Thursday, March 24, 2011

Descent From Xanadu

Descent From Xanadu, by Harold Robbins
January, 1985 Pocket Books

Now this is more like it! After The Adventurers, I figured reading another Harold Robbins novel would be an uphill battle. But I really enjoyed Descent From Xanadu. The standard opinion is that Robbins got worse as he got older. Descent From Xanadu was first published in 1984, nearly twenty years after The Adventurers, and the narrative, dialog, plotting, and characterization are all better. Standard opinon also has it that Robbins hired ghostwriters in this latter period of his career, but that too doesn't seem true here -- we're not talking a Proustian improvement in writing, after all. This is still Harold Robbins, with all of the clunkiness and bizarre stuff one would expect. I just enjoyed it a lot more. (And I've learned that it's recently been established that Robbins's novels were not ghostwritten until 1995's The Raiders, which was ghostwritten by his last wife, Jann.)

Descent From Xanadu spans the years 1976 to 1984. Judd Crane is our hero, the "richest man in the world," appropriately handsome, in his early 40s and intent upon achieving immortality. Why Judd is so consumed with this goal is never satisfactorily explained, but again, this is a Harold Robbins novel. The sole owner of Crane Industries and its vast assortment of share companies, Judd circles the globe in a custom-fitted jumbo jet which is described as "a home on wings." In true '70s fashion Judd is a coke fiend; he snorts some coke every few pages, usually from specially-designed "poppers" which blast pure cocaine (made from Judd's own chemical labs, natch) straight into the brain. Failing that, there's always Fast Eddie (this novel's version of Fat Cat), Judd's jive-talking assistant who always carries with him a coke-filled vial and miniature spoon. Another of Fast Eddie's specialities is making "Atlanta Cherry Coca-Cola" with cocaine stirred in it. Cocaine is everywhere in Descent From Xanadu; I lost track of how many times someone would ask: "Want a toot?"

Judd's gone to Bulgaria to meet with Dr. Zabiski, an elderly lady who is the foremost authority on life-extension research. Zabiski agrees to work with Judd, and sends her associate Sofia with him to begin all of the groundwork. And of course Sofia is herself gorgeous, a Bulgarian girl who carries on a secret affair with a high-ranking KGB officer. The KGB you see wants to get inside Crane Industries, and so Sofia is ordered to monitor him; all this happens without Zabiski's knowledge. It's not long after taking off in Judd's 747 and outfitted in a swank jumpsuit before Sofia's snorting some coke and having sex with Judd; as expected in a Robbins novel, Sofia is sex-crazed. Indeed she informs Judd: "Sexual excitement brings me quickly to multiorgasmic responses." I've lost track of how many girls have told me that.

What's great about Descent From Xanadu is how much Robbins stuffed into its 408 pages. This is surely the pulpiest he ever got, with KGB agents, pitched gun battles, bald exposition about life-extension research, a duplicitous Chinese businessman given to grandiose speeches about the future of crime, former Nazi scientists, a nefarious "Maharishi," New Age claptrap straight out of Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger books, a midnight raid on a compound via hang gliders, an "atomic city" built on a remote island and another hidden away in a dormant volcano. There's even an appearance by a bed-ridden Howard Hughes! And of course, lots of sex, most of it bizarre.

As Judd's "treatments" continue he becomes more remote. I never got a grip on what exactly these treatments entailed but it really didn't matter, as Robbins spent more time on the priapistic side effects Judd suffered. In Robbins, everything comes down to the groin, no matter the topic. The trouble again is that we never really get to see what makes Judd tick. He wants to live forever, that's that. After awhile I realized this is just Robbins's shtick. Like the heroes of Greek myth, Robbins's protagonists are not introspective; they live in the Eternal Now and we can only understand them from their actions alone.

But when the narrative stops at 1980 and then picks up in 1984, Judd is even more distant from us. He's become a sort of mystic, sitting in a Lotus position through the night and astrally voyaging into the furthest reaches of inner space. At night he sleeps with two women beside him, to "balance his ying and yang." Weekly he has new women shipped in, sleeping with one a night, but never orgasming. This too is explained in cryptic New Age-isms, and we must infer that Judd has gotten this way due to the treatments he has undergone, which are making him something other than human.

Sofia too suffers as a character, coming off as a lying turncoat. But this is mandatory in Robbins, where the majority of the female characters are destroyers-of-men. The problem is, Sofia is supposed to be in love with Judd. There are many sequences where she will reunite with Judd and swear to him everything's fine, and then Judd will discover that the KGB or the CIA are hunting for her, as she has stolen some important documents or whatnot. There are also her ties with the KGB, which makes Judd suspect Sofia up to the very end. She comes off quite poorly, snorting coke every other page and basically lying to everyone.

I can't go any further without mentioning all of the sex. There's a lot of weird and hilarious stuff going down in Descent From Xanadu. For one, the way the men talk to the women...they say stuff to them that would get a guy slapped in the real world, but the ladies here love it. And it isn't just the things they say. In a bizarre flashback Judd admits to his stepmother that he has always found her attractive and used to masturbate, thinking about her; Judd then drops his trousers and does the deed right before her (flattered) eyes, having her clean him up afterwards! And then there's an even stranger scene where Nicolai, Sofia's KGB lover, is reunited with Sofia after a few years apart; he confronts her as she's in the tub, pours champagne on his "erect phallus," and delivers the unforgetable line: "You loved champagne and you loved my prick. Let's see if you remember. Now drink both of them!"

Yes, this is quite an entertaining novel. It's a lot more streamlined that The Adventurers and more exciting to boot. As the novel races for its conclusion in Judd's own "hidden atomic city" Xanadu, we get more last-second revelations and gun fights, all of it culminating in Judd learning some important life lessons so Robbins can deliver one of his trademark (and effective) sentimental endings.

Highly recommended for anyone who has yet to delve into the lurid world of Harold Robbins.


Will Errickson said...

God I miss those '80s-style high-fashion models on the cover of cheap bestseller paperbacks.

k said...

Glad someone still remembers these and writes about.. I found this hidden in my dads secret stash of pulp books. I remember reading it secretly while in school and now many years since school and my dad is no more - i randomly came looking for this book.