Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Fast Life


The Fast Life, by Cynthia Wilkerson
No month stated, 1979  Belmont Tower Books

The second of two novels Len Levinson wrote as Cynthia Wilkerson, The Fast Life is nothing at all like its predecessor, Sweeter Than Candy. Whereas that earlier novel was a sleazy yet goofy tale of a Manhattan-based harlot, this novel is more akin to a category romance, or at the very least something like Jacqueline Susann might’ve written. It’s also longer than the average Belmont Tower book of the day, coming in at only 318 pages but with fairly small print.

Like Sweeter Than Candy, The Fast Life features a female protagonist, but this novel is told in third person. Our hero is Roni Woodward, a 22-year-old blonde knockout from Savannah, Georgia who has just graduated college and is taking a leisurely tour of Europe with her wallflower of a cousin. On the first page of the novel Roni is in Paris and meets Chaz Razzoni, an Italian in his 40s who is internationally famous as a Grand Prix racer, though Roni has never heard of him.

Chaz is described as a sort of European dandy, a veritable greasy lothario, but he has his European ways with women and Roni, despite herself, feels drawn to him. He promptly begins hitting on her; the first several pages are comprised of their first conversation, in a café on the Champ Elysees. Chaz for his part feels drawn to Roni, and not just due to her stunning looks and awesome boobs. He senses something different about her, a fire burning within her that is much like his own. She’s also, he later professes, just as self-involved as Chaz himself is.

I might not be an internationally-famous sports celebrity or an Italian lothario, but I am around the same age as Chaz, and I at least would know that Roni spells nothing but trouble. When Chaz picks her up in his Guastalla 450 GT (Guastalla being the Lamborghini-like manufacturer Chaz races for) for their first date, Roni claims that she used to drive her now-dead brother’s stock car, back in Georgia, and says she wouldn’t mind driving Chaz’s car. When Chaz doubts her skills, this leads to a huge breakdown on Roni’s part, demanding that Chaz let her out, even grabbing hold of his wrist and tearing into him so savagely that she draws blood.

At this point I would’ve hooked a U-turn and dropped her ass back off at the hotel.

But Chaz shrugs it off and indeed feels bad about it. Wanting to get this off their collective chests as soon as possible, he forgoes the party they were headed for and instead takes Roni to a nearby racetrack. There he allows her to take his Guastalla for a few spins around the track. One thing to note about The Fast Life: unlike the other novels I’ve read with racing protagonists, such as the Don Miles and The Mind Masters books, this book actually does have a lot of racing stuff in it. In fact there are racing scenes that go on for several pages.

The first quarter of the novel documents Roni’s introduction to the European jet set of the mid ‘70s. (Interestingly, we aren’t informed until page 212 that all of this is occuring in 1974, the same year as a few of Len’s other books, for example The Bar Studs and Bronson: Streets Of Blood.) She instantly butts heads with most of them, in particular the Countess to whose castle Chaz takes her to on their first date. Here also Roni meets other characters who will gradually become important in the narrative, in particular Bobby Barnes, a 23 year-old American Grand Prix champion who races for a British team, and Gilles Cachen, a mean-looking Frenchman who races for Guastalla.

Roni’s brother Allan was as mentioned a stock car racer, and died in a wreck; Roni due to this (and other reasons) has kept herself from being interested in racing or from letting herself go and enjoying life. But Chaz opens this world back up for her, and she finds that she still wants to race, especially after driving his Guastalla. And after, uh, driving Chaz himself (in the first of the novel’s few graphic sex scenes – which by the way are nowhere as sleazy and explicit as in Sweeter Than Candy), Roni not only becomes Chaz’s new woman but also talks him into letting her drive one of his starter race cars.

Living with Chaz now outside of Rome, Roni competes in the Formula Junior race, which is open mostly to youngsters and women – we are reminded quite often that there are no female Grand Prix racers. Roni, driving aggressively and skillfully, wins the race, and is dubbed the “American Eagle” by the press. (This is a world by the way where junior races in Europe are reported on in Georgia newspapers, and Roni’s shocked and worried parents immediately become aware of her newfoud fame – and proceed to nag her to come home.) But this isn’t enough for greedy Roni, who insists that she should be given a chance to be on Chaz’s Guastalla team, and to race against professional drivers on the Grand Prix circuit.

