Gannon’s Vendetta, by John Whitlatch
October, 1969 Pocket Books
The other month I got an email from Marty McKee asking me why there were no reviews of John Whitlatch novels on the blog. This was one of those moments of total synchronicity, as I’d just recently decided to finally seek out the one Whitlatch novel I wanted to read most of all: this one, which happened to be Whitlatch’s first. Over the years I’d picked up some of his other Pocket paperbacks (each of which are numbered, curiously enough, even though the Witchlatch novels aren’t a “series,” per se), but for whatever reason Gannon’s Vendetta proved elusive, not to mention overpriced on the collectors market…which is strange, as the book went through several printings, so you would think it would be more available and affordable.
At any rate, shortly before receiving Marty’s email I had finally ordered a nice-priced copy of Gannon’s Vendetta, spurred on by that brief biker fiction kick I was on several months ago. Whitlatch’s novels have a respectable cred among paperback collectors: Paul Bishop has a great writeup on his own personal search for the mysterious Whitlatch, and years ago Justin Marriott did a nice overview of Whitlatch’s Pocket originals. One thing I recall Justin mentioning is that the books, despite having great covers by men’s adventure magazine artists, were a bit more “dry” than one might expect, and in particular that some of the books sort of dragged on. Such is the case with Gannon’s Vendetta, which despite a slam-bang opening turns out to mostly drag over its inexcusable length of 249 pages – 249 pages of incredibly small and incredibly dense print. I mean folks this book took me an entire week to read. It’s a definite time investment.
I have to say though that Whitlatch’s writing is so identical to the men’s adventure magazine market that I wonder if there was like a DeVry school for them or some correspondence course. Everything from the plot structure to the narrative style is exactly like what you’d encounter in Male Magazine or the like, only of course around four times the length. And just as the vast majority of those men’s mag yarns open with the situation depicted on the main illustration (or cover, if it was the cover story) and then proceed to flash back to the elaborate chornicling of what brought the hero to this predicament, so too does Gannon’s Vendetta: we meet our titular hero John Gannon as he’s tied to a “huge saguaro” in the middle of the Arizona desert, left there by a pack of savage bikers.
But after this opening, in which Gannon makes an impression on the reader with his sardonic humor – talking aloud to himself in two separate personalities so as to avoid going insane – we go straight to the men’s mag-mandated flashback, and it’ll be about a hundred pages of small print until we get back to this sequence. I believe Justin also mentioned the wish fulfillment of Whitlatch’s books, and that’s certainly evident here; according to this book, you could be a 44 year-old insurance agent with a wife and home and a 21 year-old daughter, but buddy you’ll still be able to take on biker scum in knife fights and hook up with lusty Mexican broads. But I’m not complaining because that’s exactly what I want from this genre; in our current post-emasculated era, such books can only be viewed with scorn and condescension, but at one time masculine fiction was readily available for the male reader. This was before the publishing industry – which curiously is run almost entirely by women – decided that “men don’t read.”
John Gannon himself is the epitome of an earlier, more masculine era: with his rugged virility and uncomprimising attitude he seems downright alien in our modern era of soy latte-sipping pseudo-males in their cropped pants and skinny jeans. Curiously though I don’t believe we’re ever given much context on how Gannon is such a badass; we can assume he might be a vet of WWII or more likely Korea, but I don’t think this is actually stated. Regardless, he is skilled with guns, hand-to-hand-combat, knife-fighting, horse riding, and even archery. This though is just another tie-in to the vibe of men’s adventure magazines, which featured similarly-skilled vets as protagonists. But still when we meet him, or at least when we flash back to the incidents that set him on the path which ultimately got him strapped to this saguaro cactus, Gannon’s just an insurance adjuster who lives outside of Los Angeles.
The incident that started it all was the day, several months before, when Gannon witnessed a biker running over a child. Gannon chased the scumbag down and beat the shit out of him, then served as witness against him in the trial. This even after Gannon was threatened, in his own home, by Buster, the hulking blonde-haired brother of the accused biker. One can tell that this novel truly is from another era, as Gannon doesn’t bother locking the doors of his house, thus Buster can just walk right on in. Gannon tells Buster to get out and testifies against his brother in court, despite the legal tactics of the biker’s lawyer, Pat Stein, conveniently enough an old enemy of Gannon’s. But after this things get nightmarish, as Buster comes back, this time with a couple more bikers, and attacks Gannon.
