Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shark Fighter

Shark Fighter, by Nicholas Brady
No date stated (1976), Belmont-Tower Books

One of Len Levinson's more elusive novels, Shark Fighter was published under the pseudonym “Nicholas Brady,” which was a house name at Belmont-Tower (who couldn’t even be bothered to put a publication year on the book). According to Len, BT editor Peter McCurtin came up with the concept, of a man fighting sharks for cash, and Len ran with it. 

As Justin Marriott mentioned in his article “Labyrinth” in Paperback Fanatic #27, Shark Fighter is so scarce that usually doesn’t even have any copies listed. So safe to say, it’s a hard novel to find; I was lucky to find my own copy online at a nice price, after random searching over the years. There’s also no e-book edition, at least not yet. This puts me in a strange position, as I’m about to rave about Shark Fighter -- I loved it, and it was one of my favorite novels yet by Len.

To be sure, this novel has absolutely no pretensions. It’s just a straight-up pulp tale about an ex-Navy frogman named Sam Taggart who accepts an offer to fight two sharks on live television for two million dollars. But man, the novel’s a lot of fun, and this lack of pretense just adds to the charm. Taggart is part of the reason; like most every other Levinson protagonist, Taggart is a no-nonsense guy who is focused on two primary things: women and money. Having served his time in ‘Nam, he now enjoys life as a self-described “beach bum” on the fictional Caribbean island of Makura, where he hunts sharks for a living.

Len capably captures the beach-read aesthetic of trash fiction. I almost wished I could book my next vacation in the Republic of Makura, which we are informed lies midway between Cuba and the Bahamas and measures 80 miles long and 20 miles wide. Here Taggart lives basically an idyllic life as he voyages around on his motorboat, smokes copious amounts of island-grown “ganja,” and bangs whatever female he can talk into bed. He’s chosen to make his living in this dangerous profession, hunting sharks and selling them to the chefs of the island’s many five-star hotels. Taggart doesn’t even make much on the deal, and acknowledges to himself that he basically has a death wish. He just likes to risk his life killing sharks.

There’s a fair bit of shark fighting in the opening pages, as we see Taggart on a regular work day, putting on his Scuba gear and taking on various sharks with a speargun that’s equipped with explosive-tipped spears. Once he’s sold the dead sharks to his various hotel contacts, he gets to his other primary pursuit: chasing tail. Taggart sets a precedent for a Levinson protagonist who scores with the most ladies, racking up an impressive eight women over the course of this slim novel. And he only has to pay for a few of them.

First there’s Susan, a “mulatto showgirl” Taggart basically uses whenever he’s feeling randy; Taggart is soon warned by the Police Chief of Makura to stay away from her, as a high-ranking official is courting her. Susan doesn’t factor into the novel much, and at first I thought the main female protagonist would be Pamela Thompson, a young blonde vacationing from America who repeatedly throws herself at Taggart, who keeps brushing her off for being too young. But then Pamela too is dropped from the narrative; given the frequency of her appearances in the first half of the novel I thought she was going to return at some point, but it never happened.

It turns out gradually that Taggart’s top girl is Alison Dandridge, a dropdead gorgeous brunette who has often been featured modeling in Vogue magazine. Taggart sees her one night and falls into instant lust. This entails several scenes of Taggart putting the moves on Allison, who is a self-proclaimed “whore” who will only sleep with men who have money. Hence she has no interest in beach bum Taggart, despite being attracted to him. Allison is vacationing here with Bob Jones, a rotund and balding entrepreneur who has millions of dollars, and who eventually makes possible the novel’s main event.

The first half of Shark Fighter hopscotches around various plots. First there’s the already-mentioned deal with Pamela, after which Len moves on by introducing Hector and Maria Ramirez, a married couple who turn out to be Cuban gangsters. Hector approaches Taggart with a job: a few thousand dollars for Taggart to venture into a shark-infested part of the ocean to retreive a certain box which was lost in a shipwreck. Taggart instantly deduces that this box contains pure heroin, and thus ups his payment.

This entire sequence is pretty bloodthirsty, with the trio going out on Taggart’s boat, locating the box, and instantly being attacked by Mafia goons who come after them on faster boats. A fierce firefight ensues, with Taggart gearing up and taking on the mobsters underwater, knifing them and shooting at their boats with his explosive-tipped spears. What with the mobster villains and the tropical setting, it all comes off like Len’s earlier Sharpshooter installment Night Of The Assassins. But unlike Johnny Rock, Taggart has no particular relish for “tasting Mafia blood,” and tries to get away from the bloody scene without being discovered.

