Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Destroyer #13: Acid Rock

The Destroyer #13: Acid Rock, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
December, 1973  Pinnacle Books

I enjoyed this thirteenth volume of The Destroyer a bit more than the others I’ve read, with the caveat that once again Sapir and Murphy have turned in a darkly comic satire with very, very little in the way of action –now that I think of it, there isn’t really a single action scene in the novel, other than a few quick “fights” in which superhuman protagonists Remo and Chiun take out their opponents practically between sentences. That being said, Remo does get laid in this one, so there’s that. Of course he doesn’t even enjoy it, but you take what you can get in The Destroyer.

I decided to check this one out because I’ve been on a rock novel kick lately. Be warned though that the authors only deal with the actual rock stuff intermittently, with more focus placed on the wacky would-be assassins who try to kill the teen girl Remo and Chiun are protecting. And also the authors mix up their eras…Acid Rock sort of combines the anti-Establisment, “up against the wall” vibe of Woodstock and other late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock festivals with early ‘70s sleazeball horror-rock. Because the main rock character in the novel – Maggot – is clearly an Alice Cooper stand-in, but hippies go to his gigs and Hell’s Angels provide the security. 

As usual it comes down to the goofy relationship between Remo and his “Little Father” Chiun, who, despite being the “wizened old Oriental” of cliché, is really just a petty old prick. There’s a lot of fun rapport between the two this time around, and some memorable bits of acidic wisdom from Chiun, my favorite being his commentary on US highways: “It must have taken much planning to build roads that are too big for light traffic and too small for heavy traffic.” Also humorous is his response to Remo’s argument that Chiun doesn’t understand the American counterculture movement: “How can you oppose something that does not exist?”

Anyway this one’s really more about the cast of assassins out to collect the bounty on the head of young Vickie Stoner, a brain-fried groupie type whose entire raison d’etre is to “ball that Maggot.” Vickie’s dad is an millionaire who, per Vickie, is in cahoots with the Russians on a grain deal that could topple the US economy or somesuch. Vickie has come forward as a witness against her own dad, and thus has incurred an open contract – something so mythical that even the FBI agent initially ordered to protect her doesn’t believe it exists. Of course he’s killed in a failed attempt to capture Vickie, and when hundreds of thousands of dollars are delivered at the funeral of the would-be assassins, it’s clear that someone out there is actually going to pay out the open contract on Vickie’s head.

All this catches the interest of Remo and Chiun’s boss, and posthaste they’re ordered to descend upon the acid rock scene and protect the young groupie chick. The recurring (and annoying) joke of Acid Rock is that addle-headed Vickie keeps eluding everyone, from her would-be protectors to her would-be killers. The rock novel stuff only factors into the beginning and end of the book, and as mentioned has more to do with the whole “shock rock” thing of Alice Cooper than anything else – Maggot even has his own guillotine on the stage. And since nothing’s sacred to our authors, Maggot is really a mild-mannered germophone named Calvin Cadwalder who just poses as Maggot.

And that’s really the thing about The Destroyer that can get annoying after a while…it really is a satire in the Swiftian sense, in that Sapir and Murphy have an axe to grind about virtually everything. So what I’m trying to say is that this isn’t a traditional action series in the vein of The Executioner, such that one of the highpoints is Remo taking advantage of an open tryout with the Atlanta Eagles and wiping out virtually the entire team. But honestly there’s no action in the traditional sense, and as with the other volumes I’ve read, when Remo does fight someone it’s always relayed from that person’s point of view, so that we don’t even read what the hell Remo’s doing…just the victim’s experiences as he suddenly finds his arms no longer working or his heart about to exlode or something.

But one of those recurring jokes is that Remo and Chiun are totally out of sorts with the rock festival crowd, though there is some funny stuff in that the vapid hippie types instantly assume Chiun, in his flowing robes, is “someone,” and flock to him like the Maharishi. This has a nice cap off in the finale, in which Chiun preaches to a group of hippies at a big Maggot festival. But there is of course plenty of venomous condemnations of the gullible hippies in these parts, though Sapir and Murphy don’t go as far with it as they could. I’m not exagerrating when I say the rock festival stuff is just a small percentage of the narrative, because in reality more of the running time is devoted to the oddjob assassins who try to collect on that open bounty.

