Monday, July 30, 2018

Mace #6: The Year Of The Boar

Mace #6: The Year Of The Boar, by Lee Chang
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

I’ve been looking forward to this sixth volume of Mace for quite a while. Because my friends we’re finally out of the weeds, ie the previous five volumes by Joseph Rosenberger, and as if in reward for enduring those five beatings we’re graced with an installment by Len Levinson (using the same house name that Rosenberger did, “Lee Chang”). So even though Len delivers a protagonist much different than his usual (at least when considering his other ‘70s novels), it goes without saying that The Year Of The Boar is vastly more entertaining than any of Rosenberger’s installments.

I know from Len himself that he never read those previous five books; in fact as he most memorably informed me once: “I never heard of Joseph Rosenberger.” So for all intents and purposes this could be considered a standalone novel. And in many ways it is much different from Len’s other books of the decade, with a straight-shooter protagonist wholly at odds with Len’s typical main characters from this era. In fact Victor Mace is kind of boring, and makes one miss, for example, the neurotic Johnny Rock of Len’s three Sharpshooter novels.

Len was clearly given at least a character outline to work from, though. It’s still Victor Mace, Chinese-American kung-fu wizard from Hong Kong who has relocated to America, but whereas Rosengerber’s Mace did CIA jobs on the side, Len’s is the head instructor at the Lotus Academy on Canal Street, in the Chinatown section of Manhattan. There is of course no mention of the previous five volumes, though if anything Len’s novel harkens back to the vibe of Mace #1, in that it doesn’t have any espionage commando stuff and is more of a simple “kung fu master versus stupid thugs” sort of thing.

The simple nature of the storyline is made clear by the plot: Mace goes up against some crooks who plan to burn down tenement buildings in Chinatown and build luxury high-rises in their wake. Mace comes into it when one of his students is killed in the latest fire; he learns later that another building was recently burned down in the same area. But as the dead guy’s teacher Mace is sworn by the ancient rules of kung-fu to avenge his student’s murder within a few days or something, so he’s off into action posthaste.

Mace starts off the novel being interviewed by sexy journalist Joyce Wilson, who is doing a story on the kung-fu craze. Len sort of pulls a fast one on the readers; we know that Joyce is attracted to Mace and hopes he asks her out – indeed she hopes he’ll take her back to her place and boff her brains out, being a “liberated woman” and all – but it never happens. Mace goes off with Joyce within the first few pages, but is first distracted by some would-be muggers who give him the handy opportunity to show off his skills, and then he’s further distracted by the burned-down building his student lived in. He ends up telling Joyce “maybe next time” and sets off – and Len apparently forgets all about Joyce, having her disappear for the rest of the novel, only returning near the very end when Mace calls her up to see if she knows a mob boss’s address. 

Instead, the novel is given over to a lot of chop-sockeying; same as in the Rosenberger era there are random all-caps bursts of “CHINK!” from Mace’s enemies, followed by Mace’s shouts of “KIII-AAA!” as he kicks them into oblivion. However the incessant “shuto chop” of Rosenberger is gone, replaced by various combinations of punches and kicks, though Len’s own “shuto chop” (meaning his own overused pose, a la Rosenberger’s shuto chop) would have to be the “horse stance,” which it seems Mace is going into every few pages. That being said, Len’s fights are more entertaining, even though they’re really the same as Rosenberger’s – endless, extended sequences of Mace kicking and punching people. But as I’ve said before, I personally feel that martial arts combat isn’t as suited to prose as say gun combat is. There are only so many ways you can describe a punch or a kick.

And as mentioned Mace is kind of boring anyway…he’s too much of a straight-shooter, and his occasional speeches on the kung-fu way kind of make him a bore. That said, he does have an incongruous habit of putting an unlit match in his mouth, which I guess is intended to make him seem tough – otherwise he’s very tall, slim build, long back hair, same as the cover. Also in an interesting bit of cross-series continuity, or at least what might be seen as such, Mace has a pal on the New York police force: Lt. Raymond Jenkins, who we can assume might be the brother of Lt. Richard Jenkins in Len’s Bronson: Streets Of Blood, written around the same time as The Year Of The Boar. Jenkins even gives Mace a gun at one point, insisting he keep it for protection against the Mafia enforcers who are coming for him, but of course Mace doesn’t use it.

