Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Dynamite Freaks

The Dynamite Freaks, by Donald Ryan
No month stated, 1972

This is another of the short-lived “Now Books For Today’s Readers” series, book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel’s vain attempt at catering to the counterculture market of the day. Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms credits William Crawford for this book, but I’m thinking Pat Hawk got bad info (maybe it was a sting operation!). While another of the Now BooksThe Cop-Killers, was clearly written by Crawford, this one doesn’t bear his trace at all. If I had to guess from Engel’s “stable” at the time, I’d suspect George Snyder or Jon Messmann, but even then I’m not sure. Perhaps Hawks was just under the assumption Crawford wrote all four of the Now Books

But all those Crawford staples we know and love – grizzled cop protagonist, arbitrary backstories, characters shitting themselves – are missing in The Dynamite Freaks. Crawford as we know was a cop himself, and also of a different generation than the protagonists of this book; whoever wrote it was clearly a little more familiar with the “Youth Movement” of the day, which is why I lean toward Snyder – he was, after all, the guy Engel was paying at the time to write another counterculture cash-in, Operation Hang Ten. But again Snyder’s typically surly narrative tone isn’t glaringly evident here. What is evident is an almost pseudo-Burt Hirschfeld narrative style, a la Jon Messmann. All of which is to say I don’t really know, other than that William Crawford didn’t write it. 

Well anyway, just a few short years ago a book like The Dynamite Freaks, with its plot about left-wing hippie terrorists and their riots and bombings, would’ve seemed dated. But given how our recent “summer of love” inexplicably turned violent, the book now seems quite timely. It’s also another sad reminder of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as most of Antifa (and even a lot of BLM) seems to be composed of suburban white kids from wealthy families, kids who have no personal stake in the plight of the downtrodden people they claim to be “protesting” for, so too are the hippie terrorists of The Dynamite Freaks. I saw at least three videos on social media this past summer of black people yelling at all the white Antifa and “BLM” protesters who claimed to be there to “represent them,” telling them they weren’t even from the area and didn’t know shit. This sort of thing is prefigured in the novel as well – there’s a part where a Martin Luther King-type civil rights leader basically tells the white hippie terrorists to get the hell out. 

I’m very interested in this project of Engel’s; it seems he was trying to tap in on topical youth issues of the day, yet the books aren’t packaged that way…it seems more like The Now Books For Today’s Readers were intended for older readers who wondered what the hell was going on with those crazy kids. Both this and The Cop-Killers have a very conservative tone; even though The Dynamite Freaks focuses on younger characters more than Crawford’s book did, the youth still come off like violence-prone savages who lash out against an establishment they don’t understand, let alone appreciate. What I mean to say is, judging from the two novels in this “series” I’ve read, these books are nowhere in the league of true “movement” books like Trashing; they’ve clearly been written with an older or at least more conservative audience in mind – any hippie head who picked up The Dynamite Freaks would no doubt consider the whole thing reactionary. 

Our main protagonist is a case in point: young Carol Warring, 19 and beautiful, about to graduate as the valedictorian of her college. She’s innocent, naïve, and a virgin to boot – clearly not the type of protagonist you’d expect in a novel titled The Dynamite Freaks. But we know the direction she’s headed, as the novel opens with a creepy chapter in which a girl runs screaming from a downtown tenement building that’s just exploded; the firemen arrive on the scene and exclaim stuff like “Look at them boobs!” as they gawk at the “full young breasts” of the naked female corpses strewn about. (The clothing, incidentally, was apparently blown off by the dynamite which destroyed the building.) Curiously Ryan will not return to this opening chapter, so that we readers must infer who is who among the victims – and the mystery of who the girl was who ran away isn’t played out at all like I suspected it might be. 

From there we jump back just a few weeks and meet Carol as she’s about to drop a big surprise on the audience at the graduation ceremony: not only is Carol wearing a bikini beneath her gown, but she’s also planted an explosive on a famous statue on campus grounds. All this occurs in Minnesota, in a subburb of Minneapolis, a “straight” town that Carol now rails against. Predictably she comes from wealth; her dad is a successful businessman, one who is just as successful with the ladies…and Carol herself has a thing for him (a twisted subtext that Ryan admirably doesn’t dwell on too much). But this past summer, we learn, Carol spent some time in Europe, where she met expat American Kurt Hoeffer, a long-haired hippie her age who radicalized Carol into the various socialist movements of the day. Carol is now prepared to use the knowledge she’s gained as part of her degree in Chemistry to strike various blows for democracy and the downtrodden peoples and etc. 

