Friday, February 25, 2011

The Goddess Game

The Goddess Game, by Hugh Barron
November, 1969 Pyramid Books

Between 1967 and 1971 Burt Hirschfeld published a handful of novels under the psuedonym Hugh Barron (with a final novel, Special People, published in the UK only in 1978). Each of the Hugh Barron books were "in the tradition of"-type novels, the "tradition" in question usually being "Harold Robbins."

Hirschfeld's 1969 novel The Goddess Game however is "in the tradition of" Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls -- so much so that Pyramid Books even references Susann's novel on the cover. (Incidentally, the cover of the Pyramid edition of The Goddess Game, shown here, is by far my favorite of all the Burt Hirschfeld/Hugh Barron novels: taken by photographer Lester Krauss, the shots are almost like stills from an imaginary film based on the novel, one redolent with the groovy, swingadelic vibe of the time -- and The Goddess Game would've made for one helluva groovy, swingadelic movie.)

The novel opens in 1969 or thereabouts; Mandy Brooke, rabble-rousing movie star and all-around queen bitch, goes missing on the night of the Oscars. Mandy is beloved by the heartland of America; she is so known for heartwarming roles that the public thinks of Mandy herself as a golden-hearted samaritan. In reality however Mandy's into all sorts of sordid shenanigans, and this is just her latest escapade: despite the round-the-clock watch the studio placed on her on this most important of days (Mandy's up for an Oscar), she still manages to escape and disappear. Tod Little, head of the studio's PR department, is tasked by studio chief HH to track Mandy down. Tod's only clue is a tidbit the watcher overheard as Mandy was on the phone, shortly before she disappeared: something about "after all these years, it sounds like fun!"

From there the novel takes up a sort of trash fiction Citizen Kane approach. Working under the assumption that Mandy is going to meet up with some old friends, Tod tracks down three of Mandy's former acquaintances: Ursula Lawrence, Holly Parker, and Trish Sanders. The majority of the narrative, then, is given over to flashbacks for each of them, occuring the decade before, when the four girls all shared a room in New York City and together sought fame in the acting world.

It's this flashback nature which hampers The Goddess Game. In short, the storylines for each of the four women are mostly the same. The material in 1969 however is true trash gold and makes one wish for more of it. For as the narrative progresses we learn that Mandy hasn't just escaped; she's been kidnapped, and the kidnappers already have a stash worth of photos of Mandy taking part in "unwholesome activities" with a bunch of men and women.

Only Mandy's flashback sequence comes close to equalling the 1969 portion: Mandy is a true trash fiction bitch, the "Neely O'Hara" of the novel. (The entire novel comes off like a "spot the Valley of the Dolls analogue" guessing game.) Like Neely, Mandy Brooke is a pill-popping man-eater, a malicious monster who schemes and manipulates and backstabs. Her flashback is the juiciest, as she sets up "friend" Holly so as to steal her part in a Broadway play: Mandy pays some bikers to rape the poor girl, and then, while it's happening, places an anonymous call to both the cops and the gossip rags that a "wild sex orgy" is taking place with a Broadway actress in attendance. From there Mandy becomes only more deliciously conniving: she makes a famous, elderly director fall so in love with her that he divorces his wife of decades; then she sleeps with a variety of men so as to become pregnant and fool the director into believing that it's his child, so he will marry her; then she gets an abortion while he's away. Finally she literally screws the poor bastard to death; now that she has the standing of his name, she doesn't need the man himself.

The flashbacks for the other three girls just can't compare to this. And to make it worse, there isn't much difference between Mandy Brooke and Ursula Lawrence. Like Mandy, Ursula is a scheming, backstabbing beauty, one who will do anything for fame. She isn't as cruel as Mandy, so therefore Ursula's backstory isn't as fun. Instead, it's rather boring: Ursula cons a gay theater director into making her a Broadway star.

