Monday, October 1, 2012

The Betsy

The Betsy, by Harold Robbins
July, 1972 Pocket Books

Here’s another now-forgotten Harold Robbins novel that was a massive bestseller in its day. In fact if The Betsy is remembered at all today, it’s for the 1977 film version starring Tommy Lee Jones and Laurence Olivier…which itself is pretty much forgotten.

But anyway, if you’ve read one Robbins you’ve read them all, and this one follows the same template: alpha male protagonist screws his way through a book filled with interminable business meetings, bland dialog, and a careless and casual plot, combined with a freewheeling approach toward time, jumping from one decade to another with little rhyme or reason.

But I’ve learned that one doesn’t read Robbins for story or narrative. No, you read his novels for the dirty parts, and luckily The Betsy is filled with them. True, they taper off after a while, and none of them match the sadomasochistic weirdness of Goodbye, Janette, but what’s here certainly packs a punch, and gets weird too, as I will eventually demonstrate.

The main plot concerns Angelo Perino, aforementioned alpha male, who as we meet him late in 1969 is a race car driver who, due to his most recent crash, has had to have his face repaired. Angelo is contacted by Number One, aka Loren Hardeman I, founder of Bethlehem Motors, and the Henry Ford to Angelo’s Lee Iaccoca. Wheelchair-bound Number One is “retired” in Florida, leaving the running of his company to Number Three, aka Loren Hardeman the Third. (There’s also the second Loren, Number One’s son, and lazy Robbins will actually just write “Loren” at times through the novel and you have no idea which one he’s referring to!)

Number One has been inspired to release a brand new car, and further he wants to name it “The Betsy,” after his nubile 18 year-old great granddaughter. Sounds simple, but in reality this is just the setup for endless, endless scenes where board members at Bethlehem Motors will get together and talk about the impracticalities of this initiative, given the incipient energy crisis. And besides, Loren III wants to get out of the car business and focus on the company’s more-profitable ventures in appliances and whatnot.

So Angelo goes about putting together a team to create a new car, one that will be powered by a friggin’ turbine engine. He and Loren III butt heads, and Number One will occasionally step in; that is, when he isn’t flashing back at random points in the narrative to his own life, reliving this or that event which in the hands of a better author would set up ramifications in the “present” narrative, but in the hands of Robbins just come off as extranneous elements.

I mean, hell, there’s a very lurid part where we learn that Number One slept with his own son’s wife and conceived a child with her, and yet the ensuing daughter has absolutely zero effect on the events of the novel, and indeed Robbins introduces her into the narrative almost casually after detailing the lurid nature of her conception, quickly casting her aside. Why it never occurred to him to make the child a son -- more particularly Loren III himself – was beyond me.

Because as it stands, the major theme of The Betsy is the battle between father and son. In the sections in the 1920s and 1930s, Number One fights against his son (Number Two), to whom he has granted presidency of Bethlehem Motors. After returing from a years-long trip to Europe (after the death of his wife and after he’s impregnated his own son’s wife), Number One finds that Junior has basically given control of the company to a fascist security chief…who also happens to be Number Two’s lover. This initiates a whole new round of warfare between Number One and his son.

And then in the “present” portion of the tale, in the early 1970s, Number One, now nearly a hundred, carries on the battle with Loren III. It’s very wearying and very repetitive, not to mention confusing. Hell, even Robbins got confused – there’s a part toward the end where Loren III talks about the latest round of fighting with “my dad,” when it should be “granddad,” but Robbins himself was obviously confusing the similar characters and their similar situations. Do you think he cared? Doubtful. Like most other Robbins novels I’ve read, The Betsy comes off like a first draft, hastily banged out in some posh hotel on the French Riviera in between snorts of cocaine.

