Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Aquanauts #6: Whirlwind Beneath The Sea

The Aquanauts #6: Whirlwind Beneath The Sea, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1972  Manor Books

I continue to ponder what exactly Manning Lee Stokes was up to with his work on The Aquanauts (which with this volume moves over to Manor Books). Once again he’s taken what is ostensibly an undersea commando-type plot and turned it into a lurid crime thriller more akin to the crime paperbacks book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel would later “produce.” And he overwrites to the max; Whirlwind Beneath The Sea comes in at a whopping 220 pages of super small, super dense print.

It’s November, 1970 (meaning this takes place before the previous volume, which was set in February, 1971?), and the titular whirlwind has already occurred before the novel starts; a massive tidal wave has hammered Pakistan, killing half a million people and ultimately killing half a million more in its aftermath. We will learn this tidal wave was accidentally caused by a secret Russian undersea base. It just takes a helluva long time to get there. In the meantime Stokes is up to his usual tricks of padding the story out to unbelievable proportions; the guy’s like the Jimi Hendrix of padding.

For once though Stokes doesn’t bore us with tedious stuff about old Admiral Hank Coffin worrying over this latest caper; to be sure, we do get this stuff, as apparently it’s an integral part of Stokes’s template for the series, but it’s a lot shorter than in previous books. In fact it’s practically streamlined how quickly it goes down; a CIA stringer comes upon a dead Russian frogman in scuba gear among the piles of Pakistani corpses, discovers upon his body a code book, and another CIA worker figures out that this frogman was one of their undercover agents who was trying to get out some important intel before he was caught in an underwater shitstorm.

Well anyway it all leads up to hero Tiger Shark and his handler Captain Greene heading for a “Godforsaken spot” of Australia, where the rest of the novel plays out. The idea is that Tiger Shark will eventually sneak his way via KRAB into the Indian Ocean and figure out what the hell the Russians have been up to this time. He and Greene stay in an old abandoned hotel built decades ago, we learn via needless backstory, by a prospector named “Harry Stokes.” Along with them is the mandatory sexy native babe: an Australian Navy intelligence official named Hillary Green who turns out to be a bisexual nymphomaniac with suicidal tendencies!

As if that weren’t enough, the CIA has also set them up with a notoriously-untrustworthy contractor named Neil “The Walrus” McCreary, who might even be working for the Reds. Officially he’s here for “security” on the desolate site, but really he’s here just to add tension to the narrative. But good gravy is his presence hard to buy, given that from the start he’s fighting with everyone and strutting around like he owns the place. A big muscle-bound bastard who loves to fight, the Walrus is really the hero, or perhaps anti-hero, of the novel Stokes wants to write, instead of this “Aquanauts” stuff – a sleazy crime thriller in which the Walrus plans to get revenge on old flame Hillary Green, who despite being a “sheila” (apparently Australian slang for whore) with an insatiable drive for men, has now gone “lez” and might be having an affair with a Chinese lady who, unbeknownst to Hillary, happens to be a Red China agent. Oh, and Hillary’s being counseled by a sex therapist who is in the midst of having a sex-change operation!

Honestly folks, this is the plot of Whirlwind Beneath The Sea, despite what the back cover proclaims. There’s a part midway through where Tiger, investigating the nuked ruins of the secret underwater Russian base, is abducted and taken inside, and all this works itself out within several pages, whereas the Walrus-Hillary-sex therapist subplot takes up the majority of the conclusion. And also whereas you’d expect that underwater sea base to be filled with, oh I don’t know, maybe a bunch of hotstuff Russian scientist babes just burnin’ and yearnin’ for a male visitor, ‘cause this is one of the few genres that would embrace such a development, instead it’s a dank hellhole with depleting oxygen staffed by a handful of emaciated, half-dead Russian dudes.

Turns out these guys somehow escaped the nuclear blast which destroyed the majority of their habitat and ultimately wiped out a million Pakistanis. Now they’re doomed, their oxygen running low and their own people out to kill them – the USSR wants to prevent the world from finding out they were behind the tidal wave; these scientists were down here experimenting on an earthquake trigger to be used in warfare, but do to miscalculations ended up destroying themselves. Tiger, in I believe the first such scene in the series, takes out a Russian sub that was apparently scouting the area for the habitat, which is now hidden among the rubble. This part features Tiger using KRAB to shadow the sub, evade its torpedos, and then blast it out of the sea; afterwards he discovers the habitat while swimming around in his special underwater suit, but this turns out to be all there is so far as “aquatic” stuff goes. Tiger’s caught by frogmen and hauled inside.

Promptly shackled to a bed, Tiger begins sussing out which of the four Russians he can manipulate into helping him escape. It’s much more in the suspense mold than the action sort of thing you might expect or want. And as mentioned Tiger makes it out in what is just a few pages, Stokes leaving much of the action off-page. It’s memorable, though, with the Russian subs bombing the habitat as Tiger makes his desperate escape with the scientist he’s managed to turn to his cause; a scientist who promises to spill the beans on the world stage and reveal that the USSR was behind the tidal wave. Here also we get to see Tiger’s Sea Pistol in use, in one of the very few such instances in the series; one of the Russians gets hold of it and shoots another, and Stokes mentions lots of exploding blood and bits and whatnot.

And folks that’s it for what passes for the action. From here we’re into a long haul of long-simmering plotting and counterplotting. Here the Walrus takes center stage, and he’s a hateful bastard who plods his way through nowhere Australia, bullying and bossing. He knows something is going on with Tiger and Greene but for security reasons he’s kept out of the loop, but ultimately he plans to sell the info to his Red Chinese contact, who as mentioned happens to be in a hot lesbian relationship with Hillary Green. It does go on and on, and good grief is it sleazy. I mean super ultra sick sleazy, where you start to wonder about Stokes’s mental health.

I’ve mentioned before in a few reviews that Stokes has a predilection for including a scene in which a woman is strangled to death while being raped, or she’ll be raped and then strangled, or, more often, strangled and then raped. Well, Stokes apparently decided to set the bar higher this time. Walrus, wearing a mask, breaks into the office of the sex therapist who counsels Hillary, looking to steal Hillary’s documents to use as blackmail – that Hillary has sapphic tendencies could be disastrous for her military career. But to cover himself Walrus has decided to make this look like a sex crime. And folks…brace yourself. The therapist as mentioned is in the midst of “the operation,” so when it comes time for the rape, Walrus has to go to work on her nether regions with his blade, and then it’s on to the customary rape-strangling we’ve now grown accustomed to in the oeuvre of Manning Lee Stokes…

This stuff is just so over the top that you almost have to shake your head in admiration. I mean despite the fact that none of it has anything to do with something even remotely “aquanaut” in nature, it’s just so lurid and crazy that you kind of don’t mind. Anyway this part with the Walrus is right up there in the “ultra-sleaze” category as the opening pages of Stokes’s later Corporate Hooker. But afterwards we’re back into the tedium; Tiger doesn’t come off too well in the finale, caught unawares and bashed on the back of the head by Walrus, then tied up. Stokes is so deadset on his blackmail subplot that, when Tiger has the expected sex with nympho Hillary, Stokes leaves it off-page and only informs us of it in passing!

In fact, the so-called climax plods on this same course; Tiger, having found a note hidden for him by Hillary, gathers together Coffin and some Australian cops (Greene in the hospital with a broken ankle) and stakes out the Chinese lady agent’s home, waiting for Walrus to show with the Russian scientist he abducted from Tiger – ie the scientist Tiger was able to smuggle out of the now-destroyed Soviet aqualab. Tiger and Walrus get in a rock-‘em, sock-‘em fistfight while another character kills everyone else off-page before turning the gun on herself.

And that’s all she wrote for Whirlwind Beneath The Sea. The main plot – ie the massive loss of life accidentally caused by the Russians – is swept under the carpet, given that there are no witnesses to it, thus the Russians can’t be held accountable on the world stage, etc, etc. But ultimately that plot is just framework for Manning Lee Stokes to indulge in the slick, sleazy crime noir he really wants to write.

