Monday, April 29, 2019

Killer At Large

Killer At Large, by Don Bannon
July, 1975  Pinnacle Books

Back when I was collecting these BCI Crime Paperbacks I tried to find out who had written this one, but no info was available; “Don Bannon” wasn’t listed anywhere, even in Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms. So I assumed it was written by William Crawford, given the similarity to Crawford’s BCI crime paperback The Rapist. Now, finally having read Killer At Large, I can say with complete certainty that it is the work of Manning Lee Stokes. It’s his style, with solid prose but padded plotting, ten-dollar words, recurring phrases and situations from previous novels, and even the trademark in-joke character names (“Doctor Engel,” ie book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and “Superintendent Stanton,” ie Stokes’s pseudonym “Ken Stanton” on The Aquanauts). 

Trading on the same sleazy vibe as the other BCI crime paperbacks, this one’s about a serial rapist named Billy Starret who breaks out of prison and goes on the hunt for one of his previous victims, a policewoman named Marion McManus. She collared Starret five years ago, getting raped and her back broken in the process (it happened in the subway, and she fell down some stairs while trying to escape). Starret vowed revenge at the trial. Meanwhile, in the undisclosed city in which all this occurs (we learn at least it isn’t New York or Los Angeles), Marion heads up a newly-formed Sex Crimes Unit that’s intended to get a handle on the city’s increasing number of rape cases.

The main protagonist is 27 year-old Sgt-Detective Rick Preston of Vice, fairly new to the force but rising quickly in the ranks. We’re informed he’s a hunk of a man with tons of women at his disposal, and at novel’s beginning he’s wondering if he should give it to the clearly-willing new policewoman in his precinct, Priscilla Foxx. A pretty blonde with a small-but-shapely figure (we’re often reminded), Priscilla is the one who tells Rick about the new SCU team and also that she’s heard on the grapevine that Rick is going to be co-running it, which is news to our hero. She also begs him to transfer her to the unit, as she was raped as a teen and wants to help crack down on the rapists out there.

Preston brings along his current partner, grizzled Charles Kuttner, but argues with his captain when he’s ordered to also bring along Tom Varantz. New to this particular division, Varantz has a bad rep and is seen as a problem; he was basically kicked off his previous unit. Preston’s captain wants to get rid of Varantz by sending him along with Preston to the SCU. In addition there’s a towering, muscular policewoman named Cordellia who might be in love with little Priscilla Foxx, and who berates Preston for putting such a “green” female cop in the unit. And commanding the SCU is beautiful but icy cold Marion McManus, of the “stiff manner and even stiffer back.” Oh, and Marion’s partner that night she was raped five years ago was none other than…Tom Varantz, who sent her out to waltz along the subway as rape bait and then went off to get drunk, not providing the cover he’d promised her.

Yes friends, this motley crew of misfits is intended to reign in the rape epidemic; one gets the impression they’d spend most of their time fighting each other. SCU HQ is an old fire station, with the men on the first floor and the women up on second, with even the pole still there for them to slide downstairs. Surprisingly though, Stokes does very little with the actual SCU setup, as the novel quickly becomes more concerned with two intertwined elments: Rick Preston falling in love with Marion McManus upon first glimpse of her, and Billy Starret’s escape from prison and the gauntlet formed to protect Marion from him. There’s also an arbitrary subplot about Rick going out on a limb to help an old friend of his, a black high school teacher named Ray Foster who has been accused by a slutty white trash student of grabbing her boobs. This stuff is so incidental to anything that you wonder why Stokes didn’t fill those particular pages with more-appropriate material like, you know, the SCU handling rape cases. But then that’s Stokes for you. I was more impressed that this time he actually resolved this particular arbitrary subplot, even tying it into the main plot.

Killer At Large features all those typesetting tricks Stokes employed in his latter novels: bulletins, various memorandums, teletype twixes, transcripts. Some of it, as usual, is as egregious as can get, like when Rick reads a pages-consuming report on the objectives of the Sex Crimes Unit. But anyway I mention this here because the novel opens with a lengthy digression on Billy Starret’s past, all courtesy the prison psychiatrist who brefriends him. But again surprisingly Stokes actually works this stuff into the narrative, much later on, in particular the nugget of information that Starret has a security uniform stashed in his parents’ home. It by this novel means that Starret will be able to elude the police dragnet out looking for him; we’re informed many times that the average person develops a blindness to a man in uniform, automatically seeing him as a cop.