Ah, but the sex scenes. When it comes to them, Robbins excels. I’m an “in the tradition of” kind of guy, meaning that I usually enjoy novels that are taglined as being “in the tradition of” a bestselling novel, mostly because those books are more extreme and lurid. But this is not true when it comes to Harold Robbins, who always went further than any of his followers. By the time The Betsy was released, the world of publishing was loose enough that Robbins could get away with some seriously sleazy shit.

Take for example this little hummdinger, which takes place between Angelo Perino and “the Hertz girl,” ie some young and attractive girl he picks up at Hertz rental. And, mind you, this occurs immediately after a graphic sex scene in which the girl implores Angelo to let her swallow his…well, you know:

She was still holding me, playing with me. “Do you have to pee?” she asked.

“Now that you mention it, I do.” I started out of the bed.

She followed me into the bathroom. “Let me hold it for you.”

I looked at her. “Be my guest.”

She stood behind me and aimed it at the bowl, but it was awkward and splashed over the seat.

“Just what I thought,” I said. “Women don’t know anything about taking a piss.”

“Let me try,” she said and climbed into the bathtub next to the toilet bowl. Then she held it. This time her aim was true.

I looked at her face. There was an expression of rapt concentration there that I had never seen before. A fascination that was almost childish. She turned her face up to me. Almost as if she were in a spell she put her free hand in the path of the stream. Abruptly she turned it to her.

I stopped in surprise.

She pulled angrily at my cock. “Don’t stop!” she cried. “It’s beautiful. Bathe me in it.”

“Different strokes for different folks,” I said. If that was what she wanted, who was I to say no?

This novel was a damn bestseller!! It really blows my mind. Today stuff like this probably would only see print through some “Erotica” house that caters to the most kinkiest of kinks. But in the ‘70s, this could be printed in a novel that sold millions and millions of copies. And though it’s the most extreme example, there are countless more such scenes throughout The Betsy, though none of it reaches the insane heights of Goodbye, Janette. But then, it seems to me that Robbins got more extreme as he got older, which I guess is one thing you could at least respect him for. (He does slack off on the drugs here, though; while everyone smokes and drinks, only one character indulges in anything illegal – Betsy herself, who in true hippie-girl fashion enjoys smoking dope.)

And as usual these bizarre and outrageous sex scenes are the only things that keep you reading, enduring the endless and banal business room meetings filled with extranneous dialog, in the hopes that, after suffering enough, you will be rewarded like some Pavlovian dog with another oddball and graphic sex scene. And sometimes you are. But not nearly enough. The good does not outweigh the bad in The Betsy, and by the time Angelo and Number One are unveiling the titular car you’ve long since stopped giving a damn.

“Spiced with girls,” taglined the Saturday Review in its review of The Betsy, and the novel certainly is. In fact the female characters are more memorable than the males, and there are more of them. Unfortunately though they’re all sort of clones of one another. For example, there’s Cindy, Angelo’s casual girlfriend, who gets off on the sound of racing engines. Cue several scenes where Cindy orgasms while listening to a tape of Angelo racing, even setting up playback in quadraphonic! I mean, that’s weird and memorable, right? But then…the Hertz girl is the same! She too orgasms at the sound of racing engines, which gives Robbins opportunity to go into some pretty gross detail on how, uh, soiled she gets after riding with Angelo as he races along a street.

But as I say, these quirky characters and outrageous sex scenes are all that keep you reading. And again as usual, the architecture is all there – Robbins easily could’ve turned in a good novel here, even keeping the dirty parts. The battle between the young generation and the old has always interested me, and it’s a story Robbins weaves throughout, with Number One in a generations-long battle with his own progeny. But there are so many missteps and wastes of time that it’s all lost in the mire of characters and subplots…subplots that have no setup or impact. It still boggles my mind that Robbins failed to make Number Three the illegitimate (and unknowing) son of Number One. But that’s just one example of many.

