Monday, June 29, 2015
Kingpin, by Burt Hirschfeld and Edwin Fadiman
October, 1989 St. Martin's Press
One of the last novels Burt Hirschfeld published, Kingpin first came out in a hardcover edition in 1988; I don’t know much about co-author Edwin Fadiman other than that he himself published a few mystery and non-genre novels in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most of them paperback originals. I’m also not sure on how much these two authors collaborated, as the novel reads like everything else I’ve yet read by Hirschfeld.
Eschewing the trash fiction he specialized in during in the ‘70s, Hirschfeld here goes for more of a thriller or at least suspense sort of deal, though it’s still a slow-burner a la Fire Island and Hirschfeld’s other trashy tomes. The cast of characters is also much reduced, whittled down to a mere three: Jack Keveney, a tough New York narcotics cop, Napoleon Cruz, cocaine kingpin of the fictional South America country of Sixaola, and Nina Fuentes, the hitwoman/junior kingpin who becomes the lover of both. The novel spans decades, charting the rise of the two male protagonists, who both come from hardscrabble origins and make something of themselves.
The hardcover edition sported a blurb by none other than Harold Robbins, who called Kingpin “my kind of book.” And it really is, as one could almost look at Kingpin as a sequel in all but name to Robbins’s The Adventurers. Not that it features any of the same characters, but Sixaola is Adventurers protagonist Dax Xenos’s homeland of Corteguay in all but name. Hell, it could even be the same place at that, as we’re told it has gone through the usual turmoil of a banana republic, culminating in the ‘80s as one of the central hubs through which cocaine is imported into the States.
Napoleon gets the most text space of all of them, which is unfortunate, as I found his story the most uninteresting, not to mention the most cliched. Starting life as the penniless waif of a prostitute mother, Napoleon latches on to the drug czar of his little hometown, becoming the man’s errand boy. But Napoleon in his all-consuming desire to become someone is merciless, and after showing off his sadistic skills in getting money owed his boss he is promoted to a sort of enforcer status. But after taking out the man who is abusing Napoleon’s heroin-addicted mother, Napoleon sets his sights higher and soon shows up in the capitol of Sixaola.
Meanwhile Jack Keveney comes up on the streets himself, though most of the time he’s just posing as a hippie as part of his narcotics job. Hirschfeld employs that sometimes-annoying narrative thread schtick of his here, with the too-belabored subtext of Keveney’s Catholic upbringing. I think practically every time Keveney is featured we’re reminded of something the Sisters or Father Whatsisname told him as a young boy. And, to continue with the cliches, Keveney is conflicted by it all. The shame of it is that this detracts from the “tough cop” stuff you’d expect to read, especially given Keveney’s cred, taking down muggers and druggers and whatnot.
Napoleon grows his power thanks to a sleazy American middleman named Willie Hatch; Keveney, climbing up the ladder himself, falls for a left-wing reporter named Rosie and marries her, having a son with her. The kid I don’t think garners even a single line of text, and Rosie’s soon jettisoned from the novel too, as Keveney is more focused on his career and also a hot black police woman he’s having casual sex with. Eventually he’s offered a job by the Feds to head up a “high-tech, high-impact drug team” called D-Group, which of course reminded me a lot of the outfit D-3 in the Narc series.
And in a way, Kingpin comes off at times like Burt Hirschfeld writing an installment of that earlier Marc Olden series. Only whereas Olden would occasionally spice things up with action sequences, Hirschfeld and Fadiman are more content with the slow-burn. Making it even more of an uphill struggle is that years go by with little indication of when anything is taking place; the novel alternates between documenting Napoleon’s life and Keveney’s life, and sometimes when we reconnect with them again they’ve moved on to other things and we feel like we’ve missed out on something.
Again like his progenitor Dax Xenos, Napoleon hooks up with a leftist guerrilla squad and occasionally uses them as his private army. After pulling a daring heist on a bank owned by the Regents, ie the wealthy men who control all cocaine manufacture in Sixaola, Napoleon augments his personal staff with a few go-to specialists from the guerrillas, among them the breathtakingly beautiful Nina Fuentes. Soon Nina becomes Napoleon’s lover, but since he swings both ways, particularly to girlish young boys, she eventually becomes frustrated with him, seeking sexual relief on her assassination jobs:
“You have worn me out,” Bustamente said without complaint.
“Rest, Eduardo. You have done your best.”