Carol with her innocence is our guide into the violent world of the hairy freaks; the novel in this regard is a Morality Tale in that Carol will gradually change from a peace-loving virgin to a bomb-planting radical given to gang-bangery, not to mention the occasional injection of heroin. But it should be mentioned that all this is done to her against her will! No, Carol doesn’t want “anyone to get hurt” by her bombs, and also she’s peer-pressured into the gang-bang scene, veritably forced by Kurt to lie there while a whole bunch of hairy freak hippie guys form a line to have their way with her, one at a time. As for the heroin, that’s just introduced to let Carol “calm down” after it turns out one of her bombs actually, you know, kill someone. So as you can see, Carol isn’t only incredibly naïve, she’s also incredibly dumb at times, and there were many parts in the book where I was laughing when I shouldn’t have been. 

Kurt Hoeffer is the character who makes me wonder if George Snyder wrote this; he’s an arrogant, loud-mouthed jerk, and seems to have walked out of one of the Operation Hang Ten books. After Carol blows up the statue she rushes from the graduation ceremony and into Kurt’s waiting VW bus, which we’re informed is brightly colored and decorated with the expected leftist signs – “Legalize abortion now,” and etc. Later Kurt will hand Carol a joint and then force his hairy body onto hers, ultimately taking her virginity; a masterfully-relayed scene in which Carol can’t get over how Kurt is nothing like the men she’s often fantasized about, clean-cut men who smell of cologne and aftershave…men like her father. Ryan leaves this sex scene (and all others) off-page; there’s even a conservative tone to the narrative, with “breasts” only occasionally mentioned (a male readership was clearly in mind) and curse words only infrequently appearing. Again, it’s nothing like Trashing, a book that was written by someone involved with the whole “resist!” movement. 

Carol really is dumb, and it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her. We’re often reminded that she got into this whole thing due to her desire to help the “poor black kids” of the cities, the “subjugated American Indians,” and also of course “the Mexicans.” (?!) Yet at the same time we’re to believe she morphs into the figurehead of the “Bombers of America” movement, the new SDS-type hippie terrorist faction she starts with Kurt. Carol is desperate to belong, you see, to have a family – and she believes she’s found one with Kurt’s inner circle. This itself is comical, as one of these people is a “big-breasted” girl named Vicki, who constantly mocks Carol and calls her “Rich Bitch,” taunting her that she doesn’t belong, that she isn’t a true revolutionary, etc. Carol also soon gets a glimpse of how little these people care about each other, stupidly wondering if she herself would so easily be forgotten were she to get arrested or die for the cause. 

We get more of an understanding of who the novel is intended for via the introduction of Bob Arnett (we’ll just assume he’s Will’s father), a ‘Nam vet in his early 20s who attended college with Carol and likes her, but wanted to wait until he’d graduated and gotten a job and such before he asked her out(!?). He approaches Carol’s distraught parents and offers to find Carol for them, given that she’s run away with a bunch of hippie creeps and all – a plot that mirrors an actual Burt Hirschfeld novel, Father Pig. Arnett then is the true hero of the tale, a short-haired conservative type who is there to serve as the intermediary for the (presumably) older readership; he may be of the hippie generation, but he’s not part of it. Actually there’s a minor part with Arnett that makes me think “Donald Ryan” might’ve been an older writer, after all; Carol later accuses Arnett that he “never made love” to her, and this same phrase is used by Arnett himself earlier in the book when he wonders why he didn’t immediately “make love to Carol” when he first met her. While this phrase initially seemed jolting, I recalled that in earlier years “make love” had the same connotation as “romance.” I’ve heard this phrase in movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s and you can sure bet they didn’t mean “have sex” in them! Joseph Breen and his censors would’ve cut that out in a hot second. So in other words, earlier in the 20th Century Carol’s “you never made love to me, not even once” line to Arnett would’ve meant that Arnett never asked her out or otherwise tried to romance her or whatnot. But I think for a young person writing in 1972, “make love” would have the same meaning as it would today – hardcore shenanigans of the adult variety. So, to end an overlong paragraph, this could be more indication that Ryan was indeed of an earlier generation. 

