Monday, September 14, 2020

Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well

Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well, by Irving A. Greenfield
No month stated, 1977  Manor Books

This obscure Irving Greenfield paperback turns out to be the sequel to another obscure Irving Greenfield paperback: Making U-Hoo, which was published four years earlier by Dell. I had no idea of this when going into Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well, thus it turned out to be a pleasant surprise – as well as a relief, as “the U-Hoo Conspiracy” is constantly referenced in the narrative, with absolutely no background on it. One wonders if the few people who bought this Manor publication even realized it was the sequel to a book that had been published by another imprint a few years before.

My guess is that by the time Greenfield turned in his manuscript, Dell had moved away from the “sleaze paperbacks with photo covers” they’d been doing in the early to mid-‘70s; there were a ton of books in this unofficial line, in addition to Making U-HooSexual Strike Force, Michelle, My Belle, etc. Another possibility is that Dell just rejected Greenfield’s manuscript, which truth be told is pretty bad. I mean no joke, this is a lousy book. There are few things worse than an unfunny comedy, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well is. Whereas Making U-Hoo at least made the pretense toward being fairly “straight,” this one’s more of a madcap yarn in the vein of Ron Goulart, only spiced up with frequent hardcore sex sequences. This is another similarity to the previous book, and another indication that Greenfield likely wrote it thinking Dell would publish it.

At any rate we are introduced to returning hero Bart Sherriff (misspelled “Bat Sherriff” on the very first line of the book, reminding us from the get-go that this is Manor and not Dell) while he’s enthusiastically – and explicitly – banging his assistant, a redheaded beauty named Pam. Bart we’ll recall is a “trouble shooter for the big ad agencies on Madison Avenue” and charges thousands of dollars for his freelance advertiser services. He lives in a swank suite high atop Manhattan, often entertaining eager young women on his round bed with musical accompaniment courtesy an 8-track tape system; no mention is made, this time, of the lights that accompany the music. Last time Bart got involved with a conspiracy that had him rubbing shoulders with government agents and foreign spies, and the same holds true here, but this time Greenfield doesn’t even bother with the “freelance advertiser” setup.

Bart and Pam are interrupted mid-boink by a call on Bart’s “red line,” which is what the emergency calls from panicked clients comes in on. Pam doesn’t want him to answer, but Bart argues that his professional pride demands he do. Greenfield indulges in these sub-Len Levinson dialog exchanges throughout, with Bart engaging in pseudo-“deep” conversations with characters, but whereas such material is humorous in Len’s work, here it comes off more like teeth-pulling. Bart answers the phone to find it’s Fred Warren on the other line, president of North American Labrotories. Bart met him the other week at a party in Manhattan, where a drunk Bart was asked who was the greatest writer in history was and responded, to the amazement of all, “Julius Caesar.”

Choppering Bart out to the corp HQ, Warren explains that this is the very reason they want to hire Bart. You see, and brace yourself in for the stupidity, the lab once employed a man named Dr. Douglas who also said that Julius Caesar was the greatest writer in history! This, these “scientists” believe, is too much of a coincidence. A confused and progressively annoyed Bart claims that a “hobo” told him the Julius Caesar thing fifteen years before, and for no reason at all Bart repeated it at the party. By showing him some photos, Warren and his executive board prove that the hobo Bart met years ago might have been Dr. Douglas – Bart barely remembers what the hobo looked like, but he admits he remembers him as looking somewhat similar to the photos of Dr. Douglas.

It gets goofier: Dr. Douglas turns out to be dead, and the man who was working here at the lab was an imposter. One who stole some secret involving genetic engineering. Since Bart made this harmless statement about Julius Caesar being the greatest writer at the party, Fred Warren has decided to hire him to track down the missing man who was posing as Dr. Douglas and find out what happened to the secrets he stole. It’s all so incredibly preposterous, especially given that it has nothing to do with advertising, which is Bart’s forte. However, he’s somewhat famous now due to the “U-Hoo Conspiracy” (which is mentioned so many times I pity the poor readers who had no idea there was a previous book in this “series”), so Warren figures Bart will have no problem turning into a temporary gumshoe.

On this shaky ground the novel stands. The jumbled plot is however just an excuse to whisk Bart around the country so he can boff a series of hot, willing women. First among them is Dr. Paula Kay, who was friendly with “Dr. Douglas.” She claims there was something unusual about the man, particularly how he’d speak of historical events in almost casual terms. After this it’s down to the business of screwing, with Paula feigning drunkeness so Bart can escort her back up to her hotel room. As ever Greenfield spares no detail in his sex material, with the usual focus on oral activities, particularly Bart’s going down on the various women. This is a recurring theme in Greenfield’s work, by the way; there’s always more focus on the protagonist licking out the women, as well as “diddling her bunghole” in addition to dining at the Y.

But man, the book still sucks even if words like “bunghole” appear in it. And there’s so much padding. Like an entire chapter given over to Bart razzing his hot and built secretary, Wendy, that God just called him on the phone. This is in regards to a mysterious, deep voice on the other line that instructs Bart to “forget about Dr. Douglas.” The chapter ends with Bart making a lame joke to Wendy that he just spoke to God, and preposterously enough the entire next chapter is given over to Wendy asking if this is true – including “shocking” stuff like Wendy arguing that “when God comes” and Bart interrupting her and saying he’d never talk about God “coming,” when of course all Wendy meant was “coming” in the sense of appearing, a la like a burning bush and the like. Just low-brow bullshit like this that even a glue-sniffing punk in detention would think was immature, and it goes on for pages.