Chaz for his part is so smitten with Roni that he basically evangelizes for her with his superiors at Guastalla. Unsurprisingly, they’re not interested – the girl, after all, has only won a single race in her life! But Chaz, who hasn’t had much success in racing lately, decides that if he wins an upcoming race he will be so “hot” that Guastalla will have no choice but to give in to his demands…especially if he threatens to quit. This is exactly what happens, Len turning out another long racing sequence. Oh and I forgot to mention – Chaz brings to mind other ‘70s Levinson protagonists, picking himself up a healthy cocaine addiction in his determination to win the race at any cost.

In fact this coke frenzy is what serves to drive an eventual wedge between Chaz and Roni, as a cocaine-numbed Chaz becomes increasingly withdrawn, distant, and uninterested in sex. He’s now a champion again and can think only of racing. Roni meanwhile gets her wishes fulfilled with a contract with Guastalla, the president unhappily caving in to Chaz’s demands, though she soon finds out that they plan to treat her as nothing more than a public relations prop. But Roni insists that she’s to be treated like a “real” racer and puts in serious time on the track with Giuseppi, the man who claims to have coached Chaz to greatness. As the novel progresses, Chaz fades more to the background and Roni becomes our sole protagonist.

As far as protagonists go, Roni is kind of…well, I’m not sure what to think of her. She is for the most part unlikable. “Self-involved,” “irascible,” “incapable of loving anyone but herself;” these are just a few of the ways she’s described by the other characters (and sometimes by herself). Yet she’s too multidimensional to just be disregarded as an unlikable character. She shares the same goal-oriented mindset of most every other Len Levinson protagonist, determined to storm her way through life and go for the gold. Yet at the same time she misses that spark that makes Len’s other protagonists so likable; even Len’s version of Joe Ryker in The Terrorists was more likable than Roni.

Because, as the reader soon learns, Roni feels no gratitude for what’s been handed to her. She demands this, demands that, and wonders why no one sees her as a real champion racer; never once does she sit back and realize she’s only here because Chaz Razzoni happened to spot her in a café in Paris and thought she was sexy. But we also eventually learn that Roni has deep-rooted issues, most of them due to her close relationship with her brother. Len masterfully builds this up, with subtextual glimmerings that Roni and her brother Allan might’ve been a little too close for sibling comfort, something which he plays out in a great mid-novel reveal.

In the last half of the novel Roni is in fact our sole protagonist, and this is after the most entertaining sequence of the book. In South Africa for the Grand Prix there, a jilted Roni, feeling depressed and confused over Chaz’s withdrawn nature (which she doesn’t realize is due to cocaine abuse) ends up having “heavy-duty sex” with young racer Bobby Barnes. This is the second of two fairly graphic sex scenes in the novels, and Roni’s “coital yelps” are so loud that they’re heard by the other racers on Bobby’s team. Soon word has spread and it all builds up into a lover’s spat straight out of a Harlequin romance, complete with evil racer Gilles Cachen taking Chaz out of the race in a very definite fashion.

Both Roni and the novel are in a bit of a freefall after this. So injured thanks to an exploding car in the race, it takes Roni six months to heal up, even getting her face reconstructed. Now she’s alone and desolate in New York City – not that this stops her from expecting a big monthly allowance from her rich father. Indeed, Roni is so ungrateful and self-involved that even I, a dude who doesn’t have kids (yet), got pissed off at her: we’re told her parents basically drop their lives to be at her side in the hospital while she heals, and once she’s gotten better she tells them to get lost and vows to live on her own in New York.

Len takes us into the homestretch with the building plot of Roni coming back to her “true self.” Having denied her impulses to race, she’s taken a job as an assistant buyer at a Manhattan boutique (a job which her dad, of course, gets for her via his industry connections). But when she forces herself to walk into an auto exhibit she runs into Sam Bellamy, an American entrepreneur who is familiar with her and who tells her he’s building his own racing car, the Columbia. It’s his intent to create an American Grand Prix team, and he offers Roni a job. After much deliberation she takes him up on the offer, finding herself on a team that’s made up of former NASCAR drivers, good old boys who get along with Roni like brothers.