Trish Sanders is the good girl of the lot, the "Anne Welles" of the novel. A smalltown girl who has come to the big city to hone her craft, Trish is the only one of the four who has any acting talent. She doesn't seek to become a "star" like the rest of them. So again, her flashback can't compare to Mandy's, but makes for a fine character study -- Trish is very much in the mold of the female characters in later Hirschfeld novels. Her particular fate is marrying a closeted gay actor, finding him in bed with another man, and then breaking down. Her fate is more rosy than the others: like Mandy, Trish also finds lasting fame in the acting business, becoming a well-respected actress. She's up for an Oscar in the 1969 portion as well, but like the other girls Tod Little speaks to, hasn't seen Mandy in the past ten years.

Finally there's Holly Parker, the blonde with the brick shithouse-bod and the intelligence of a pea. Her flashback comes last and it's a smart gambit from Hirschfeld; we read about Holly's "wild sex orgy" setup early in the novel but must wait until near the end to discover how it went down and its aftermath. She is of course The Goddess Game version of Jennifer North, a gorgeous gal with a big heart who, despite her good nature, runs afoul of supremely bad luck. After being torn apart in the newspapers due to her alleged orgy antics, Holly escapes back home to the simple life of a farm. Wanting to become smarter, she reads voraciously and eventually decides to go to college. (Only in the world of trash fiction can gang rape lead to heightened intelligence.) Holly falls in love with one of her teachers, a man twenty years older than she, and marries; she of all the girls is given the "happily ever after," content with her small world and family life.

The 1969 framing story culminates with Mandy freed from her kidnappers, who turn out to have been the same three bikers she hired a decade ago to rape Holly. But Mandy was a willing attendee of the orgy; she gloats to HH and Tod Little that "two other girls" were there and "there was nothing we didn't do, nothing." Sadly, Hirschfeld skips the promised action scene here; we're only told that Mike Toland (HH's security chief) and his men beat up the bikers, we don't see it happen. From there Mandy is taken, still nude and spaced-out on various drugs, to a doctor who injects her with Vitamin B, and then she's dressed and sent to the Oscars, where it's expected she will win Best Actress.

Hirschfeld's writing is mostly good, but I get the feeling The Goddess Game was churned out quickly. One can see why he eventually gave up the psuedonym game and started publishing better-crafted stories under his own name. In an amusing bit of page-filling Hirschfeld repeats snatches of text whole-hog throughout the novel; a few scenes recur during the four flashbacks, and Hirschfeld just re-uses text he's already written. He also POV-hops a lot in this novel, which always causes me to die just a little.

Here's the cover for the NEL edition, from 1969:

And a bonus cover -- in 1985 Dell Books reprinted the Hugh Barron novels under Hirschfeld's own name. I have to say, though: none of these cover models really fit my description of a "goddess!"

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Penetrator #2: Blood On The Strip

The Penetrator #2: Blood On The Strip, by Lionel Derrick
October, 1973 Pinnacle Books

The first Penetrator was a fun if passable tale firmly in the tradition of Don Pendleton: fast-moving with good crisp narrative and prose. This one is a lot more rough, downright inept at times, with lame dialog, poor characterization, and laughable "plot" developments. But at the same time, it's much more lurid than The Target Is H, coming off like The Sharpshooter, with gleefully-described gore and all sorts of perversion. The difference in style is easily explained: "Lionel Derrick" was a psuedonym for Mark Roberts and Chet Cunningham, the former author handling the odd-numbered volumes and the latter handling the even-numbered ones.

The Mafia-vendetta of volume #1 is quickly jettisoned. Instead, this volume appropriates a freeflowing angle: Mark "Penetrator" Hardin takes on a personal job this time out, vowing to destroy a sordid organization which has mutilated a female acquantance. After wiping out the California branch, Hardin traces the organization down to Las Vegas. What these people do is provide female talent for clubs and casinos; the girls are ordered to provide sex for the clientele, and if the girls refuse they are locked up in cages and "trained." If that doesn't work the girls are mutilated, their faces chopped up, to serve as examples to the others. A busty blonde named The Fraulein helms the operation, an ice-cold bitch who puts all her resources into locating this "California Man" who has destroyed her CA branch and who now appears to be wasting members of her Vegas headquarters.