We find out Starret has escaped in the first quarter of the book, and initially I was surprised because it seemed as if Stokes left the event off page. “That’s not the Manning Lee Stokes I know,” I thought to myself. Sure enough, the next chapter reverted to Starret’s perspective and spent 31 whopping pages detailing his escape, step by step. Long story short, Starret makes a box kite and flies it off the prison in the middle of a blizzard, almost killing himself in the process. He kills a guard and later rapes and kills a woman whose house he breaks into, seeking refuge from the blizzard.

I always get the impression Stokes was chomping at the bit to get sleazy, back when he was writing in the ‘40s and ‘50s (like in The Lady Lost Her Head); here he goes Full-Bore Sleaze, because the unfortunate woman happens to be a hotstuff horny housewife whose husband is away for work, so she gets drunk, dresses up in garter belt and stockings, and screws herself with a cucumber in explicit detail…and Starret happens to come upon her house, sees the light inside through a window, and starts watching her. Stokes keeps the rape-murder off page, however, but word gets to the SCU and they know it’s the work of Starret.

Stokes doesn’t get lost in the details of police beauracracy, yet at the same time this isn’t an action-packed roller coaster like Crooked Cop. In fact, Rick doesn’t even pull out his gun until the final pages. We get a few brief summaries of some rape cases the SCU handles, but for the most part the focus is on Rick’s sudden love for Marion, a love he keeps to himself. When word gets out that Starret has escaped and Rick learns she was raped by him five years ago, he pulls strings to be put in charge of the case. At this point the subplot about Rick’s old friend, Ray Foster and the white trash girl who has accused him, sort of falls by the wayside. Here Rick also learns, again via Kuttner, that Varantz was Marion’s partner the night she was raped – and meanwhile Kuttner’s found out why Varantz is so hated by fellow cops. He’s a coward, as Kuttner found out first-hand during an off-page collaring of an armed rapist.

As with practically every other Stokes novel I’ve read, I realized over halfway through Killer At Large that hardly anything had happened in the narrative, yet regardless I was sufficiently caught up in it. I get the impression Stokes put a bit more of himself in this one. He certainly doles out some memorable lines: “Now let’s go see if we can find the character who likes to cornhole little boys,” “…a guy can’t chase freelance cunt all his life,” and this jawdropper: “So what’s it going to be, Lisa? Drop the charges and forget the whole thing? Or let your parents find out you suck cocks in a junkyard?” Special mention must also be made of this line, which is one of the greatest I’ve ever encountered, both silly and profound, both stupid and cool: “He was now less than a minute from his future.”

Things all come together during the climactic search of the aforementioned junkyard, where Stokes resolves both the Ray Foster and Tom Varantz subplots. The former via the deus ex machina discovery that white trash “victim” Lisa is such a frequent visitor to the junkyard, sucking off various guys, that the proprietor has started charging the guys who come see her; this elicits the unforgettable line above, as Rick successfully blackmails her into dropping the charges against his friend Ray. However Stokes leaves it a mystery whether Ray really did grab her, as Lisa sticks to her story despite being outed as a cheap whore. As for the Varantz subplot, Rick takes the opportunity to beat him up and tells him he’ll beat him up every day until Varantz quits the force!

Stokes dwells in more uber-sleaze in a later chapter which sees a member of the SCU making a heroic sacrifice, after which Starret’s uniform is ruined. We barrel right through the finale, with Rick and Marion racing to bring down Starret before he can rape Marion’s sister as a proxy for Marion herself, and to do it rogue before the rest of the force finds out this is what he plans to do. In other words they both want to kill him, not arrest him. However the climax is a bit too harried, and I would’ve preferred a slower payoff on Starret’s comeuppance.

This was an enjoyable one, better than some of the other BCI Crime Paperbacks I’ve read and certainly one of Stokes’s better novels. Here’s hoping he wrote some more of these for Engel – I still haven’t been able to figure out the authorship of all of them, so some of them might turn out to be more Stokes yarns.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Kane’s War #3: Death Waves

Kane's War #3: Death Waves, by Nick Stone
July, 1987  Ivy/Ballantine Books

It’s been so long since I read the first volume of Kane’s War I had to go back and re-read my review. Good grief, I had to bail on it halfway through – I must’ve had a helluva lot more free time back then. Well anyway, I don’t have the second volume, but as John Lennon said, it’s “nothing to get hung about.” This doesn’t appear to be a series with multi-volume storylines; in fact, I’m not even certain the same author wrote this one. Even though it’s the same exorbitant page count as the last one (nearly 300 pages!), it’s got massive print, and also the “marinara mystery” vibe of the first volume isn’t as prevalent.