Like Willie the Bomb Bombella, who takes up a bit of the narrative – before being perfunctorily killed by Remo. This indeed proves to be the gist of Acid Rock, folks; we get long, almost digressive sequences from the POVs of the various assassins, who either kill each other off or are casually killed by Remo – for once again, the guy’s such a superman that there’s zero drama or tension. This time the authors even take the schtick too far, as Remo is caught in an exploding car and flies out of it unscathed. It’s more like something out of Looney Tunes, and yes it really happens in the novel – again, I’m not exaggerating. The authors seem to hate everything about the action genre, a hatred which appears to extend to readers looking for a vicarious thrill.

Oh and speaking of which, Remo gets laid this time – by Vickie. And like I mentioned in my previous review, our hero lacks a sex drive, so basically he bangs Vickie to shut her up…and doesn’t even enjoy it, even though we’re informed she gets off ultra-royally. There are no juicy details, of course, but Remo goes at her a few times…and tries not to fall asleep. I mean I know it’s all supposed to be humorous, a piss-take on the basic action-adventure model, but the thing is, I like the basic action-adventure model. I enjoy it. I always think how great this series could’ve been if it just handled things on the level…Sapir and Murphy could’ve retained their piss-taking vibe, but toned it down a little, indeed made it more subtle, while still doling out the expected men’s adventure tropes without the satiric trimmings. Now that I think of it, that would’ve been more challenging for them, and perhaps more rewarding – to write the series “on the level,” as it were, with hidden layers of satire. Only a few men’s adventure series have achieved this – off the top of my head: TravelerThe SpecialistDoomsday WarriorPhoenix, and especially The Hitman.

The authors (but I suspect the majority of this one was courtesy Murphy alone) stomp on modern sensibilities with the character of Abdul Hareem Barenga (aka Tyrone Jackson), a Black Panther type who attempts to cash in on the open contract. The stuff with Barenga is hardcore racist with zero in the way of apology – he’s a complete idiot with zero morals, and talks like he walked out of the crudest of Blaxploitation flicks. Murphy – and again I suspect this is mostly his work, given that later volumes apparently dip into racial caricatures – even goes to the trouble of mention the rolling whites of his eyes when a terrified Barenga runs away from Chiun – “Feet get moving!”

But the assassins who get by far the most narrative time are the Nilsson brothers, Lhasa and Gunner. Part of their own assassin clan – one that tangled with the House of Sinanju centuries ago – these are the last surviving two, one being a big game hunter and the other an old doctor. The authors try real hard to make the reader give a shit about them and wonder if Remo and Chiun will have a chance…as if forgetting that they had Remo take on an entire football team and fly out of an exploding car. But it does go on, with the Nilsson brothers taking up way too much of the running time. And they don’t even have their own special powers, per se, like the beyond-ninja skills of Sinanju; rather, they just rely on handguns. Pretty lame.

The rock material comes and goes, mostly relayed through Vickie and her single-minded quest to “ball that Maggot.” I started to have déjà vu, flashing back to the equally-annoying Lori Thomas in The Scene. But Vickie’s a bit more of a fun character, mostly due to her interractions with Remo and Chiun. As mentioned Remo blows her mind with some undescribed sex, so Vickie figures “that old Oriental” will probably be even better in the sack. Unfortunately she interrupts Chiun’s soap operas, and he nearly kills her, knocking her into the next room. Remo has to use martial arts skills to get her heart beating again.

