Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Storyteller

The Storyteller, by Harold Robbins
January, 1987  Pocket Books

A few years ago I reviewed an obscure paperback titled Rich Dreams, which was a roman a clef based on the sordid life of Harold Robbins. Robbins himself broke ties with the husband-and-wife authors of that novel, the Barzmans, and possibly planned legal action against them, given that they had apparently lifted their material from stories Robbins had told them about his past. Perhaps the main reason Robbins was pissed was because he was planning a “Harold Robbins-type” novel about himself. 

Unfortunately, The Storyteller was published long after Robbins’s star had faded. If it had been published even a decade before it might have been another massive bestseller. But Goodbye, Janette was the last Robbins novel to perform well, with Descent From Xanadu (still my favorite Robbins yet) not doing well and The Storyteller following suit. Robbins himself was having a rough time in his personal life as well, having suffered a stroke a few years before that left him incapacitated for a long stretch.

Even more unfortunately, The Storyteller doesn’t have much going for it, once again coming off as a tired and dispirited work from an author who doesn’t give a shit. The only thing salvaging it is the bizarre, raunchy sex that peppers the novel – actually, there aren’t so many “sex scenes” per se, but there’s a ton of off-the-wall dirty talk and general sordidness. The sex scenes themselves usually happen off-page, with Robbins leading up to them with lots of “let’s fuck” sort of dialog exchanges. But as for plot, characterization, theme, forget it. The novel is as shallow as a kiddie pool.

One thing that can be said for The Storyteller is it’s a damn quick read. I took this one with me on a cruise, and I managed to read about a hundred pages a day. And that’s with no skimming. The book runs 341 pages of large print, lots of dialog and white space, but as usual Robbins keeps the story moving. The guy, despite his faults, was a master of compelling narrative drive, which is a very odd thing because nothing really ever happens.

The novel features a prologue and epilogue narrated by Robbins’s stand-in for himself, Joe Crown, a mega-bestselling novelist. This opening and closing section is either set in 1985 (the year the novel was published in hardcover) or 1979, I’m not sure – there’s textual evidence it might be the latter, given that at the very end of the third-person portion of the novel the characters, in 1949, wonder where they will be in thirty years. Not that it much matters. The Joe Crown of these first-person sections doesn’t tell us much about himself and spends most of his time in a hospital bed, his leg broken in a car accident. From his bed he flashes back to his youth, and the novel begins.

It’s 1942 and Joe Kronowitz is 22 years old and makes his living writing luird puld fiction for Spicy Tales magazine as “Joe Crown.” To get this out of the way asap, do not go into this novel hoping for a peek into the pulp-writing biz of the 1940s. All we learn is that Joe has written a few stories about a nublile adventurer named Honey Darling who often gets her clothes lopped off by the swords of horny sheiks. But how the pulp business works and why got Joe into it is unexplored. Indeed, what exactly compels Joe to write is itself unexplored. If you are looking for a book that explores the mindset of a writer, forget that, too.

That is the biggest puzzler about The Storyteller. Joe Crown is such a cipher that you feel nothing for him, and he appears to care about writing about as much as Harold Robbins himself did. Like his creator, Joe is more of an accountant at heart, more concerned with investments and money. Why he writes, even what he writes, is glossed over. And for that, Joe is actually more of a screenwriter than a novelist. The novel occurs between 1942 and 1949, and during that time Joe writes several screenplays (we only get the plot for like one or two of them) and spends most of the time working on his first novel, which is apparently about his youth in Brooklyn.

Also adding to Joe’s cipher-like qualities is his dodging the WWII draft. His father, who co-owns a chicken shack in Brooklyn, uses his connections to get Joe out of service. Why doesn’t Joe want to serve his country and possibly kill Hitler? It’s not stated. In fact Joe is such a middling, disinterested character that you start to get annoyed with him. But as part of his draft-dodging Joe officially becomes “Joe Crown.” More focus is placed on his flirtatious relationship with first-cousin Motty, an (apparently?) cute young lady who has lived with Joe and his family since childhood.