Warren sends Bart to Kentucky, where he’s to research the company the real Dr. Douglas worked in – where he was working when he was killed in a car wreck two years ago. But on the way Bart’s drugged by the hot stewardess, coming to in a hotel room and disovering the “stew” is really a Russian spy named Natasha, here with a couple male Russian spies. They’re all still simmering over the U-Hoo thing, and are also ticked off because they too were duped by a deep, mysterious voice on the phone – one that warned them that Dr. Douglas would be flying to Kentucky under the name “Bart Sherriff.” Realizing they’ve been duped and that Bart doesn’t know anything, they drug him and leave him in the hotel room, to be found by the local cops, who eventually let Bart go.

Here Bart learns that someone named Sanders stole Dr. Douglas’s identity, and after trading some dialog with a memorable cab driver – another similiarity to Len Levinson’s work – Bart catches a flight to New Orleans, where he talks some more with Jo Ann, hot-to-trot widow of Sanders. Surprisingly this does not lead to a sex scene. Instead, Greenfield’s moved more into a Keystone Cops sort of thing, with Bart constantly bumping into the Feds. Admitedly this does lead to a somewhat funny part where Bart, in a cheap wig and disguise, finds himself sitting across from the Fed he just lost, and the two men pretend to be underwear salesmen. As I recall, this “fooling around with idiotic government agents” seemed to have taken precedence in Making U-Hoo as well, which does lend the novel a ‘70s vibe.

Another thing I recall from that earlier novel is that the swinging ‘70s sex gradually faded away, in place of the “mystery” subplot. Same holds true here, with Bart’s hardcore moment with Dr. Paula halfway through the novel being the last such moment – though he also apparently has sex with stewardess Natasha on the plane, but the scene is played more for (unfunny) comedy, so it’s not explicit at all. Indeed, it’s so non-explicit that I didn’t even realize they’d had sex until the end of the novel, where the act is mentioned. But anyway Bart’s soon ducking and dodging various Feds, even using a buddy of his, a famous mystery writer, to get him out of a scrape late in the book. There’s no real action, though, and no violence at all – again, it’s all just a broad comedy centered around a lame mystery. But my friends believe it or not, the title of the friggin’ novel blows the entire mystery!

The last quarter has Bart in London, where Sanders was recently seen – and to again prove how stupid the novel is, Bart’s author buddy, Reese, just happens to have run into some dude at the airport, a dude who was on his way to London and who said in passing that Julius Caesar was the greatest ever writer. So Bart gives chase, but instead of getting to this mysterious figure, Greenfield instead pads the pages with Bart running around London with an overly-British private investigator. And then, on the final few pages, Sanders is revealed – and folks, spoiler alert, but who the hell cares, right? Because I really don’t think any of you will ever want to read the book. But get this – Sanders, aka Dr. Douglas, is in fact…Julius Caesar himself, who is alive and well!

There’s absolutely no explanation of this, no piecing together of the lame puzzle Greenfield has developed throughout the dumb-assed narrative. I mean really, Julius Caesar appears on like the last four pages of the book, and it’s all dialog. We get some shit about him being into genetic work and cloning, and he apparently stole the material Dr. Douglas was working on to prevent mankind from attaining the secret of cloning. Oh, and Dr. Paula and Natasha and Fred Warren were all part of the plot – Bart was hired, due to his activities in the U-Hoo Conspiracy, so as to make an easy target for the various Feds and Commie agents (of whom Natasha is a “friendly member,” JC reveals, in another go-nowhere moment casually relayed in the last pages). The goal was for Bart to distract the various spies so that JC could slip out of the country undetected.

And on this lame note, the entire group drinking a toast and Bart feeling confused, the stupid novel comes to a close. Having endured the 234 pages of banality, I can only suspect that some intelligent editor at Dell Books did indeed reject Greenfield’s manuscript, and Greenfield later managed to sell it to Manor. This is one of those books were I wonder what the author’s goal was. I mean, Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well isn’t funny, so it’s a failure as a comedy. And the “mystery” is treated so ridiculously (intentionally so) that it can’t be viewed as a suspense novel. The sleaze is rampant, initially at least, but soon disappears. So what are we left with? Probing character portraits? Soul-plumbing narrative and introspection? There’s none of that, either. In fact it seems as if the entire book serves as a payoff of the title itself, but unfortunately Greenfield does little to even bring to life – let alone exploit – his vaguely sci-fi concept.

Greenfield was very prolific, so they can’t all be winners. Admittedly though, I’m still waiting to read a Greenfield winner, but I’m sure there’s one out there. Finally, a sad note on Greenfield: I just learned, here, that he passed away on April 1st of this year, at the age of 91. According to this lengthy piece, he turned to producing independent plays, including one that was based on his experiences writing Depth Force.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Interesting. I'd heard of his DEPTH FORCE books, thanks to you, but I never heard of that one.

Cullen Gallagher said...

I just got a couple of his westerns, but haven't read them yet. Apparently he taught at Brooklyn College and just passed away earlier this year. Seems like an interesting writer.