Also, hero Ben Kane fares slightly better. As we’ll recall, he spent the majority of that first volume getting knocked out and recuperating in the hospital, and even dropped his own gun in the climactic action scene. That being said, Kane still manages to get knocked out and captured in the very first action scene of this installment, but afterwards he handles himself much better. So who knows, maybe it is the same author, just with a lesser word count, so less of a need to pad pages; as it is, Death Waves sort of rolls along and is much pulpier than its predecessor, featuring mind-controlled soldiers and a Bond-esque super villain intent on world domination.

One thing I’m not sure about is if the second volume introduced Kane’s latest girlfriend, Karen, but I’m guessing not; even though she’s introduced to us cold, as if we’re to understand she’s Kane’s latest steady woman, later on it’s explained that she’s come down here to the Virgin Islands for a brief vacation before she starts work on Mica Island, a closed-off retreat owned by mega-wealthy Ted “Link” Mica. But when we meet Karen at the start of the book she’s about to become something else – the latest victim of white slavers who are operating here in the Caribbean and who have kidnapped several other lovely young ladies.

What itself could provide the main plot of the book instead becomes the obligatory “opening action scene,” as Kane tracks down the missing Karen to a desolate island and decides to go in alone, no weapons or anything. But it’s a return of the clumsly bufoon from the first volume, as he’s knocked out and captured posthaste. We don’t get too much info on these white slavers – they’re mostly just presented as modern pirates of Middle Eastern descent – because soon enough attack helicopters land and soldiers in black uniforms get out and decimate them. Our “hero” stands and watches as some newly-introduced group of characters come in and handle the job he was supposed to do himself. 

What Kane finds most odd about the situation is that the black-uniformed soldiers operate almost like robots; there is no emotion, no reaction to getting shot, even. Even odder is the dude commanding them – Ted Mica himself. This, he casually explains to the freed Kane, Karen, and other hotstuff babes, is his security force, which he declares the greatest combat outfit in the world. He invites Kane and Karen to dine with him on his opulent yacht that night.

One thing retained from the first volume is the somewhat-explicit sex; Kane and Karen head back for Kane’s junk, the Wu-Li, and get busy posthaste (“One finger found her dewy crevice and he felt the warm slippery passage tightening, aching for him,” and the like). Later in the book Kane also scores with Jessica, the British beauty who figured so heavily in the first volume; as for his other casual bedmate, Michelle, she stays off-page for the duration, off on some trip for her dad’s business or somesuch. If you’ll recall, she was the one captured in the first volume, with Kane desperate to save her; this time Karen gets the honors, as of course it turns out Mica Island is a hellhole of brainwashed employees and, to quote the Eagles, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” 

The schtick is that Mica Island is where the rich and powerful go to get cured of their various hang-ups; in just a short time it has become known for curing any addictions or other undesirable behaviors. Mica’s got a world-class psychiatrist at his disposal, but soon Karen, herself a behavioral specialist, detects something is up, as even this guy has no idea how Mica is curing people so quickly. But as mentioned this installment’s a bit pulpy; it’s clear from the get-go that Mica, that depraved genius, is beaming subconscious signals onto the island. I mean good grief, there’s a sign over all the beds demanding that people wear the provided headphones while sleeping. Mica and his people insist the headphones just play harmless white noise to aid sleep.

Meanwhile back in the real world Kane learns that all kinds of mysterious stuff has been going on at Mica’s place; none of the natives hired to work there have returned. Kane’s buddy Ganja (good grief how I wish I had a buddy named Ganja) tells him of one particular guy who took a job on the island to pay for his wedding, but suddenly sent his fiance a terse note stating that he was staying on for several more months. We readers have already seen this guy get the forced brainwashing treatment employees receive for not wearing those damn headphones at night. Ganja of course is back from the previous volume, as is the rest of Kane’s network of buddies and colleagues, including cipher-like Miles, another ‘Nam pal who I don’t think even appeared in that first volume.