Taggart is an interesting character to say the least; he’s all id, and throughout the novel he barges from one confrontation to the next, all while pondering “how often it is so difficult to be a human being.” He escapes going to Makura’s notorious prisons by giving the heroin-addicted Police Chief the box, but immediately thereafter runs afoul of the cops again by instigating a barfight, Taggart storming away from his latest spurning by Alison and asking a trio of American women if they’d like to have an orgy! Taggart celebrates his freedom from jail (again granted by the complacent Police Chief) by going to a posh cathouse and ordering three women for the night – “one white, one black, and one Oriental.”

Beach bum Taggart has money to blow, now, thanks to Bob Jones, who has approached Taggart with his own offer – for Taggart to fight a shark on live television, for one million dollars. Taggart in his usual manner tells Jones to make it two sharks for two million. Jones gives Taggart a few hundred thousand for downpayment, and Taggart as mentioned spends it on the three hookers, though it must be said that Len doesn’t get too explicit in the ensuing orgy. In fact the sex scenes, while frequent, are rarely graphic in Shark Fighter, at least when compared to some of Len’s other novels, like The Bar Studs or Where The Action Is

The anything-goes spirit of the first half of the novel gradually leaves once Taggart’s on his way to becoming rich. The biggest change is Alison, who not-so-coincidentally is suddenly interested in him, even coming over to his newly-appointed hotel room in the Regency and offering herself to him. She claims she’s in love and that it has nothing to do with the fact that Taggart’s now famous and will soon be rich (that is, if he survives). Taggart doesn’t believe her – not that this stops him from screwing her. Eventually she even leaves Bob Jones, moving in with Taggart and thoroughly messing up his head; Len works in a “doomed lovers” storyline between Taggart and Alison, sometimes to the detriment of the novel’s forward momentum.

But as Taggart finds himself granting more and more interviews (set up by PR man Len Robinson, surely Len’s reference to himself and his earlier PR days as seen in his later novel Hype!), he becomes more and more famous – and disaffected. The novel, despite being an obvious cash-in on Belmont-Tower’s part on Jaws (which Len slyly references twice in the novel), almost comes off like Rocky, with Taggart downward spiralling as the big date gets closer and closer. Getting drunk and high every day and skipping his rigorous workout schedules, Taggart instead takes to fighting with Alison, calling her a whore and tramp and insisting that she’s only with him because she wants his two million dollars.

In fact, as the pages grow more thin the reader wonders when in fact this Great Shark Fight is even going to happen. And even in the home stretch, Len focuses more on Taggart’s internal plight with a drunken blowout that sees him going once again to a whorehouse – where he’s abducted by a group of communist terrorists. Instead of being a plot divergence, Len uses this as a means to get Taggart more involved in his fate; whereas before he could care less if he lived or died, now he will give his two million dollars to the People’s Freedom Party of Makura, to help them escape the tyranny of corrupt President Bomack.

Finally the big day arrives, and Taggart like a regular Rocky Balboa has gotten in fighting shape at the last moment – and just like Rocky it’s only after he’s reconnected with his number one lady. After various melodramatic breakdowns and spats, Alison and Taggart make amends before Taggart gets in the pool to fight the sharks; but I do love how Len eases up on the sap by having Alison offer Taggart a few snorts of coke! The actual shark fighting event only lasts a few pages, with Taggart armed with various spears and his trusty bayonet going up against two tiger sharks.

Len rightly understands how anticlimatic this is, given that Taggart makes his living, you know, fighting sharks, so he ups the ante by having the Police Chief set two more tiger sharks into the pool. Due to his informants the Chief knows that Taggart, upon winning, plans to make an anti-President Bomack speech to the reporters of the world who are here covering this international event, and thus this speech must be prevented. Once Taggart has easily dispensed of the first two sharks, the Chief’s people “accidentally” let loose two more sharks into the pool.

So the finale sees a greatly-outnumbered Taggart desperately fighting for his life. The sharks have been starved for a week, Taggart has smeared blood on his body to attract them, and he’s down to just a few weapons. Spoiler Warning (and I’m only giving it away because the novel’s so damn scarce): Taggart lives, but not after suffering heavy damage, including the loss of his left eye. However, Alison really is there for him, and claims she’s going to stay with him “forever,” even though he has given away his two million dollars as promised. The end.

Len fills the novel with those topical ‘70s details I enjoy so much, with people sitting on shag carpets while smoking high-grade dope and listing to reggae music on quadraphonic stereo systems. Taggart himself has a fondness for getting ripped on that native ganja and listening to Pink Floyd records, which I thought was pretty cool. Beyond that though the novel just brims with that ‘70s feel I have always been so enamored with, from the fashions of the jet-set to the liberal attitudes toward sex and drugs.

And as mentioned Len really captures the whole beach-read feel. Part of the novel’s thrust is that Taggart’s life falls apart when he comes into money; he’s much happier in the more plot-free early half of the novel, and Len brings to life the whole tropical feel, with Taggart living on his boat, fishing for fresh seafood, and eating roasted lobster and coconuts by the fire in a lagoon. Taggart loses all of this once he accepts Bob Jones’s offer, and thus is separated from his idyllic “beach bum” life, moving into the posh and opulent Regency Hotel. Soon after, everything pretty much goes to hell, with Taggart separated from the sea, his boat, and his freedom.

