Thursday, September 19, 2013
Astarte, by Alberto Readstone
April, 1973 Dell Books
In the early to mid 1970s Dell Books cornered the market on sleazy paperback originals, usually featuring a nude photo cover and lots of explicit sex, Sexual Strike Force being one such example. Astarte is another, and storywise it’s along the same lines as Island Paradise in that it’s about a group of glamorous people going to a remote island for lots of sex and sin. And just as Island Paradise took a huge misstep into island politics, Astarte commits nearly as big a wrong by striving to be overly literary, sometimes painfully so.
I thought I was in for a nice sleazy read when the first page screamed “SEX SLAVES,” with a rundown of the characters provided beneath (the hooker, the movie star, the hippie, etc), but unfortunately Alberto Readstone (surely a pseudonym) dilutes the sleaze with some of the most pretentious writing I’ve encountered since Eric Lustbader’s The Ninja. Style-wise the novel has more in common with the post-hippie literary craze of the time, like The Stones of Summer or CenterForce, and that’s a damn shame.
Anyway, the island in question is “no place,” just the first of the author’s many annoying touches – throughout the book he strives to be as vague about time and space particulars as possible. (Another incredibly annoying habit is his constant reference to “the center” of the male characters – ie their manly parts.) The island, only a few miles large, is owned by Dana, a bisexual and debauched fop, and his stunningly beautiful daughter Philana, a self-centered narcissist of the first order.
Not that we get any detail or much background, but what Philana does is have “the Captain” fly in small groups of people on his Lear jet so that Philana can engage them all in a group orgy. (How often does she do this? Monthly? Weekly?? Who knows.) Her latest group arrives as Astarte opens, and they’re all archetypes from the Book of Trash Fiction.
There’s Moira, a brunette hooker who only retains high-society clients; Lark, a pretty but undiscovered actress who constantly worries about keeping her breasts toned and firm; Valentine, a high-fashion model of black and white descent; The Athlete (seriously, that’s his name), a good-looking stud who knows his years of being a gigolo are growing short; and finally Poet, an annoying hippie who has ended up here on the island after a failed attempt at immigrating to mainland China.
These characters have no room to live or breathe beneath the pretentious cluster of Readstone’s prose. Also he spends more time cutting away from this island to another island, where 15 year-old Kory is vacationing with his mother, Evelyn. This entire segment is pretty weird, as Kory is something of a freak, and Evelyn apparently is trying to keep him away from society, women in particular. (Not that Evelyn is doing much good for the kid; Readstone hints that she’s a bit too intimate with the boy.) At the expense of many, many words we eventually discover that Evelyn is Philana’s mother and Kory is Philana’s half-brother.
I mean, it takes about 80 pages to even get to “the good stuff,” and even then the sordid shenanigans are lost amid the high-falutin prose. Smoking some high-grade hash, the group gets nude and calls Philana in, putting her up on a mirrored surface and fondling her; eventually one of the guys (who?) screws her, but during this Moira realizes that Philana needs “more than just fucking” so begins to whip her with a custom-made glove. But the scene is so brief and so “poetically” rendered that you don’t know if you’re supposed to be turned on or nodding your head at man’s inherent inhumanity to man and the inescapable ennui that is life among the jet-set, etc.
Meanwhile, in an infuriatingly vague sequence, we learn that Evelyn dies (Readstone leaves how it happened vague, saving it as a surprise revelation for the end of the book), and Kory, after somehow ending up in New York where he checked out some dirty books in a Time Square bookstore before being kicked out, is on his way to the island. Great, just what we needed to further louse up the trash potential of this novel, a fucking kid on the island.
Just before Kory arrives, though, the majority of the party leaves, save for Athlete and Moira, and right afterwards Patrik, a clinger-on from a previous party who has been living with Dana, decides to kill himself. Before Philana’s taunting eyes Patrik cuts off his “center” (that damn annoying term again!!) and bleeds to death. Now Philana’s left a catatonic wreck, and the sleaze element is in further danger; there’s not much room for lurid hijinks when your protagonist is left a fragile shell of herself.
Young Doctor Pearson arrives on the island to care for Philana, who meanwhile is acting like a child with an intrigued Kory. Pearson instantly falls for the raven-haired goddess (I too assumed Philana was a blonde due to the cover). But Philana is instead falling for Kory, ie her half brother. Thus begins a bizarre sort of love story where these two half-siblings share pretentious conversations while sunning on the beach, while meanwhile Dana implores the good doctor to use shock treatment to zap Philana back to her old, cynical self – he’s disgusted with her childlike, naïve mentality.
Dana pulls further sordid tricks, like employing Athlete to attempt to rape Philana, but she manages to fight him off. Finally though Dana convinces Doc Pearson to use some heavy drugs and shock therapy on her, and soon enough Philana is back to her aloof, bitchy self. She claims to not remember any of her romance with Kory, who of course is upset. The novel ends with the revelation that it was Kory who killed his mother, shooting her with a spear gun while they were scuba diving; Readstone leaves us with the once-again vague hint that Kory is about to do the same thing to Dana, as the two go scuba diving together.
Anyway, Astarte had lots of promise, but squandered it all. Dammit, first Island Paradise and now this. Surely it can’t be that hard to write a trashy novel about a group of horny characters on a remote island, can it??