At least this time we get to see Miles at work; he and Kane scuba dive onto Mica Island and scope it out, leading to the first of several action scenes. The action is very much in the blockbuster movie mold, not overly gory or even bloody, with Kane using his customary Magnum revolver again. This I felt was the action highlight of the book, with the two here to save Ganja, who has gone undercover as a new recruit in Mica’s security force. Oh and the sadistic security force leader is named “Major Frank,” folks. Surprisingly Ganja doesn’t get brainwashed, as he foregoes the headphones (as any sensible friggin’ person would do) and is instantly outed as a spy.

Curiously though the book sort of runs out of steam, no doubt due to the still-unwieldy word count. By this point not only is Karen brainwashed, but Kane’s learned that Mica intends to brainwash all the bigwigs of the world in his insane quest to ban nuclear weapons. In a belabored setup Jessica goes undercover on Mica’s yacht, with Chief Bukowski (another recurring character) posing as her security guard, and here they learn the brainwashing mechanism is stashed on the yacht itself. However, and folks I kid you not, Mica has a notebook with the workings of the mechanism, including a section headlined “how to reverse the brainwashing process,” and the finale turns out to be a race to get hold of this particular Maguffin. Worse yet, Mica disappears in the finale and another character tells Kane what has supposedly happened to him.

I do like the beach read vibe of the series, though it wasn’t as heavy this time around. In fact, very rarely did I get the impression this was taking place in the Caribbean. But I also like the large cast of characters; even Kane’s old CIA boss-enemy, Weaver, makes an appearance, and late in the novel we meet one of his operatives, a black guy named Brock, who seems primed to appear again. Anyway, this one, despite being an insane 280 pages, was a fairly quick read – and hopefully so was this review.

Monday, April 22, 2019


Heir, by Roger Simon
July, 1970  Dell Books
(original hardcover edition 1968)

Roger Simon, who later in the ‘70s would have a hit with The Big Fix, the novel that introduced his dopesmoking PI Moses Gunn, here turns in more of a literary sort of affair – actually it storms right over the “literary” line and right on into the pretentious zone. I’ve never read the Moses Gunn books but they have to be written in a different style than the self-conscious, overly “artsy” vibe of Heir.

Purporting to be the journal of Marcus Bottner, the “heir” of the title, the novel is told in an almost stream-of-conscious style as Marcus, in his early 20s, informs us how he’s just accidentally killed his 18 year-old girlfriend, Jennifer. This happened because he gave her a shot of heroin to counteract an overdose of amphetimines. Now Jennifer’s corpse sits in a tub of ice in Marcus’s bathroom in his apartment overlooking the Hudson here in New Jersey. The “journal” takes place over a few days as Marcus deals with his new life as a criminal – an idea which attracts him – while trying to figure out how to dispose of the corpse.

The only problem is, Heir sort of comes off like it’s narrated by Niles Crane from Frasier. Marcus however doesn’t even have a single likable quality, so from the outset the reader is already annoyed with him. Luckily the book’s short, just barely over 150 pages, so we don’t have to put up with him too long. Marcus we’ll learn was born into vast wealth, mostly due to the inheritance left behind by his racketeering grandfather, Max. Marcus, a rich kid with literary aspirations, feels akin to William Burroughs, who similarly was born into wealth thanks to the Burroughs typewriter.

And there’s the other whammy – not only is Marcus an annoying effete, but he also wants to be an important author, and studied writing and all that jazz. So there’s this self-reflective, self-conscious vibe to the whole book, which again is mostly just comprised of Marcus’s journal, which he hopes to sell someday under a pseudonym, or perhaps move to another country and have it published there. But otherwise Heir is filled with pretentious stuff like Marcus writing about something and then stating “Excuse me a moment,” with the next sentence being written “later” and with an explanation of what disturbed him as he was writing.

To make it worse – hardly anything happens. Marcus (or should I say Simon) constantly stalls forward momentum with digressions about how he met Jennifer, his relationship with her over the past two years, his childhood, or various other incidents in his privileged past. Only occasionally do we cut back to the main plot of the tale, but even here it’s a slow-going affair – mostly talks with his cousin, Selma, who does PR for rock groups, and Ornstein, his childhood friend who similarly has literary aspirations and who is writing a play about a character modeled after Marcus.

