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 Books, The 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.