Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Camp

The Camp, by Jonathan Trask
No month stated, 1977  Belmont Tower Books

An interesting obscurity in the work of Len Levinson, The Camp is notable because it was a collaboration between Len and his editor at Belmont Tower, Peter McCurtin. Len provides the full story below, but long story short, McCurtin came up with the plot, wrote the first chapter, and then handed it over to Len, who ran with it.

Speaking of obscure, The Camp is real obscure, even for one of Len’s Belmont books; the only other review you can currently find of it online is by Marty McKee. Thus once again I have to bemoan the fate of Len’s early books, the majority of which deserved better distribution and recognition. While I wouldn’t rank The Camp as a lost pulp masterwork like his earlier Shark Fighter, it is still a fun and breezily-written tale that attempts in its short length to tap into the post-Watergate paranoia that gripped the nation in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Our narrator is Phillip “Phil” Gordon, a ‘Nam Green Beret who now works as a reporter for Tomorrow magazine, which is dedicated to outing corruption and whatnot. Phil regales us with stories of the many powerful men he has toppled, and then informs us that “last summer” he went up to northern Maine for a much-needed vacation, to reconnect with the land in which he’d been born. The novel is his report of what happened to him there.

I’m not sure if I would’ve recognized this without knowing beforehand that Len and McCurtin co-wrote the novel, but the switchover after chapter one is very apparent. In McCurtin’s hands Phil comes off as a lazy sort who seems more curious than intrigued by the strange tale told by his old Indian pal, Jimmy Jacks; Jimmy informs Phil that one of his nephews, who was like a son to him, has gone missing, last seen as he was attempting to get a closer look at the mysterious new Army base that’s been built about five miles away, deep in the Maine woods.

Jimmy himself is vastly different in McCurtin’s first chapter; all he wants to do is drink beer, eat bear steak, and watch old Westerns on TV. But then Phil slouches off for bed, chapter two begins, and Len takes over – and suddenly Jimmy is waking Phil up, armed with a bow and arrow and ready to go out into the woods and kick some ass. The affable drunk of chapter one has become a “native warrior” type who dispenses his wisdom as he moves stealthfully and swiftly as a fox through the darkened forest.

Phil changes, too; per the standard Len Levinson protagonist type, he’s become a man driven to succeed in life, despite all the odds. Now he’s chomping at the bit to get at the story of “the Camp” – later to be revealed as Camp Butler, an Army installation that doesn’t exist on any record. As a sidenote, I found the name “Camp Butler” interesting, given Len’s later Leisure series Butler, which he wrote under the pseudonym Phillip Kirk. Could he have been flashing back on The Camp when he came up with it?

Sneaking through the barbed wire fence, Jimmy and Phil find a crazed Army base which is more like a prison, with watch towers and roving guard dogs. They find even crazier stuff, like the mutilated remains of a few hippies who have apparently been tied up to a post and used for bayonet practice. After a quick skirmish with the bloodthirsty soldiers who have discovered them – including a bit where Jimmy Jack takes out a bunch of dogs with his arrows – our heroes manage to escape.

Jimmy again proves himself a superhumanly capable person, showing Phil a hidden cave he’s used before, in a ravine outside of the camp’s territory. Hidden by a rock, the cave not only has a fresh-water stream but also a bunch of beef jerky and booze Jimmy has hidden here…just for these sorts of situations, of course. The two stay here for a few days, waiting for the soldiers to stop searching the immediate area. After this Phil heads back home to DC (Phil being one of the few Levinson protagonists who doesn’t live in New York), where he tells his editor that he’s got a whopper of a story.

At 155 pages, The Camp is even shorter than the average ‘70s men’s adventure novel, but Len tries his best to present it as a gripping suspense thriller, concerning a plot that threatens the American way of life. True to the era in which it was written, this means that there are shady political overtones; through a contact, Senator Wingfield, Phil is put in touch with General Ed Sutherland, an old military man who is stationed in the Pentagon and who tells Phil that “a secret government” is threatening to take over the current one.

