Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hype!


Hype!, by Leonard Jordan
No month stated, 1977  Fawcett Gold Medal

Hype! was my Harold Robbins novel, but as usual I could only cover the material in my own way. It contains incredible amounts of vulgarity. One of the characters is based loosely on Jacqueline Onassis. I’ll probably burn in hell for what I did to that poor woman. -- Len Levinson, in a July 2012 email to me

Published not long after The Bar Studs, Hype! tells the tale of a New York City Public Relations firm, its wacky clients and its even wackier employees. Despite what Len wrote above, the novel really isn’t much like Harold Robbins – the characters are too three-dimensional for that, and you can tell that Len, unlike Robbins, is actually having fun writing – but it is a lot like The Bar Studs, in that it’s about a fairly large cast of eclectic characters in funky ‘70s NYC.

But whereas the characters in that earlier weren’t connected, the ones in Hype! all interract in various ways. Our “hero” is Mike Brown, a hustling PR man who works for the Larry Walters agency. Mike’s life is hectic to say the least. Over the course of the novel he oversees several campaigns, hurries crosstown from one meeting to another, creates a nationwide movement, nearly gets trampled in a “free hamburger day” event, introduces an unknown French starlet to the US, gets in a fight with rioting Women's Libbers, and attempts to become a svengali for another promising actress. And this is just his work life – he’s also a dopesmoking, coke-snorting, skirt-chasing alpha male who is always right. (So in this respect the novel sort of is like a Robbins novel, as Mike is very much a Robbins type of protagonist, only with a lot more depth.)

Mike’s boss Larry Walters also gets his share of the narrative; heavyset and balding, he’s just as shrewd and crafty as his underlings, and indeed urges them to get more outrageous with their efforts. Len also develops a humorous banter between Larry and Mike, with Mike constantly asking for a raise because he does a “good job” and Larry responding, “I don’t pay you to do a bad job, do I?” Larry’s storyline has him being approached for representation by the most famous woman in the world: Diane Auberville, the above-mentioned Jackie Onassis analogue. Twice widowed (her first husband an assassinated American politician, her second a Greek shipping magnate), Diane now wants to branch out from her “ditzy society girl” image and looks to Larry to steer her toward something more fulfilling.

As for Diane, she too gets her own plot. In her 40s and still ravishing, Diane has a teenaged son named Jasper from her first marriage. Jasper is gay, and a minor plot has him basically cruising around Christopher Street looking for hook-ups. Not only that, but Diane is apparently in an incestuous relationship with her brother, Anthony, but truth be told this plot point really goes nowhere and has no development, other than a few cursory mentions in the narrative and some later threats from Jasper – when his mother refuses to let him move into his own apartment on Christopher Street, he threatens to let it out that she’s been screwing her own brother.

Then there’s Sharon Edmonson, a gorgeous and well-endowed blonde who can’t get a break – she’s too voluptious for modeling and she’s been unable to land a part that will lead to her big break. She enters the novel early, as one of the random group of models hired by Mike for his latest scheme, promoting the release of a film titled The Brass Bed by having a group of bikini-clad young women carry a brass bed across Times Square, despite the fact that it’s 40 degrees out. The event, tepid as it is (which even Mike admits) garners a media turnout, but more importantly serves as Sharon’s introduction into the narrative.

Hype!, rather than telling a single plot, instead comes off like a series of misadventures these various characters experience. For Mike it’s hustling one person or business after another, with little time for a private life – but then, Mike just combines the two. While on the job he snorts tons of cocaine, smokes dope, and even manages to have sex with a Stag Club “Pony” in the Stag Club itself, snorting some coke with the gal and then doing her up against the wall. Throughout the novel he’ll randomly head on over to the apartment of his drug dealer, Perce Washington, a black guy who has a constant party going on (that is until he smokes some Nepalese hash, which sends Perce into a three-day meditative trip in which he questions reality).

The highlight of the book, and the scene Len mentioned above, comes midway through, when Mike returns home after a trip to Perce’s in which he’s picked up some of that Nepalese hash, as well as a bottle of Amora, an imported aphrodesiac which Perce assures him is effective. First though Mike stops off to drop off some of the drugs with Anthony, Diane Auberville’s brother, who earlier asked Mike to score him some – and Mike has earlier met the famous lady, having handled the delicate situation of getting her son Jasper out of jail after his arrest for some public gang-banging, keeping the entire matter out of the media.

