Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chameleon #2: In Garde We Trust


Chameleon #2: In Garde We Trust, by Jerry LaPlante
No month stated, 1979  Zebra Books

A rare example of a late ‘70s men’s adventure series,* Chameleon ran for three volumes and was unusual for a few reasons. For one, like Decoy we have here a series where the title has nothing to do with the actual book – our hero does not refer to himself as “Chameleon,” and he doesn’t have any chameleon-like talents for disguise or anything.

Also like Decoy, this series is told in first-person. Personally I don’t think this style is suited to the men’s adventure genre, but at any rate Jerry LaPlante (a real person, not a house name; here’s his website) does a good enough job with it. Also the book is very much in a goofy or at least comic spirit; nothing too spoofy or outrageous, but enough so that you know it’s all intended in fun. Actually, sort of like Roger Moore’s ‘70s James Bond movies, now that I think of it, where there’s violence and danger and people get killed, but it’s all done with a knowing wink. (This is why I’ll always prefer Moore’s films to today’s dour, oh-so-serious James Bond movies, which to tell the truth I despise.)

Garde is similar to another obscure men’s adventure protagonist – Colin “Big Brain” Garrett. Unlike Gary Brandner’s creation, though, Vance Garde is actually fun. He’s super smart, somewhere in his 30s, and has gotten rich from GSA: Garde’s Scientific Associates. But in the previous volume Garde’s sister died of a heroin overdose or something, and an incensed Garde created a secret subsection of GSA, called VIBES (Vindication against Injustice, Bureaucracy, and Ensconced Stupidity).

The words that make up the acroynm “VIBES” not only sound like something out of Pynchon, but also further display the goofy tendencies of this series. At any rate, in the previous volume Garde gained his vengeance upon the Anaconda, some sort of drug dealer. In Garde We Trust opens some indeterminate time later, though not too long; Garde’s uncertain what to do with VIBES, now that his vengeance has been achieved, and he doesn’t know if he should go after other bad guys or just dissolve the entity.

Causing Garde’s indecision is the lovely Ballou Annis, Garde’s super-sexy assistant whom Garde apparently met in the previous volume. Only a handful of people even know VIBES exists, Ballou being one of them, and she and Garde have a friendly, pre-PC sexual infatuation thing going, with both openly admitting they want to have sex with each other but something always getting in the way, literally. Seems like this was a recurring joke in the previous book, and it is here, too, with for example one overlong sequence having them about to get at it, but their belt buckles getting locked together.

Ballou sounds like my dream girl – she’s a svelte brunette who’s just as smart as she is sexy, and, like Garde, she enjoys getting “revenge” on people for the slightest of infractions. This is a running theme in the novel; Garde is dedicated to “vindication” against “injustice,” but his definition of such things is pretty liberal. One of the things about the book that made me laugh out loud is that Garde gets pissed at everything, and we see him ranting about matters as irrelevant as horseradish scoops to how some cities charge you for parking outside of restaurants.

But Ballou’s the same, and maybe even more easily-incensed; another running gag has her using Pavlovian tricks (yet another Pynchon reference, perhaps, from Gravity's Rainbow) in vengeance against a neighbor who likes to have his dog shit in Ballou’s yard. Over the past few weeks Ballou’s been ringing a bell every time the dog squats to crap; now it squats anytime she rings the bell, and her plan is to call her neigbor in the middle of the night, so the dog will shit in his house. It’s all pretty elaborate, but personally I’d find a smart and sexy girl who went to such lengths for petty revenge damn irresistible.

Whereas the first volume saw Garde getting revenge for his sister, the plot of this second volume has Ballou getting vengeance for her brother. We eventually learn that he’s gotten hooked up with “the Lunies,” ie green robe-wearing followers of a cult started by Father Sol Luna, a Vietnamese guy who now reclusively lives somewhere in Montana and has absolutely no relation to the Reverend Sun Moon. The Lunies stumble around, unwashed and dazed, warning against the evils of Satan, and as if to again prove how goofy the book is intended to be, LaPlante baldly introduces them apropos of nothing and then, a chapter or two later, “stuns” us with the revelation that Ballou’s brother is also in the cult.