Monday, September 24, 2018

High Fliers

High Fliers, by Jim Esposito
December, 2016  CreateSpace Publishing

Mining similar territory as the earlier Night Crossing, High Fliers is a smuggling adventure comedy self-published by a guy who used to write for Creem and who, per his site, was once referred to by Grace Slick as “the weirdest person” she ever met. If that isn’t high praise I don’t know what is. I discovered this one during a random Google search for dope-centric novels set in the ‘70s(!), and I have to say I enjoyed it, other than for a few questionable parts.

The novel seems to be set in 1973, or at least no earlier than that – dates are mostly divined by the rock albums that are mentioned, and the latest one appears to be Lynrd Skynrd’s first, which was released in ’73. And Esposito does sort of capture the spirit of the era, with copious grass being smoked and coke being inhaled, though sadly there’s a bit more of the latter than the former; High Fliers is more of a coke novel than a dope novel, as our intrepid anti-heroes, The Ace and The Kid, seem to inhale a few tons of it. Kid’s recurring line of “Toot! Toot!”, asking the Ace for a snort, appears almost every other page, and while initially it’s funny it becomes tiresome.

But then this same criticism ultimately can be levelled at the novel itself, as its comedic, madcap tone eventually wears thin and you wish for a bit more meat to the tale, more depth to the characters. In this regard I suspect it’s probably better enjoyed in short doses, so to speak, and Esposito seems to have written it with that intention in mind, as each chapter is an “Episode,” sometimes starting off with a recap of the material we just read in the previous chapter. So maybe an “Episode” a week or such might yield a more rewarding read than tackling it all over a few days, which is what I did. 

Anyway the action takes place near Gainesville, Florida, and it’s sometime in the early to mid 1970s. The Ace and The Kid are former ‘Nam pilots who now make their living flying grass and coke across the border for a dealer named Wheeler. (“Wheeler-dealer,” I just got that…) Esposito has a habit of rarely describing his characters; about the most we get is that the Ace wears his “old Vietnam flight jacket.” But otherwise what these two look like must be determined by the reader’s own imagination. This was a curious decision on the author’s part, but also it’s an indication of the fable-like vibe of the novel, as we not only don’t get descriptions but we seldom if ever get a look into the Ace or the Kid’s thoughts.

There is a surreal vibe to the tale; again, it’s more of a comedy than a straight novel, and thus we have our heroes attacked in the Florida skies by a white Fokker D Triplane. This mysterious pilot, The Winged Crusader, has been shooting down drug-smuggling planes for the past few months, and Ace and Kid are his latest prey. They crash their Lockheed Lodestar (dubbed “The Flying Joint”), but there’s no tension or danger. Indeed they pull themselves out of the muck and run right into a sexy blonde – at least I assume so, as Esposito doesn’t describe her much, either. And the biggest indication that High Fliers was written in the tepid modern era and not actually in the free-wheeling ‘70s is that there’s zero exploitation fo the female characters; about the most we get is that this blonde, Dawn, wears her skimpy clothing “well.”

Despite having these two interesting lead characters, even though they’re ciphers and all, Esposito has this curious insistence upon filling up a goodly portion of the book with irritating, overlong sequences about the Fokker-flying pilot who shot them down. His name is Buck Jr. and he’s the son of a famous Christian minister. We get tons and tons of Christian bashing in the book, which is fine, I mean I know that’s a safe space for left-leaning authors (to complete the mandatory requirements, Esposito also mocks cops and makes the Feds look like imbeciles), but it does go on and on. And to make it worse, it’s annoying and seems to come from a different novel.

But then, there are huge tracts of High Fliers that abruptly switch over to Christian-bashing nonsense…most egregious being a part midway through where Buck Jr. is stranded in a small Florida town and we get this overlong dialog sequence where some hustler tries to get the local preacher to join a consortium of corporate-style churches or somesuch. I mean by this point we get it, you know? But beyond that it’s just a random and ultimately pointless flogging of an already-dead horse, and I say again it’s as if Esposito had two unrelated manuscripts, one a dope-smuggling adventure and the other a spoof of Christian ministries, and merged them into a single disjointed novel.

And all of it’s really strange because, minus this stuff, the novel is fun and does capture the vibe of the ‘70s, at least in so far as everyone’s either smoking grass or tooting coke while blasting the latest rock album. In that regard most mention is made of JJ Cale, but our heroes are also fans of Who’s Next. Deep Purple’s Machine Head is passed off as “too heavy,” and that friggin’ Lynrd Skynrd gets played a lot as well, while Ace and Kid hang out with Dawn near Gainesville – and, true to the madcap vibe of the novel, Dawn has a twin sister named Eve, so there’s a blonde for both our heroes.

But none of these characters are given even a modicum of personality. There are a lot of missed opportunities in High Fliers, and the fact that I even noticed this should be testament enough to the fact that the novel is so enjoyable that you ultimately expect more from it. I mean if it was pure shit, who’d care, but Espisito has delivered a fun concept, and he writes with a flair you’d expect from a veteran rock reporter. But then, he also spends way too much time with Buck Jr., at the expense of the infinitely more interesting Ace and Kid.

And Buck Jr. gets a lot of narrative time. He lives in opulence in the so-called Promised Land, ie the paradisiacal grounds owned by his famous minister of a father. Each section in the opening chapters is the same; Buck wakes to a beautiful day and waits for God to speak to him. And when he gets the divine word, Buck presses a button and descends into a Batcave-like lair in which his all-white Fokker Triplane waits for him. Buck dons his all-white pilot getup and becomes the Winged Crusader, and goes out to gun down dope-smuggling planes. It doesn’t take long for us to learn that Buck is dosed on a daily basis with acid and “God” is actually his DEA handlers, who use him to achieve their own ends.

Speaking of which, Esposito also features a crew of bumbling federal agents; there’s Michael d’Angelo, the chief of the district, and his underling Rickenbacker. These two are easily confused and they each take turns being the main villain. There are also lesser DEA agents, given jokey names (ie MacDonald & Douglas, etc), but they are all complete fools, ten steps behind their prey and incapable of doing anything right. They even goof up with Buck Jr., the guy in charge of him too busy playing chess with a vintage computer and not paying attention to Buck’s progress through his underground lair; ultimately this leads to Buck crashing, midway through the book, and ending up in an overlong subplot which sees him running a preachathon to drum up money to repair a local church(!?).

If you stick with the book mainly for the Ace and Kid material, it’s not bad, and does get better. Eventually we get to the main plot, such as it is – Wheeler wants the duo to fly over an incredible amount of coke from Mexico. Like a couple hundred pounds of it. There are some oddball comic touches here, like how Wheeler has a tanker filled with coke, and copious amounts of grass, but complains about the overhead and all the competition and etc, etc. Our heroes need a new plane, though, and end up coming upon a fully-armed B-25 bomber; here Esposito takes the opportunity to bash older conservative types, as the lady selling the plane claims it was owned by her WWII vet of a husband, and she’s so batty she doesn’t get it that Ace and Kid want to use the plane to haul drugs.

I forgot to mention – in one of the most head-scratching misses ever, we learn early on, in a clever bit of backstory, that Buck Jr. was actually Ace and Kid’s captain on a bomber in ‘Nam. But get this: Esposito does absolutely nothing with it. This reveal is so cleverly done that it promises something more, and I kept reading and reading, enduring all the irritating Buck Jr. sections, expecting for a big reunion between the trio – Ace and Kid introduced Buck Jr. to LSD, you see, dosing him during a bombing run – but it never happened. Instead about all we get is a jokey finale in which Ace and Kid, no longer in the smuggling biz, are offered a job flying for Buck Jr.’s new preaching-and-planes venture, but they never even meet him.