You know it’s headed somewhere when Anthony asks Mike to have a seat and smoke some hash with him. Diane’s interested but has never tried it, and easily enough the two guys have her joining them as they pass back and forth a potent joint. Now, given Anthony and Diane’s incestual relationship, I assumed Len was going to go somewhere crazy with this, but instead Anthony announces he has to pick up a friend from the airport and leaves Mike and Diane alone. Mike, realizing he’s here with one of the most famous women in the world, no less while she’s stoned out of her gourd, decides he has a prime opportunity.

Spiking Diane’s orange juice (and his own) with some of the Amora, Mike thus makes the “Fame Goddess” super horny, to the point where she’s asking him to screw her. And Mike happily complies, all the while marveling over this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Obviously Mike has perpetrated some sort of rape, but Len has already established that Diane herself isn’t the most wholesome of women. And hell, it was the ‘70s. But regardless of the moral implications one could draw, the sequence is played moreso for laughs – and also, Len never writes from a moral high horse, which I’ve always enjoyed. His characters do rotten things, and Len leaves it up to you whether you think they’re scum or not.

Diane meanwhile goes on with her public makeover, first as a champion of the ecology movement, then as a feeder of the poor. This entails a sequence similar to Mike’s “free hamburger” fiasco in which Diane and Larry fly down to a hardscrabble section of West Virginia and attempt to hand out food; the people riot, and Larry comes up with the last-ditch idea of saving Diane’s image by having her fake a heart attack. It’s curious though that Len has two PR events that entail the handing out of free food – either he was missing regular food in his remote cabin when he wrote the manuscript (see below) or this was a typical maneuver he’d employ back in his own PR days.

Around this time Larry hands Mike his next project – turning the unknown French actress Genevieve Benoit into a star. Featured in a softcore piece of lesbian exploitation titled Daughters Of Lesbos, Genevieve is engaged to Richard Davis, president of Ambassador Pictures, who demands that Genevieve be turned into a huge deal for the American public, despite that she’s a nobody even in France. Davis is notorious for picking up women, grooming them to be stars, and then immediately dumping them (coincidentally enough, right around the time he’s gotten bored of screwing them and has discovered another object of his lust), but regardless Mike takes to the job with his usual gusto.

This leads to the aforementioned social movement Mike engineers – that of “Breast Liberation,” which Mike comes up with on the spot when Genevieve arrives at the airport. From here we have many scenes where a topless Genevieve will meet with gobsmacked reporters and industry people, telling them that breasts should be free. Even though it’s all just some random idea Mike came up with, and Genevieve is just mouthing the words he’s written for her, the idea sparks the public imagination and soon women across the country are going topless. Genevieve however is promptly shuffled out of the novel, and plus Davis is no longer interested in her and doesn’t plan to marry her. Also, Genevieve doesn’t have the expected sex with Mike, turning him down cold but showing a definite interest in Mike’s drug dealer, Perce.

Mike gradually sets his sights on Sharon Edmonson, whom he bumps into again at a bar, having forgotten about her from the Brass Bed event. He ends up taking her home, sating his Genevieve-spawned lust on the girl (Len skimps over the details of this scene, for some reason). But later Mike realizes that Sharon actually has the potential to become star talent. Sick of never being paid for his hard work for Larry, Mike comes up with the idea to become a svengali for Sharon, a talent agent solely dedicated to this one client, using his vast industry contacts and hustling skills to turn her into a phenomenon. Currently cast in a small role in the upcoming Amassador Pictures mafia movie Capo, Sharon shows all the signs of being a star to be.

But those who know Len’s work will know it’s not headed for a happy ending – rather than be grateful to Mike for the time and money he’s personally spending on her, Sharon instead comes to hate him, angry over how he thinks he can just boss her around and sleep with her whenever he wants. And when she gets a call from Richard Davis, who has seen some publicity photos of Sharon (photos which Mike has had her pose for and which he paid for himself), she suspects she won’t much need Mike Brown anymore. And sure enough, Davis extends an offer to her to become a bigger actress, and he’ll even try to get her representation with the William Morris agency. All this leads to a huge blowout as a gloating Sharon kicks Mike out of her apartment, and Mike implores her to understand that Davis is notorious for promising starlets the world, screwing them, and then dumping them.