Meanwhile Garde and Ballou have had an encounter with a young female Lunie, who has died in the hospital; the puzzled doctor informs them that the girl had a cyanide pill in her tooth, which she bit when the doctor tried to remove her robes. They’re further stunned to discover an electrical chastity belt wired to her, something which apparently all members of the cult are forced to wear. If they become sexually aroused, they get zapped. This riles up Vance Garde good and proper, and when Ballou learns that her brother is in the cult – and is trying to get his inheritance from her, the boy being younger than the 21 demanded by their parents’ will – the two decide that VIBES shall indeed continue on, and that its resources will be channeled against Father Luna.

In Garde We Trust is not the most action-centered men’s adventure novel you could read. In fact it’s more in the cerebral realm (well, sort of), with Garde more often using his intelligence to gain vengeance. This entails lots of stuff that other readers might find more interesting than I did. Like for example how Garde infiltrates Father Luna’s cover plant of Montana Nuclear Energy; Garde approaches them representing GSA and telling them he’s interested in creating a radiation-detecting device they might find useful. Cue lots of info on how this gizmo is created.

The “action” stuff is usually relegated to Garde getting knocked out or held at gunpoint. Garde uses his fancy book learnin’ to take on the bad guys, which despite being sort of unusual considering the genre, kind of robs the novel of much dramatic thrust. Like when Luna’s men kidnap Ballou and tell Garde she’s dead if Garde doesn’t hand over the radiation detector (which it turns out Luna wants so as to locate the army’s hidden stockpile of nukes in Montana). But first Garde must create the device…and it takes him two weeks. Not much of a “ticking time bomb” suspense factor, there. In fact time really moves in In Garde We Trust, with the narrative occuring over a few months or so.

The back cover hypes Garde as this tough s.o.b. who doesn’t take shit, and truth to tell he is pretty brutal. He kills his victims in unsettling ways, like Dr. Athol, an Asian dentist who works for Luna. It turns out the Lunies are brainwashed by high-tech dental implants Athol puts in them, and dumbass Garde gets one implanted in his own tooth midway through the novel. When he gets payback on Athol (whom he calls “Asshole”), Garde ties the bastard into his dental chair and tortures him with dental equipment like drills and whatnot, and then numbs his throat muscles and watches happily as Athol chokes to death!

Garde spends most of the novel flying back and forth to Montana, and it all plays out more on a suspense angle than slam-bang action. In fact I don’t believe there’s even a single scene where Garde picks up a gun. He also flies a lot, and we get copious description of flying small planes, as well as hiking material…Garde is an expert hiker and mountain climber, so cue lots of egregious detail about this, including an endless sequence where he’s chased by a bear. In fact this sequence opens the novel; like the Enforcer books, the Chameleon novels open toward the end of the current caper, in a life-or-death moment for the protagonist, and then move backwards to the beginning.

The finale as well plays out more on the “brainy” angle; rather than grabbing a gun and storming Luna’s headquarters, Garde instead spends another few weeks researching Athol’s brain-controlling device and figuring out how he can tune it to Luna’s brainwaves. This results in an overlong climax in which, during a live televised sermon in Madison Square Gardens, Luna’s id is freed thanks to the mind-control waves Garde sends into Luna’s brain from a hidden transmitter, with the end result the cult leader ranting about his “slaves” and how much more money he wants from them. This leads to mass chaos, as well as the bloody end of the cult. Here too we have the final appearance of Handjob, Luna’s monstrous henchman who also appeared in the previous volume (working for the Anaconda).

