Monday, January 20, 2020

The Groovy Genius

The Groovy Genius, by Jack Siegel
April, 1971  Pyramid Books

With a back cover slugline that proclaims, “Can a boy who loves Mom, Dad, baseball and the girl next door make the scene with a balling chick and freaked-out acid heads?,” The Groovy Genius was basically begging for me to read it. I mean that slugline’s right up there with the “freaking hippies into acid-rock scenes” promised on the back cover of Cindy On Fire. And, coincidentally, the novel was published by Pyramid, which was also the home of Burt Hirschfeld’s “Hugh Barron” pseudonym. Given this I was under the impression “Jack Siegel” was also a pseudonym, however checking the Catalog Of Copyright entries, I see this book – as well as a few others – is copyright Siegel, so I assume this was the author’s real name. Otherwise I don’t know anything about him.

But early into The Groovy Genius I was about to hypothesize that “Jack Siegel” was a pseudonym of Don DeLillo, as in many ways the book reminded me of DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star: it’s all about a teen genius from New York, one who is obsessed with baseball, and thus I got a bit of a second-hand DeLillo vibe from it. There are also mathematical formulas throughout the novel, the kid’s method of breaking everything down to an equation, which added to the vibe. Indeed, this and the baseball stuff is so prevalent through the first half of the 156-page novel that I often found myself checking the back cover to ensure I was reading the right book. I mean there were no “balling chicks” or “freaked-out acid heads” anywhere in sight. But finally they appeared in the narrative, so my perserverence paid off.

Anyway, the novel concerns Noah Giganti, a 14 year-old genius who lives in the Bedford neighborhood of Brooklyn. Anyone looking for early ‘70s New York period details will be unsatisfied with The Groovy Genius, as other than the occasional topical detail Siegel mostly sticks to his characters and their words. Noah has recently won the National Science Contest, beating thousands of other kids for the honor. His father (referred to as “Giganti” in the narrative) and his mother (who barely has any dialog) are simple folk, the dad a “civil servant” who goes around the city fixing broken pipes. They have no idea how their son became a genius but they of course are immensely proud of him, and Siegel does a great job of capturing a strong family bond. I also really appreciated the caring father figure, which is something you don’t seem to see too much of in today’s entertainment…almost as if, I don’t know, masculine role models were being filtered out. I guess this is just how it was before the sexual revolution!

When we meet Noah he’s soon to turn 15 and is already getting offers from various colleges to enroll, and a VP from the “IMB” corporation comes calling, basically telling Noah he can write his own ticket. But Noah has no desire to go to college or work in some office: he wants to be a pro baseball player. So after a fairly long sequence where we see Noah being interviewed on TV about winning the contest, we have another where he tries out for a baseball team. And doesn’t make it, despite his “power hitting,” per his best bud Rocco. There’s also lots of stuff about Rocco, a tough neighborhood kid whose cousins ridicule him for hanging out with an egghead like Noah. There’s also stuff about Dolores, a hotstuff gal in Noah’s class whom Noah fantasizes about, as she’s supposedly the school tramp (Rocco claiming to have been one of her many bedmates), and also there’s Clementine, the literal girl next door who openly tells Noah she loves him. In fact all this stuff keeps going and, while it’s good so far as inner-city melodrama goes, it’s just not the book I thought I was about to read – the book promised by the cover slugline and back cover copy.

Then out out of nowhere there’s this emotional sequence where Noah’s dad goes over all the offers Noah’s gotten from colleges and companies, and tries to tell the obstinate kid that maybe playing baseball might not pan out. But Noah is determined to play ball. This leads to their first-ever argument, where Noah’s dad says he “doesn’t deserve” a kid who is so smart and that he’s a gift from God and thus he’ll do whatever he can to protect him and ensure he takes the right path in life. When Noah says he’d consider being an astronaut after his baseball career’s over, his dad is totally against it – “No! No kid of mine’s gonna float around the world way up there in the sky. The chances are too big, you could be a loser there and I don’t wanna lose you to something like that, something I can’s see where I can’t help you.” I realized as I read this part that, after forty-some years of reading, this was the first time I’d ever found myself identifying with the words of a father in a novel. The entire speech resonated with me. But don’t get me wrong, I was still impatiently waiting for the hippie chicks and the LSD-fueled orgies.

And luckily after this we finally get to them – after this brief argument with his dad, Noah announces he’s going downtown. He’s realized that for him to be on the same “worldly” stature as Rocco he’ll need to go down to the city on his own. His dad and mom are against it but Noah goes anyway. Again, different eras here…can’t see too many parents letting their 14 year-old kid go to downtown New York all by their lonesome. At least, parents who give a shit, and Noah’s parent’s certainly do. But off Noah goes, catching the sub to the Village, where he spots some hippie-types on the train and a pretty blonde girl. Eventually he wanders to a park…where he’s almost mugged by those same hippie-types. An interesting thing about Noah is, while he’s smart, he’s still a tough city kid, and he fights off the would-be muggers.

Here he also runs into the pretty blonde who was on the train with him. We don’t get too much exploitation of her physical charms – Noah’s thoughts and impressions are seemingly relayed by a much more mature character than his age would imply – but we at least learn she’s pretty and she’s built. She’s clearly one of those hippie types, though, and wants to treat Noah to a cup of coffee after this ordeal. Eventualy they wind up in a place she helps run with some other guy, and she’s drinking wine with Noah. She says her name is Abby, she’s from California, and she’s an 18 year-old college dropout. We get some character-developing dialog here and Abby’s character does sparkle; Siegel doesn’t go all the way with the hippie tropes but she’s definitely on that wavelength, going on about finding herself and communes and all that stuff which would sound dated in just a few years.