Action is sparse, because it isn’t really that sort of novel – upon getting their B-25 Kid and Ace get in a brief aerial skirmish with the Winged Avenger, but other than that we have a couple rip-offs, in which a mysterious group of masked men ambush our heroes. But really it’s all done more in a comedic vein. Speaking of which our heroes do have some goofy, memorable traits, like the “emergency joint” Kid always has hidden behind his ear, or the duo’s insistence upon always playing some classic rock tape or LP. So Esposito really does capture the ‘70s vibe, with the holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, though to be sure the first one, ie the sex, occurs 100% off-page.

So really I’m on the fence. I appreciate Esposito’s attempt at capturing a story set “back in the day,” and his Creem background brings something special to the book, but I kind of expected more from High Fliers, mostly because it promised more than it delivered. Perhaps its greatest failing is that it wasn’t written and published in the ‘70s; maybe then it might’ve become a cult classic of sorts. But it was a fun way to pass the time at least, with the caveat that the arbitrary religion-bashing stuff just got old after a while, mostly because it had nothing to do with the story I wanted to read – namely, a fun adventure about “high flying” drug smugglers.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Executioner #266: Ultimate Price

The Executioner #266: Ultimate Price, by Gerald Montgomery
January, 2001  Gold Eagle Books

I’d pretty much forgotten all about the COMCON trilogy, that sci-fi horror hybrid thing courtesy short-time Executioner scribe Gerald Montgomery that started with #262: Trigger Point, with its brainwashed teenaged Terminators and its high-tech Nazi cabal bent on global domination, continued with #264: Iron Fist, with its genetically-modified superman and its Chutulluh-esque demons, and now concludes with this tepid climax which has clearly been rewritten by some nervous Gold Eagle editor.

Personally I like to imagine that whoever was editing the Executioner line was on vacation when the first two books in the trilogy hit the bookstores, and upon his or her return nearly had a coronary upon seeing what had been released to the masses – Mack Bolan up against bio-engineered soldiers, sci-fi weaponry, and even demons? Some editorial maneuvering was in order, and fast. Not only that, but let’s end it right now – forget about any and all plans to stretch this “COMCON” stuff out into a multi-volume storyline.

A job like this requires a hatchet, and that appears to be what’s been taken to Gerald Montgomery’s manuscript. Characters are introduced with much fanfare – then dead a few pages later. The COMCON villains, a global enterprise comrpised of former Nazis and their genetically-modified henchmen, are disposed of – all of them – within a few chapters; conveniently enough all of the high-ranking members gather together in one spot so Bolan can blitz them into eternity. The message is clear that someone at Gold Eagle ordered all this nonsense to be ended, posthaste; likely they wanted to just forget about it, so it’s to their credit that they even gave us a concluding volume.

Anyway it’s like a month or two after the previous book – we’re informed later on that Trigger Point occurred in “May” – and Bolan when we meet him is, believe it or not, actually having sex! Humorously, Montgomery doesn’t even bother to inform us who Bolan is screwing; all we get is a mention that someone named “Price” is beneath him. Eventually we’ll learn it’s Barbara Price, apparently the Smurfette of Stony Man or something, I don’t know. Here we get our first taste of editorial tinkering, which surely must be the only way to explain this bizarre passage:

She smelled like a woman untouched by modesty. Her perfume was sweat, musk and hot breath, and [Bolan’s] inner animal responded accordingly. And had been most of the night. She didn’t try to mask the smells God gave her. She practiced proper hygiene but beyond that she was an all-natural woman. 

And Mack Bolan was an all-American man.

Sadly they’re interrupted mid-boink by an attack on Stony Man itself – which by the way Montgomery doesn’t much explain or describe, relying on the fact that he’s writing this for longtime readers who know the setup and etc. But for people like me coming into this cold, ie people who only think of the Don Pendleton originals when we think of “Mack Bolan,” I didn’t really know what the hell was what. Not that it much matters, as it’s just your typical Gold Eagle action scene, with “fire teams” running around and shooting at each other with detailed gun descriptions. But this time there are these high-tech black helicopters as well; of course, it’s those wily COMCON bastards, looking to even up the score from Iron Fist.

The Stony Man commandos fend off the COMCON assault, and Barbara Price even gets in on it, wearing a “form-fitting combat blacksuit” and toting a cut-down M-60. Montgomery’s action scenes sort of have a David Alexander flair to them, minus sadly the gore factor. He also goes for more of a military fiction feel at times, sticking to more realistic description. He does occasionally have the movie-style action bit, like when Bolan fires his shotgun at some grenades that have been launched at him, and the buckshot deflects the grenades!

Returning COMCON villain Joe Newport is given more narrative spotlight this time; indeed a bit too much, as he almost takes up more of the reader’s time than Bolan himself does. But this is another indication of editorial tinkering, because Newport is built up at great length – and then his sendoff, which is of coruse expected because this is the finale of the trilogy, is rendered so anticlimactically that you actually have to go back and re-read it to ensure you didn’t miss something. And what’s worse, he and Bolan never even meet! So my assumption is this Newport subplot, which has the former COMCON executive killing off his competitors and reinstating himself as a big guy in the evil organization, was intended to give him more precedence in future COMCON storylines that were never to be.

Newport basically uses Bolan as the instrument of his vengeance, sending him coded intel and hoping Bolan will start blitzing away, doing Newport the favor of getting rid of his enemies. This means that there’s a bit more action in Ultimate Price than in the first volume of the series, but it does come off as padding. Montgomery does manage to call back to the Pendleton glory years, with Bolan going in “Black Ace” mode, ie the role camoflauge he used so successfully – and perhaps a bit too often – in the Pendleton originals. Basically, Bolan poses as a member of the enemy, a rather arrogant, high-ranking one, and the gullible enemy troops buy it hook, line and sinker.

As we’ll recall, COMCON is tied in with FEMA, which in Montgomery’s world is an un-Constitutional construct engineered by former Nazis which, if fully activated, could take over the country. It’s made up of black-suited goons in mirrored shades and Newport gives Bolan phony credentials that allow him to pose as a high-level contractor, hired specifically to take out this current COMCON menace: Mack Bolan. So it’s very much in the Pendleton mold as Bolan, posing as a hired killer, goes around warning a bunch of thugs that Mack Bolan’s on the way to kill them all and they’d better do what he says if they want to live. Even though Montgomery’s Bolan comes off like the cipher familiar from the majority of the Gold Eagle books, lacking the personality of Pendleton’s original, he does here sometimes remind the reader of the real thing.

Bolan’s Black Acery coincides with a bona fide sex-slave auction the COMCON boys are running in a hotel in Vegas, all of them as mentioned conveniently rounding up to bid big bucks on freshly-abducted and midnwashed young women. There’s a bit more of a Pendleton vibe with the brief intro of Gabriel Aquarius, a “turkey doctor of the mind,” ie Pendleton’s term for Mafia sadists who took torture to an art form. We get a peek into Aquarius’s brainwashing tactics, much of this calling back to the first installment of the trilogy, where we saw a few of his subjects at work, activated into killing machines by phone calls.

It’s a bit more lurid than the Gold Eagle norm as these half-nude babes are auctioned off to the highest bidder, Aquarius running the show. We get to see his mind-controlled girls at work again, as during the inevitable action scene Aquarius activates them and Bolan, assisted by Jack Grimaldi, goes out of his way not to kill any of the women. Probably the only novel in the franchise in which someone is carefully knocked out by a helicopter landing rail, or whatever those things are called. Otherwise the scene is of a piece with the other action sequences in the trilogy, with Bolan mowing down legions of “Men In Black.” But it’s all so abrupt and anticlimactic as to be hilarious, particularly given that Bolan here is wiping out the entirety of the COMCON elite.

And that abrupt nature is real hilarious at times – like the spectaculary-inept appearance of Lauren Hunter, the commando spy-babe introduced in Iron Fist. She’s given this elabrate intro, taking care of an obnoxious guy who tries to hit on her, then she fixes her commando beret and checks her gun and storms into the Vegas hotel she’s heard Bolan might be in, prepared to help him take on COMCON – and she’s dead one page later! I had to re-read this part just to see what the hell was going on, but of everything in Ultimate Price I’d say this is the biggest indication of some editorial hatcheting. Lauren Hunter likely was intended to be a big player in future volumes, but must’ve been deemed expendable with the abrupt conclusion of the storyline.

