The Smuggler #7: Welcome To Oblivion, by Paul Petersen
June, 1975 Pocket Books
Grab your hankies, everyone – The Smuggler comes to an end with this volume. Seriously though, it’s another tedious trawl of a read, 200+ pages of characters sitting around and talking – and usually the sole topic of their conversation is hero Eric “The Smuggler” Saveman, that perfect paragon of human perfection who is perfect in every way.
It’s four months after the previous volume, the date given as May, 1972. Eric is on trial, indicted by none other than the Supreme Court for his “treasonous” actions in the climax of the last book. As we’ll recall, Eric expressly went against the President’s orders so as to stave off a war with China or something, and now his ass is in trouble. It appears that Petersen set his series in the recent past (the first volume was set in 1969) because he wanted to bash Nixon a little more – this volume brings up a subplot that the government is corrupt and at novel’s end Eric wonders who he is even working for.
The end result is that the Supreme Court puts Eric on suspension – for at least 4 and a half years, or until the ’76 election. Now we delve into the tedious, ultra slow-moving section of the book where Eric says goodbye to all his friends, like blue-eyed black guy Joshua Kane and his wife Belinda, and Eric’s dad, and all these other characters, because Eric is no longer a ZED agent and can’t associate with any of them because they are top-secret people living top-secret lives. Even Eric’s home in Connecticut, the pretentiously-named paradise that is Cascade, is ransacked by ZED staffers; the bastards even take his guns, though Eric still has a couple of his own. Not that he uses any of them.
Indeed, action is pretty damn sparse in Welcome To Oblivion. And the title, by the way, is couresy an offhand comment Eric makes when he’s canned; “Welcome to oblivion,” he mutters to himself, in what will prove to be an incredibly lame bit of foreshadowing. Because this installment’s villain turns out to be named “Dr. Oblivion,” folks! But anyway Eric goes around saying so long to everyone, then decides to head out of town…and on the way he does what any other recently-fired secret agent would do. He sees a softball game in progress as he’s driving along the road and he decides to join in(!).
On this incredibly hamfisted “plot development” the entire novel hinges; Eric ends up with a hot tomboy on one of the teams. Her name is “Alysson O.” and she talks Eric into heading to Manhattan with her in her mobile home(!). While Eric’s driving she goes in the back to change and comes out with long blonde hair and a skintight dress that shows off her “full breasts.” She relates that her dad wanted a boy and raised her to act like one or whatever, so she indulges in the occasional baseball game and shit like that. It’s all just so ridiculous as to be awe-inspiring; Eric was just fired by the Supreme Court a day or two ago.
As if that weren’t enough, Alysson reveals that she’s a fan of Eric’s – she even has, believe it or not, scrapbooks devoted to his quarterback days at Stanford years ago. And that’s scrapbooks friends, ie in the plural! Man, The Smuggler is just an ego-trip of the highest order…as we’ll recall, Eric Saveman is a demigod among mortals, better looking, better muscled, better skilled than anyone, and smarter to boot. And when he’s not on the page, the other characters sit around and talk about him. Or think about him. Eric Saveman is the sole human being of any importance in the world of The Smuggler, with entire government conspiracies centered around him and a master criminal who has even devoted six years of planning to draft him.
And look at that…judging from the cover, Eric Saveman sort of looks a little like…why, he looks a lot like Paul Petersen! Wait a minute, it is Paul Petersen!
Petersen attempts to be going for more of an ensemble piece this time, with other ZED entities, in particular Joshua and Belinda, getting their own subplots…and yet all they do is talk about Eric! Or think about him! The fact that Alysson O. actually kept several scrapbooks devoted to Eric Saveman’s glory years as a friggin’ college quarterback is actually just one example of many such Eric-worshipping moments throughout the book. But at the very least Alysson turns out to be a great ultra-‘70s sort of babe, right up there with the New Age occult babe of volume #3.
For one, her Manhattan pad is an ultramod dream – it’s got “platforms” that are like rooms on elevators, and with the push of a button you can bring different “rooms” down to you. This is explained at length – of course, Eric actually knows the guy who designed the place, ‘cause Eric Saveman knows everyone and everything – but I did dig the “music room,” which is stuffed with LPs. It’s suddenly an analog geek’s delight as Petersen starts namedropping vintage stereo gear – Alysson has MacIntosh equipment, a Garrard turntable, and a Shure cartridge. Eric’s such a superman he even fixes the “contact strips” of the faulty Shure in a matter of seconds so the music can blast.