Anyway, Arnett proves to be incompetent. We learn late in the novel that not only is he a ‘Nam vet, he was also a Green Beret. This sets the expectation for some Rambo-esque violence, Arnett wading into hippie territory and bashing hairy heads, but all the dude does is ignorantly walk around and get himself knocked out. In fact there’s no real action in the book, other than the bombs Carol plants, and as mentioned she always ensures no one gets hurt by phoning in bomb threats to the target locations. This doesn’t work out very well in a gripping sequence in which Carol plants a bomb at an Army recruiting office in Chicago but is unable to get anyone on the line until seconds before the blast. A young officer is caught in the explosion; Carol sees his body flying like a ragdoll and is haunted by the image. Later she’ll be informed the kid’s dead, and this will as mentioned lead her into the beginnings of heroin addiction. 

But Carol’s route to bomb-planter is a gradual one; her first big moment is at a march in Minneapolis, Kurt and comrades protesting an urban development that threatens the tenement buildings occupied by lower-income blacks. Reverend Mills, the MLK-type mentioned above, resents the presence of Kurt and all the other hippies, given the bad press they bring – remember, this is back in the days when actual “peaceful protests” were attacked by the media…those sadly-gone days in which you would never see a so-called reporter standing in front of a burning building and claiming he was in the middle of a “fiery but mostly peaceful protest.” Back then the media was the Establishment…actually today the media is still the Establishment, it’s just of a different political orientation. Reverend Mills also resents that Kurt and his fellow hippies don’t really give a damn about the blacks in those buildings, and are just using the protests as an excuse to wreak havoc and cause trouble. No doubt more indication of the reactionary tone of the novel, but no doubt pretty much true as well. 

At this Minneapolis march Carol realizes that protests don’t cause anything to happen, so she takes matters into her hands and blows up one of the buildings that have been put up in the cleared area. This makes her a hero of the movement, not that Vicki still doesn’t taunt her as “Rich Bitch.” From there things progress to the Bombers of America initiative, with Carol designing bombs and Kurt’s people planting them in various locations. Locations which, Carol eventually learns, are being supplied by an infamous conservative politician who is running on a Law and Order campaign. He not only gives Kurt the locations, but money as well, and Carol can’t understand why they’re taking money from the enemy. Kurt, who becomes increasingly deranged and “evil” as the short novel races for its conclusion, claims that “cash has no politics” and that he’s taken money from conservatives to liberals, all of it used to blow up stuff – and also, he happily reveals, he doesn’t even give a shit about the various causes he’s rioting for, it just makes for good publicity. Especially if a child’s killed in one of the blasts, as one is in a nail bomb Kurt places in a bank lobby. 

This is the final straw for Carol…I mean the forced gang-bang and heroin addiction were one thing, but this is another! She once again decides to take matters into her own hands, which leads us to the events that started the book. Meanwhile Carol’s 15 year-old sister, Anne, has also caught the revolutionary bug, planting a bomb at her high school. (Mr. Warring puts his head in his hands and wonders where he went wrong with his two daughters…!) She then runs away from home, finds Bob Arnett in Greenwich Village, and after coming on to him (he turns her down) demands that he take her to Carol, whom Arnett has finally found. The book ends with Anne announcing she’ll continue Carol’s bomb-making work, asking Arnett to join her…a ridiculous finale that has no setup, as it makes no sense. Arnett of course turns her down and walks off into the sunset, making for an anticlimactic ending to what is, at only 160 pages, a very rushed book. 

Overall The Dynamite Freaks is marginally entertaining, particularly in how it predicts the situation of today; it was very strange reading this book, given current events. Actually it was kind of depressing, because all this shit is coming back up again. I read the book last week and wrote the majority of the review then, but today as I am finishing it up and setting it to post on the blog, protesters from the right are storming the Capitol Building.  I have to say, I find it incredibly ironic that they’re being denounced as domestic terrorists by the very same pundits who defended the Antifa and BLM riots this past summer. (Of course these are the same pundits who spent the past four years telling us Russia interfered with the 2016 election, but now say there’s absolutely zero evidence of any fraud in the 2020 election...but such hypocrisy is expected in what currently passes for the United States.)  So I guess the main difference is that Donald Ryan was writing in a more rational, more sane world – the country wasn’t on the brink of another civil war due to irreconcilable ideological differences.