Speaking of which, there’s also the fate of Joe Newport. It’s nearly as ridiculous as Lauren Hunter’s, perhaps even more so, as here Montgomery goes as full into sci-fi as he did into horror in the previous volume (ie the friggin’ demon that showed up at the end). Our favorite villain has reinstated himself into his rightful place as the head of COMCON, bossing around his underlings, and he’s with a bunch of them in one of those ubiquitous black helicopters…then this “zeppelin” thing of farflung advanced, perhaps even alien technology, zaps him out of the sky – “Joe Newport did not like his death. It came much too soon.” If that isn’t Montgomery cursing through the text I don’t know what is.

There is, given all the obvious editorial revising and tinkering, a dispirited air to Ultimate Price. This is a shame because the previous two volumes, in particular Iron Fist, weren’t bad, and promised to take The Executioner in a much different direction. Iron Fist was especially cool in that regard, what with its Hunter Thompson stand-in (a character who is sadly missing this time around). 

Montgomery must’ve been willing to try again, though, as a few volumes later he returned with Leviathan, which appears to be Bolan vs. a sea monster. Unsurprisingly, Leviathan would prove to be Montgomery’s final book for Gold Eagle.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Night Crossing

Night Crossing, by Ken Kolb
No month stated, 1975  Playboy Books

First published in hardcover in 1974 by Playboy Books, Night Crossing is “more than a taut and exciting smuggling adventure story,” per the hyperbolic back cover copy of this paperback edition, also published by Playboy. I wonder what sort of distribution they had, as the book doesn’t appear to have made much of a dent, and I couldn’t find much about it online. As for Ken Kolb, who appears to still be around (and 92 years old, if is to be believed), he was a screenwriter with a wealth of credits, and also published several novels.

This one taps into the counterculture scene I’m currently enamored with, telling the tale of a grizzled, Korean war vet, “old” in his 40s or somesuch, getting caught up in the drug scene of the hippie youth. Kolb limits the story to just a few characters and focuses on the snappy patter and comebacks, and you can clearly see his screenwriting roots on display – in fact, it’s a bummer that Night Crossing never made it onto the big screen, as I think the story would’ve translated very easily to film.

Keller is a hard-drinking bastard, quick to get in a bar brawl; we’re introduced to him as he’s ambushed by a pair of local yokels who don’t much appreciate how Keller’s been sleeping with the local women. Keller makes short work of them and gets back to his booze. Keller’s hard drinking is given much narrative importance; we’ll learn he’s been hitting the bottle for the past twenty years, trying to stave off memories of his bombing runs in Korea. Keller’s “murder” of Korean innocents with his bombs is also given much importance, at least in so far as how the hippies keep throwing it in his face.

With his surplus PBY Keller is helping put out forest fires here in a late California summer; in this way he meets Monk, a bald-headed hippie farmer who has a small plot of grass which Keller accidentally drops fire repellant on during one of his runs. This leads to a “hilarious fistfight” between the two, which in turn leads to “one of the strangest, most joyous friendships in modern fiction,” per the back cover. As expected, Keller wallops Monk without much fuss, but Monk basically says “forget about it” and the two become best buds.

The Keller-Monk friendship is the highlight of the novel but unfortunately Kolb keeps them separated for most of the narrative. Instead he opens it up a bit with sections focusing on the other characters, of which Prez turns out to be the most important. A wealthy dealer who only sells marijuana, Prez is looking to make one big deal and then move out of the business, given how things are getting tougher of late – minor mention’s made of Nixon’s crackdown on the Mexico border, and now the feds are really busting drug runners. Our two reps from this front are Rathmore, who takes almost psychotic glee in taking out dopers, and Jordan, a black vet who, much to Rathmore’s dismay, occasionally smokes a little pot to temporarily get into the confidence of whatever dealer he’s about to bust.

So far as female characters go, we get two: Wanda, Monk’s sort-of woman, a blonde who has the expected casual hippie sex thing going with Monk and who promptly lets Keller know she’ll get in bed with him someday. Then there’s Sylvia, Prez’s gal, an auburn-haired beauty who is the spoiled daughter of a senator – Prez’s source of info on the drug war, as Sylvia finds out what’s going on from her dad and then lets Prez know. Kolb doesn’t do much with Sylvia, though, and despite being sort of built up she’s unceremoniously dropped toward the finale, with Wanda being the main female character. No doubt the nude blonde on the cover is intended to be her.

Rathmore and Jordan are taking out Prez’s runners – a memorable opening scene has them chasing down one of them in their armored truck, complete with a Road Warrior-esque mounted machine gun – and in desperation Prez turns to Keller, of whom he’s heard thanks to Monk. It’s instant hate between the two, but Prez promises Keller more money for one flight than he’s made all summer. Plus the dry season has come to an unexpectedly abrupt end, so Keller doesn’t have any income. He takes the job, not entirely happy that part of the deal requires that Monk go along with him, mostly so as to oversea the deal in Mexico but also to ensure Keller doesn’t pull a rip-off.

Keller’s really ticked when Monk demands that Wanda come along as well, but again Kolb doesn’t properly exploit the humorous mismatching of the trio; next we see they’re akk down in Mexicali and Monk and Wanda are high on “cosmic grass” while Keller’s getting in bar fights. Here Kolb delivers a very unexpected fate for one of the characters, but it lacks the impact it might because we haven’t spent enough time with the character who buys it. Around here Keller also finally takes Wanda up on her offer, and surprisingly Kolb gets a bit more explicit than we might expect. But this was the early ‘70s and mainstream fiction was enjoyably sleazy.

The building subplot has it that the Feds know a big shipment’s on the way over from Mexico – indeed, Prez intends Keller to fly over a whopping two tons of grass – but they don’t know who is behind it. Rathmore and Jordan have gone undercover in Mexicali, posing as tourists, looking for the runner they know is soon to arrive. It’s played more for laughs, as even boozer Keller sees right through them. More importantly, it detracts from the menace these two Feds were given in their introduction: there they were chasing down a hapless drug runner in their armored truck, ready to kill if necessary, but here they’ve become bumbling fools.

The climax sees Keller and Prez flying the tons of grass across the border, late at night – and Keller’s decided that now’s the time to finally get high! His senses crystalized by the high-grade pot, Keller plumbs his soul while evading Rathmore and Jordan, who tail them in their own plane, tracking Keller’s PBY by a transmitter they hid on it. This is a cool scene, particularly given how Keller keeps wailing on joints while doing some night flying, but again it’s more on a humorous tip so far as how he and Prez get the two Feds off their tail.

Kolb leaves Keller’s fate an open book – upon their arrival in California, complete with some unexpected surprises, the two men share another joint and ponder their futures. Prez intends to get into a legit business, whereas Keller thinks he’ll go look up Wanda, hanging with some hippie freaks in the Haight. He also knows he’ll have a bit of a struggle against the bottle, but the novel ends with Keller well on his way to being a head instead of a lush. It’s all left open for a sequel, but one was not forthcoming, which is a shame. The characters were likable enough, and Kolb definitely has some skill with dialog and witty rejoinders. But I assume the book didn’t get much attention and Kolb moved on to other things.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Girl In The Telltale Bikini (Operation Hang Ten #6)

The Girl in The Telltale Bikini, by Patrick Morgan
No month stated, 1971  Macfadden Books

As mentioned in my review of Topless Dancer Hangup, this is actually the sixth volume of Operation Hang Ten, whereas it’s often mistakenly listed as the seventh. The “other books in the series” list in the front makes this clear, and as stated in my previous review, Topless Dancer Hangup features a recap of hero Bill Carwright’s previous six adventures. But, as with most of these “produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel” joints, there isn’t much continuity to worry about anyway, so perhaps the point is as they say moot.