I don’t know, maybe Shark Fighter is like the trash fiction equivalent of The Old Man And The Sea. Or maybe not. At any rate, I enjoyed the hell out of it, and regret that it’s not more easily available – though with some persistence you should be able to turn up an eventual copy.

Len recently sent me his thoughts on Shark Fighter:

When Joe Kenney asked me in e-mail to write something about Shark Fighter, to accompany his review - my mind went blank. I wrote Shark Fighter nearly 40 years ago, hadn’t read it since, and didn’t remember anything at all about it. 

In order to comply with Joe’s request, I needed to dive deeply into the memory hole. Gradually certain details came to mind. It all began back in the early 1970s, when I received a phone call from Peter McCurtin, my editor at Belmont-Tower, inviting me to his office for discussion of a novel he wanted me to write. After I arrived, he described the novel’s basic premise: a guy agrees to fight a shark on closed circuit TV for a million bucks. To my best recollection, the cover art already had been completed.

For context, this was during the great Jaws craze, when the media was full of articles and commentary on the movie and on shark lore. So Shark Fighter essentially was an effort to tap into that mass media fascination.

I never saw the Jaws movie because evidently it was a waterlogged horror story, and I don’t like horror stories. Their principal goal is to scare me, and I’m scared enough as it is.

I felt qualified to write an underwater shark story because I’d done some snorkeling in South Florida during the year and a half I lived there, and also dived several times with regulator and tank strapped to my back. So the undersea world was familiar and enjoyable for me. I’d also watched many undersea TV programs by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I even read his book The Silent World. So all things considered, I felt enthusiastic about writing Shark Fighter.

I still have the contract in my files, signed April 13, 1976. The stipulated delivery date was May 31, 1976. I was supposed to get paid $500.00 upon execution of the contract, and $500.00 upon acceptance of the manuscript, plus a royalty schedule but don’t remember any royalties paid.

I departed Peter’s office and dived into writing Shark Fighter. Now, after passage of so many years, I don’t remember anything about how it was written, and at first didn’t even remember the plot and characters. The only reasonable response was to sit down and actually read it.

To my astonishment, I couldn’t believe it was so interesting. It read as if written by someone else. I couldn’t put it down. All my various obsessions and preoccupations of that era are in the novel. I’d often fantasized about living on a boat in the Caribbean, and one of my highest career goals was to become a full-time beachcomber. Naturally I’d always wanted a beautiful Vogue-type model to fall madly in love with me. 

Shark Fighter evidently was wish fulfillment expressed in the form of a novel. While reading, I couldn’t help noticing how smoothly and quickly the plot moved along. A reader cannot guess what will happen next, perhaps because the author didn’t know either. The characters all have numerous neurotic compulsions and seem believable. The island of Makura apparently was partially based on Haiti under the dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, partially on the Dominican Republic under the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and partially on a trip I once took to Nassau in the Bahamas. Shark Fighter even has a fairly happy ending, unlike many of my novels.

As usual, a few typographical errors either were overlooked or inserted by the Belmont-Tower copy editor. The big shark fight at the end has a sentence that doesn’t know left from right, which is a bit confusing. Some sentences contain too many words. Perhaps the Belmont-Tower copy editor inserted them out of concern for grammatical correctness over swift narration, or maybe the culprit was me.

Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but Shark Fighter doesn’t come across as simple-minded trashy fiction. It’s more of an adventure melodrama with echoes of Joseph Conrad. What a great movie it would make. I’m very proud of this novel, and grateful to Joe for bringing it to my attention. Perhaps I really wasn’t the lowdown hack that everybody including me thought I was. Unfortunately, Shark Fighter isn’t yet available as an ebook.


Sleaze PB Life said...

SOMEwhere, in this house filled with books, I think I actually have (or had) a copy of this tome. Now you have me wondering if I should start opening dusty boxes in search of it. (Then again, I may be confused and am thinking of the Richard Woodley series The Man From Atlantis which featured many underwater scenes on the covers.)

Trever Palmer said...

Another great read! And that was fantastic to include Len's letter. It really shed some insight on this long forgotten tome.

And a man who hasn't seen JAWS? Wow!

Alan Marshall said...

Fantastic post Joe and Len.

I once read that a stunt-man agreed to fight a shark on camera for a million dollars but no TV channel would broadcast it. Was this the case? Or was this based on Len's book?

Life imitating art or vice versa?

Marty McKee said...

I can't believe no one has made this movie yet. Boy, do I wish I were a producer.

halojones-fan said...

So can we say that this blog has (sunglasses) jumped the shark? (YEAAAAHHHHHHH)