Oh and Marcus keeps his room at near freezing levels, but when this proves unfeasible he hides Jennifer’s corpse in an antique harpsichord – he’s taken it apart, stashed the corpse in there (covered in a sheet and spritzed with perfume), tossed out the “guts” of the harpsichord with the trash, and re-assembled it, all off-page. This leads to the novel’s sole bit of humor when Selma and a psychiatrist she’s retained visit Marcus in his freezing apartment and he bluntly tells them he’s killed his girlfriend and hidden her body in the harspsichord; a confession that’s taken as delusional fantasy. 

But as mentioned the meat of the book is more concerned with arbitrary, digressional flashbacks on Marcus’s time with Jennifer in Europe, his past experiences with her; turns out she was a bit of a bitch, hitting on guys and sometimes taking them home right in Marcus’s presence. There’s also a bit on their growing fondness for drugs, with Jennifer introducing Marcus to grass – more elaborate backstory on how he scored a big haul to impress her early in their relationship – and later to heroin. The drug stuff isn’t as prevalent as the cover implies, though Marcus does shoot up during yet another lunch date with his cousin Selma.

Marcus I guess is intended to represent his generation – something he ponders in his navel-gazing narrative – but it does get to be a bit wearying to accompany him throughout the novel. He puts on the expected show of judging the older generation, protesting the war (he even goes to an anti-Nam rally with Ornstein) and supporting all the new liberal ideas of his youthful generation, yet at the same time of course he’s a self-obsessed murderer and heroin junkie. Of course this is likely Simon’s intention, but as I say the schtick wears thin after a while. The novel too clumsily straddles the line of social commentary and crime thriller.

Eventually Marcus truly confesses to Ornstein (another important moment kept off-page) and gets his support in dumping the body; Ornstein’s suggestion is the Hudson. This leads to a comedy of errors as Marcus stashes the corpse in the trunk of his car and pulls up to an isolated spot, only to be confronted by a group of Hell’s Angels who try to rob him before a cop shows up. A panicked Marcus drives off on various interstates and is again stopped by the police for not paying a toll. This cop in particularly is almost humorously anal-retentive, going on about how important it is for motorists to pay tolls, but Marcus is eventually able to drive off, Jennifer’s corpse undiscovered in the trunk, which is where he decides to keep it.

Toward the end we learn all this takes place in June of 1967, and there is one part that taps into the cool stuff of the day – namely, a heroin-high Marcus finds himself in a bona fide “psychedelic discotheque!” Here he dances with a “Eurasian girl” while colored lights splash on the walls and floor and whatnot. Speaking of good-looking gals, Marcus is curiously asexual…there’s zero exploitation of the few female characters and his flashsbacks of Jennifer are all sexless. Otherwise Marcus has no interest in the modern era and doesn’t like rock music or anything; again, the image is more of a young but still stuffy Niles Crane.

To make it all even worse, even the climax is rendered off-page; the last entry of Marcus’s “journal” is an excruciating bit of stream-of-consciousness that comes off like Rudy Wurlitzer’s Nog or Brian Aldiss’s Barefoot In The Head; unfortunately, here all the “big” stuff happens, like Jennifer’s corpse finally being discovered and Marcus being arrested, yet the gibberish prose sucks out all the drama and suspense. After this we get an even more excruciating chapter, this time courtesy Ornstein who relates how Marcus’s trial goes down and whatnot, but it too is so self-conscious and intentionally “literary.” But basically Marcus is arrested and tried on grounds of manslaughter and will spend the next few years in prison and under psychiatric care.

Anyway, Heir I guess is promising so far as the author’s talent goes, but the novel itself is unsatisfying; perhaps this is why the book fell out of print after this paperback edition and has, apparently, stayed that way. And speaking of which, this is another one that seems to go for absurd prices these days – I don’t even see this paperback edition listed anywhere – but I’d say the high prices are not justified by the actual content. Just get the original hardcover via Interlibrary Loan if you really want to read it.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

American Avenger #1: Beat A Distant Drum

American Avenger #1: Beat A Distant Drum, by Robert Emmett
January, 1982  Signet Books

Signet Books got in on the early ‘80s men’s adventure boom with American Avenger, which ran for five volumes and sported nice cover artwork. Unfortunately the titular character does not wear a Captain America-type costume, operate under the codemane American Avenger, or hell even wear a “USA” t-shirt at any point in this first novel…my asssumption is the series title was all courtesy Signet books, because otherwise the author himself is content to dole out a Robert Ludlum-esque thriller. The cover slugline “suspense packed international spy series” is more applicable to the actual content of the book.