The battles between Hardin and the Fraulein's men are pretty boring. Indeed, this novel comes close to the nadir of The Sharpshooter #9: Stiletto. It's all just so choppy and clumsy. And repetitive; Blood On The Strip quickly sets into a rut, with multiple variations on the scenario of Hardin staking out the Fraulein's buildings, setting bombs, calling her to gloat, and then killing a few of her men. The Fraulein has the makings of a good villain but in the hands of this version of Lionel Derrick she's more laughable than threatening. She comes off like a total idiot and only after suffering much loss does she smarten up and fight back. To wit, she captures the mutilated girl which set off Hardin's entire campaign, but even this development is quickly curtailed with another middling action scene.

An unintentionally (?) hilarious development occurs halfway through the novel with the appearance of Andrea, a pretty girl who, with her mother, has been hunting down Mark. Andrea's father was one of the Army officials sanctioned in the black market-fiasco Mark exposed in Vietnam (rendered in flashback in The Target Is H). After her father committed suicide in shame, Andrea's mother vowed to find and kill Mark Hardin, the man responsible. Taking her daughter along, she travelled about the country in search of him. And, so close to finding him, died herself in a random car crash. Now Andrea alone survives to gain vengeance for her family.

This would've made for a grand subplot, one that could've been spun out for a few volumes, but the above background is relayed in two pages of dense background immediately upon Andrea's introduction. It comes off like an afterthought, especially when, right after her introduction, Andrea confronts Mark -- and is so overcome by his manly charisma that she hands him her pistol and renounces her family's vendetta. She even agrees to go out to dinner with him! It's all pretty funny and a definite "WTF?" moment -- but then, such moments are hallmarks of the men's adventure genre.

One good thing about Blood On The Strip is that it gets more and more twisted as it goes along. Any rosy conclusions the reader might expect are blitzed in a gory finale in which, again, Hardin acts more like Johnny "Sharpshooter" Rock than the hero we met in The Target Is H. There's a total "Johnny Rock moment" where Hardin tortures a gunman by stomping him on the kidney and then blowing off his kneecaps: "What'd I ever do to you?" the gunman groans, and we can only feel his pain. In the world of '70s men's adventure novels, there isn't much distinction between the heroes and the villains.

Anyway, a bumpy ride, but one with a few rewarding moments. I'm hoping the Chet Cunningham contributions to The Penetrator improve, but again, the rough nature does lend Blood On The Strip a little charm.

The back cover also provides another unintentional laugh, with the line:

It is late. He has penetrated, now he must complete the mission and escape.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Baroness #3: Death Is A Ruby Light

The Baroness #3: Death Is A Ruby Light, by Paul Kenyon
April, 1974 Pocket Books

This is my favorite of the Baroness covers, once again courtesy Hector Garrido. I found the previous volume a middling retread, but Death Is A Ruby Light is great, as if "Paul Kenyon" took a breather and dove back into the series with renewed vigor.

The template followed in the previous two volumes is jettisoned this time out. Indeed, a lot happens in these 200 pages. You know you're in for a lurid thrill-ride when the novel opens with several pages of graphic underwater sex as the Baroness seduces a houseguest in the pool of her Italian villa. Trouble looms, though: unbeknownst to the Baroness, the satellites which relay signals to various US (and Russian) agents about the world have been destroyed; a grave situation which has already resulted in the death of many spies. The Baroness doesn't realize it, but she's next on the list.

Saved by her handler, "Key," the Baroness is briefed on what's happened and again gathers together her team. This time out, luckily, the team is a bit streamlined; I still can't remember all their names or even tell some of them apart. The first suspect of course is the goddamn Commies, so the team heads for Moscow, posing under their usual cover as global fashionistas. The Barones breaks away and tracks into the barren wastes of Kazakstahn. After infiltrating a missile base and bugging its perimenter, she realizes the Russians aren't behind this; as she listens, a repair probe is fried out of the sky, all passengers killed.