Another harbinger of the Rosenberger installments is that Mace is suitably superhuman; he’s actually up in the Dr. Strange league this time, able to see and hear beyond normal human perception with his “shuh” talent. As if that weren’t enough, he’s even able to focus his “chi” to such an extent that he can stop the flow of blood from a gunshot wound in his shoulder…and when the bullet’s extracted (by a Chinatown acupuncturist, naturally), Mace is able to focus his will and re-seal the wound!! All of this, coupled with his take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward sex, makes Mace more of a sort of kung-fu Jesus than the typically-rabid (or at least driven) Len Levinson protagonist.

The title comes from Mafia bigshot Frank Zarelli, whose plans Mace threatens; Zarelli and Chinatown opium importer Mr. Sing concoct a scheme to hire some kung-fu killers to come over from Hong Kong and kill Mace. It’s Mr. Sing who compares Zarelli to a boar, so one assumes Len was given this title before he started writing and found some way to accommodate it into the narrative. Led by seven foot tall sadist Rok Choy, who happens to have been a kung-fu schoolmate of Mace’s who was kicked out twenty years ago, these kung-fu assassins are pretty cool and definitely bring the novel the flavor of vintage bell-bottom fury movies; upon their arrival in Manhattan they’re instantly getting drunk and taking advantage of Mr. Sing’s teenaged assistant – the only part of the novel to feature any dirty stuff, and most of it relayed via dialog.

However Rok Choy is dispensed with sooner than expected, and Mace quickly sets his sights on his remaining followers. In fact Mace is so superhuman that the question isn’t so much if he’ll survive but how quickly he’ll take out his opponents, no matter how greatly they outnumber him. I guess in this way Len’s book is also similar to Rosenberger’s, but it must be said that his Mace is a bit more likable, if too distant from the reader due to his perfection. As for Zarelli, his fate is a bit unexpected, and it occurs shortly afterward, as Mace promptly assaults the man’s heavily-guarded home. Len ends the novel right here, with Mace catching a taxi back to Chinatown – there’s a goofy out-of-nowhere recurring bit about a new cabdriver who doesn’t know his way around Manhattan, and the various characters keep getting into his cab – and that’s that. Vengeance has been meted out in the demanded time.

Overall The Year Of The Boar was entertaining, certainly when compared to Rosenberger’s previous five books, but at the same time I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Len’s other books from this period. Not that there’s anything wrong with his prose or his dialog, it’s just that it lacks that zany spark the others had. And mostly I feel this is due to Mace himself, but again this isn’t Len’s fault – he was hired to write a book about a kung-fu master and that’s how a kung-fu master is written. So in that regard he certainly exceeded, but when you’ve read say Shark Fighter you just expect something more from the guy. I mean when a cab driver who appears on maybe half a page total is more memorable than the lead character, you know something is up.

Back in July 2012 I asked Len about Year Of The Boar as part of the interview I did with him for The Paperback Fanatic. I asked him again about the book now that I’ve read it, and he decided to “augment” his original Paperback Fanatic comments for my review. So here’s Len on the origins of The Year Of The Boar – and I have to say, the “rapacity” of New York landlords (as Len memorably described them in a recent email) comes through loud and clear in the novel!

THE YEAR OF THE BOAR began with a phone call from an editor I knew at Belmont-Tower, don’t remember his name. He said he was working for a new publishing house called Manor and asked if I would write for them. I said “sure,” which was how a desperate freelance writer naturally would respond. 

I lived at 114 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in those days, and walked uptown to the meeting at Manor’s office located in the same vicinity as Belmont-Tower on lower Park Avenue south of 34th Street. Zebra Publishing for whom I later wrote was in the same area. 

Also in attendance at the meeting was a young lady editor who I also knew from Belmont-Tower. No one else was in the office, which as I recall, consisted of only one medium-sized room. This young lady editor had previously told me that she worked with Nelson DeMille when he was in the Belmont-Tower stable. I suspected that Manor was connected to Belmont-Tower in some way. 

I don’t remember details of the meeting but I ended up writing two novels for Manor, THE YEAR OF THE BOAR and STREETS OF BLOOD in their BRONSON series by Philip Rawls. I don’t remember which I wrote first. 

THE YEAR OF THE BOAR really stimulated my imagination because I was very interested in Eastern religions at that time, and had studied karate under the great Okinawan master Ansei Ueshiro who worked out in class alongside us students in his studio on West 14th Street in New York City around 1962. His speed, strength and precision seemed supernatural. Inspired by him, I affixed a bamboo mat to a wall of my apartment and punched it in order to build up callouses on my knuckles, but my knuckles bled and no callouses ever happened. 