Oh yeah, Joe Crown scores a helluva bunch in this novel, by the way. He sets the precedent for a Harold Robbins character in fact. The dude sleeps with so many women that you eventually lose track of them. Yet Joe never works for it, with women, even before he’s a famous screenwriter, basically offering themselves to him. One can clearly see The Storyteller almost being like some vicarious excercize for the old, stroke-ridden Harold Robbins of 1985, who fucks sundry women through his fictional stand-in.

Motty is engaged to Stevie, Joe’s older brother, a boring loser who is studying to become a doctor. Meanwhile Joe, as part of his deal with the mobsters who got him out of the war, runs drugs for a muscular black dude named Jamaica who lives with several black women, each of whom he calls “Lolita.” (One of ‘em treats Joe to a graphically-depicted blowjob, of course; in fact, “frenching,” ie oral sex, runs rampant in this particular novel.) Joe will become so used to dealing drugs that he’ll continue to do so even when he eventually moves to Hollywood, not that Robbins makes much of this subplot or even explains it. There’s an even-more-unexplored bit where Joe temporarily manages a whorehouse.

But then he lands a bigshot literary agent, the (apparently lovely) Laura Shelton, who sells a story Joe wrote (stealing the idea from a story Motty told him) about a store security guard who falls in love with a would-be shoplifter. Now Universal wants to make it into a film starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. Joe’s been hired to come to Hollywood to help write the script. Oh, and he’s gotten Motty pregnant after their first and only screw – Motty being a virgin, it’s a ten-pointer – and she’s fallen in love with him, so she’s coming along to Hollywood. 

The next section is set in 1945-1946 and Joe’s a veteran Hollywood screenwriter. He’s been fucking his way through the studio system, not that any of it is described or that he had to work for it. In Robbins’s world, these nymph starlets will actually have sex with even the screenwriter to get a job, which goes against the grain of one of Hollywood’s more infamous jokes (ie, these gals will screw anyone but the writer, because everyone knows writers don’t mean shit in Hollywood). Motty’s getting sick of Joe’s womanizing, and she’s falling in love with her boss, the owner of a JC Penney-style department chain. Oh and Joe and Motty now have a daughter who is so inconsequential to the novel that I didn’t even bother jotting down her name for future reference.

Joe gets a gig to write a script for Judi Antoine, the top pin-up model for his studio, Triple S (a sort of Warner Brothers analogue). Judi is known on the lot as “the Screamer” due to how noisy she is while screwing. (Even Joe had her, of course.) She can’t act so Joe comes up with ripping off one of his old Honey Darling tales – an interesting, unexplored tidbit here is that Joe mentions he’d have to be an “idiot” to tell the Hollywood boys that he used to write for the pulps. The movie is Warrior Queen of the Amazons and features a half-nude Judi and a bevy of similarly-unclad Amazons in the jungle; it will become a major hit.

But when Motty, who is having her own affair (and indeed is planning to leave Joe), comes home early from a business trip and finds Joe with his cock up the ass of Rosa, their strumpet of a 16-year-old live-in maid, she files for divorce. (Rosa for her part is a virgin, given to walking around in a transparent blouse with no underwear, and claims she enjoyed giving her father and brothers handjobs; just “a way of life” in her native Mexico!) Joe agrees to the divorce, only to discover that Motty is in fact already pregnant with the other dude’s child. He signs the papers and neither Motty nor Joe’s daughter are ever mentioned again.

We go into the final section in a long sequence set in 1949. Joe’s now in Rome, working for a De Laurentis-style film producer named Santini. Joe’s got a sexy black-Italian secretary named Marissa whom he has bunches of casual sex with (plus she enjoys DRINKING HIS PISS; see below). He’s also secretly getting some from Mara, the busty Bardot-esque superstar actress girlfriend of a Mafia dude. This section loses the entire “storyteller” aspect of the title, instead more focused on Joe’s life among the jet-set, in particular a long, raunchy sequence on the party yacht of the depraved Contessa, who switch-hits and likes to invite young women into her opulent room.