“The best is still to come, my dear.” He lay spread-eagled on his back, his breathing rapid and harsh, his eyes closed. He longed to sleep. He barely noticed the cold muzzle of the .25-caliber automatic when it was pressed up against his ear. “The best,” he repeated, before his world dissolved in pain and blood and endless blackness.
Nina felt Bustamente’s body jerk, already dead. She took his cock in her hand and, as she knew it would be, it was pumped up in terminal tumescence. She pressed forward, her long, strong legs wrapped around the still warm corpse, pounding insistently against the curve of his hip, caught up by an excitement such as she had never before known. Spasm after extended spasm left her shaken and drained, still embracing Bustamente. Electric impulses made her flesh twitch and blinding lights went off behind her closed eyes, until she rested contentedly.
Unfortunately, this is the only sequence in the novel that goes this over the top, and Nina’s penchant for murder and necrophilia isn’t mentioned again. Indeed, that time-telescoping really neuters the characters; when next we encounter her, Nina’s become Napoleon’s roving salesperson or something, going about the Americas and posing as a seller of office furniture, but in reality a scout for possible coke-infiltrating locations. This is how Keveney meets her, though initially he knows her as Silvia Gutierrez, her cover name; regardless, Keveney’s D-Group boys have monitored the sexy woman’s voyages to and fro South America and have hard evidence of her drug dealing.
But Keveney’s got an instant hard-on for her and doesn’t just want to arrest her. Instead he poses as a mobbed-up dude in her apartment complex (?), hoping he’ll catch her eye. At length he does, though Nina’s all business; Keveney hires her to stock his “office” with furniture. This eventually leads to a relationship, with the authors getting down and dirty with that oldschool Hirschfeld style, with climaxes compared to cresting waves and peaks and whatnot. But it is a little ramped up for the ‘80s, with Nina pushing Keveney on an on, even into, uh, anal territory. But love arises amid the sodomy, and when Keveney’s group finally gets the lockdown on the lady’s meetup with a cocaine chemist, he sadly orders in the troops.
Thanks though to her smarts, Nina gets away scott free and returns to Sixaola, still not knowing that the man she was falling in love with was really Jack Keveney, top narc man who is committed to bringing her down. Napoleon (who becomes more distant to us readers the more powerful he becomes, to the extent that we’re denied any scenes from his viewpoint for long stretches toward the end) meanwhile has gotten detailed documentation on who Keveney is, and tasks Nina with his assassination. When she discovers it’s the same man she’s been screwing, she’s riled up good and proper. She’s now burning with her own lust – to track down Keveney and murder him for making a fool of her. Sounds like the buildup to a grand climax, doesn’t it?
But man, talk about a wasted finale. Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. But our authors, after spinning their wheels and slowly building up a storyline, blow the payoff in a major way. Jack’s in love with Nina, who has just been ordered to kill him. And Napoleon is plotting the death of the other Regents in an army-backed coup; meanwhile, Keveney is making plans to take out Napoleon. It all promises to lead to some major fireworks. Instead, just as soon as Nina has been given her mission from Napoleon, the army attacks Napoleon’s fortress, using weaponry they’ve gained from the CIA. Nina is anticlimactically killed off by a catamite who has been AWOL from the text for the past hundred or so pages, and Napoleon is arrested and sent to the US. After trading a line or two of text with Keveney in America, Napoleon is put in prison, where he’s killed by employees of the catamite. A depressed Keveney goes back to his ex-wife. The end.
So then, practically every thread the authors have spent 300+ pages developing just comes unravelled in the homestretch. Perhaps their theme is that, despite the maneuvering and planning of great men like Napoleon and Keveney, there are always greater forces at play. While this might be true in the real world it comes off as the dumbest shit ever in the world of dramatic fiction. How much better would it have been if we’d gotten the story they denied us – namely, of a vengeance-obsessed Nina hunting down Keveney, who is in love with her? Or of Keveney and Napoleon finally going mano e mano in a real confrontation?
Too much stalling, too much buildup, and too little payoff sums up Kingpin. It has the potential to be a great piece of thriller fiction, but the authors want to do too much, from documenting Napoleon’s Pablo Escobar-style lust for power to shady CIA deals with the Sixaolan ruling elite bringing to mind the Iran-Contra scandal. Even worse, the characters are all unlikable: Keveney is a dick, constantly bossing people around and griping about something, and Napoleon is too obsessed with his own magnificence to be much fun. Only Nina offers any enjoyment, what with her penchant for murder and necrophilia, but she’s only in about a quarter of the text.
In sum, Kingpin was kind of a letdown, but it did achieve the purpose for which I bought it: keeping me entertained during a recent trip to Tampa.