The writing is good, if a bit flabby; I felt there were too many instances in which Garde would go on for several pages about whatever device he was currently devising. LaPlante is very skilled at dialog, though, particularly with comedic banter. Garde and Ballou trade one-liners throughout the novel, most of them being of a punning nature. Sometimes this gets to be a bit too much, but LaPlante has a definite gift for it, with some of the verbal gags running for a few pages and being laugh-out-loud funny.

And while the novel’s pretty high-brow, at least so far as its protagonist goes, LaPlante gets very lowbrow at times, like when Ballou’s trapped in one of those chastity belts, but one that’s wired to blow if Garde’s plane drops below a certain altitude. (This scene definitely has a “ticking time bomb” suspense factor, by the way.) And on an even lower-brow note, the novel ends with one of the most distasteful scenes I’ve ever read, when Ballou’s dog-owning neighbor, driven insane, breaks into Ballou’s house, drops his pants, and takes a shit on her coffee table!

The “will they/won’t they” deal with Garde and Ballou goes from funny to annoying and back to funny again. After the overlong bit with their interlocked belt buckles, a later scene has them caught up in a particularly vigorous bit of sixty-nining that inadvertently causes Garde’s water bed to burst. Also their sexual shenanigans extend beyond foreplay, with the two of them engaged at one point in what a friend of mine once memorably described as “full-blown sex,” though here too they are distracted before achieving the, uh, climactic moment. I should note that these sex scenes are the only sex scenes in the novel; Garde is pretty committed to Ballou, and never puts the moves on other women, like your regular men’s adventure protagonist would.

Anyway, despite being a bit too long (a Zebra Books speciality) and maybe a little too goofy for its own good, In Garde We Trust was actually enjoyable enough that I sought out the third and final volume, the apparently-scarce Garde Save The World!, and immediately started reading it.

*According to Michael Newton’s How To Write Action Adventure Novels, the reason men’s adventure series disappeared from bookstore shelves around 1976 was due to the energy crisis. Other than those from mainstays Pinnacle, there really were no new series started from about ’76 to ’79, and even those were short-lived. It wasn’t until Gold Eagle came on the scene in the early ‘80s that the genre was revitalized.

4 comments:

Tim Mayer said...

Having never read the Newton book, I must ask: just how the did the energy crisis but a damper on the series novels? Did the cost of publishing escalate?

brian january said...

Joe--

Your reviews are hilarious--keep them coming!

I truly disagree with your 007 stance, though--for me, Roger Moore's cartoonish Bond ruined the franchise!

Brian January
http://brianjanuary.blogspot.com/

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Tim -- it's been a few years since I read the book, and I got it via Interlibrary Loan so no longer have it to check, but I think it was something along those lines. Like publishers had to whittle back on the amount of books they were releasing, and thus low-tier publications like men's adventure novels suffered.

Brian -- thanks for the comment, and yeah I can see your point. When I was a kid in the '80s, my best friend Jimmy Stevens and I were huge James Bond fans. But whereas he loved Roger Moore, I was a staunch Connery fan, and couldn't understand how anyone could rank "Moonraker" as the best Bond movie, like Jimmy did -- he had it on VHS and watched it all the time. All these years later, I've gone around to his side, mostly I'd say because Moore's cartoonish/spoofish take on the character is so refreshing in our modern "all serious, all the time" world of entertainment...I mean, take a look at the glut of superhero movies these days. They take stories about guys in tights and turn them into these hyper-serious melodramas, like it's Shakespeare or something. And "Casino Royale" (the Craig movie, not the '60s one) is the only Bond movie I ever stopped watching midway through.

Applebetty said...

I like more films from the Roger Moore era than the Daniel Craig era for sure, but I don't much care for either. I think they both miss the point of pulp fiction: always play it straight, no matter how silly the premise is. That way people can enjoy it for what it is, or laugh at it for what it is. Moore's run kept breaking the fourth wall to an annoying degree, and Craig's run may as well be Chris Nolan's Batmanverse it's so pretentiously serious.

Avid reader of your blog, btw. Got me into the Penetrator novels.