This sort of “sadism played for comedy” seems to be a recurring element in the early volumes. For example, later in the novel Remo nearly kills the aforementioned Barenga, taking out his anger on him with a devastating strike – and mind you, Remo isn’t even aware that Barenga’s one of the would-be assassins. He just happens to run into him as Barenga is running away from Chiun’s floor in the hotel. Later Remo momentarily plans to toss a little dog down an elevator shaft as part of a split-second decision to give another would-be assassin a Viking funeral, but is only stopped by the sudden appearance of the dog’s owner. But there’s no indication that Remo would’ve changed his mind.

And even Maggot turns out to be a total chump, a germophobe who could probably give Howard Hughes some pointers. We’re supposed to laugh of course that he goes into concert in a white jumpsuit with bloody raw meat dangling from his neck. Despite being a hard rocker he has the mind and personality of an accountant, and this ultimately is what gets Vickie in his bed – Maggot of course turns down her constant offers of sex, given the germ-exchange that would be involved in such an act. But when Vickie starts casually tossing market predictions, gleaned from her millionaire enterprenneur dad, Maggot finally becomes excited.

The climax occurs at one of Maggot’s rock festivals; Lhasa Nelson stalking Remo and Chiun while keeping Vickie, who now is engaged to Maggot, in his sights. The highlight here though as usual has nothing to do with the action; Chiun begins discoursing to a flock of hippies, giving Remo subtle messages about the lurking presence of Lhasa in his speech. This leads to a humorously-unclimactic finale in which, despite the authors’s best attempts to build suspense that Lhasa might kill Vickie as well as our heroes, it all again comes down to a quick strike that’s written from the perspective of the victim – I don’t think I’ve yet encountered the phrase “Remo kicked him” or the like in any of these Destroyer books I’ve read.

But as mentioned this time I tried to let go of any such expectations and enjoyed the book for the goofy satire it is. The Remo-Chiun interplay was as fun as ever, and Remo taking on the pro football team was also very memorable. However the digressive stuff on the various would-be assassins got to be a drag after awhile, and the “mystery” of who ordered the open contract was lame, because it was obvious from the first chapter of the book.


Grant said...

I know what you mean in paragraph 9, how it would've been no sin for Murphy and Sapir to "dial back" SOME of the satirical stuff. Like (as you mention) the "Remo's training given him huge sexual prowess but ruins the ENJOYMENT of it" idea. More than once in a great while, they could've borrowed from the "swinging spy" movies when it comes to that. (But at least I get my wish with # 5 - without the story spelling it out, you can tell he's "enjoying" Jacki and Jill.)

I've never read this one, so maybe I shouldn't say this ahead of time, but my problem with someone satirizing this particular subject is that "everyone and his cousin" satirizes it - including countless "loonie liberal" comedy writers! - and in some awfully repetitive ways. Like the whole "fake guru" idea - with a few exceptions, I can hardly tell one writer's phony guru from another one's phony guru, even writers I usually consider very funny.

Felicity Walker said...

Until a few years ago my only encounter with The Destroyer was via the 1985 film Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, which while not great was enjoyable. Chiun is a harsh master in it, but not actually evil. The only questionable thing about it was that Remo is recruited unwillingly.

Then a few years ago I found The Destroyer #63: The Sky Is Falling at a thrift store and took it home. It gradually dawned on my while reading it that it was a sort of parody of action novels, but even then, it was so dark and mean that it just depressed me. The villainness is scary enough, torturing small animals, but even Remo and Chiun seem evil, and not just towards the bad guys. Some drunken guys are making noise in the hallway outside Chiun’s hotel room, so he drops them down an elevator shaft. To death. Some old British agent is just doing his duty, refusing to give Remo information he’s not supposed to give out, so Remo slaps the pipe out of his mouth so hard that it knocks his teeth out. The government of North Korea, all the way up to the top leader, is terrified of Chiun and leaves a big stack of gold bars in his village every year. When some bad guys sack the village while Chiun is away, the North Koreans are too scared to tell Chiun and too scared not to.

I guess if you like things that are scary-funny or blackly comic, this might be OK, but I found it way too depressing. I recycled the book when I was cleaning up the place, figuring I wouldn’t even re-donate it to the thrift store because I wouldn’t wish the experience I had on another reader.