Oh but meanwhile Joe’s been long-carrying a torch for his agent, Laura Shelton, practically begging her to come be with him in Italy. For her part, Laura is more concerned with getting Joe to finish his book (an unintentionally humorous angle of the novel is that Joe is always being forced by other characters to write; he clearly has no interest in it himself, same as his creator). Also, Laura doesn’t want to become “just another girl” in Joe’s ultra-hectic sex life. As if! But after many misadventures with Marissa and Maria (and those two similar names don’t get confusing at all) Joe finally retreats to Cannes and gets Laura to come over to Europe and be with him.

After more partying with the Contessa (including a sickly bizarre part where the insatiable Contessa has Joe dip his fingers in cocaine and then ram them up her friggin’ womanhood), Joe finally scores with Laura, and they’re in love. They take a cruise back to New York, where Robbins quickly and perfunctorily wraps up the book via the “thematic” angle of Joe’s dad retiring to Florida, closing down his chicken place. But man Robbins misses so many balls this time out, with all these half-assed subplots he doesn’t bother to pay off, or when he does pay them off they’re subplots he forgot or neglected to even set up!

The final pages take us back to the first-person narrative of Joe himself (though Robbins slips in and out of the tense, sometimes writing “Joe” instead of “I”), where Joe Crown, now old and walking with a cane, enjoys the fruit of his labors, being awarded some “bestselling author of all time” prize or some such nonsense. Most importantly we learn here that Joe has been married since 1949 to Laura, so that worked out, however it’s intimated that this hasn’t stopped him from, of course, screwing a helluva bunch of other women in the ensuing decades. But we are to understand that Laura is his one true love; Robbins attempts to end the novel with one of his customary sentimental touches, but it falls flat this time. Really flat.

Harold Robbins was never considered a literary heavyweight, but his writing is even more amateurish and juvenile than ever in The Storyteller, with such blunders as:

“It’s an honor and pleasure to meet you, Mr. Crown,” the Italian said, in Italian-accented English.

The novel hardly has any flash or spark, and it’s overwhelmed by mundanity. Robbins rarely if ever describes any settings, locations, or even characters. I don’t think Joe himself is even described once; about the most we learn is that he’s well-hung, and even that isn’t mentioned until toward the end. Female characters rarely get descriptions of their features, hair color, or anything – even their bodies are seldom exploited, which should be mandatory in the trash fiction ethos. Of course we’ll get occasional mentions of “upthrusting breasts” and whatnot, but good lord, would it have been so hard to even tell us what some of these women even look like??

But hell, we read Harold Robbins for the naughty stuff. And as if this review isn’t long enough already, I’d like to finish off with a few sleazy treats taken from the pages of The Storyteller that made me laugh out loud. Seriously, brace yourself for the last one, which features the aforementioned urine-focused scene with Marissa:

“Don’t talk!” she said. “Just tear me apart and fuck me!” -- pg. 89

“Fantastic!” Her anus was as soft as a velvet glove. -- pg. 219

Suddenly she held him still. “Don’t move!” she ordered. 

He glanced up at her. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m starting to pee. Ooh,” she whispered ecstatically. “Now you do it inside me.” 

“I can’t pee through a hard on,” he said. 

“Yes, you can,” she said. “I’ll show you.” Quickly she placed a finger under his testicles and pressed a nerve. His urine came pouring forth like a spout. At the same moment, she took his phallus from her and lifted it still urinating onto her face and gulped as much of it as she could catch in her mouth. When the urine had stopped she replaced him instantly inside her. She moved her face close to him. “I love the taste of your pee,” she said. “It’s like sweet sugar.” -- pg. 258


John Nail said...

