Thursday, December 2, 2010
Cindy On Fire
Cindy On Fire, by Burt Hirschfeld
April, 1971 Avon Books
As mentioned in my review of Fire Island, Cindy on Fire was my introduction to Burt Hirschfeld. I discovered the novel in the time-honored tradition: browsing the mass market paperback shelves at a local used books emporium. The title caught my eye, and I checked out the cover and its groovy illustration of partying people. But it was the back-cover copy that really drew me in:
Welcome to Cindy's world -- the decadent playground of society studs and jet-set perverts, of dirty old men out for naked young bodies and freaking hippies into acid-rock scenes. Follow her search for fulfillment -- out of her middle-class upbringing into the sordid glamour of international film making and on to a non-stop merry-go-round of exotic lovers. It's a trip too hot to forget!
By the time I got to "freaking hippies" I was already on my way to the register. The book seemed to offer all I demand in trash fiction: sex, drugs, rock, gorgeous gals. Globetrotting jet-setters living at the peak of mod fashion. But I soon discovered that Cindy On Fire was a psuedo-sequel to Fire Island, so I tracked that novel down and read it first. Really though, Cindy On Fire isn't much of a sequel and could be read completely separate from Fire Island. Though if features a few of the same characters, they don't impact the narrative at all; Cindy herself is the main character throughout, and she herself only received a few passing mentions in Fire Island. For whereas the former novel was a Harold Robbins-esque study of a large cast of characters and how they interracted with one another over the years, Cindy On Fire is a picaresque, following our bland heroine from one sexual misadventure to another.
But it's not as trashy as that back-cover blurb implies. Instead it appears that Hirschfeld here was attempting a sort of "commentary on the late 1960s" thing, and so the novel comes off like Candy meets Forrest Gump, with our heroine inadvertently encountering all of the countercultural milestones of the era while being chased by countless horny men.
Cindy Ashe is an 18 year-old knockout living in the New York City of 1968. The novel occurs at the same time as the final half of Fire Island: Cindy learns that her huckster father Roy has been arrested for murder. Cindy meanwhile is busy turning tricks for her heroin-addicted closet gay boyfriend BB (a great reverse image of Fire Island, where Cindy and BB appeared to us as wholesome teens). But after hearing of Robert Kennedy's death, Cindy freaks out and realizes she's wasting her life. She runs away from BB and his sordid life and vows to never prositute herself again. She finds herself in the artistic caul of downtown NYC, hanging out with artists and revolutionairies. Her closest friend here is Rafe, a strikingly handsome gay dude who serves throughout the novel as Cindy's surrogate brother/asexual lover.
After a brief lesbian fling with a female artist, Cindy hooks up with a young radical and goes with him and his pals to the Chicago Democratic convention. Anyone who knows their US history can suspect what's in store for her: after endless pages of hippie prattle, Cindy finds herself chased through the streets of Chicago by rabid cops who smash in hippie skulls with glee. Traumatized yet again by these events (Cindy is traumatized at least a dozen times in the novel), Cindy goes back to her home in New York where she convinces her mother to send her off to Europe.
Here the novel becomes a true picaresque. Over the course of a few hundred pages, Cindy goes from party-hopping with a pair of mod "birds" in London, where she falls in love with a deathly ill scion, to living in Paris with a French revolutionary who involves Cindy in the kidnapping of a former Nazi, to assisting Rafe (who pops in and out of the narrative with a complete disregard for deus ex machina) as an assistant photographer for a magazine pictorial on a big-budget Hollywood movie filming in Spain, where Cindy finds herself the sexual goal of the two male stars.
Yes, all of this really happens. It's like five books in one, and the depressing thing is that none of the segments have anything to do with each other. When Cindy finally returns to New York City around page 400 of this 515-page book, I realized with dismay that you could cut out the entire 300-page trip to Europe and it wouldn't make a difference. Cindy is unchanged by the events she endured, still as dumb and bland and naive as ever.
So, as usual, I have a theory. Before striking it big with Fire Island, Hirschfeld published a handful of novels under the name "Hugh Barron." These were moreso trash fiction than Fire Island, usually involving Hollywood harlots or depraved businessmen looking for new kicks. My suspicion is that the entire "Europe section" of Cindy On Fire is composed of material Hirschfeld planned to use for his Hugh Barron novels. I mean, what's more "trash fiction" than a group of French radicals kidnapping a former Nazi? But upon realizing that he could have a nice career publishing less trashy stuff under his own name, he just shoehorned this material into a quick and dirty sequel to Fire Island.
The problem is, the novel wants to be trashy but refuses to go all the way. Cindy is a bland and stupid character, never learning from her mistakes and living in a world of eternal naivete. She comes off like the protagonist of an R-rated Romance comic. And despite the cover blurb that Cindy is "a passionate young girl making all the scenes," Cindy throughout the novel is only searching for "true love;" she isn't some jet-setting nympho looking for the latest wild scene. Indeed, she runs from a few orgies in the novel -- and I'm not kidding, she actually runs from them. She goes to acid-drenched parties, strip clubs, meets all sorts of people who actually enjoy the ribald world in which they live, but Cindy herself pines and mopes her way through the novel, eternally picking one wrong guy after the next.
