Dancer dead. Thornton, sick of the social mire the modern world has fallen into, accepts the mission with relish. He makes his resort cabin in Oregon his new base of operations and calls in Hartung to act again as Seargent Major.

Thornton puts together his team from his old experience as well as a list of candidates the DEA provides. From his ‘Nam days he gets Jason Silver, a LRRP, and through the DEA he gets David Lee, a Delta commando and the only member of the team (dubbed “Springblade”) that’s currently on active duty. These three men, with Hartung acting as a sort of mother hen, will infiltrate Dancer’s complex on Christmas Eve and kill everyone inside.

Walker has a bit in common with Dan Schmidt in that he has too many characters and too many subplots in too short a book. While Silver and Lee barely get much narrative time (and indeed come off as ciphers), Walker does focus on incidental characters. In particular, Monk and his wooly gang of biker outlaws, who have been screwed over by Dancer’s unifying of the coke trade and now want revenge. They too plan an attack on Dancer’s place on Christmas eve, but it all just sort of fizzles out, and the biker subplot could be removed with no effect to the narrative.

Another thing is that Springblade #1 doesn’t have any action until the very last pages. Walker keeps it moving with a taut narrative style and good characterization, but he does insert the most goofy “I need to put an action scene here” moment I’ve yet encountered in one of these series novels. Early in the novel Thornton meets Linda, the attractive receptionist at his resort, and he takes her on a date. After dropping her off Thornton picks up a hitchhiker, just for the hell of it.

Yep, turns out the hitchhiker’s a murderer, and he attempts to waste Thornton. Little does he know that Thornton carries around a ballistic knife in his car. There follows a brief sequence where Thornton easily dispatches his would-be killer, pulls the body out of his car and stashes it off of the night road, covers his tracks, drives home…and cracks open a beer! The incident is never mentioned again, let alone reflected upon by a beer-sipping Thornton.

Otherwise Walker delivers good action scenes, with lots of detail on the particular weapons the Springblade team takes with them. (The “techno-commando” stuff mostly comes down to their nightvision goggles and comlink equipment.) The finale is entertaining, with the team infiltrating the drug compound in the dead of night, silently taking out guards. Walker packs on the violence here, though not to extreme levels. He seems to save his gorier descriptions for the knife battles, like when Thornton is jumped by a SEAL who happens to be employed by Dancer, and the two go at it with their blades.

Walker shares another similarity with Dan Schmidt in that his finales are pretty anticlimatic, which just as in Schmidt’s work is a bit surprising given how good the build-up is. He spends a lot of time showcasing Thornton’s battle with the aforementioned SEAL, a character who is basically a nonentity so far as the plot goes, but brushes off Dancer’s fate in an off-screen fashion. Unlike Schmidt though, there’s more characterization here, with Thornton given to a lot of introspection and self-doubt, plus his camaraderie with Hartung leads to a lot of military-style banter.

I also need to mention that Springblade #1 is unabashedly pre-PC. Every black, hispanic, or other minority is a drug dealer, gangster, or murderer; there’s a goofy scene where Thornton and Bailey, driving through DC, point their fingers gun-style at a black dude they pass on the street…and Walker is sure to inform us that the black dude is indeed a gun-carrying drug dealer! (Though obviously Thornton and Bailey couldn’t know that…)

A brief inspection of future volumes of Springblade proves that this will only increase…I opened up to a wacky scene in the next installment where Thornton takes on a group of gay transvestite muggers – who intend to rape him – hacking them up in super-gory detail! I tell you, the bizarre joys of the men’s adventure genre will never be matched in any other literature…

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Penetrator #17: Demented Empire

The Penetrator #17: Demented Empire, by Lionel Derrick
November, 1976  Pinnacle Books

This volume of the Penetrator is all over the place, filled with carnage and lurid subplots, which is a little surprising given that it’s by Mark Roberts, who generally delivers the more “grounded” installments. In fact Demented Empire reads like one of the crazed installments churned out by Roberts’s co-author, Chet Cunningham…and given Roberts’s penchant for in-jokery as displayed in previous volumes, I wonder if this was his attempt at writing a Chet Cunningham-style Penetrator novel?

Whatever the case, Demented Empire is a lot of twisted fun, and probably my favorite Roberts volume yet. (Most likely because it’s like a Cunningham volume, given that I like the crazy stuff.) The plot’s just as wild as the action, starting off with Mark “Penetrator” Hardin in southern Florida, where he’s looking into a land fraud scheme…but then somehow he’s tracking up through the country hunting down a nascent crime ring, and by the novel’s end he’s gone down to Guatemala, where he stages a daunting raid on a kingpin who calls himself The Poet.

The plentiful action scenes are filled with gory deaths, starting off with Hardin’s attack on the land schemer’s headquarters. You’d figure it would just be a regular office, and it is, but it’s filled with goons, and Hardin mows them down. Here he comes upon a new submachine gun, apparently custom built by these guys, which Roberts expounds upon throughout the book. A wicked little .22 caliber-spitter, Hardin pries the gun from a corpse and uses it from there on out, blowing away scads of scum. I have to say, I’m no gun nut but this weapon sounded pretty cool, especially how Roberts described it.