As ever a big thanks to the Spy Guys And Gals site for the info that “Robert Emmett” was the pseudonym of a writer named Robert L. Waters (this series is so obscure it doesn’t even get a mention in Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Pulp Fiction). This explains the otherwise perplexing copyright of the book: “Waters Development Corporation of Broward County.” The book ends with a quick author bio which states that “Emmett” is the pseudonym of a former Air Force Intelligence officer who now lives in a small town in Florida…so then it’s Robert Waters of Broward County, Florida, hence the intentionally-goofy copyright.

Mike McVeigh is the hero of this series, a former Air Force Intelligence officer (hmmm…!) who has the usual studly looks of men’s adventure protagonists, only he has “shocks of white” in his black hair. But McVeigh’s nebbish cover guise has him hunching his shoulders and wearing thick glasses. He’s also an engineer, which means that his usual assignment has him going undercover and posing as such. So this setup alone is proof that this will not be a slam-bang sort of series. Oh, and McVeigh’s background, which turns out to be incidental to anything at all, has it that his mother was a Seminole princess. WTF? About the most we get out of this is McVeigh’s occasional condemnation of “the white man,” even though he himself is half-white…one of the curious prerequisites of these early men’s adventure series was that the protagonists had to have some American Indian blood or have been raised by Indians or whatever.

The plot of this first novel promises more of a sci-fi scenario than what is delivered; Walt Rosen, “dirty tricks” chief at the CIA, is given a report that a “particle beam” weapon has recently been fired at the moon. Who did it is a mystery, but Rosen suspects the Russians, of course (again, you can blame ‘em for anything…you don’t even need any evidence!). They’ve got some mining facility outside Berlin or something and that’s where Rosen figures the newfangled particle beam gizmo is. So Rosen does exactly what the reader expects…assigns Mike McVeigh to pose as an elevator designer at a Russian-owned company in Berlin!!

At this point the reader notices that the book runs to almost 190 pages of small and dense print, and wonders if perhaps there might be another novel to read instead. But there’s that promise of the moon-firing laser thing… But sadly the author is determined to turn out a “realistic” novel of spycraft, sprinkled with only the occasional bit of action – which by the way is mostly bloodless. There’s also some dirty stuff here and there, but even it is mostly handled in a conservative tone. Again the vibe is more of Ludlum or some other mainstream thriller. And by the way if you’ll notice, McVeigh isn’t even “avenging” anything in his assignment. It’s pretty sad when the first volume already puts the entire series concept in question.

McVeigh, who comes off in total cipher mode throughout, goes to Berlin under the cover name Dick Pelt. Seriously. Dick Pelt. There’s a lot of stuff about the East Berlin company “Pelt” is to construct an elevator for, as well as commentary and travelogue on Berlin. We also get a bit of sex action courtesy Lisel, hot secretary who is actually a spy for SSD, aka the Ministry for State Security. Her job entails screwing various bigwigs and secretly filming it, all under the comand of her Rosa Klebb-esque superior. Her expected sex scene with McVeigh is timid with the details and in fact happens off-page. The novel’s sole bit of humor has McVeigh feigning shock when, as “Dick Pelt,” he watches his sexual activities with Lisel onscreen, but secretly McVeigh wants to ask her for a copy of the tape!

One thing about McVeigh is that he keeps killing people without intending to; he takes out one of the BfV (aka German FBI) agents who jump Lisel and him one night. This all means that Lisel’s cover is blown, so the two escape on various planes and stay in airports and other page-filling banalities, only to return to Berlin…and for McVeigh to be promptly captured. At length he’s taken over to East Berlin and onto an expansive estate which we’re informed by egregious backstory was once owned by the Nazis. Here resides Marshal Kurkov, the Russian who wanted “Dick Pelt” to design his elevator. Kurkov has a sexy secretary of his own, Kebrina. This one we’ll learn is a KGB agent dubbed the “Golden Amazon” by her colleagues, due to her incredible looks and physical stamina, in particular in bed.

Kurkov is indeed the guy behind the particle beam weapon, which he’s dubbed the Devil’s Ray. But still the author denies us any pulpy stuff. Instead, the plot’s all about Kurkov wanting to defect to the US, hence his request for an American contractor, in particular Dick Pelt – for the real Dick Pelt is the son of a man with a lot of governmental clout in the US, and thus could help Kurkov defect. We get way too much arbitrary backstory about Kurkov, both in narrative and in dialog…even Kebrina fills in unecessary details on him for McVeigh. Also Kebrina is Kurkov’s daughter, even though she doesn’t know it, and Kurkov insists that McVeigh bring her over as well, even though she’s also unaware of this.