She apparently gives Noah something, because when she takes him back to her little house in the Village he promptly passes out on her bed. She’s brought Noah here because she wants him to see her “raft,” aka her bed, so dubbed because she “takes trips on it.” Presumably this is Noah’s first trip but neither he nor Siegel make much of it; Noah just wakes up, having dreamed of Abby, and finds that it’s the following day. At four in the afternoon. Clearly his folks will be panicked, but Abby instead talks Noah into hanging out with her. Also she reveals she knows who he is, having seem him on TV. She wants to recruit Noah into a “controlled experiment” in which a group of people will go on a “trip” to see if they can understand one another. Noah, despite his brilliance, doesn’t know what kind of trip Abby means.

Meanwhile he feels the obligation to at least let his parents know he’s still alive, so he calls a newspaper and leaves them a formula. He knows that if his parents see it, they’ll be assured he’s still alive. However this leads to a nigh-surreal subplot in which Noah is believed to be kidnapped; periodically over the next day, as he stays with Abby, he’ll see newspaper headlines or hear radio reports about “the possibly kidnapped National Science Contest winner.” This stuff is so overdone, with even crowds of New Yorkers standing around and talking about the situation, that inititally I feared the whole Village sequence was just a dream. But it’s not, and Noah really loses some “good and caring son” points by letting his parents (and the news) theorize that he’s been abducted and can only communicate with them via impossible-to-decipher formulae.

Abby’s trip of course has to do with acid; the session will be overseen by Wiseman, a brawny black guy who talks “like no other black Noah had ever met,” which is to say like a professor. Which apparently he was – there’s a lot of hippie-era navel-gazing here, so far as Wiseman’s quest to find his identity. A couple others come over and Abby hands out the sugar cubes, and the ensuing psychedelic sequence is short but vividly rendered, enough to presume that Siegel might’ve tried a trip himself. Otherwise the (too brief) acid trip is mostly rendered through banal poetry (most of it courtesy Noah, unfortunately) and navel-gazing dialog. I did find the following exchange, spoken by an older novelist who takes part in the group trip, particularly interesting from the vantage point of our modern era:

“We also need a kind of ethic radar to guide us through the fog of our history. So that we can return to course. That’s why my book is a blue comedy, in which the minority-minority…” 

“Two minorities make a majority,” Wiseman said and turned to Noah. “Right?” 

“Right,” the writer said. “So the hero takes a trip from the absurdity but in the end he must return to his own stagione and face up to life.” The writer belched out an exclamation point. “But who wants to be a hero in a non-heroic age. That’s like being a heterosexual in a queer society.”

Humorously the cops show up – we’re later to understand it’s because they’re looking for Noah, who presumably was spotted with Abby – and Noah and Wiseman take off. Here the psychedelic stuff is replaced with lots of talk from Wiseman about wanting to be a “black star” in the white man’s world, to which Noah responds, “But a black star couldn’t be seen.” The two go through various adventures in this mini-episode which seems to come from another book but which apparently exists so as to convey Noah’s right of passage into adulthood, or at least how he attains a mature understanding.

After saying bye to Wiseman Noah heads back to Abby’s and discovers that the cops have left – she says they couldn’t find any evidence. This taken care of, the two finally get down to the dirty business of screwing. Interestingly, the fact that Noah’s losing his virginity is not mentioned, but surely Abby knows – she seems to know everything in that annoying hippie way. Siegel doesn’t fade to black and does a good job of conveying the happenings via prose that’s borderline explicit while also being conveyed from the naiive point of view of a teenager:

He took his hand away and rolled over looking for entry. She maneuvered him in and he felt the soft, gliding tightness until the walls of her thing reached the base of his and he could go no farther. Then he retreated, advanced and retreated, all his concentration on the very edge of his body. Her eyes were closed, her mouth partly open. He moved up and own as he had rehearsed in his own mind a thousand times and Abby moved in counter rhythm, whas was different from how he had heard it.

As if that weren’t enough we get another explicit sequence on the next page, this one complete with oral ministrations from Abby. The “balling chick,” baby! But when Abby asks Noah to leave the city with her and go start a commune somewhere, Noah gently kills the idea. Definite prescience here from Noah (not to mention Siegel); Abby insists she’s “not crazy” for believing in communes – and that “most of the country” will be a commune in the future(!) – but Noah knows better. It’s all just LSD-borne cloud talk. They say their goodbyes, and Noah returns home to find a block party waiting for him, his parents knowing he’d be arriving thanks to another formula he sent the papers. The finale is even emotional with Noah’s dad openly crying that his son is home and safe. But Noah’s sudden maturity is a bit hard to buy, particularly his abrupt decision to give up on the baseball and astronaut ideas. Here the novel comes to a close, Siegel providing a handy key to understanding the forumlae he’s sprinkled through the text.

 All told The Groovy Genius isn’t bad, it’s just missing something and seems somewhat unfinished. Given the vocabulary, the mathematical symbols, and the character depth, I wonder if Siegel was shooting for the hardcover market, as the novel is very much in-line with a lot of the “hippie lit” that was being churned out by hardcover publishers at the time. Yet at the same time the book just doesn’t offer much: it’s about a 14 year-old genius who wants to play baseball, goes to Greenwich Village, takes acid with a couple people, and gets laid. I mean that’s the plot; there just isn’t much “there” there. And yet it’s also missing the trashy elan one would suspect (nay, demand) of an LSD-sexploitation paperback. Regardless, this was the sole printing of the book, thus I conclude it either didn’t resonate with readers of the day or it just had poor distribution and no one was aware of it.

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