George Snyder once again serves as “Patrick Morgan,” and apparently he did so for the entire series; his style is in effect throughout, though some of the scathing comments on society and ruminations on women have been slightly toned down. But other Snyder mainstays are still here, like the strange insistence on fistfights over all other forms of action – seriously, it seems like Bill’s constantly dropping or losing his “.22 Magnum” and having to resort to his fists. That being said, there are some brutal brawls throughout, with shards of shattered skulls piercing brains and faces just generally smashed.

The plot of The Girl In The Telltale Bikini is almost surreal, most likely because Snyder was winging it or perhaps was given an outline by Engel and had a hard time capturing it. But you know something’s up when the “climax” involves the suddenly-revealed main villain expositing on the scheme and explaining what has been happening. I tend to think it was a case of Engel coming up with the plot, as it follows the old standby of Bill Cartwright having an evil clone, a story Engel previously ran in the Nick Carter: Killmaster entry Double Identity. But, just as with that earlier novel, the “evil clone” doesn’t really pan out and in fact causes more questions than anything, as just as an “evil Nick Carter” served no purpose in Double Identity, neither does the “evil Bill Cartwright” in this one.

A US spy ship has sunk near the coast of Sidney, Australia, and surprisingly this doesn’t much concern Los Angeles section chief Jim Dana of Operation Hang Ten; but when his government associate tells him that a “Bill Cartwright” has been spotted with all the other surfers making use of the phenomenal waves created by the jutting hulk of the ship, Dana perks up – he knows Bill is in California, not Australia. And so he is, enthusiastically screwing his latest girlfriend, a “top-heavy” blonde named June Blue. Bill’s trailer is even swankier this time around; we learn there’s not only a mirror above the bed, but with the touch of a button multicolored lights will flash over the bed. Another button activates rollers beneath the mattress, and June has become very excited about this particular feature.

A recurring bit is how Bill, only “pretending” to be heartless (yeah, right!) breaks it off with this latest girl so he can get on to his secret spy job. This seems to be the last we’ll see of busty June, but we might be surprised. Off Bill goes to Australia, where he goes about his usual method of espionage: loudly proclaiming himself to be Bill Cartwright and getting in frequent fistfights. Not to mention promptly getting himself some local booty; in almost no time he comes across a sexy brunette with a flat tire, and after fixing it Bill finds himself invited back to the girl’s place – and also she tells him he can keep his trailer in the parking lot of the bikini shop she owns.

Her name is Lynda Rahm and she claims to be Turkish or Greek or something; who really cares where the hell she’s from, given her “darker than tan” skin and her “small but ample breasts?” But folks ol’ Bill is pretty dumb this time around, because Lynda is clearly hiding stuff from him, but Bill just sort of goes with the flow and ignores all the red flags. Plus he takes his time about getting her in bed; that being said, when the good lovin’ happens this time, it’s more explicit than the material in the other two volumes I’ve read. In fact Bill and Lynda’s first “encounter” goes on for a few pages of hot and heavy stuff – plus it’s another of those red flags Bill ignores, ‘cause in one of his off-hand ruminations he informs us that women in their 20s and 30s can’t screw worth a damn, whereas women in their 40s and 50s will bang your brains out if you give them the chance, and Lynda’s sack skills are a lot better than her claimed age of 22 would imply.

These off-hand ruminations are a recurring series gimmick, as mentioned a bit toned down this time but still priceless for their reactionary, unacceptable-in-today’s-progressivised, “Miss America 2.0” world. In addition to random bitchery about tourists clogging up the beaches (a series mainstay, but then Bill’s a surfer so it makes sense this would bug him), we get some observations about women, in particular this doozy that would end a career if someone would have the audacity to post it on Twitter:

[Lynda’s kitchen] smelled of just-cooked bacon and coffee aroma. In America Lynda would have been considered a neatnick as a housekeeper. American womanhood was too busy striving for achievements to keep anything but a sloppy house. In Australia Lynda would have been considered an average housekeeper. The women of Australia knew their place and stayed in it.

Bill finds that his name sends young women scurrying away from him – even Lynda initially seemed taken aback when he told her his name – not that this stops him from running around the beach and bullying the sexy surf bunnies. They all run away from him when he announces himself; later he’ll learn that the fake Bill, also a blonde American surfer, is sort of a pimp for Maha Lon Caffrey, guru of a nearby cult. Bill and Lynda crash a meeting at the temple, and here Bill gets a glimpse of his double, who goes onstage preaching how Maha Lon saved him. Of course the real Bill responds with his usual brusque manner and instantly starts a brawl. But Bill has a reason for being pissed, as the previous night a couple temple freaks stomped him in yet another brawl; Bill’s apparently mangled face is only occasionally mentioned by the other characters.

Kudos to Snyder for having the two Bills sort things out in a way apropos to the series: a surfing duel! In fact there’s a bit more surfing material in this one than in the other volumes I’ve read. But just like the “fake Nick Carter” plot fizzled out without much exploitation in Double Identity, so too does it in this novel; the fake Bill is anticlimactically removed from the narrative, and later it will be vaguely explained that he was a crewman on the sunk US spy ship. Why was he posing as Bill? That’s not really explicity stated; the implication is that Bill Cartwright is sort of known on the surfing set and the fake Bill and his companions were looking to exploit his image, in particular his skills with picking up the ladies.

Why? Because Maha Lon’s temple is a cover for a sort of lair of Arabs who smoke hash while they auction off sex slaves, the young women abducted right off the beach and their minds fogged by drugs. At this point the reader can see that George Snyder is basically throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. It’s made all the worse by the laughably poor security these Arabs have; Bill pretty much just walks into the temple, finds the secret passageway, slips on a conveniently-discarded hooded robe one of the cultists left behind, and walks right in on the proceedings. This after the other temple guys beat him up, the previous night – I mean they know he’s the real Bill Cartwright and could undo all their plotting, so why don’t they kill him? Why just beat him up? But Snyder plows on, hoping we don’t think to ask these questions.

Snyder keeps it all moving with frequent fistfights and car chases, not to mention the occasional sex and surfing sequence. Lynda is Bill’s main woman this time around, save for a surprise reappearance by another female character in what is one of the novel’s many hard-to-buy plot developments. But speaking of Lynda, she’s always around when Bill’s ambushed, she has an uncle who owns a shop right beside Maha Lon’s temple, and she has “special” bikinis in her shop which she says aren’t for getting into the water with. She’s also a helluva lot better in bed than she should be, given Bill’s worldly experience, and all this should set off Bill’s warning signals, but instead he just sort of lets things play out. He’s a little muddled because Lynda’s hired him – Bill’s cover being a private eye – to find a friend of hers who is one of the abducted women.

The climax features more brawling, though for once Bill does shoot one or two people with that damn .22 Magnum he’s always dropping. But again the dude just waltzes right into the temple while an auction is going on, the Arabs too stoned to worry about something so minor as security, and starts up a riot. When the main villain is revealed, it’s so hard to buy that Snyder must spend several pages explaining everything. But it turns out that two of the crewmen on the sunk ship – one of whom was the guy who pretended to be Bill – stole a bunch of secret documents, and were sending them over to Arabian bidders via arcane means. The finale at least is fun, with Bill and boss Jim Dana sitting on the beach and watching a bunch of girls model bikinis, all to discover which one has the final coded message hidden on it – the message only revealed when the bikini is wet.

Despite the almost surreal vagaries of the plot, I think I enjoyed The Girl In The Telltale Bikini the most of the Operation Hang Ten books I’ve yet read. Too bad the series is so damned overpriced, but at least I still have a few more to read.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Panama Red

Panama Red, by Stephen Diamond
October, 1979  Avon Books

Now here’s one of those fat ‘70s paperback originals I basically yanked off the shelf upon discovering it many years ago in a used bookstore. That cover! That back cover! A tale of a ‘70s dope dealer with exploitative front and back cover copy, including a mention of “outer space weed!” It got pretty much the same reaction from me that Cindy On Fire would a few years later – I was on my way to the checkout line within seconds.