We also get the expected McVeigh-Kebrina conjugation, but this one too is kept off-page for the most part. We do at least get an actual knockdown, dragout fight to the death between McVeigh and Kebrina, something that usually doesn’t happen in the genre (usually another woman or some other quirk of fate takes out the female villain). This happens during a failed attempt at smuggling Kurkov over the Berlin Wall; it’s a setup, and McVeigh ends up fighting for his life against the “Golden Amazon.” Kurkov meanwhile is gone, which makes all that page-filling backstory on him so frustrating…honestly I hate it when authors waste time on backgrounds for minor characters in series fiction, ‘cause it’s a series, you know – we’re never going to see them again, so who cares??

The final quarter sees McVeigh reunited with Lisel, who turns out to be the member of an underground resistance movement. McVeigh’s got the blueprints for the Devil’s Ray, and Lisel promises to turn them over to the various media outlets so everyone will have them and one country won’t capitalize on the destructive technology. They spend some time at a members-only spa where they engage in more hot (off-page) lovin’, before we get to the overlong climax, which sees McVeigh, Lisel, and comrades escaping Berlin via train, which they take right through the Wall. 

Overall Beat A Distant Drum (the title being a reference to the mission name McVeigh is tasked with) is just too bland and padded…if you’re into Ludlum or other writers who stick to realistic Cold War details, it might be more your thing than it was mine. I’ve only got one other volume of the series (the second one), and this first installment didn’t have me chomping at the bit to track down the remaining three.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Great God Now

The Great God Now, by Edward S. Hanlon
April, 1968  Paperback Library

This slim paperback wins the award for most prescient novel of 1968; published over a year before Altamont and Manson, it predicts the end of the hippies, yet at the same time also predicts that they will have a greater impact on society than the Beatniks or earlier youth movements. But unlike Happening At San Remo there’s no sense of judgment or scorn; as the first page promises, The Great God Now is written by someone “inside the movement.”

I can’t find out much about Edward S. Hanlon, but judging from he acted in two tv shows in 1960 and then published five novels between 1965 and 1970. His writing isn’t bad and the book is very much on the “literary” tip, with lots of images and metaphors and all that fancy jazz. He does however stuff too many characters into such a slim book, with the result that some get sort of lost in the shuffle. My assumption is he was writing to a strict word count per the publisher.

“Who killed the love generation?” asks the back cover, going on to list each character as a suspect, as if this were the novelization of the worst ABC Mystery Movie of all time. Humorously the back cover fails to mention the two most important characters: Leo, a guy in his 30s who writes for an underground paper and who serves to judge the hippies from a historical viewpoint, and Arion, handsome long-haired hippie “leader” who is seen by the others as almost the living embodiment of love, who himself turns out to be much older than suspected. Taking place in “New York’s ultra-chic East Village,” The Great God Now occurs over just a few days, save for a final chapter that shows where most of the characters end up some months later.

The main plot has to do with the temporary release of gorgeous actress Dana Hunt from a women’s detention center in New York; she’s been in jail for the past two weeks, having been arrested for fondling herself on camera for an underground film, and held without any other grounds all this time as a warning to other lawless hippie types. But she’s being let go for just a few days to visit her father, a famous poet who is on his deathbed. Dana’s friends, who turn out to be the cognoscenti of the East Village’s hippie community, debate what they should do about all this, as they’re certain it’s a trap and the Man expects Dana to jump bail so they can bust hippie heads.

They all live in the same mini-commune in the Village: in addition to Arion, there’s John and Vicki, a married couple who have a toddler son named Allen (named after Ginsburg); Carla, a “hippie social worker” who doesn’t get much narrative time but is revealed to be self-serving; Susan, a young hippie girl who ran away from home and laughs about all the desperate pleas her parents have published in papers, asking for details on their daughter’s whereabouts; and finally Christopher, a filmmaker who doesn’t give a damn about the hippie movement and just wants to exploit them – and Dana’s imprisonment – as his ticket to Hollywood stardoom.