Roni proves that both she and the new Columbia car are more than capable at the Long Island Grand Prix; further, Roni proves that she is in fact a Grand Prix champion in another long and detailed racing sequence. Here Len builds an eleventh hour love story with Roni suddenly having feelings for Bobby Barnes, the guy she slept with in South Africa. They get nice and cozy again in Long Beach and then he’s back to London to prepare for another race, and Roni begins pining for him. This leads to another setback for Roni when she later discovers that professional racers can’t have relations with one another – they live for competition, especially with one another.

The climax takes place in Durango, a fictional principality of France along the Mediterranean sea. Here Len delivers the last of the novel’s many races as Roni competes with her old Guastalla teammates, particularly murderous Gilles, who has since moved on to the same British team Bobby races for. Gilles has now set his sights on Roni, planning to kill her by causing a wreck (it seems like every other chapter ends with a character saying of Roni, “I hope the bitch dies in a crash!”). This plays out in a tense moment in which the two are separated from the other drivers on a winding road overtop a cliff.

Bobby is also in the race, and when Roni wins again she is jilted that he doesn’t come to her grand banquet award. Here Roni is given valuable advice by a racing fan – that she must put thoughts of love aside now that she’s a racer. You’d think this would be unecessary info, given that Roni spends the first 250 or so pages in love with no one but herself, but at any rate it gives Len a satisfactory way to end the tale. Now Roni has become the female version of Chaz Razzoni, an internationally famous Grand Prix racer who will likely go from one quick fling to the next, her only goal and desire in life to keep racing until she burns out.

I enjoyed The Fast Life, but it really is a different kind of novel for Len, as different in its own way as Cabby and Operation: Perfidia were in theirs, though I enjoyed The Fast Life more than either of them. But so far as the “Cynthia Wilkerson” books go, I preferred Sweeter Than Candy. It had a funny and funky ‘70s vibe, whereas I felt The Fast Life was let down by its self-involved protagonist. Also the supporting characters didn’t sparkle with that “off-page life” as in Len’s other novels; other than Roni and Chaz, many of the characters here are a little too one-dimensional. But then, that’s only to be expected from a romance novel, so you can’t blame Len for capturing the genre form.

Len offered to write his current thoughts on The Fast Life, and I was especially interested to read them, given that he hadn’t read the book since he wrote it so long ago:

As I write these words, I have no idea what Joe will think of The Fast Life by Cynthia Wilkerson, who in real life is none other than me. He probably hasn’t completed his review yet, but asked in advance for my thoughts on this old novel of mine.

So I read it for the first time in around 37 years and actually considered it great. In fact, it was so great I couldn’t believe I wrote it.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It’s far from perfect. It’s main problem is some sentences carrying unnecessary words. I should have tightened those sentences, or perhaps they were tighter in my original manuscript but line editors added words to comply with grammatical rules no longer considered necessary by me.

I was especially pleased to note that The Fast Life lacked the extreme vulgarity that has undermined some of my other novels. Evidently I tried to take the high road this time, but that doesn’t mean the narrative lacks melodrama or even a few choice romantic or erotic interludes.

The genesis of The Fast Life started with another of my novels, Sweeter Than Candy also by Cynthia Wilkerson. And Sweeter Than Candy began with a meeting in the office of my then editor at Belmont-Tower, Milburn Smith. He asked me to write an erotic story from a woman’s point of view, similar to Blue Skies, No Candy by Gael Greene which was on bestseller lists and considered a great feminist novel, much discussed and chewed over in the media. Essentially, Milburn was asking me to knock off Blue Skies, No Candy.

So I wrote Sweeter Than Candy and delivered it to Milburn, who some time later said he was pleased with it. The novel eventually was published, and several months later I was again sitting in Milburn’s office. In the course of conversation he said: “Why don’t you bring back Cynthia Wilkerson? She was a good old gal.” He specified a word count longer than usual, probably around 90,000 words as I recall, so they could charge a higher price. Evidently Sweeter than Candy was selling well enough to justify another Cynthia Wilkerson extravaganza.