But after that the book sat in a box for like 13 years before I finally got around to reading it…in fact, I’m sure I tried to read Panama Red at least once over the past years, but dropped it, as sadly this is yet another instance in which the actual book does not live up to the cover art, the cover copy, or even to its own potential. For reasons that must forever be lost to us, Stephen Diamond having passed away years ago, our author has taken a story of a pimped-out pot dealer and turned in a slooow-moving tale in the James Michener manner. According to the copyright page, portions of Panama Red had previously been published in 1977, in some underground paper or something, so my guess is this stuff – ie the good stuff that we don’t even get to until the final hundred pages of this 400-page behemoth – was Diamond’s original tale and Avon or some editor asked him to flesh it out to “blockbuster paperback” proportions.

Another red flag, at least for me, is that Panama Red is presented as an “autobiography,” the first-person recounting of Jacob “Panama Red” Light, a German-Panamanian who moves to New York in the early ‘60s, becomes a dope dealer by chance, and over the next several years finds himself a veritable kingpin of hash, initiated into a hippie mafia clearly modeled after real-life group the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Only those last hundred pages drop the first-person schtick and move into a much-preferable third-person. I say much preferable because Jacob Light speaks to us in a stuffy, convoluted diction that would be more at home in Proust or something – I mean there’s absolutely nothing hip or cool about the guy, and he comes off more like a bore than a dealer pushing “outer space weed.”

So we must endure a grueling opening hundred pages(!) in which Jacob Light recounts to us his history, starting with how his father Solomon Licht, a German Jew born in 1915, escaped Nazi Germany in the early ‘30s and ended up in Panama. After much dithering on this guy’s backstory and all that jazz, including getting married to a native gal, Jacob is born in ’46. On and on it goes, basically a slow-moving novella about hardscrabble life in the slums of Panama after Jacob’s dad dies and eventually Jacob is taken on as a houseboy at a wealthy man’s home, and zzzzz….. Sorry, I dozed off. This goes on for a hundred pages. Of small, dense print – the book is incredibly overwritten. 

Humorously, when “Book II” starts up, it’s 1963 and Jacob has moved to New York – and it’s as if the novel has started anew. We learn that hardly any of the preceding hundred pages was necessary – if something comes up about Jacob’s Panamanian past, he’ll just remind us of what happened, meaning we could’ve skipped that deadweight of an opening “Book.” Oh and I forgot to mention, part of that opening was so Jacob could inform us that, due to his mixed heritage, he has the red hair and beard of a German but the dark skin of a Panamanian, all belabored setup for the lame payoff of his eventual nickname, Panama Red – the same name, nudge-nudge, as a famous strain of pot. (Which as I recall even got a shout-out in Apocalypse Now!)

Anyway Jacob gets a job at a bar run by John “The Hat” Trusdale, and after a few boring escapades he’s hired to live in the loft in which Trusdale keeps all the pot for his lucrative side business. Through happenstance Jacob ended up doing a delivery for him, to Trusdale’s sister; here Jacob also met Hannah, a good-lookin’ babe who happens to be a rock journalist. After some off-page good-lovin’ (our author is never very explicit, though he gets a bit more so in the later, third-person section), Jacob’s high as a kite and in love and soon enough he’s like the guardian of the Hat’s stash, doing deliveries and running the business. He also becomes fond of grass, though Diamond leaves the drug stuff less frequent than you might expect; I did get a laugh out of how pot improves the clarity of Jacob’s vision. I must’ve missed that; it just made me tired and unable to follow conversations. 

This stuff is what we came here for, but it’s a bit too little, too late; Jacob Light is still much too stuffy of a narrator, and there’s none of the feel of the times. Even as the early ‘60s become the late ‘60s and he’s banging a hippie terrorist-type chick, you more get the feeling you’re reading some bland 19th century novel, thanks to the stodgy prose. It’s not helped by the lack of action – both of the bump and grind kind and the regular kind. There’s a part where Jacob and Trusdale are ripped off, Jacob coming back to his place to find some guys he knows prepared to take his cash, but there’s no tension, no drama…Jacob doesn’t even realize until later that he’s even been in danger. As I say, the character is much too na├»ve for the book. 

Occasionally we see mention of The Royal Road, a near-mythical psychedelic cult that’s sort of a global hippie mafia; again, it’s clearly patterend after the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which you can learn more about in the great recent documentary Orange Sunshine. But Jacob just dangles this carrot, promising that he’ll get to it eventually. In the meantime we must endure yet another trip to Panama, Jacob reconnecting with his South American past and yadda yadda; honestly folks, a whole swath of Panama Red has zilch to do with the drug trade and just comes off like soapy melodrama. It’s all very puzzling, and I’m certain it’s editorial tinkering, Diamond being instructed to expand his novel and not being sure how to do it. But we get lots of shit about Jacob and his love for Larissa, a Panamanian girl he had a crush on years ago who has now become a Joan Baez-type singer.

So let’s just jump to the last hundred pages, because here Panama Red becomes fairly interesting – and, as mentioned, moves to third-person, though Diamond aribitrarily refers to his protagonist as “Jacob” or “Panama Red,” which is a bit sloppy. The Royal Road, we learn, was founded by Crowley-like mage Robin Rothschild, and is made up of a global network of drug-types who have been initiated into a sort of Thelema-like cult. Oh, and Rothschild has a magic chess set, which we get to see at work at the climax, where it starts glowing and flying around. This last quarter is so much better than the previous three hundred pages, making the reader wish the entirety of the novel was up to this caliber. The plot here becomes Jacob’s quest to legalize marijuana, using the resources and connections of the Royal Road to make it a possibility.

The Royal Road initiation is our first taste of the psychedelic; Jacob smokes some of Rothschild’s strange gold dust and next thing you know the beared mage is shooting bolts of power out of his fingertips. But this touch is soon lost and we’re more into the humdrum business end of legalizing dope in a few countries, Jacob becoming the point man for the whole Panama deal. Diamond also works in a paranoid conspiracy vibe with the cops clueing in to Jacob and figuring he’s the head of this international smuggling ring, setting him up for a huge bust. But we get back to the psychedelic stuff in a bizarro finale in which the elite of the Royal Road, including Jacob, go on an astral trip, leaving their bodies and voyaging into the cosmos – plus we get to see that damn chess set flying around.

It's all weird, wild stuff, but comes off as so separate from the previous 300 pages of tedium we’ve just endured. Even the finale maintains the surreal edge; Diamond has us believing we’re headed for a ‘70s-approved bummer ending, with the CIA poised to blow Jacob’s brains out just as he’s heading off to put the final touches on his international legal marijuana pact…but the driver turns out to be his old pal and thus only pretended he’d take the hit job the CIA offered him, and then apropos of nothing Jacob and Larissa are enjoying a picnic when a friggin’ UFO flies over them and disappears…and that’s it! A weird finale for sure, along the lines of Once Is Not Enough in how out of left field it is.  But, like that Jacqueline Susann novel, at least it leaves an impression.

Anyway, this is one of those novels that just could’ve been so much more. But as mentioned the cover art is great. Here’s a photo of the back cover – the crazy thing is, everything depicted in the painting happens in the novel, but it’s all just so boring.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

S-Com #1: Terror In Turin

S-Com #1: Terror In Turin, by Steve White
October, 1981  Warner Books

I became interested in this six-volume series, another of Warner’s early ‘80s “Men Of Action” line, when I read about it in Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes. In Brad’s book Robert McGarvey, who served as “Steve White” for all six volumes of S-Com, is quoted in a 2002 Contemporary Authors Online bio as stating that S-Com was nearly “existential” in its approach, with the fifth volume in particular being “a parable on the decay of Western civilization.” So when I came across the first five volumes at a bookstore around seven years ago, each at half off the cover price, I snatched them up…and took my good ol’ time getting to them.