The US and the USSR now work together. The source of these laser-blasts now appears to be in the Mongolian reaches of China. A joint US/USSR team will find the base and destroy it. The Baroness will lead, as the US has the exact coordinates of where the laser-blasts have originated. Picking a few of her teammates to go along, the Baroness joins a larger Soviet party. Their leader is basically the Russian version of the Baroness, a good-looking guy named Alexey, who of course the Baroness has tons of sex with during the journey. There's also a hulking guy named Omogoy who has planned with another of the Russians to kill all of the Americans.

This section comes off like John Eagle Expeditor, with the team venturing into a freezing hell. Kenyon amps up the lurid quotient with the obligatory scene of a nude Baroness fighting for her life; the most memorable section sees her captured and held inside a yurt filled with Omogoy and his fellow traitors. The Baroness unleashes her inner Conan and kicks holy ass, despite having her hands tied behind her back. With a red-hot blade she guts one guy and cuts her way through the yurt, running pell-mell through the snow for safety; still nude, the temperature well below freezing. Despite all of this Death Is A Ruby Light follows the time-honored tradition of all pulp spy fiction: the Baroness is of course eventually captured by the main villain.

The villain this time out is Dr. Thing, a towering Chinese astronomer who happens to be albino and also has a false ruby eye. Thing has created the laserworks which are frying the satellites of the US and the USSR; his grand design is to destroy a linkup between space probes of both countries which will be broadcast on global TV. Thing will kill only the Russians so that it appears to the world that America did it; World War Three will ensue and China will emerge victorious once America and Russia have destroyed one another. Thing isn't the only villain here: there's also Sung, commander of the soldiers in the base, a cretin who enjoys torturing his captives. There's a nicely lurid scene where Sung uses a laser setup of Thing's to slice apart one of the prisoners.

It's a series, so there's no mystery of course if the Baroness and her team will escape and save the day. But again it's all delivered very well. There are a lot of good one-liners and the fight scenes are well thought-out and nicely graphic. So too the copious sex scenes, but again they mean scenes in novels only matter if something else is going on, or if there's some emotional involvement, but here it's just two people screwing (which is fine when you're watching porn, not when you're reading it). But as a guy who grew up reading Penthouse Letters, how can I complain? Death Is A Ruby Light is just further proof that The Baroness is one of the best men's adventure series ever published.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Crystal Pharoah's Blaxploration

This is a promo video DJ Crystal Pharaoh created for the Blaxporation CD mix he self-released a few years ago. Not only is the CD pretty great (you can get it here) but the video is too: very similar to the original Black Dynamite trailer. I've been emailing the Pharoah for years asking him to do a full-length DVD mix...

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Dolly, Dolly Spy

The Dolly, Dolly Spy by Adam Diment
July, 1968 Bantam Books
(Original UK publication October, 1967)

I'm surprised I've only now discovered the work of Adam Diment, who, starting in the late '60s, published four novels about the exploits of a dopesmoking sort of anti-007, Philip McAlpine. Diment proved to be similar to his protagonist, and the press hyped him accordingly -- a 24 year-old British youth who listened to rock, smoked dope, and surrounded himself with a bevy of miniskirted London "birds." Indeed, the media coverage made Diment seem more outlandish than his hash-loving secret agent of a protagonist.

As a guy who spent a semester of college in Holland, I can assure you that dope and physical violence are an impossible combination -- and it's something Diment too knows, as his hero Philip McAlpine only relaxes with a bit of hash here and there in The Dolly, Dolly Spy, the first of the four novels. As usual, the media and the back-cover blurbs oversell McAlpine's drug life; the novel is more of a parody of the spy genre, with an overly-arch narrator who does his best to kill all of the escapism one would expect of a James Bond-type of world. The idea here is moreso of a Swinging London-type who is manipulated into the world of international espionage, rather than a drug-fueled satire on the genre, a la Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius material.