Matthew said...

The Destroyer also had quite a few radicals who were rich white kids who were angry at daddy. It was a running theme.

Have you read The Comedy is Finished by Donald Westlake. It is about SLA like group who kidnaps a Bob Hope style conservative comedian. It isn't as "trashy" as most of the books you have here, but it is quite good.

Gordon said...

I’m sorry Idint realize that it was BLam that tassaulted police officers,trashed the Capitol , invaded the legislative chambers with plans to do harm to the members. As for dynamite, police found a couple of pipe bombs.

Zwolf said...

Mostly good review, when you can stick to the book and restrain yourself from... the other stuff. Unfortunately, that's getting rarer and rarer these days, and I've been avoiding having to say anything, but, honestly, old friend to old friend and in the spirit of only-the-people-who-really-care-about-you-will-tell-you-when-your-face-is-dirty, I gotta tell ya: whatever jackass monetized YouTuber or culty televangelism-for-a-political-religion-masquerading-as-a-"news-outlet" you've been consuming WAAAAY-yonder too GDMF'n much-a ain't doing ya any favors. Like, none a'-freakin'-tall. Nobody's here for that, nobody needs it, but it's creeping into almost every review now. Lately I read 'em waiting to wince, and am relieved when I don't have to. I can always use more info on the books, and you're great at that, but I'm good on the other stuff, thanks anyway. If ya can't deprogram for your own sake, then at least get better at tongue-biting for ours. Love ya, dude, but... jeez, make it easier, eh?

Here. Watch this and let me know if I'm being too subtle, because I do un-subtle REALLY fuckin' well lately. Which is why I try to avoid it.

gesuyarou said...

I remember a few years back you got a bit too personal politically, causing some rather unwanted conversation in the comments for whatever book was being reviewed. You acknowledged that and said you'd refrain from doing that again in the future. Probably best to keep it that way. This was pretty rough. This is such a fun blog--please keep it that way!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments everyone, and apologies that I ruffled some feathers, but keep in mind, the book under review is literally about left-wing domestic terrorists who are financed by a politician who uses them for his own political gain. And I read the book mere months after left-wing protests caused over a billion dollars in damage, as well as around around 25 deaths. And finally I was posting the review on the very day that right-wing protesters were storming DC…but the difference in how these separate “protests” was reported on was glaringly obvious, and I couldn’t help but mention it.

It’s like I’ve been telling my wife for the past twenty friggin’ years: I can’t change who I am. (Not that this has stopped her from trying.) I do try to tone down my stronger opinions – if you all thought this was bad, you should’ve seen the stuff I cut out of the original draft of the review – but I’m still going to write what I personally think at times. I do recall the fluff I caused a few years ago with a similar post, Gesuyarou, but I also recall saying at the time that what I write here is my opinion, and for better or worse that’s what you’re going to get. And also it should be clear at this point that we are well beyond “politics.” As I wrote in this review, today we are closer to a permanent ideological schism, one that promises to blow up at any moment…another thing I couldn’t help but mention in the review.

However my opinion isn’t only directed in one “political” orientation. You all out there are the only people who could appreciate this, so I’d like to share. A couple years ago I reviewed Stand Your Ground, a fairly recent action thriller by the mysterious J.A. Johnstone (who might’ve been Bill Crider, but I’m probably wrong). Something from that book has been running through my head this past week. I seem to recall a minor subplot in it that a former President had refused to leave office and ended up using a poison gas or somesuch in the Oval Office. If I had been reviewing that book last week, you can be damn sure I’d be making a big deal out of the synchronicity.