Sadly, the wait was not worth it. Terror In Turin is another Men Of Action misfire, same as other notable blunders like Vengeance Is His, City Of Blood, Alpine Gambit, and Kidnap Hotel. If you wondered why this imprint didn’t last longer, wonder no more – it would appear whoever was editing the line didn’t bother seeking out authors who even understood the genre. Save for Ric Meyers, none of them got it, content to churn out slow-moving banalities in which, most confusingly of all, the protagonists themselves were rendered to supporting character status. Tellingly, in Brad’s book McGarvey is also quoted as stating that he had “scant editorial influence” when writing the books. I’d say some editorial influence was needed, and needed badly.

Anyway S-Com, not to be confused with Z-Comm, is a five-man band under the leadership of impressively-named Stone Williams (the Men Of Action line having this weird in-joke of its main protagonists sharing the same first and last initials as the house author – ie “Stone Williams” and “Steve White”). A trust fund millionaire, Yale graduate lawyer, ‘Nam shitkicker, etc, Stone loved kickin’ ass so much he put together “Strategic Commandos” seven years ago. The team is straight-up mercenary and will only work for half a million bucks, plus expenses. Stone’s cover is he’s a video game designer, which I found humorous – I kept picturing him as a pudgy geek.

The other members of S-Com are pretty much ciphers: Leah Aviv, hotstuff Israeli babe with an intelligence background, her husband having been killed in an op; Myles Benet, a native of Haiti who grew up in the Bronx and served under Stone in ‘Nam; Rod Turnbull, an Australian tough guy who says “fookin’” all the time and is unabashedly racist; and finally Lucky Guerrero, a Cuban who cut his teeth in anti-Castro ops and who eventually found his way into S-Com as the bomb specialist. Only Leah is brought to life a bit; we learn she has a casual sort of thing going with Stone, even though she’s based out of London and maintains a cover as a PR director or somesuch. In fact, Leah is the character who not only brings S-Com onto this case but even insists Stone take the job.

It all starts with a bomb going off in a post office in Turin, Italy, killing several people. Stone watches it on TV from his Manhattan penthouse and fumes, then gets back to working on his video game. For strange reasons, folks, our author decides to focus on the terrorists and their victims, as well as the inept Italian cops, for like eighty pages of the friggin’ text. I’m not kidding. To make it worse, it’s the same conundrum as Kidnap Hotel, in that rather than a big group of terrorist scum our heroes must face, the “main villains” are a young guy and girl who are dedicated members of the Seventh Mao Force. I mean that’s it. Two people, and already from the first page Gina, the sexy babe, is having doubts about this whole terrorism thing, so really it’s up to Teresio, the guy, to do all the lifting. So folks how ever will the five-man S-Com force deal with the awful threat of one single Italian punk who lives in poverty and has to steal food??

At this point I started to wonder what the holy hell was going on at Warner Books. I mean, I respect that they tried to bring the men’s adventure genre back to life; it had pretty much withered away by the mid 1970s – per Mike Newton’s How To Write Action-Adventure Novels, the oil crisis was at fault, due to cutbacks in the printing industry – and other than the Pinnacle Books staples, new men’s adventure series were few and far between. So Warner tried to get the bandwagon started again in the early ‘80s, and that’s cool, but good lord – was Stephen Mertz not available? Or speaking of Michael Newton, how about him? Or even a writer who did these sorts of books in the previous decade, like Mark Roberts? I mean why not hire someone who at least knew what the fuck they were doing??

Instead, Warners hired writers who would’ve been more at home writing for People Magazine or something; writers who had no understanding of this special little genre. And that’s fine – you give ‘em the first several volumes of Don Pendleton’s The Executioner and you make that their “men’s adventure 101.” But apparently no one thought of doing that, either. So like I said, Warner’s at least got it right when they hired Ric Meyers, but otherwise it’s very puzzling how they went about handling this Men Of Action line. I’m not saying this Robert McGarvey is a bad writer, it’s just that he’s awful for this genre – we go for, seriously, 70 or so pages of the most banal bullshit as Teresio and Gina bicker, cause a few more smallscale terrorist atrocities, and eventually kidnap sexy virgin Maria DiGrazia, the daughter of an uber-wealthy Ferrari-type auto designer.

Meanwhile our “heroes” twiddle their thumbs and fret over the news, occasionally calling each other on the phone. At one point Stone even calls them all over to his place for a party or something in one of the lazier “shit, I better show more of my protagonists!” sequences I’ve ever read. It just goes on and on, complete with a building subplot about half-hearted terrorist Gina befriending captive Maria, while Teresio constantly threatens to rape her – mostly so our author can have lots of lurid stuff, like Maria’s “large breasts” jiggling away as Teresio rips off her clothing and paws her. While the Men Of Action line might be lacking in the, uh, action department, one thing I’ve noticed is that they all feature a good helping of sleaze, so at least there’s that. Stone also scores with DiGrazia’s sexy secretary in another fairly explicit scene.

Finally on page 89 S-Com goes into action; Leah in her previous life as an Israeli spy often used DiGrazia sports cars on her jobs, loaned by the man himself, so she basically cold calls the poor guy and tells him he should hire her new mercenary outfit. DiGrazia agrees, so S-Com goes to Italy…where they promptly get in some quick firefights with a Mafia family(!). It’s pretty sad when even the author realizes he’s faced his heroes with an underwhelming foe and so has to come up with a completely new group of them to give us some action material. But then the feeling I always get from these Men Of Action books (save of course for the ones by Meyers) is that the authors consider the “action stuff” to be an inconvenience.

We get lots of stuff of Rod the Aussie shouting about “fookin’ wogs” as he either beats to burger or just plain shoots a bunch of mobsters; we also learn Lucky is skittish about finishing off injured opponents on the battlefield. McGarvey’s action scenes are relatively brief and unexploited but there is a bit of gore here and there. For the most part S-Com just uses MP-5s so there isn’t much gun-porn. There isn’t much of a climax, either; Leah figures out where Teresio is holding Maria and S-Com swoops in, blitzing the shit out of the place from afar. Meanwhile only Teresio’s shooting back at them, Gina now a captive herself, so it’s S-Com versus an emaciated terrorist with a single gun.   

Another positive thing I could say about Terror In Turin is that it’s short, but it’s so ponderous and padded that it seems twice as long. McGarvey’s writing is okay, but he has this strange tendency to slip into present tense, which comes off as sloppy – more evidence of that “scant editorial influence,” perhaps. But again this book proves he was another Men Of Action ghostwriter very unsuited to the genre; hopefully he’ll have a better grasp of it in the ensuing volumes.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Woodstock (one*more*time*)

Woodstock (one*more*time*), by Richard Hubbard
No month stated, 1971  Award Books

Back in my review of the Nick Carter: Killmaster novel Target: Doomsday Island, which was the sole contribution to the series by a writer named Richard Hubbard, I mentioned that I had another of Hubbard’s novels, also published by Award, which was about Woodstock. Well (and you’ve probably already figured out where I’m going with this), this is that novel! And I have to say, it’s pretty much everything I wanted The Rock Nations to be.

Whereas that earlier novel ranged all over the “rockfests” of the day, this one focuses on just a sole festival – The 72-Hour Woodstock Bash, to be held even closer to the actual Woodstock this time. This allows Hubbard to dwell on one location, focusing on the scene and the setting. And more importantly, Hubbard’s novel is written in a much-preferable third-person, so the novel doesn’t come off like the assholic first-person diatribe that The Rock Nations did; we get to meet a larger and more diverse group of characters.

Strangely though, Woodstock (one*more*time*) comes off as too short, at just a little over 150 pages. This makes me wonder if it was a contractual affair for Hubbard, Award trying to tap into the hippie craze with an appropriately-exploitative cover. As it is, we really don’t get enough of an idea of how – or why – this second Woodstock “Bash” was set up (even though the back cover copy implies that this is exactly what the main plot will be), or what the acts appearing in it are like. And while there are many colorful characters, in some ways there are too many of them and Hubbard is often guilty of ignoring the more interesting ones to focus on the boring ones.

