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!"


Martin said...

Great analysis, Joe. Makes me want to revisit the novel. Hirschfeld would sure be proud.


Joe Kenney said...

Martin, thanks for the comment! I think my next Hirschfeld/Barron will be "Tilt." Sounds like his take on the psychedlic era/Aquarian Age, and definitely looks pretty cool.