Great review, as always. I read this book when it first came out and, honestly, the only things I remembered from it were the first person prologue and epilogue (which I found irritating), a hand-job on the subway (occurring within the first 25 pages, if I'm not mistaken), and the golden shower stuff (which freaked me out at the time; now I just roll my eyes). As you mention in your review, not a whole lot happens, other than every woman Joe Crown meets wants to fuck him.

The Storyteller was also the novel that finally broke my Harold Robbins habit. From the moment I read Dreams Die First in 1982 I was reading every Robbins book I could get my hands on, regularly purchasing his novels at a local discount drug store that had a rack devoted to Harold Robbins. But The Storyteller made me see the emperor had no clothes, just like his protagonists. I didn't give up on Robbins so much as take a break from him, and when I did return I restricted myself to his pre-1980 titles (at least for awhile; I did read some of his '90s stuff allegedly ghostwritten by his wife). That said, I'd be curious to find out if you plan on reading Spellbinder. That's Robbins' take on televangelism, and it should be no surprise to you that televangelists get all kinds of pussy (though it's one of Robbins' least sexually explicit novels). I recall reading an article on Larry Flynt in which there's mention of Flynt and his wife Althea having Harold and Grace Robbins as dinner guests along with -- wait for it -- Crystal Cathedral found Robert Schuller! This was during Flynt's born-again (but still sleazy) period. I would've loved to been a fly on the wall for that gathering! I recall the article made mention of the fact that Schuller appeared rather ill-at-ease in such questionable company. I wonder if Harold sent him a copy of Spellbinder? No, Schuller would have to buy a copy.

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

Nice review! I've considered reading this novel, but it sounds from the review that I'm not missing anything if I don't. John's advice to stick to pre-1980 novels sounds like good advice to follow. I have Spellbinder but I have not yet read it. Hearing that it's one of Robbins's least sexually explicit novels is kind of a bummer though.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comments, guys. John, loved your memories about The Storyteller. I do have Spellbinder, but haven't read it -- I've been putting it off for the exact reason you mentioned. (I also find it interesting that plotwise it seems very similar to Burt Hirschfeld's Tilt!.) I figure I'll work my way through Robbins's more raunchy stuff before I get to his more "respectable" novels. For that matter, I still haven't read The Carpetbaggers, even though it's another I have (as well as the possibly-ghostwritten sequel, The Raiders). I think the next one I tackle will either be The Piranhas or The Lonely Lady.

Michael G said...

I read The Lonely Lady two years ago. It has a strangely disjointed feel to it. Scenes just...happen. The narrative drive you've mentioned a few times about Robbins seems to be missing. But, there are some scenes that have an odd dream-like quality about them. It is easy reading, since it has that familiar stripped down style of 1970's Robbins. Apparently this was the period when Robbins was so successful that his drafts were untouchable. He wouldn't allow any revisions.
It certainly doesn't compare to The Adventurers.
One of these days someone is going to have to work out Robbins' technique. Just how did he make such prosaic narratives so compelling to read? It's really strange.

Johny Malone said...

Have you read any of the "Harold Robbins Presents" series?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Michael, I really need to read The Lonely Lady one of these days. Good question on what makes his narratives so compelling. And Johny, I have one of those "Presents" books, can't recall which, but haven't read it. I wonder how involved HR really was. I think I read somewhere that they were stopgap releases, to keep his name in print, during his long writing break between The Storyteller (1986) and The Piranhas (1991).

John Nail said...

I need to qualify my comment about the sexual explicitness of Spellbinder: it's Robbins' least sexually explicit novel published in the 1980s. It's still pretty dirty, but it's damn near PG-13-rated when compared to Goodbye, Janette or Descent from Xanadu.

I'd also be curious to read a review of one of the "Harold Robbins Presents" series, if only to find out if they are worth the bother.

Felicity Walker said...

“By the way, I’m Italian,” she said, Italianly.