And what music do they play? Welcome To Oblivion features a lot of period details, which is cool if you’re into stuff like that, as I am, so we get various mentions of rock or jazz groups of the day; Eric himself plays some Hubert Laws before leaving Cascade, and here at Allyson’s he tells her he “doesn’t understand” Miles Davis or John Coltrane, so Alysson decides on some more soothing jazz as the two of them get down to the dirty business of finally screwing – but Petersen, for once, cuts away from the shenanigans! Yet more evidence that the depraved, graphic second volume was courtesy another author…though maybe that one, which as I recall was written in a more rough-hewn style, was the work of Petersen, and all the other volumes, which are a bit more polished but not nearly as depraved, are courtesy the mysterious co-writer David Oliphant, who is only credited in small print on the copyright page.
Not that Petersen (or Oliphant) doesn’t give us a little sleaze here and there. We come back to the Eric-Alysson thing mid-boink, as if the author(s) realized we needed a little something to keep us from falling totally into a stupor. I mean The Smuggler isn’t as boring as Dakota, but it’s definitely up there (or down there, I guess), and it doesn’t help that this final volume is mostly made up of talking, talking, talking. And usually all the talk’s about the same topic – you guessed it, Eric Saveman. But there are more topical ‘70s flourishes about, like when some of Alysson’s jet-setter friends come over (one of the lovelies, wouldn’t you believe it, immediately hits on Eric!!) for a bona fide cocaine party, and Eric after a little deliberation partakes in the coke bowl as it’s passed around. This makes Eric the second of two men’s adventure protagonists I know of who snorts cocaine, the other being Johnny Rock in Len Levinson’s The Sharpshooter #7.
Things finally pick up when Eric meets Alysson’s dad, Dr. Oblivion. He’s a spare guy with a bald head and a nondescript demeanor and no one seems too taken aback that his name’s friggin’ Dr. Oblivion. They’re jumped by some thugs outside a Manhattan restaurant and Eric of course makes short work of them, this being the second action scene in the book, about a hundred pages in. But it’s all a ruse, the thugs secretly in the employ of Oblivion, and the good doctor drugs Eric’s drink and the Smuggler’s out for the account. Doctor and daughter casually discuss everyone’s favorite topic right over his unconscious form – Dr. Oblivion has planned this for six years at least, and his goal is to turn Eric.
And yes, Eric met Alysson because he decided join a softball game on the spur of the moment…well, this is vaguely and quickly explained away as like Providence or something, at least on Alysson and the Doctor’s part. Eric comes to in Montana, in the doctor’s lair, where he’s to be brought into the man’s employ…to do something. At this point Petersen seems to be writing a James Bond script in the manner of the Roger Moore years; Dr. Oblivion has this high-tech SCUDA thing, self-contained underwater drilling apparatus, which he plans to cause some global havoc with. Oh, and he’s got a forest of coca plants, ie millions of dollars of cocaine, so Eric knows the dude’s loaded, yet he’s sure someone else is footing the bill. Eventually Eric will learn that Dr. O even bought out a portion of the US government to frame Eric, and also many of them are conspiring with him in his SCUDA plot.
The finale sees Eric almost too quickly escaping, and calling in some of the students from the nearby Deep Security School, where Eric himself was a student in the second volume. At one point they get caught on SCUDA, where Alysson joins the cause – mostly because her dad decides to make her a casualty of war, to die from lack of air in the sealed-off, inescapable SCUDA! “Perhaps if you’d been a son,” he regretfully tells her over the ship loudspeaker. That’s cold, man! And while the other characters are freaking out because there’s no way to escape the SCUDA, guess who keeps a level head and comes up with a way to get out??
From here we have an almost off-hand climax in Venezuela, to which Dr. Oblivion has absconded. Whereas the previous volumes at least had some semblance of climactic fireworks, this one continues on the blasé vibe, with Eric and team surprising Dr. O and Eric handing the doctor a pistol to finish himself off. As mentioned the novel ends with Eric back at ZED, but wondering if it’s all worth it – the novel (and series) ends on a Watergate joke, which would imply that the “something treasonous is going on” subplot that runs throughout is intended as a reference to the soon-to-happen (in 1972, that is) Watergate fiasco.
I wonder if Petersen and Oliphant had this ending in mind all along. We know from publicity reports that Petersen got a contract to write eight books in the series – my hunch is still that the unpublished eighth volume was actually something between volumes two and three, as discussed in my review of the third volume. In other words I don’t think the eighth volume was one written after Welcome To Oblivion, as the series definitely seems to conclude here, and gives some indication at least why Petersen set the series in the recent past – perhaps he was leading up to Eric getting caught up in the corruption of the Nixon administration?
Who knows. The important thing is it’s all finally over.