What’s crazy is that Robbins can write when he wants to, as he proves in each of his books. And, following the pattern of many of his novels, this one is told in a variety of styles, bookended with narratives from Angelo’s first-person perspective before jumping into third-person for the majority of the tale. And the way Robbins hopscotches across decades is almost surreal, or at the very least brazen…which again makes it unfortunate that there’s such little payoff. He does try to tie up the novel by bringing to light the mysterious fate of Number Two, but does himself no favors by only introducing the mystery late in the tale, and not really bothering to explore it. But then, that’s another hallmark of Robbins: hasty wrap-ups.

Robbins published a sequel in 1995, The Stallion, but rumor has it the novel was actually written by his wife Jann. I’ve got the book and will eventually get to it.


Authorfan said...

Cool review! Yes, the bathtub thingy is the only thing I remember from this novel. So I concour, Robbins is indeed an ace at sex scenes, but little at everything else. Still, from a trashy point of view, one could do worse. On second thought, maybe not.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Good review, Joe. I read every book by Harold Robbins and his contemporary Irving Wallace. Robbins was a radical writer who didn't care what the puritans in fiction thought about his books. He had dedicated fans all over the world, including India, and that was because he wrote in a language they understood instantly. If I'm right the American pulp fiction industry never gave Robbins his due and it seems to have forgotten him entirely now. My own favourites, if I might call it that, are A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER and 79 PARK AVENUE. The first didn't hold when I reread it recently, which might indicate that Robbins' paperbacks were for those caught between the teens and adulthood.

S. said...

What kind of godless garbage is this you're reviewing? That book excerpt was disgusting... I have to find this book immediately!

Thanks for a great blog, I love finding out about forgotten cultural relics. I hope you write for a long time! I'm subscribed, of course.

Tim Mayer said...

"If you’ve read one Robbins you’ve read them all"
Quote of the day

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.

Martin: Funny you remember the bathtub incident from this book. I know you've also read the follow-up, The Stallion, and I look forward to reading it myself. By the way, you should read your copy of "Rich Dreams" by the Barzmans; finally read my copy...took it with me on vacation to London last week and read it, and it's very much a roman a clef about Harold Robbins, with appopriate amounts of sex and coke-snorting, though obviously nowhere as dirty and trashy as an actual Robbins novel.

Prashant: You are correct, Robbins is completely forgotten today, which I find super strange. He was without question the most popular author during his time (and perhaps the most hated by his writing colleagues), which just makes it so weird that he is virtually unknown today.

S: Thanks for subscribing, and you are correct...this is godless garbage in all its glory!

Tim: Thanks too for the comment...and yeah, if you've read one you've read them all...only the names of the characters and the sex scenes change...

English Teacher X said...

oh come now, obviously you haven't seen the best seller lists recently! FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY, which I haven't read, evidently features plenty of S and M, although I don't believe there's any water sports.

Joe Kenney said...

I'm aware of that Fifty Shades of Gray, but it seems to me to have more in common with that "Belladonna" novel I reviewed here the other year. In other words, it lacks the weird fire that burns so brightly in the work of Harold Robbins...I still find it mind-boggling that such gloriously perverted stuff was so popular in its day...and the numbers of Robbins's books sold dwarfed the bestsellers of today.

Felicity Walker said...

It was a simpler, more innocent time, in which people were more easily scandalised and more people read books! Growing up in the 1980s, I hadn’t heard of Harold Robbins until he was mentioned in an episode of Fawlty Towers.

Mohan Santhanam said...

I think like James Hadley Chase, the books of Harold Robbins can be divided into two piles - the super-trashy and the ones not quite so. Titles like The Betsy, The Storyteller and The Pirate will clearly get to the first section! Incidentally, The Pirate doesn't even have a semblance of a story - The Betsy at least does. The second pile would consist of his Never Love a Stranger, Where Love has Gone and A Stone for Danny Fisher - which are actually pretty good reads. I guess The Dream Merchants and The Carpetbaggers would also come into this category. You said it Joe when you commented that Robbins can write when he wants to. Pity he didn't do more in the second category but I guess he saw what sold and consequently revelled in producing the novels in the first pile!