The novel opens with the new Woodstock coming up within the next few days – again, despite the back cover copy there’s no detail on its planning or the business end of it – and a character named Jeanie Revere, who has just broken up with her latest boyfriend, decides to go check it out. Jeanie’s a 19 year-old college dropout, sleeping around in Manhattan, and in a hazy backstory we learn she was briefly married to an abusive wanna-be rocker who OD’d after the couple divorced. Jeanie is practically our main character but she’s kind of dull. She’s got a lot of hangups, too, coming off as alternately needy and dismissive, particularly to the male characters.

Meanwhile other characters are heading to Woodstock, like Farley Jordan, a narcissistic rich kid who rides around in a psychedelic Day-Glo “land cruiser,” sitting in the opulent, shag-lined interior and strumming his guitar while gals give him blowjobs and partake of the free drugs. His driver is Billy Blue, so named due to his “blue-black” skin. With his traveling psychedelic freakshow, Farley cries out to be the central character of the novel, but sadly he’s quicky shunted off to a supporting role, only appearing in several pages total.

Instead, it’s more of those boring characters who take the limelight: like newly married couple Chet and Harriet Rogers. Chet is concerned he’s “old” now that he’s 30, but he’s growing his hair long and he even got a peace symbol medallion to look young and hip. Harriet meanwhile is nine months pregnant and wonders why Chet is taking a “shortcut” through rural New York; belatedly she realizes Chet’s planned this all along, to go see this new Woodstock thing. Folks, the last goddamn place I would’ve taken my wife when she was nine months pregnant was to an outdoor festival in the middle of summer with no indoor plumbing or etc.

But then, Chet’s an asshole of the first order – a running plot is his narcissitic concern over his age and studliness, hoping these hippie chicks see him for the virile stud he is…but on top of that, he also plans to sneak away from Harriet and bang as many hippie gals as he can!! The cro-mangnonry of it all is almost absurd, not the least because Chet gets away with it, not once but with three different hippie chicks! Meanwhile Harriet has her own, uh, encounter, but that one’s more weird than sleazy. Anyway these two characters also take most of the spotlight, particularly given that Jeanie Revere is an old flame of Chet’s – not to mention she’s one of the hippie babes he bangs on the sly here at the second Woodstock.

Other, more minor characters would include Buckrogers, a bald-headed drug peddler with stainless steel teeth; Hungry, a pretty hippie chick who plans to fuck a hundred guys over the course of the weekend; Dave, a mellow black guy who just wants to enjoy the scene but becomes the target of a sadistic sheriff; Buster, the sheriff in question, a benched pro footballer who doesn’t consider himself racist but decides to “monitor” Dave and eventually sets him up on phony charges; and finally Mickey, a dude who comes to Woodstock with Jeanie and manages a no-name rock group, who tries to take advantage of the sudden cancellation of the festival in a subplot that ultimately goes nowhere. We also have one or two sequences featuring the four young men who organized the festival: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Irving!

In addition there are the various performers, but sadly Hubbard doesn’t focus on them much; in this regard, there’s only slightly more “rock” content than in The Rock Nations. But unlike that novel, here Hubbard creates all new groups; there’s Harley Thrug, who is famous for an 87-minute song; a hard rock group whose name I was too lazy to jot down; Kinzua Sockeye(!), a waifish American Indian who sings “Me and Bobby McGee” in honor of the recently-departed Janis Joplin, dedicating it to the also-recently-departed Jimi Hendrix; and finally Rob Zimmer, who plays a zither(!), and who clearly is intended to be an analog of Robert “Bob Dylan” Zimmerman. Honestly it sounds like a pretty terrible lineup.

Hubbard ranges around this cast of characters – though he always keeps the performers at a distance, so that we never see anything from their perspective – and brings to life the colorful scene. Cops are everywhere, but per the rather reasonable sheriff, they’ve been ordered not to bust anyone doing drugs – or even selling drugs – but just to make sure no one gets hurt. As mentioned though Buster doesn’t like this and decides to, uh, bust Dave on a phony heroin charge, bullying Buckrogers into planting the evidence. This eventually leads to Chet, a lawyer, becoming a momentary hero of the hippies as he gets the kid out of jail.

Chet as mentioned is a total dick but one must admire the brazen nature of his plan. He basically just abandons Harriet when they get to the festival, runs into Jeanie – here we learn the two were in love but it broke off when Chet met Harriet – and he promptly takes her back behind some shrubs and has some quick sex with her. Hubbard is fairly explicit in these scenes, especially in an earlier one in which we see Hungry the nympho at work. But Hungry is another of Hubbard’s disappearing subplots; she’s introduced as sort of an important character, insofar as we’re introduced to her and whatnot, but she then disappears, only to show up late in the game to fuck Chet – by which point she’s screwed 69 guys and Chet feels as if he’s pronging “oozing red meat.” One of the more gag-inducing sex scenes you’ll ever read, folks, down there with the sick-o sleaze in The Illusionist.

It seemed to me that Hubbard was almost doing a Burt Hirschfeld thing in that he took this big cast of characters, put them against a colorful backdrop, and then just let them simmer for a while. Also in that, despite the colorful backdrop, it eventually boils down to the soap opera dynamic between a few main characters. But Woodstock (one*more*time*) is a helluva lot more streamlined than Hirschfeld, to the point where you wish Hubbard had given himself at least a couple more pages to flesh things out. But he does follow the same template, with all the Woodstock stuff gradually getting less prominence so he can focus on the “who cares?” triangle of Chet, Harriet, and Jeanie.

I say who cares because none of these characters are interesting, or even likable. Chet’s an ass, Jeanie is so uncertain and confused that she comes off as dumb as a box of rocks, and Harriet is too reserved and conservative for the setting. So again we have that confusing conundrum where an author has given us characters wholly inappropriate for the plot; basically just like The Rock Nations, which demanded a superfreak hippie hero but instead gave us an entitled asshole.

But this is the plot, so far as Hubbard is concerned: Chet ranges around the festival, scoring when he can, trying to figure out why Jeanie’s alternately hot or cold, and meanwhile Harriet smokes some hash and ends up getting screwed doggy-style by Farley, who has a thing for pregnant chicks. And of course Chet comes in on the land cruiser right while it’s happening, and storms off – despite the fact that he himself has screwed two different gals in the past several hours, not to mention that he promptly has unsatisfying sex with Hungry. Frustratingly, more interesting subplots play out in almost backstory – like Buckrogers, whose fate is rendered in dialog. Farley is also delivered an ignoble, harried fate, throwing a tantrum when his free show is met with jeers and going ballistic in his land cruiser.

I forgot to mention, the Woodstock Bash is cancelled not even a day in, because a farmer whose property borders the site sees a bunch of shit in the lake – yep, those damn hippies are relieving themselves right in Mother Nature, not willing to stand in line for the port-a-potties. So the crotchety farmer gets the festival cancelled, which is again frustrating because you wanna read a book about a friggin’ rock festival, not about a bunch of people stumbling around in the woods and refusing to leave. But the show does eventually go on, mostly due to that reasonable sheriff, who argues quite reasonably that these kids will leave once they see the performers they paid to see.

Anyway I mention the shitty lake because in the finale Harriet, in a sort of drug-induced suicide trip (mostly due to Chet having seen her screw Farley), wades out into the lake and, we learn once again via dialog, is found literally eating shit(!). Well she pukes a bunch but is otherwise okay, and around here Chet realizes he’s being a prick so maybe should check on his nine-months pregnant wife. Plus Jeanie’s told him “so long,” deciding after all that she’s in love with Mickey, and none of these other hippie girls are too interested in him. So the happy couple climbs back into their car and heads on back to the city for a veritable happily ever after.

Hubbard’s writing is good, though, skirting a literary vibe but never becoming pretentious. He’s guilty of rampant POV-hopping, though. He also seems to understand the Woodstock Nation, but at the same time hasn’t exactly given us notable representatives of it. So all in all, a quick but worthwhile read. But I wouldn’t say this is the great counterculture/rock novel of the era – that honor would still have to go to Death Rock.