The Dolly, Dolly Spy is more of an introduction to the series than a straight-up novel. It concerns itself mostly with how McAlpine is recruited into this world. Actually he's instead blackmailed into the world -- during a raid on his place a brick of newly-bought hashish is discovered. The person who called the raid and now holds the hash is Rupert Quine, an overbearing gargoyle of a man who claims to head up CI-6, a subset of British Intelligence. Quine offers McAlpine a choice: either go to prison for the hash or work for CI-6.

The job, as Quine presents it, is too simple. McAlpine is to apply for a job with International Charter, Inc, a non-aligned sort of FedEx which acts as courier for all the world's Intelligence agencies and even the Mafia. They fly agents, documents, prisoners, the works, and all under the radar. Quine wants McAlpine to answer an innocuous ad in the newspaper to become a pilot for a small firm: the firm is International Charter, and Quine is certain that McAlpine, with his pilot's license, his devil-may-care attitude, and his general insubordinance will be a perfect fit for the role. At length McAlpine complies and, after a lenghty series of interviews -- all of which are relayed for us -- he is offered the position.

After some intensive pilot training in Texas, McAlpine is sent to a remote island named Dathos, off the coast of Greece. Here he flies various missions for International Charter, his commander a former Nazi Luftwaffe ace. McAlpine bides his time, occasionally going for "vacations" where he relays what he's learned to various CI-6 women who visit, posing as cousins or other relations (McAlpine is sure to inform us that these women are always unattractive and they always want to sleep with him -- he bets it's yet another twist of the knife courtesy Rupert Quine). But eventually he gets so used to his now-mundane life that McAlpine's girlfriend comes to stay with him in Dathos for some fun in the sun, Dylan on the turntable, and plenty of hash.

Soon Quine re-enters and McAlpine discovers why he's been infiltrated into International Charter: a mission comes up in which McAlpine is tasked with picking up three men and flying them to another destination. It develops that the leader of these men is Detmann, a former Nazi honcho who is described as "The Angel of Death." Quine orders McAlpine to pick up Detmann but instead deliver him to Quine's men rather than the designated drop-off point. After a US agent tries to keep McAlpine from taking the job, he knows he's lucked out: all he must do is sequester this Detmann somewhere and then make his demands to Quine -- he'll be rich and he'll be free.

The novel saves its action for the final half. At 154 pages, The Dolly, Dolly Spy is a quick read, but it's hampered by the narration. In short, McAlpine comes off as a total pisshead, bitching about things that have no bearing on the narrative at hand. Seriously, long sections of this novel are given over to digressions -- endless ones at that. (No doubt courtesy the dope Diment himself was smoking.) The climax however is appropriately thrilling, with McAlpine squaring off against Detmann, who comes off as a true James Bond-type villain. Anyway, the climax is thrilling if too short: Diment rushes through it and doesn't fully play out the potentials.

I've got the next three volumes and they appear to be more of the "psychedelic spy" sort of thing I expected. As for Adam Diment, these were the only four novels he published and they've gained a cult following; word is the man himself dropped out of the publishing world after 1971's Think Inc and never looked back.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Passing Through The Flame

Passing Through The Flame, by Norman Spinrad
January, 1976 Berkley Medallion

This is one obscure novel. Try searching online for it. You'll hardly find anything -- a few sites listing it for sale (with no plot outline) and a mention from Spinrad's bio in which he briefly recounts the novel's origin, how he was paid $10,000 to write it and had to fight to get it published in hardcover (which it was, in 1975). But that's pretty much all you'll find. Which is strange, as Spinrad of course is a relatively well-known author. But then, he's known for his science fiction output. Passing Through The Flame however is 100% trash fiction, a "Harold Robbins-type novel" so "Harold Robbins-type" that The Carpetbaggers is referenced in the hardcover's dust jacket copy.