My only criticism of Hype! is that it seems to be leading toward a wild conclusion which ties everything together, but instead Len sticks with a chaotic feel, which I suppose is more realistic. But still, the potential was there for the novel to reach a calamitous climax along the lines of the unforgettable Oscar Awards ceremony in James Robert Baker’s Boy Wonder, as the various characters all converge upon the opening of Capo. Len well sets up the scene, and it appears it’s all leading to some fireworks, with Richard Davis showing up with Sharon Edmonson (having just unceremoniously humped her in her apartment before leaving for the event) but immediately ditching her for Diane Auberville, who has been brought here by Larry Walters. And meanwhile Mike is staring daggers into Sharon, who realizes no one has ever looked at her with such hatred before.

But instead of the fireworks I wanted, the novel instead ends with lots of foreshadowing – Richard Davis walks into the theater with Diane, telling her he’s got a new movie coming up that she’ll just be perfect for (his standard line for any actress he’s trying to score with), and Sharon, all alone in the theater, looks outside and sees Mike chatting with the Mayor of New York, who’s also come to the Capo opening. Ramming it home that Mike, the guy who believed in her talent, the guy who could’ve actually made her a star, is the guy she's just made into an enemy. Indeed it’s sort of a sad ending, as you feel bad for Sharon, despite it all being her own fault. And as for Mike's future -- he pops up again briefly in The Last Buffoon, as an old friend from Frapkin's PR days.

The other month Len was kind enough to send me his thoughts on Hype!. He mentions the current prices of used copies of the book toward the end of the essay; safe to say, Hype! is pretty scarce, and believe it or not the only copy currently listed on abebooks.com is priced at $400. However, a little searching will turn up the book at much more reasonable prices. I got my own copy for under two dollars from an Amazon Marketplace seller in 2012, and when Len wrote me that he’d heard copies were now at $400, I went over to Amazon again and found a few more copies in the single digits.

But by all means, do not pay $400 for a copy of Hype!. Asshole booksellers like that should be ignored.

Hype! was intended to be my big breakout novel. I wrote it after the success of The Bar Studs which sold around 95,000 copies. I wanted to build on the success of The Bar Studs and perhaps sell 250,000 copies. 

Someone reading this might be tempted to comment: “What a crass, mercenary writer. No wonder he failed. Evidently all the wretch cares about is money.” 

Please allow me to point out that I never was independently wealthy. No devoted wife was supporting me. I didn’t have a day job such as teaching English at a prestigious New England liberal arts college. I was never good-looking or charming enough to be a gigolo. And NYC landlords have this thing about the rent. They want it or they’ll throw your ass into the street without any qualms. 

No one becomes a novelist to make money. People write novels because they’re driven. And perhaps I was more driven than most because I’ve always been and continue to be mildly to moderately nuts. 

I wondered what to write after The Bar Studs. But I didn’t need to wonder long. Because the premise had been in the forefront of my mind for a long time, a Harold Robbins-type show biz novel based on my ten years as press agent in the entertainment industry. I’d worked for Paramount Pictures, 20th Century-Fox and a PR agency named Solters and Sabinson, which means I’d seen the underside of show biz, not the glossed over crap one finds in the media. 

I’m not Harold Robbins. He and I have experienced different facets of the biz. We have different worldviews. I don’t even try to imitate other writers because I know it’s impossible. I am what I am for better or worse. 

I wrote Hype! in a rackety cabin without electricity or plumbing in a remote forest in New Brunswick Canada, around 40 miles north of the provincial capital, Frederickton. What the hell was I doing in such an unlikely place? Let me take you back to circa 1974. I was living in Greenwich Village and my second wife was driving me out of my mind. I thought it might be wise to put a national boundary between us. My old buddy Bill Kotzwinkle and his wife Elizabeth had relocated to that part of Canada. Both were writers and we understood each other. That’s how I ended up in a rundown cabin, sitting beside a wood stove, writing on a manual typewriter during a fierce Canadian winter, using an outhouse. Sometimes I felt like the Jewish Jack London. 

I believed that I saw NYC more clearly in that cabin than when I was living in NYC and drowning in it. Distance and a change of surroundings provided an interesting new perspective that I hoped would add substance and verisimilitude to the novel. 