Our hero is knocked out and wakes up shortly thereafter to find Buster in the process of raping Gannon’s wife; barely in the narrative, the lady is 42, attractive, but going a bit to seed thanks to heavy drinking (she’s even suffered “two minor heart attacks” in the past couple years). Gannon grabs his .38 and blows away one biker, wings the other (a big Mexican brute named Crazy), but misses Buster. We’ll spend the next 200+ pages waiting for this bastard to get comeuppance. Meanwhile Gannon discovers that his wife is dead, suffering one last and fatal heart attack after her rape. Gannon does not seem much fazed by this, whereas he’s devastated to discover that the bikers killed his two dogs, crying over them and later even visiting their graves (a gut-wrenching scene that goes well beyond the typical emotional impact of such books). This is intentional on Whitlatch’s part, as much later in the narrative, when we pick back up on the opening desert sequence, Gannon will confront his lack of emotion over his wife’s death.
Regardless, Gannon is of course determined to make Buster pay. Whereas the reader might expect a fast-moving pulp tale, Gannon’s Vendetta is like another “biker revenge” novel, The Scarred Man, in that it doesn’t take a direct path. Instead we have a belabored court room sequence in which wily lawyer scum Pat Stein is able to get Buster exonerated of all charges; thanks to a “Socialist-leaning judge” the case against Buster is thrown out. Gannon, due to his short temper, has busted up the heads of some nosy reporters, and this coupled with the fact that he was bashed on the head that night is used to make him come off like an unreliable witness. It’s all very unbelievable – at least I’d like to hope so, but then again we live in a world were you can throw balloons filled with shit at cops and not even get arrested – but it all seems to exist because Whitlatch wants us to understand that Gannon has no choice but to take the law into his own hands.
Despite which the book settles into a lethargic pace. Gannon heads to Arizona, spending two fruitless months trying to locate the vanished Buster. Eventually he heads for San Simon, a border town in Mexico set up by a local millionaire named Don Raul; the place prides itself on safety, yet Gannon discovers that it’s become a hangout for American biker scum. Soon he hooks up with a DEA agent named Gonzalez who wants to use Gannon as an unpaid consultant, a subplot that initially seems to promise a lot but ultimately goes nowhere. Instead more time is placed on Gannon’s budding love for Amiga, super-hot and super-busty niece of Don Raul, a Mexican babe who herself is widowed despite being in her 20s and who insists that Gannon come and stay at her uncle’s massive villa in the desert while he attends to business in San Simon.
Mysteriously enough, none other than wily scumball lawyer Pat Stein is here, and Gannon’s suspicion over the presence of Stein and the bikers he represents here in San Simon will of course be proven out, though again it takes us a helluva long time to get there. Whitlatch does pick things up a bit when Gannon blunders into a trap, storming into the biker hangout when he gets word Buster is there. This leads us to the incident depicted on the cover, but it must be stated that Norm Eastman enjoyed a little creative license in his awesome painting. For it’s made clear that the biker babe who flashes Gannon is not only ugly, but incredibly filthy and with greasy hair, and her jeans have such a “urine stench” that Gannon nearly pukes when he gets a whiff of her. So clearly not the sexy brunette babe Eastman depicted, but then ugly girls with greasy hair and piss-stained jeans really wouldn’t sell too many books. Whitlatch seems to have a fascination with telling us how all the bikers stink like piss, lending the impression that all they do is piss and shit on themselves as they drive around the desert.
Buster and his bikers abandon Gannon, strapped to the cactus, and after a day or so he’s able to free himself. His trek across the desert is grueling, vividly depicted by Whitlatch, but it does seem to go on and on. And also it too seems like a men’s mag story, in fact the entire sequence could’ve been excised to become one of those “True Book Bonuses” that would run in Men or whatnot. Here Gannon confronts the fact that he’d long ago stopped loving his wife, while engaging in “survival at any cost” actions like drinking water from cacti, eating a tortoise (another grueling scene that makes an impression, particularly when Gannon saws off the head of the tortoise), and suffering diarrhea attacks as he walks in what he hopes is the proper direction. Eventually he passes out by a highway after 11 days in the desert, and Whitlatch serves up a nice callback to Gannon’s murdered “boys” (aka his dogs) when a near-death Gannon is discovered and saved by a local man’s dog.
But again, even after all this, the novel appropriates a listless pace. Gannon gets lucky, at least; Amiga has been searching for him all these days, and once he’s healthy enough she’s all over him. Curiously their first depicted sex scene is mostly vague, with most detail placed on Gannon suckling of Amiga’s big boobs, whereas a later scene is hardcore exploitation and goes on for several pages. This first sequence though establishes Whitlach’s fixation on boob-sucking; it seems that from this point forward Amiga is constantly shoving her breasts in Gannon’s face so he can get to sucking on them. It’s downright Freudian. The second depicted boink, later in the book, goes even further into the extremes, and comes off as strange given how hardcore it is, even more explicit than what Harold Robbins was writing at the time. Given that Pocket was the publisher of Robbins’s paperbacks, I almost wonder if this second sex sequence was some sort of publisher request – keep it hardcore, it’s what our readers demand!