I happened to discover Passing Through The Flame by a total fluke a few years ago, browsing through the sci-fi racks at a local used bookstore. There sat the mass market paperback incarnation, placed in the sci-fi section by some lazy store employee. In his online bio Spinrad states that the novel was intended to show "the death of the counterculture," and also that it was to be "popular fiction" in the syle of the time. A lot of genre authors turned their hand to lurid, sensationalistic, over-the-top trash fiction in the wake of Harold Robbins's vast success, Herbert Kastle being a prime example. So Spinrad too gave it a go, only it seems he was let down by publisher Berkley Medallion, which let the book die in obscurity; after the 1975 hardcover, the book received only one mass market papberback printing, one graced with a paltry two industry reviews. It's like Passing Through The Flame was a forgotten book as soon as it was published.

It's a shame, as despite its minor faults the novel proves that Spinrad would've made for a great trash fiction author -- he could've easily been hyped as a younger, hipper Harold Robbins. But Passing Through The Flame passed unnoticed and it was back to sci-fi for Spinrad. It's a big book in every way: 568 pages of tiny, tiny print in the mass market paperback, stuffed to the gills with an army of major and minor characters. It's further proof of his skill that Spinrad handles this huge cast with such ease; you have no trouble keeping up with the revolving cast of characters.

The novel takes place in 1971, during the death-throes of the counterculture movement and the psychedelic era. Spinrad perfectly and completely captures what Curt Purcell terms "the Groovy Age." This is a high-society world of ultramod decor and drug-fueled parties and lavish living, a world of psychedelic rock and fringe-religion acidheads. Spinrad takes pains to describe every setting, every detail, every article of clothing his characters wear -- and they're all dressed to the nines in the current fashions. Indeed, it's this overwhelming description which soons weighs heavily on the book, making it a bit of a trawl. But the first half, at least, is a wonderful ride, especially for those like myself who are obsessed with the groovy, swinging era.

Our ostensible protagonist is Paul Conrad, a hotshot young director who created an independent film in his native New York City and has come to LA looking for his big break. Instead he finds himself working as an assistant director on porno films. On one such set he meets the "leading lady," a beautiful blonde with a killer bod named Velva Leecock (with a name like that...) who herself dreams of becoming a superstar. The two become an item and Velva takes Paul along with her to a party in Hollywood that will be attended by the elite -- a party thrown by Jango Beck, a larger-than-life character who, among many things, is a millionaire record producer, president of a record label, and financer of a small army of Green Berets who traffick dope in Mexico (!). Velva had sex with Jango several weeks ago, and afterwards Jango invited her to this party; Velva insists that Paul come with her, as all the movers and shakers of Tinseltown will be there and therefore it'll be a great way for them to make connections.

The party is truly endless, going on nearly 100 pages. All of the principle characters attend, and again Spinrad masterfully juggles them. There's Paul Taub, a young record executive who wants Jango's assistance to oust John Horst, the executive of the film half of Taub's company. There's Barry Stein, a grungy "power to the people"-type who runs The Flash magazine. There's Sandra Bayne, Jango Beck's PR manager, a woman who eventually becomes romantically entangled with Paul Conrad. There's Chris Sargent, the leader of Jango's Green Beret squad, who's come here for Jango's ass, as he thinks the man has set him up.

And finally there's Bill Hovrath and his girlfriend Susan Howard. These two are the creative heads of a popular rock group which seems to be a combination of the Velvet Underground (with Jango Beck as their Andy Warhol,) the Jefferson Airplane, and the Doors. Hovrath writes the songs and Susan sings -- however when she sings she becomes "Star." In this character Spinrad reveals his sci-fi roots; when in the persona of Star, Susan is basically an empath: she feels the emotions of those around her and absorbs their fear or pain or paranoia, soaks it up and sends it back to them as love. This persona was created for her by Hovrath and Jango Beck, who basically were trying to spin her off as a sort of messiah of the Movement; however their creation has run amok, so that now Susan is no longer certain where she ends and where Star begins.

