Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Thirteen Bracelets

The Thirteen Bracelets, by Robert Lory
No month stated, 1974  Ace Books

Taking place in the far-flung future of 1989, The Thirteen Bracelets is a sci-fi yarn that shows the more humorous side of Robert Lory, who around this time was also writing installments of my all-time favorite men’s adventure series, John Eagle Expeditor. (And of course I geeked out when, late in the novel, the narrator-protagonist relays how he’d been “expedited” to the scene of a past assignment…!) Unfortunately though, the novel is a bit too funny (or at least, attempts to be) for its own good; it’s more in the vein of a Ron Goulart novel than what you might expect, given the otherwise-serious back cover copy. 

Anyway, it’s ’89, and our narrator is shape-changing mutant Hari Denver, a spy who, due to being near the nuke blast which separated “White Dixie” and “Black Dixie,” now has the ability to change his appearance, from his face to his entire body – if an arm is chopped off, for example, he can regrow it. He now works as a secret agent for Section, reporting to a crusty boss named Fowler, whose office is in Manhattan. One of the recurring “jokes” is that the US is now so messed-up that most government agencies work out of old corporate buildings in Manhattan, given the mass exodus of businesses from this area in the late ‘70s.

We get a glimpse of the slapstick vibe of the novel in the first pages, as Folwer contacts Denver on a “vidscreen,” telling Denver to “get rid of” the lovely young woman Denver happens to be getting in bed with. Denver responds by hitting the girl beneath the chin, instantly killing her. He explains to a nonplussed Folwer, watching it all on the vidscreen, that the girl was in fact a terrorist, and the subject of the assignment Denver was working on, which is now wrapped up! When Fowler grumbles over Denver’s “unorthodox methods,” Denver responds, “These are unorthodox times.”

Denver hops in his Datsun Super Electric and heads over to Fowler’s office, where he’s briefed on his latest assignment – appeasing the Mudir of Chad, a visiting dignitary whose thirteen virgins, each of whom was wearing an antique golden bracelet, were recently stolen from a boat that was touring Staten Island. It’s a locked room mystery sort of deal, as there was just a small window on the boat and the girls disappeared while the boat was out to sea. Denver’s job is to find those bracelets.

The novel is more of a private eye yarn than a spy story; Denver ventures about the country in his search, following various leads. Actually the novel is more of a satirical look at a whacked-out America that is now separated along outrageously-overdone racial lines. In fact, due to this outrageousness alone, The Thirteen Bracelets is the sort of novel that likely could not be reprinted in today’s santized world. In his picaresque journeys Denver meets every racial stereotype you could imagine, up to and including actual spear-chuckers.

Another of the novel’s recurring jokes is that Hari Denver, no matter what “disguise” he’s fashioned himself into, is always recognized. In the course of the book he changes himself into an American Indian, a Jew, an Eskimo, a black, an old Russian, and possibly some other caricatures I’ve forgotten. Yet in each case someone will immediately know they are dealing with the infamous Hari Denver, in what sort of comes off like a prefigure of the “I heard you were dead!” line everyone greeted Snake Plisskin with in Escape From New York. In fact, many elements of The Thirteen Bracelets are reminiscent of that later film.

Lory’s “predictions” of course didn’t come true – the novel is really more of an over-the-top satire than a serious work of sci-fi – but he does at times hit an eerie note of prescience. Like when Denver informs us of the GPS-type device which is embedded in his neck and called a “hotspot.” Otherwise the novel sticks to racial caricature-type stuff; after ditching the Mudir and his four identical brothers, Denver tracks clues from Chinatown to a series of interstates overseen by American Indians, until finally he ends up in the presence of Obadiah, the “chief wuggum of the New Lesotho,” a giant black guy who wears a leopardskin cape, surrounded by spear-carrying warriors.

At this point Denver has disguised himself as a black as well, bearing a three-foot afro with a gun hidden in it, but per the recurring bit Obadiah already knows it’s really Denver beneath the black skin. Our hero has tracked the missing girls here, but the chief claims not to have them. Meanwhile he’s about to go to war with New Zion (located in what was once Bridgeport); in an impromptu naval skirmish, Denver and the chief are knocked off the chief’s boat, and as he hits the water Denver changes himself to a Jew – prompting one of those pre-PC lines from a New Zionist on the attacking ship: “We scared this one white!”

Denver gives himself a four-inch nose, only to be informed by Obadiah that it’s a bit much; when Denver shrinks it down to three inches, the New Zionists think he’s an Arab. He’s taken into the presence of President Wineberg, a nutcase bearing a .357 he arbitrarily fires at people. The true ruler here is The O’Donnell, an obese fiddler who is in fact Jewish but changed his last name to an Irish one when he began publishing sleaze novels. With the chief out of the picture – once The O’Donnell has had him and his men screw a bunch of syphilis-tainted women the New Lesotho sold them – The O’Donnell becomes Denver’s new traveling companion.

Eventually they get to Washington, which is even more shattered than New York; Lory gets even more spoofy with the revelations that “the Mall” is now “the Maul,” and the Lincoln Memorial statue has been recarved so that Honest Abe is sitting on a toilet. After a too-brief run-in with a former colleague named Jolly Van Cleeve – who turns out to have been involved with the kidnapping of the thirteen virgins – Denver finds himself down in the White Cave, ie the relocated White House, now in the caverns beneath the destroyed structure. Obese president George II, self-styled monarch who goes around nude save for different hats, enters the fray and stays longer than he should, for here the book sort of loses its fun.

Here’s also a good part where I can show the goofy tone Lory maintains throughout the novel. While below-ground Denver runs afoul of various generals who are united against the president. Denver escapes them and engages them in a car chase through the zigzagging, booby trapped tunnels:

At that point, the air boomed with the commander in chief’s command: “Catch him – I’ve changed my mind!” 

At which point, my car took off like a shot. 

At which point, running feet in pursuit stopped and a second car, accommodating four Army brass including General Morg himself who rang the brass bell decorating the front, soared after mine. 

At which point the shooting started.

The novel is written in this same smug, pretty contrived style throughout. However, at 188 pages of big print, it is at least a breezy read. After more turnarounds, Denver next discovers that one of the Mudir’s “brothers” isn’t really a brother at all, but one of his sisters, Althea. Lory doesn’t describe her at all, but we do learn she is ugly, or at least Denver considers her so. Eventually it turns out that this too is just a disguise and she’s a smoking hot babe after all.

It stays down here in the White Cave area for the duration, unfortunately, including an arbitrary bit where Denver is briefly captured by some Red Chinese who force him to play “ping-pow,” which is ping-pong with a bomb instead of a ball. It turns out those missing bracelets contained blueprints for something called a Blight Bomb, sort of a virus-generating bomb, and the Mudir planned to use it on Nepal. Althea wants to stop this. Evetually Denver finds himself posing as an old Russian, and must also have sex with all thirteen of the stolen virgins, one after another, as part of a ruse on the Mudir’s part to suss out who here is really Hari Denver in disguise. But Lory isn’t exploitative at all: “I finished her off fast” being the extent of the sleaze.

The finale continues with the comedic approach; the Blight Bomb plan safely prevented, George II reveals himself to really be a computer, the human form just a puppet, and instructs Althea to go have sex with Hari so as to burn off her hostility! And here we leave our narrating hero. Overall The Thirteen Bracelets is passably entertaining, but a bit too “funny” for its own good, and I’m not just saying that because I normally dislike genre novels that are written in first-person.

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