I forgot to mention – Phil’s meanwhile found the time to sleep with Susan Cole, Wingfield’s pretty secretary. However there’s no funny business at all, Len cutting to the next chapter before the exploitative hijinks start; as a matter of fact, there’s barely any sex or violence in The Camp, even the action scenes going down with little detail of the blood being spilled. But then there really isn’t much detail in the novel, the events transpiring as quickly as Len can pound on his typewriter; I get the feeling that he wrote this particular novel very fast.

General Sutherland proposes Phil with an idea: for Phil to be the general’s inside man and actually be sent to Camp Butler. A soldier can only be ordered to the camp, and even then he must face a tribunal to be accepted; Camp Butler is reportedly the training ground for ultra-special forces. Sutherland relates that it’s really a training ground for a fascist group within the military that plans to take over America. Sutherland plays on Phil’s nature by telling him that it’ll be the story of the century – guaranteed money in Phil’s pocket.

Despite being out of the army for several years (not to mention being out of shape), Phil is able to pass himself off as a bona fide Green Beret with papers forged for him by Sutherland. He meets with the Camp Butler tribunal and gives them a bunch of fascist swill in response to their questions, ie “What would you do about hippies and other protestors?” “I’d kill them or throw them in jail,” and etc. All of it of course over the top – any man on that board would easily know Phil was bluffing – but the tribunal buys his story without question.

The actual material in Camp Butler is unfortunately brief. Phil spends a whopping single day there. In his entrance with the other camp recruits he’s informed that all of his ranking is now moot; you’re either a private or a captain here, a leader or a slave. But when Phil is bullied by his drill seargent – who has the right to beat his recruits to death, by the way; another Camp Butler oddity – he refuses to back down.

“I shit on your mother’s soul, you fat fuck,” Phil tells the seargent, in what is probably the greatest put-down in literary history. This obviously leads to a fistfight, in which Phil makes short work of the guy. Then a dude who announes himself as a captain enters the fold, escorting Phil away – and telling him that the only way to succeed at Camp Butler out of the “slave” role is to affront authority. And guess what, within like a few hours of his arrival into camp, Phil has been promoted to a captain!

From here the novel plunges into cartoonishness, likely due to that short wordcount; Phil, brand new at Camp Butler, is able to use his newly-given authority to freely walk around the top-secret camp, and also to find Jimmy Jacks’s three abducted nephews. He even blithely asks where the armory is! So then that night he merely gets up, waltzes to the stockade, informs the guards to let the Indian prisoners go, and then hands them a bunch of guns he’s stolen from the armory! Taking off in a commandeered jeep, they make their escape.

The action scene is quickly rendered, the four men barrelling across the camp fields as they’re chased by foot soldiers and helicopters. For a special forces camp, the soldiers of Camp Butler are not an impressive lot, easily taken down by an out-of-shape ‘Nam vet and a trio of untrained Indian youth. To Len’s credit he explains this away with Phil’s sideline commentary that the Camp Butler soldiers seem more interested in sadism than coordinated action, thus the four are able to get away unscathed.

And guess where they go? Yes, that same hidden cave, where they hide for three whole weeks, Phil almost in a delirium due to a flesh wound he’s suffered in the escape. Rushing for the conclusion, Len employs a requisite downbeat ending, mandatory in the mid-‘70s, in which Phil discovers that no one is interested in his story, once he’s escaped the cave, returned to DC, and written it in a feverish haste – not his editor at the magazine, nor his friend Senator Wingfield, nor even General Sutherland.

Len works this up that all of them are either concerend over the mass panic that would ensue if the story broke, or concerned over the patriotism which would be lost in America, or even that America has already become so desensitized that its citizens need only food and TV to be happy, so who cares if an ultra right-wing group is plotting to take over? The only problem here is that these characters are suddenly presented as villains, which doesn’t jibe with what came before, particularly in the case of General Sutherland; otherwise, why would he have sent Phil to Camp Butler in the first place?

So Phil, escaping an attempt on his life (by none other than Susan Cole, his former bed playmate), heads on down to Mexico, where he has now written down his account of Camp Butler…which is presented as this very novel. His intent is that, couched as “fiction,” the story will get across to Americans, who will head up to northern Maine to see what’s really going on up there at Camp Butler. I don’t know about you, but I’m not planning my trip anytime soon.