Anyway, as I mentioned in a response to a commenter on a previous review, I can see which way the wind is blowing and will be taking my regular dose of soma, so I will be toning down any “dissenting” opinions. In fact, with the way things are going, I bet pretty soon you won’t be seeing any dissenting opinions anywhere! But in the meantime, a word of warning: You all might want to gird your loins, as this week I’ll be reviewing another counterculture book from the ‘70s, one that also has parallels to today. I more than likely will be mentioning these parallels, but in a less abrassive way.

Zwolf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zwolf said...

*(deleted the previous comment because I saw a typo in it I just couldn't live with - here's the corrected form)

I don't mind dissenting opinions (obviously, since I'm still here! :) ), I just get a little worn out with 'em in book reviews if they show up too often. But I'm not trying to tell you what to do with your own blog... I'm just trying to help, believe it or not, 'cuz it's not only me who's gotten a little worn down by this.

Anyhow, I'll consider this a freebie chip in case I ever put up a certain really really long William W. Johnstone Ashes review I wrote but held back on posting 'cuz it is, due to the nature of the book, very political. It's one of the most vicious, hateful things I've ever written... and also the funniest, in a really probably-get-me-sued-by-Johnstone's-surviving-relatives kinda way (provided the moronic pieces of shit haven't yet died from fireworks-related injuries or eating pieces of glass when they saw a pie through a window). But it's not hateful only because of politics -- it's mostly because Johnstone was such an absolute shit writer and lousy human being in general.

As far as ideological schisms, though, just remember, there really relatively small radicalized factions on both sides who happen to make most of the noise and have a warped perspective about how much they matter to the world... as well as what that world's really like. To those of us who follow those fights and partake a lot of alarmist rhetoric on our respective sides -- as you very obviously do, and I'll admit I do my share, too, and we're both poisoning ourselves with that shit if we can face the real truth about it -- it seems a whole lot bigger than it is. But at least 85% of the public really couldn't give a damn. Whoever starts a "civil war" is gonna get squashed quickly by all the people who just wanna be left alone. Outside our little bubble things aren't nearly as hot as they seem... and your side and my side both look like idiots for getting so het-up and they're not gonna wanna side with either of us. :)

Tom said...

Oh, the Ashes series...some of the worst writing it has ever been my misfortune to read.

And the thing, Johnson's Westerns aren't half bad. Pulpy, sure, but you don't put them down convinced that the ink and paper used for them would have been better spent on the Fifty Shades series or a politician's bribe masquerading as a book.

Zwolf said...

I haven't read any of Johnstone's westerns yet. I have heard that he tends to use massive chunks in previous books in the new ones, though, which he really overused in the Westerns. He apparently did that in the Ashes books, also -- the one I read is the second one, but poking around online it's rumored that at least a third of that book is cut-and-pasted from the previous book. Not only was Johnstone a bad writer, he was LAZY! :) But he might be better at westerns because then at least he'd have to leave current (or current-for-1985 or whenever he was writing 'em) politics out of it. I can see how they might at least have some potential.

I also haven't read any of the newer stuff from "his grandson" (or son... I forget what the whole backstory is on that because it's b.s. anyway -- it's a staff-writer-or-writers). Those are supposedly not as incompetent. Hell, they couldn't be! :) I did pick up Black Friday at the Dollar Tree (on Black Friday, oddly enough) so I do have one of the post-mortem-J.A. Johnstone books I can check out at some point, when I'm in a tolerant-for-stupid mood.

I've read a couple of his horror novels and those were awful, but at least funnier than the Ashes book. I got a Night Mask review removed from Amazon 'cuz I was too vicious and made his family cry, apparently. As I recall, that book was nothing but nonstop racism, queer-bashing, and redline levels of woman-hating, with occasional moments where Johnstone remembered that he was supposed to be telling a story... which he'd quickly dispense with so he could get back to his opining about how everybody-who-ain't-him was ruinin' the country. It was woeful bully-playing-victim stuff, but so over the top it could at least be laughed at. And then there's The Nursery, which I know is a favorite on this blog. I didn't like it quite as much as Joe did, but it was good for a laugh, at least. Definitely had a body count, if nothing else! The Ashes book was just a boring trudge. It was weird that it was supposed to even be an "action" novel. Nothing much really happens other than Johnstone worshiping himself by proxy, total Mary Sue job. For a dude who didn't get past the 8th grade, he sure thought he was smart. Lord, was he wrong... :)