And the male characters on display are even worse, as impossible as that may sound. Each guy Cindy meets is a motormouthed asshole, going on and on about how great they are, how terrible the world is, and how they're going to change it. The French radicals are the worst. I can't tell you how numbing it is to read a hundred or so pages of one French revolutionary after another delivering endless banal speeches -- and they all sound the same! You could say this was Hirschfeld's commentary on the drone-like minds of the '60s radical set, but seriously, I could've picked up on the satire in about 10 pages or so. Every one of these guys is loathsome and despicable; at the top of the list would have to be Henri, the radical film-maker who blathers about "true art" for countless pages. It all drove me to drink.
The Hollywood film section in Spain is mildly better, but again it has nothing to do with the preceeding adventures. Adding further fuel to my theory is that Alain, the French radical who brought Cindy along on the Nazi-kidnapping scheme, here transforms into a fame-obsessed wanna-be actor, with no further mention of the revolutionary fervor which so consumed him in previous pages. It's as if Hirschfeld has made two separate characters into one. But the promise of an old-fashioned '60s/'70s Hollywood-sex trash fiction epic is denied as Cindy again buzzkills it for us; she falls of course for the meanest guy in the pack, a black American footballer who spends countless pages going on about being black in America. The novel, really, is just one speech after another, and it wears down your soul. But all of the speeches are so tiresomely dated. It's like the novel should've been published with an expiration date.
But then something magical happens. Around page 400 Cindy returns to New York and, after a few boring chapters of Cindy again resorting to a depression of pills and booze, traipsing from one 42nd Street grindhouse to another, it's as if Hirschfeld suddenly remembers who he is. For here he gives us some pure trash -- and if my theory is true then this section for sure was once a "Hugh Barron" novel-to-be. Cindy meets Adam Gilbert, a successful rock producer who throws orgies in his mansion and flies from one "recording crisis" to another. Cindy of course falls madly in love with the guy, but again here's another man who treats her like shit. Gilbert refuses to sleep with Cindy, and after she throws herself at him, begging, he orders her to pleasure him orally. For it turns out that this is all he wants her for, to make Cindy his "private sucking machine." And she goes for it, a willing slave, waiting for his command to drop to her knees at any time or place to blow him. Now that's trash fiction!!
It gets even trashier, too, and in a grand way: after ignoring Cindy for weeks, sleeping with various singers and movie queens, Gilbert finally has enough of Cindy's implorements for sex. "You want to get laid," he tells her. "Well, that's what you're going to get." After drugging her with some spiked booze, Gilbert plants Cindy in a sideroom and sends in four men who each have their way with her, one after another.
Cindy awakens to find herself in Bellevue, where she's been committed as a mental patient. After some banal parlaying with her shrink, she's discharged and lives again with her mother and stepfather. Bored with her meaningless existence, Cindy again plummets into a booze-and-pills depression, eventually becoming a world-class Easy Lay, sleeping with a succession of men. After a bizarre sequence where a guy on the street masturbates on her, Cindy breaks down yet again -- only a few pages after her previous breakdown! But this one finally has an effect on our girl's limited brainspan. And so, in the final pages of this endless novel, Cindy smartens up. She realizes she never has left the prostitution game, after all.
Throughout the novel Cindy has been courted by David Altman, a geeky guy her age who aspires to be a society-improving lawyer. Again, the bad Romance comic similarities -- Hirschfeld tries to "shock" us with this, as Cindy berates Altman when she first meets him in the opening pages, scoffing his advances, never responding to the letters he sends her during her European quest. But we all know where it's going. For, just like in those maudlin old comics like Teen Romance or Our Love Story, wholesome values prevail, and Cindy finds TRUE LOVE once and for all, in the last place she'd expect (the last place she would expect, that is...the girl's an idiot, you see).
Hirschfeld tied up this loose trilogy the following year with Fire In The Embers; this one featured Mike Birns, Hirschfeld's ostensible stand-in, and one of the main characters in Fire Island. Like Hirschfeld himself, Birns is a trash fiction author looking to publish "real novels" under his own name. I have Fire In The Embers but I've never finished it; rather than focusing on Birns's writing life it's about his gambling addiction. What's more boring to read about than gambling? And, like Cindy On Fire, it's too long for it's own good, coming it at nearly 600 pages. Several years later, in 1984, Hirschfeld capped the series with Return To Fire Island, another one I have but haven't read -- it appears to be about Cindy's old boyfriend BB.
Despite my qualms with Cindy On Fire, I still recommend Burt Hirschfeld's work -- there's something about his writing I find very appealing. He has a way to pull you into his narrative, to make his characters seem real. He's a definite craftsman and it's a shame he's been forgotten. But he left behind a huge body of work, one that's ripe for rediscovery.