What was most enjoyable about The Camp was how Len worked with what was given to him. In addition to the title, plot, and characters, I’m betting McCurtin also gave Len the cover, and insisted he include a scene with it. There’s a part where Phil strangles a Camp Butler guard with the man’s own carbine, and Len writes the sequence exactly as shown on the cover, even down to the detail of the blood drizzling from the guard’s mouth. This brings to mind a real-life incident Len spoofed in The Last Buffoon: when Len was writing The Sharpshooter #5, McCurtin called to tell him to include a part where hero Johnny Rock was being chased by a helicopter, as that was the cover McCurtin was having painted for the novel.

The speedy writing mentioned above does lead to some unintentional humor, like when Phil tells us, “One man can make a difference. I truly believe that. Just look at Woodward and Bernstein.” Uh, Phil – Woodward and Bernstein were two men. Also, the story is not nearly developed as it needed to be, to fully impart the dire ramifations of the men behind Camp Butler; even the bizarre subplot about hippies being murdered is barely explored, and Phil himself seems to forget about it when he’s first relating the horrors of the camp to his editor and friends.

Regardless all of that, this is still a Len Levinson novel, which means there is still a lot of enjoyment in it. His characters still seem to be cut from life, and not the cardboard caracicatures you usually encounter in pulp fiction. Minor characters sparkle with life, like even Susan Cole, who trades barbs with Phil during her unfortunately-brief time in the narrative. And as usual there is a lot of fun dialog, including incidental bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout.

So long story short, while I enjoyed The Camp, I felt that something was missing from it, that it was just too speedy and bare to make a lasting impact. Len, in his comments on the novel below, seems to feel the same way:

The Camp wasn't my idea. Peter McCurtin, editor at Belmont-Tower, wrote the first 30 pages or so, and hired me to finish it. I really don't know why Peter didn't finish it, or what happened. Perhaps he had more commitments than he could handle, because in addition to being an editor, he also wrote novels.

I seem to recall that he left BT around that time, and was replaced by Milburn Smith. I don't know why Peter left, but he embarked on a career of writing novels full time. Occasionally I ran into him on the street, because he also lived in Hell's Kitchen. One day he asked if I knew of inexpensive office space he could rent, because his apartment was too noisy. I told him that if I knew about inexpensive, quiet office space, I'd rent it myself.

I was very fond of Peter's warm, affable personality, especially his sardonic sense of humor. He influenced my writing tremendously, and I'm very sorry he's no longer with us. I hope he's in a quiet corner of heaven now, with a good working typewriter.

I don't remember much about writing The Camp. I just picked up where Peter left off and kept going, creating scenes, situations and characters out of my lurid imagination. Sometimes I wonder what would've become of me if I didn't have a lurid imagination. I might've been a doctor, lawyer or engineer, and led a decent middle class life, instead of low rent paperback commando. But I've never been a very decent person, so I probably ended up where I belonged.


Marty McKee said...

Glad you finally read this. What if we have the only two remaining copies of this?

Jack Badelaire said...

Funny enough, there *are* a couple of military bases up in the wilds of Maine. There's one near Brunswick, and another I believe near or on Rangeley Lake. I think they both deal with Navy SEAL training.

RJR said...

Great story. The helicopter story reminds me of the day my publisher called me and said they were going to put a scar on the Gunsmiths face starting with book #2, so I had to dictate a scene over the phone to explain how he got the scar.

Matthew said...

Walter Gibson had to rewrite his first Shadow novel to include a scene in Chinatown, because the editors chose to with a painting of a Mandarin on the cover of the magazine.

Peter Brandvold said...

Thanks to Len for the behind-the-scenes look at Peter McCurtin. I've read quite a few of his westerns and really enjoyed them, though he was one of the best at his time. I've always wondered about his personal life but haven't been able to find much on the Net about. Till now. (I do remember reading something about him writing in a notorious old hotel, going to movies, and eating in "automats," whatever they are. Don't remember where I read it.)

halojones-fan said...

Cover art: Jack Palance versus Colonel Klink?

halojones-fan said...

An automat is sort of a self-serve McDonald's. The idea is making a comeback now that fast food workers think they ought to make twenty dollars an hour.

allan said...

now that fast food workers think they ought to make twenty dollars an hour

Earning a living wage is downright un-American.