There are many fascinating moments in the novel where Susan becomes Star and walks about as if in a trance, a wholly different person, giving herself to those in need. And she truly "gives" herself -- one of Star's many delights is having sex with men in the greatest need. One of the novel's best moments occurs when Star meets Chris Sargent, the gung-ho 'Nam vet who has descended upon Jango's party in a red fury; Star is so overwhelmed by the hostility in the man that she basically runs with him to her Porsche so she can go back with him to his place and have sex. And Hovrath, her man, watches it all with bemusement and awe -- hurt because he loves Susan, but awed over the powers of this being he has helped create, this being named Star.

Then there's Jango Beck himself. The villain of the piece in a way, a self-proclaimed agent of chaos (to reference one of Spinrad's earlier novels). Beck manipulates and maneuvers the various characters throughout the course of the novel; he is the only character whose thoughts we never get to read. He always remains on the periphery, dealing with everyone but keeping his motives under his sleeve. It isn't until the final pages that we discover what Beck's intentions throughout have been. But he is one of those characters you could only encounter in trash fiction, a charismatic dynamo who has his hands in everything, able to move millions of dollars in various deals, able to hassle even the Mafia.

The party at Jango's estate is the best scene in the novel. As I mentioned, it goes on and on. Beck has designed his mansion so that it's become a series of sets, a random assortment of decor and style. We follow Paul Conrad as he rushes through each room, a movie idea coming to him. Spinrad details each room, and again, despite the overwhelming detail, it makes for an enjoyable ride for the connoisseur of the groovy: one room is nothing but blacklights, complete with a wall-sized, Day-Glo portrait of Jango; another is an incense-filled chamber with a bronze Buddha; another is nothing but a strobe light pulsing in a roomful of mirrors. On and on, with Paul rushing out of one set and into another. And drugs are everywhere, dope and bowls of pills, and the people in attendance are all rockers or movie stars or jet-setters. (Here Spinrad delivers a few in-jokes: Peter Fonda is mentioned as being in attendance, and one character, a record reviewer for The Flash, is obviously a caricature of Lester Bangs.)

Here the plot of the novel comes together. Jango, scheming alternately with Paul Taub and John Horst, concocts a plan to finance a flop of a movie, one along the lines of Woodstock, one about a festival/concert which will feature nothing but the groups on Jango's roster. But instead of a straight-up documentary, it will instead be a love story, one about a naive midwestern girl and a cynical New York guy falling in love amid the festival. Running into Velva at the party (he barely remembers her), Jango instantly asks her if she will be the leading lady, and if Paul will be the director. Paul of course suspects something amiss, but Velva is dewy-eyed; finally, her Big Break has arrived.

Unfortunately the middle half of the novel lags. It all comes off as a series of meetings between Jango and various characters, or scenes where various characters discuss their upcoming meetings with Jango. It's all very dialog and plot-heavy, and it's all rendered a bit frustrating because the novel just spins its wheels for a few hundred pages. Spinrad tries to liven things up a bit; we have a few pitched battles in Mexico between Chris Sargent and the Mafia, and, this being a Harold Robbins-type novel, the characters are appropriately oversexed, so there's a bit of graphic sex every several pages.

Most frustratingly, Spinrad wastes a lot of pages on Barry Stein, editor of The Flash. Stein still believes in the Movement and, together with countercultural heroes Ivan Blue and Ruby Stein, forms a committee to take control of Jango's upcoming festival, Sunset City. The place will dwarf Woodstock, being an entire community of shops and houses; Stein and his colleagues plot to take over the concert and turn Sunset City into the first self-supporting "free republic" of the Movement, where drugs will be free and where "the people" can live free of "the Man."

However, Spinrad's own thoughts on the Movement are quite apparent -- Stein and his fellows are idiots, fools given over to a fantasy that has already died. What's worse, they infight the entire time, with Ruby and Ivan hating one another, and Stein and Ruby becoming an item. But Jango, somehow always knowing what's going on, tasks Chris Sargent with infiltrating the committee. Sargent approaches them as a drug-dealer who commands a small army; he will help them train recruits on how to take the festival stage. Ruby falls for Sargent, and there develops this endless subplot where Stein is jealous of Sargent, Sargent keeps sleeping with Ruby to aggravate Stein, and etc.