The novel is almost surreal in how it comes off like a fractured series of barely-connected storylines, all tied together by Hardin as he comes into some new place, kills a few people, and moves on. To continue with the Cunningham parallels, it must be noted that Hardin is pretty savage here, moreso than normal in a Roberts installment. He shows absolutely no mercy to his enemies, no matter how low they are on the criminal empire’s totem pole. There’s one unsettling scene where he murders a crook while the man’s wife sits nearby, and at the climax he leaves another villain to suffer a horrible fate in the grip of an anaconda.

Roberts also packs on the lurid and exploitative stuff. The biggest instance is a subplot concerning Malcom Stone, one of the Poet’s executives, who runs a porn ring out of Nebraska. But this is porn of the sick and warped variety; Hardin comes upon a few films and watches them in disgust on a rented projector. Roberts continues to build upon the twisted element here, culminating in a bizarre scene where an actress is apparently blown up on film. Throughout these movies a gorgeous redhead constantly appears, usually wearing nothing but go-go boots and sporting a whip, which she uses to lash the other actors, spurring them to greater lengths of depravity.

This turns out to be a lady named Nila Dennis, Malcom Stone’s secretary. Nila is a protype for the later Roberts villainess Margot Anstruther (from Soldier For Hire #8), and just as depraved, though unfortunately she doesn’t get as much narrative time as I’d like. (Due no doubt to some psychological quirk, I love female villains, the more depraved the better.) But here Roberts delivers on the scene he denied us in Soldier For Hire #8, having Hardin and Nila spend some quality time together. This scene is probably the highlight of the novel, with Nila so overwhelmed by Hardin’s skills in the sack that she forgets to call in Malcom Stone, who’s waiting outside for Nila’s signal to come in and kill Hardin!

Actually there’s a pretty strong focus on sex here, again moreso like what you’d expect to find in one of Cunningham’s Penetrator novels. Hardin gets it on with two different women, the first time with Nila Dennis and then later on with the beautiful proprietor of a hotel in Mexico…this scene is particularly Cunningham-esque, with the woman coming on to Hardin mere moments after meeting him, offering her Jeep in exchange for some good lovin’!

The sex scenes are just as purple prosed as you’d want, but more fun is how Roberts keeps reminding us of them throughout…both women continuously marvel over how good Hardin was, including an unforgettable bit where Nila, days after the event, reflects over “the warm glow in her loins.” Wow! I guess Hardin calls himself “The Penetrator” for more reasons than one. (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

There’s enough material in Demented Empire for a few books, from Hardin’s entry into a knife-throwing competition(?), to an attack on Hardin by a group of bikers, to even the familiar old saw about the small-time sheriff who quickly figures out who Hardin is but decides to help him anyway. Not to mention a random scene where Roberts details how difficult it is to pilot a small plane through a heavy thunderstorm, nor a subplot where Hardin’s old pal Tony Rossi (from #12: Bloody Boston -- a Cunningham novel, by the way) tries to get Hardin to work for the Mafia! Even the last chapter of the novel is sort of arbitrary, with Roberts delving into full-on gun-porn as Hardin, back in his HQ, goes over what weapons he’s used on past missions and how each performed, and also designs his own machine gun for use in future missions.

So while it lacks much direction or control, I still think Demented Empire is one of the most entertaining entries in the series yet. Roberts is more focused on delivering a string of sex and violence-heavy scenes than on delivering a taut story, but when those scenes are so well done, who can complain? At any rate Demented Empire is leagues above the previous volume, which was by Cunningham…meaning that Roberts bested Cunningham by delivering a sort of imitation that’s better than the original.

Back in my review for #9: Dodge City Bombers, I wondered if Roberts’s mention of a character in Texas named “Crawford” might’ve been an in-joke reference to Texas-based Pinnacle house writer William Crawford, aka the man who penned the infamous 16th installment of the Executioner series, Sicilian Slaughter, as “Jim Peterson.” It must’ve been a reference to him after all, as Roberts actually dedicates Demented Empire to Crawford.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Narc #4: The Delgado Killings

Narc #4: The Delgado Killings by Robert Hawkes
October, 1974  Signet Books

I’m starting to think Marc Olden could be considered the Elmore Leonard of men’s adventure authors, his Narc series being a case in point. Instead of the over-the-top, gun-blazing thrills customary of the genre, Olden continues to write a grim and gritty series that brings to life the sleazy, dangerous streets of 1970s New York City. Olden once again takes us into a sordid world of drug kingpins and street-level warriors, where only the most vicious survive.

As is customary for this series, The Delgado Killings is mostly an ensemble piece, with hero John “Narc” Bolt just one of the many characters. There’s no pickup from the previous volume, and indeed it appears that we’ve missed a lot between installments. For one, Bolt’s girlfriend of The Death List is not only gone and unmentioned, but he’s managed to find another girlfriend in the meantime. Anyway Bolt’s life has been pretty hectic since we last saw him, and Olden spends a lot of time informing us what we missed via backstory.