In addition, I had studied Vedanta Hinduism plus Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, attending many lectures and reading lots of books. I also spent much time in NYC’s Chinatown, largest Chinatown in America, which was spilling over into Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Often I explored out-of-the-way streets and alleys, hung out in Buddhist temples, ate at funky restaurants, and munched on lotus seed buns as I wandered about. Sometimes I wished I could move to Chinatown because I loved the exotic atmosphere, almost like being in Hong Kong. 

I also had watched a few Kung-Fu movies on the Bowery in Chinatown. None had subtitles but were fascinating anyway. The nearly 100% Chinese audiences seemed to enjoy them very much. Those King Fu movies doubtlessly influenced action scenes in THE YEAR OF THE BOAR, which begins in Chinatown and much of the action occurs there. 

The character of Joyce Wilson, described as reporter for a NYC daily, was based loosely on a real reporter for an underground NYC weekly newspaper who lived in the same building as I in Greenwich Village, and was a friend of mine. Now she is a famous reporter for the NEW YORK TIMES. I don’t want to mention her real name because I don’t want to embarrass her. 

While writing THE YEAR OF THE BOAR, I was having problems with my landlord because my apartment was rent-controlled and he wanted me to move out so that he could jack up the rent. He refused to fix what was broken and threatened to have me beaten up if I complained to the Housing Authority. So he transmogrified into the predominant villain of THE YEAR OF THE BOAR and came to a very dark end in the novel. 

All these experiences and semi-understood theologies served as foundations of YEAR OF THE BOAR. As I skim through the novel today, I think the narrative was undermined by my tendency to toss in sex scenes that seem casual and unmotivated, but it seemed like a lot of sex was casual and unmotivated during the seventies. It was a strange time and I spent much of it sitting in a series of non-luxury apartments in Manhattan, writing action/adventure. To paraphrase Marcel Proust, it was life carried on by other means.


Steve Carroll said...

I bought and read this book when it was first published. I was a ravenous Kung Fu fanatic with a special penchant for the Kung Fu books of the 70s. You're right that such a visual and visceral thing as martial arts doesn't seem suited to prose, I couldn't get enough of them and have successfully recollected most of those books in my adulthood. However, I still own my original complete run of the Mace books. Even at the time (I would have been 13 when this book was released), I immediately recognized the change in style and direction, though I was completely unaware of the concept of house name writers. Do you know who wrote the next two volumes under the name of C.K. Fong?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Steve! It was a prolific writer named Bruce Cassiday who served as "CK Fong" for those last two volumes -- will be curious if he picks up the thread left by JR (or even Len), or if he just does his own thing. I think the covers of those last two volumes are cooler than the others -- plus one of 'em's titled "The Year of the Cock," so what's not to love about it??

I recall you saying you were really into kung-fu books in the '70s. I think that's awesome. I too was obsessed with all things kung-fu from childhood on until, I don't know, late 20s or so, when I finally achieved burnout. No idea how many of those movies I watched but I was a man obsessed -- using the early internet to work out VHS trades of taped movies, etc. But I never got much into the books, likely because I could never find them. I did though think Marvel's "Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu" was one of the greatest things ever, and treasured the few issues I got in a comic shop in the very early '90s.

Steve Carroll said...

I still own most of the publication run of "Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu" magazine, though they have seen far better days. The same goes for the first few years of the "Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu" comic. My dad took me to see "Enter the Dragon" on opening weekend when I was in 5th grade and I was never the same. Oddly enough, about the only martial arts-based thing I never really clicked with was the "Kung Fu" television show with David Carradine. That's also the only book series rooted in martial arts I never sought out with any fervor, though I still own a few. You've inspired me to pull those paperbacks back out and give them a new perusal. Most are still in surprisingly good shape.

allan said...

I am reading the first book in this series right now, so this is good timing. (I am also keeping a "Racial Slur Tote Board"!) Rosenberger claimed that this series comprised "the first kung fu fiction books". (It is amusing to read the bad guys early on in #1 ask each other what in the world is this "kung fu" stuff.) Rosenberger certainly invented stuff about his past, so I'm wondering if anyone knows if his claim re Mace has any merit. The first book was published in September 1973.