So I walked home from Milburn’s office on Park Avenue South to my pad on West 55th Street near 9th Avenue, wondering what in the hell to write about. Finally I decided to take on Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins and all the other soap opera literary queens, and beat them at their own game, writing a contemporary women’s novel that would surpass anything they did, thus propelling myself to the top of the best-seller lists, earning millions of dollars for myself and my various insatiable appetites.

Then I made what might have been my first mistake. I had long been interested in Grand Prix racing, and decided to set the narrative against that glamorous background. It didn’t occur to me that potential women readers of The Fast Life probably weren’t as passionate about exotic cars as I.

If I had any brains, I would have set the narrative in the movie world in which I used to be a press agent, which also was the world of Jackie Collins. But I’d recently written a novel about that world entitled Hype! by Leonard Jordan and didn’t want to travel the road again so soon.

For research, I had long subscribed to Road and Track magazine and knew a lot about Grand Prix racing. One of my closest friends had raced on the same team as Paul Newman. Sports car racing seemed incredibly exciting and sexy, because there were lots of gorgeous international jet set groupies.

So I sat down and wrote The Fast Life about an ambitious young American woman named Veronica Woodward, or Roni for short, whose brother had been a NASCAR driver, and she’d also driven NASCAR cars. As the novel opens she’s touring Europe with a cousin, meets a famous Italian racing car driver at a Paris cafe, and eventually he helps her get into Grand Prix racing herself after they fall in love or lust.

In my opinion, the narrative moves swiftly and never slacks off. Yes, The Fast Life is as melodramatic and lurid as any other Len Levinson novel, but thankfully not in the sewer like some of them. I thought Roni was a complex character, not just a silly chickie with delusions of grandeur. Having not read the novel for so long, I forgot its twists and turns and how it ended. Reading it yesterday and today, I thought it suspenseful, realistic and psychologically engaging. I couldn’t put it down. The actual racetrack scenes were especially exhilarating. What a wonderful movie it would make.

I admit that I’m proud of this novel. With slightly better editing, a high class cover, and a more prestigious publisher with greater marketing power, it might have sold a few hundred thousand copies and accelerated my career in an entirely new direction. I’ll bet people who read it never dreamed that Cynthia Wilkerson had (and still has) a beard.

Unfortunately The Fast Life no longer is in print or available as an ebook. I just googled it and discovered a used copy going for $26.00.

Finally, here’s a bonus cover – in March 1985 Belmont Tower reprinted The Fast Life through their Leisure Books imprint, something Len was not aware of until I brought it to his attention. Here’s the cover:

6 comments:

Len Levinson said...

I thought Joe's review of my novel was very insightful, extensive and detailed. However I still think THE FAST LIFE was better than SWEETER THAN CANDY. Different people can read the same novel and have entirely different opinions. I thought Roni was a likable and even lovable character, perhaps because I admire ambition and total dedication to causes. Roni has the personality of an obsessive artist who won't let anything stop her or him from attempting to produce great art. Her obsession is winning races, and she won't let anything slow her down, including prejudice because she's pretty, female and the girlfriend of a racing star. I was in love with her while writing the novel, so perhaps I'm not completely objective about her.

russell1200 said...

Interesting change in covers. A lot of covers from the 70s seem to have that sort of cover style. It can make it hard to know at a glance what the target audience is.

Peter Brandvold said...

I love these reviews of Len's books accompanied by Len's comments. Always entertaining and fascinating! I'm going to look for both SWEETER THAN CANDY and THE FAST LIFE (I almost wrote WIFE!) in my local used bookstore. Thanks much to both of you. Keep 'em coming.

John Nail said...

I was glad to see this reviewed, especially when I bought a copy just last week! I had been meaning to buy a some Len Levinson titles for a while and finally bought two of them, The Bar Studs and this one. I figured The Fast Life was the "less disgusting" book Levinson had written as Cynthia Wilkerson, hence Sweeter Than Candy was my first choice. But, as so often happens, my budget persuaded me to choose Fast Life (and have spare cash left over to get The Bar Studs). I'm looking forward to reading both.

Felicity Walker said...

Indeed, you wouldn’t know from looking at either of the two versions of cover art that it had to do with racing!

SangorShop said...

was Belmont-Tower still the owner of Leisure Books in 1985, or had Dorchester taken it over by then?