But as usual with Olden it’s the villains who get the most narrative time. The titular Delgado for example takes up a goodly portion of the novel; a cocaine kingpin, Delgado is in the sights of Bolt’s agency D-3 and is about to be put on trial. At great cost Delgado has gotten a list of the names of the people who will testify against him. His plan is to kill off these witnesses, and to do so he hires Victor Poland, a former cop who has become a hitman who specializes in helping those in the narcotics industry.

Mostly though Delgado wants Bolt dead. It turns out that Bolt has killed Delgado’s lover – Delgado is gay (he’s actually referred to as “The Snow Queen” on the back cover…man, you can’t get much more pre-PC than that), and this murder has sent him over the edge. Delgado’s homosexuality is often ridiculed throughout the book, and it’s another indication of how the times have changed…vast portions of this stuff would not be publishable in today’s tepid, sterilized, PG-13 neutered world.

Like previous novels, The Delgado Killings takes place over a short period of time, specifically during a very hot summer. We’re reminded, quite often and at length, of the extreme heat and the uncomfortable conditions. But then Olden mentions that it’s 85 degrees out, and I had to laugh…I mean, when it’s 85 degrees down here in the hellish heat of Dallas, that’s when we know it’s finally getting cooler and summer’s wrapping up! Anyway Olden fully brings to life the mire of a New York summer, just another indication of his writing talent.

Poland takes the job and hires his own little band of hitmen, and together they begin killing off the witnesses, making each look like accidental deaths. Bolt himself doesn’t even appear until well into the book, and we learn of his involvement in the Delgado case in backstory, including how Bolt caused the death of Delgado’s lover. Bolt’s the only one to quickly deduce that Delgado is behind these “accidental deaths,” and when a gunman tries to kill both Bolt and one of the witnesses in a staged holdup, he knows for sure that he’s had a death warrant placed on him.

I have to say though that Bolt really isn’t much fun of a character, which is perhaps why Olden spends so little time with him. He has all the standard attributes of your average men’s adventure protagonist, but no sparkle, no charm. In fact he’s pretty humorless, something Olden plays up on with the other characters, so it seems to me that it was Olden’s intent to make Bolt such a grim cipher. What’s strange though is the guy had a lot more pizazz back in Narc #1, including a nihilistic bent, all of which has disappeared – and by the way, what happened to Bolt’s martial arts guru, also unseen since that first volume?

But then, this is an ensemble piece and the minor players are more interesting than the protagonist. Poland comes off as a street-smart warrior with one hell of a mean streak; there’s a Stephen King-esque sequence late in the tale where Poland takes up an axe and hacks off the head and hands of one of his men. Olden really captures the sick horror of this, having another of Poland’s men puke at the sight – in fact there’s quite a bit of puking going on in The Delgado Killings, with even Bolt himself blowing chunks in the finale.

The new woman in Bolt’s life is Anita Rona, a gorgeous young model who worked as a courier for Delgado until she was busted by Bolt, who was working undercover on the case in Paris. Apparently Bolt and Anita became quite serious despite this unusual “meet cute,” but Bolt had to break it off when they got back to the US, much to Anita’s surprise and devastation. Again, all of this is relayed via backstory, and therefore lacks much impact, as we’re supposed to really be worried about Anita and regret the fact that she and Bolt couldn’t be together.

In fact, Anita only appears in a single sequence, a nonetheless taut one where Bolt comes to her rescue as Poland and his men attempt to kill her in a grocery store. But she disappears from the narrative after that, as if Olden only brought her into the tale so he could write a damsel in distress scene. It all would’ve been so much more powerful if Olden had used one of the female characters from a previous book.

There are a few action scenes, but again they’re played out on a very “real world” scale, with Bolt going into combat with nothing more than his .45 or his ankle-holstered Beretta. This in particular is his sole weapon during another taut sequence, where he chases after Bookbinder, the Poland assassin who attempted to kill Bolt in the staged hold-up. Olden does strive to make Bolt human, perhaps a little too much so. There are many, many scenes where we are informed that Bolt is afraid or nervous, and while it’s a welcome change from the traditional ultra-heroic protagonist of this genre, it gets to be a little much after a while.

Despite which The Delgado Killings is still another enjoyable Olden offering, leagues above what you’d expect. I guess my biggest problem with it would be the ending. Bolt’s entire mission here is to ensure the witnesses don’t die, so that Delgado can be put on trial and both his public stature and his criminal empire ruined. But all of this is rendered moot in the final action scene, when Poland, set up by Bolt to believe he’s been double crossed, goes after Delgado for revenge.

Another problem I had was with the resolution – namely that there is no resolution. For one, Poland’s fate is left in doubt and it seems obvious that Olden intends for him to return, but given that he did the same thing in Black Samurai #6 and that villain never returned, I kind of wish he’d just had Bolt put a bullet in Poland’s head. Also the storyline with Anita Rosa is given too much buildup and too little follow-through, especially when you assume that, like every other woman in Bolt’s life in this series, she’ll be gone and forgotten by the next volume.