To the best of my recollection, I wrote The Bar Studs the first year I was there, Hype! the second year, and The Bandit And The Ballerina the third year. The latter never was published and I don’t know what happened to the manuscript. 

Anyway, Hype! is about a hustling unscrupulous press agent based loosely on me. His boss, Larry Walters, was based loosely on my last boss Lee Solters, one of the great legendary press agents. If you don’t believe me, check Wikipedia. Other characters also were based loosely on real people, some of them very famous. 

All my churning emotions, feelings and observations about show biz were poured into this morally atrocious novel. I held nothing back. Let me be clear: I had seen close-up and personal the squalid underbelly of show biz in addition to glitter and glitz. I met big stars who turned out to be ordinary screwed-up people like you and me, but they were rich and loved by millions. I also met many egomaniacs and once worked for a producer/director named Radley Metzger whose arrogance and cruelty were almost beyond human comprehension.*  I also ran into lots of struggling would-be stars who never made it and had to live with the bitter taste of failure. 

I called the novel The Shucksters. After completing and editing the text, I mailed it to my then literary agent, the very wonderful Elaine Markson. Eventually she sold it to Fawcett, same company that published The Bar Studs. Fawcett changed the title to Hype! My editor Harvey Gardner explained that most Americans probably didn’t know what a shuckster was. I wasn’t very happy with the murky cover that didn’t stand out against other novels in bookstores. The graphic artist used a strange kind of typeface that made Hype! look like Hypel. Talks with Harvey left me with the impression that Fawcett execs hadn’t liked the novel. After several months it became clear that Hype! was a big flop. I think it only sold around 20,000 copies, very little for a mass market paperback.It was one of the greatest professional disappointments of my life, but I didn’t realize that even greater disappointments were to come. 

Joe Kenney asked me to write something to accompany his review of Hype!. So I read the novel for the first time since completing the manuscript circa 1975. 

To my immense satisfaction, I thought it very good and quite possibly one of the great American show biz novels of all time. However I must admit it’s as sleazy as the subject itself. And it’s also kind of vicious, definitely not a pretty novel. Evidently I was an angry man when I wrote it, making uncomplimentary observations about all sorts of people and institutions, and especially contemptuous of the hypocrisies of the then-new Women’s Liberation Movement, which probably explains why Fawcett execs, many of them women, disliked Hype!. Such a novel probably could never be published in today’s politically-correct climate. 

Hype! was one of my early novels, written before I really understood my craft, not that I’m such a great expert now. Its worst flaw, in addition to my nasty point of view, was too much description of unimportant activity such as characters walking here and there, or taking elevators , riding in taxicabs, or eating a corned beef sandwich. 

Not long after writing Hype!, I had a conversation with my buddy Bill Kozwinkle. He’d noticed and disapproved of my pointless descriptions of activity, and gave me advice which I wrote into my notebook as he spoke. He said, “Fiction isn't a movie. You needn't show every movement and twitch. Fiction is the realm of inner mind, the second level of reflection.” 

I really thought about that comment and took it to heart. It made a big difference in how I wrote afterwards. For context, Bill Kotzwinkle wrote what some critics consider the greatest novel of 60s, The Fan Man, now available as an e-book. He also wrote the novelization of E.T. The Extraterrestrial, best-selling novel internationally of the 80s. 

One of my readers informed me recently that paperback copies of Hype! are selling for $400 on the internet. It’s not available yet as an e-book. I’m not gonna pay to e-publish it myself. That’s not my game. If somebody else wants to e-publish it, he or she will find me most reasonable.

*Radley was no saint, but did make some very sexy movies. My favorite was Therese And Isabelle. And there are two sides to every story. If you asked Radley about me, he probably wouldn't remember me, or would call me incompetent, although I'm the guy who arranged for him to lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, which probably was the high point of his life.

3 comments:

Tim Mayer said...

"I also met many egomaniacs and once worked for a producer/director named Radley Metzger whose arrogance and cruelty were almost beyond human comprehension."
Wow. That man is considered a saint by a lot of erotica fans. Would like to hear more.

Joe Kenney said...

Tim, thanks for the comment. Len saw your question and tried to answer you here in the comments, but for some reason it wouldn't work. So per his request I've added an addendum where he talks more about Metzger.

AG said...

That was wild!

Love your blog!