Actually Robbins is a good point of comparison, because a lot of Gannon’s Vendetta is trash-fictiony in that, instead of the violent revenge thriller we’re expecting, much of it comes off like a leisurely-placed summer read set in a palatial Mexican villa. Even here Gannon’s rugged charm wins the day; he’s quite fond of having Don Raul’s world-class chef whip up nothing more than a burrito, which Gannon enjoys with a beer. It’s a man’s kind of meal, baby, and Don Raul approves, even though Amiga can’t believe Gannon wants something so simple. But then, she’s just a girl. Regardless, there are so many opportunities for Whitlatch to just cut right to the action and end the book, but it’s like he has a specific word count to meet ,thus there’s an inexplicable part where Gannon, after recuperating from his desert ordeal, heads back to his house in LA and sort of bides his time for a while, getting ready for his big assault on Buster’s gang.
Here too we get another reminder of earlier sentiments; Gannon lost a ton of weight in the desert, so we read about his big meals, his constant mixed drinks, his six beers a night. All so he can gain weight – and then “turn the fat into muscle.” Clearly this was before the concept of being “jacked” hit the bodybuilding community; Gannon could’ve just hit the weights with his lean physique and saved himself the trouble. But whatever. He also buys some guns and a bow and arrow and whatnot, and talks his cop pal Dallinger into coming down to Mexico with him to bust up those biker scumbags. Ponce, Don Raul’s portly bodyguard, and old Don Raul himself, will further make up what makes for Gannon’s army in the climactic assault.
Only, it’s not really a climax, because even here Whitlatch refuses to go full-bore. It’s a gripping scene with the four converging on Buster’s biker hangout, deep in the desert, and hitting them early in the morning; Gannon again shows some sort of former commando training by silently killing a few guards with his knife or his bow and arrows. They capture all the bikers, and Gannon takes on burly Crazy in a knife fight that’s over before it even starts. But instead of wiping them out, Gannon drags the bikers back to Don Raul’s villa, where ensues an overly-complicated outing of who is really behind the heroin Buster’s biker gang has been trafficking. And then after all this, Gannon allows Buster to ecape…all so Gannon can get on a horse and go chasing after him and the others in the desert to “bring them in.” So in other words we’re right back where we were several pages ago, with Gannon hunting bikers in the desert. At least here Gannon finally dishes out the vengeance we’ve been waiting 249 pages for.
Last we see Gannon, he’s looking forward to more fun with Amiga (I’m just going to assume it has something to do with her rack) and figures he’ll stay at Don Raul’s a while. He would return years later, in Gannon’s Line (1976), which as it turned out would be Whitlatch’s last papberback. Gannon isn’t the most likable of protagonists, yet at the same time he’s a bit more three-dimensional than the genre norm…which I guess is only to be expected when a book is as long as this one is. His smart-ass retorts almost prefigure the one-liners of ‘80s action movies, yet at the same time his short fuse gets to be annoying. He definitely experiences character growth though, something else that’s unusual for the genre, in his acceptance of the fact that he’s not going after Buster because of the loss of a beloved wife, but to get payback for something that was taken from him.
On the other hand, Buster and his bikers are so one-dimensional that they come off as cartoonish. They’re just a mangy pack of sadistic freaks in grungy, piss-stinking jeans, and there’s absolutely zero of the exploitative appeal depicted in Norm Eastman’s cover. The women are even worse than the men; Buster’s girl, the scuzzy one who flashes Gannon – who we’ll recall stinks so bad that Gannon almost barfs due to the stench of her – ends up opening up a large patch of skin on Gannon’s face with a chain, giving our hero what is apparently a permanent scar. Gannon shows no qualms with hunting her down in the finale as well. The action scenes are infrequent but well done, and Whitlatch doesn’t skimp on the violence, but he doesn’t dwell on it either. In this regard as well the book is almost identical to the contents of the average men’s adventure magaznes of the day.
I did really enjoy Gannon’s Vendetta, with the caveat that it was much too long for its own good. So much of it could’ve been whittled out, giving us a more lean, mean, and focused revenge thriller. Also the biker element wasn’t nearly as pronounced as I’d hoped for. But I really did enjoy the rugged ethic of the book, the macho vibe Whitlatch almost casually captures throughout, to the extent that I’ll try to get to the other Whitlatch novels I have – and look into picking up a copy of Gannon’s Line.