Paul Conrad meanwhile finds that he has been handed a steaming plate of crap. Somehow Jango Beck has already made this movie a bomb, even before a single frame has been shot. (Paul, remember, doesn't realize that Jango wants the movie to fail.) Paul finds himself saddled with Velva, a terrible leading lady, one only capable of emoting as if she were in some 1950s tearjerker. And Jango has further saddled Paul with an even worse leading man: Rick Gentry, a once-popular actor now reduced to TV specials, a man who instantly despises Velva, a man incapable of portraying the manly-man character Paul has written -- because, it turns out, Gentry is a homosexual (of the flaming variety). In truth this makes for some funny sequences, as Gentry prances through his scenes and Velva blunders one line after another; Paul keeps groaning over how terrible the film will be -- even a fool would see the leading man and woman hate one another -- but he never realizes that he has in his hands the making of a camp classic. As a connoisseur of bad cinema, I'd love to see this movie!

It all finally comes to a head at Sunset City, with Paul filming the final scenes of his film. Again this sequence is funny, but Spinrad stretches it out too much; Velva realizes that the only way she can act is if she has sex with Paul again, so she begins vamping it up on-camera to entice him. But then, Gentry does the same thing. So hilarity ensues as Paul finds himself the sexual object of both his leading lady and his leading man. Meanwhile Stein and his compatriots move into the final stages of their takeover, with Sargent and his Green Berets smuggling in M-16s and bazookas -- Sargent has been further tasked by Jango to destroy the master tapes of the festival's concerts. Again, we have no idea why Beck would do this; he's nearly a god here, moving human pieces about a chessboard.

Bill Hovrath and Susan are also here; they have agreed to play a certain song which will be the signal for Stein and his fellows to take the stage. Susan meanwhile has been slipping further into the Star persona. As she sings this song, the Movement people storm the stage, Sargent blasting away with his M-16. Paul meanwhile catches it all on film. And here we see that the Movement has truly died, as the million people in attendance begin screaming for Barry Stein and Ivan Blue and the others to get the hell off the stage; they have no interest in the "free republic" the group proposes. Jango's renta-cops descend in armored helicopters and a smallscale war ensues; here again Spinrad delves into some magic realism as Susan, fully into the Star persona, begins to sing amid the combat. She takes a few hits but sings on, and we're to believe that her voice is so moving that the bullets cease and love prevails. Which is a bitch, because I figured at least a few people would buy it in the climax.

Anyway, a long novel warrants a long review -- and like my review, this novel could've benefitted from a little pruning. It's just too needlessly overwritten. Many scenes are identical to one another; it's saddening when you realize that Barry Stein is obsessing over the same stuff about Ruby in the final half of the novel as he was back in the middle. I wonder if it was this stuffed-to-the-gills element which engendered the novel's obscurity; maybe readers just didn't respond to it, maybe the length turned them off. But no -- people read back then, it wasn't like today when the average reader is only capable of absorbing something the length of a text message. And Harold Robbins's novels, bestsellers all, were just as long as Passing Through The Flame, some of them even longer.

So again I propose that it was Berkley Medallion which did a disservice to this novel. If it had been printed by Dell or Avon, I figure Passing Through the Flame would've gone through a few more printings at least. But then, there could be another reason for its failure, one that only occurred to me toward the end of the novel. You see, for this to have been a true "Harold Robbins-type novel," a true piece of trash fiction, then Jango Beck should've been the protagonist. In his wheelings and dealings, his larger-than-life stature, Beck is the true hero, the type of character the average popular fiction of the time would've focused upon. Spinrad instead makes Beck the de facto villain. I don't mean this as an insult -- Spinrad is obviously the more gifted writer -- but I can only wonder what sort of novel Harold Robbins might've given us with a character like Jango Beck.

Anyway, for a thorough glimpse into the final days of the Counterculture, filled with plenty of sex and drugs and rock, with three-dimensional characters and a definite sense for period detail, you should certainly check out Passing Through The Flame.