Looming over them all is the spirit of Running Star, an American Indian folk singer who, we gradually learn, was beaten near to death by the cops in the Village several months ago when heroin was found in his guitar. Running Star’s arm was mangled beyond repair, his face destroyed, and he went nuts and is now locked up in the Bellevue asylum. We’ll soon learn that Christopher planted the heroin in Running Star’s guitar in the hopes of starting a riot – which he did – so he could capture it on film. Christopher hopes to create the same disturbance with Dana, and thus implores her to skip going to see her dad and stay here and finish the film; ie the film she was arrested for doing in the first place.

Not much actually happens per se in the novel; it’s mostly comprised of the various characters sitting around and plumbing their thoughts, or grappling with Weighty Issues with other characters. One of the chief concerns of the novel is the changing times, how the hippie movement will have a limited shelf life. I found this very prescient…I mean when I think “hippie” I think Woodstock, and that was well over a year after this book was published. So the hippie thing hadn’t even reached its peak yet, so to speak. Many of the charactes, Dana in particular, wonder where they will be in ten years – with the omniscience of reading this novel 50+ years after it was published, I naturally assumed that by the late ‘70s they would be snorting coke and following various self-help fads, a la The Serial.

There isn’t as much psychedelic or drug stuff as you might expect. I think the most that happens is Dana smokes a joint upon release from custody and then engages in a pages-long sex scene with Christopher. Here Hanlon skirts the line between “literary” and “sleaze,” in particular when Dana gives Christopher a b.j. that goes on for like pages and pages – and all of it filtered through Dana’s drug-altered thoughts. Perhaps the only book in history to compare a guy’s junk to a skinned rabbit, folks. There are also random mentions of an LSD trip Running Star took with Dana several months ago before they too had sex – actually the sex scenes are mostly all filtered through Dana’s thoughts and memories. (For fellow pervs taking notes, the only other dirty stuff is some makeup sex between John and Vicki, late in the novel.)

Hanlon occasionally gives us some of Running Star’s lyrics, but they’re just straight-up “poetry” with no rhymes, not even broken up into lines, so I can’t see how they would fit into any sort of music…he’s clearly in the early Dylan mold but augmented with some “Native American wisdom” attributes. We’re to understand he and his thoughts are dangerous to society, which is why the cops took such joy in stomping him to pieces. However Running Star himself never actually appears in the narrative, other than in flashbacks – but then, much of the book is comprised of flashbacks, of how such and such a character grew up in a stifling but privileged environment and then ran off to be with the freaks in the village. In some ways the novel can be seen as a counterpart to Father Pig, but here we’re given the reasons why the kids ran off in the first place.

While Dana and Christopher get busy, Arion heads up a discussion group downstairs to determine what needs to be done about the situation with Dana’s return. It seems certain that “the Man” expects Dana to jump bail, after which the pigs will storm in again and it will be like the mess with Running Star all over again. But here we learn that Arion suspects Christopher of having set up that fake drug bust with Running Star in the first place, and further he’s sure he again has something up his sleeve. Christopher, who of course is the villain of the piece, is given his own brief backstory, in which we learn his mother, a famous Hollywood costume designer, was fired in the McCarthy years for being a Commie. Christopher has vowed to take over Hollywood some day, no matter the cost, even if it takes a film of hippies getting their faces stomped in.

Dana by the way gives us the title: “The sixties were a now time,” we’re informed via her perspective as she walks through the Village upon her release from the pen at the novel’s start. And, “the past and the future bow before the great god Now.” I found this focus on the passage of time to be the most interesting facet of the book. Hanlon and his characters know beyond doubt that the hippie era has a limited lifespan, but again it’s not treated with a sort of condescending air; it’s more along the lines that all great societal trends are doomed to abrupt deaths. Leo is the character who gives this the most historical perspective, mostly due to his personal time with the Beatniks a decade before; he also notes that the hippie movement hasn’t had a literary great, like its own Kerouac or whatnot. Interestingly, no one seems to understand that the rock groups of the day will have the biggest impact on the arts.

The other characters have their own limited subplots; John and Vicki have the most focus, given that John’s father, who is planning to run for the Senate, announces to John over dinner that he is taking away young Allen. He accuses John of taking drugs and being a filthy hippie and bringing Allen up in a poor environment (indeed, Dana and Christopher smoke a joint and screw mere feet away from the sleeping boy…but at least they have a curtain around their bed). Foolishly he tells John he’s coming to take the kid tomorrow, so after much deliberation – John and Vicki are having marital troubles, due to Vicki’s need for John’s dependence, which has waned these past months since Runing Star stayed with them – the couple decides to high-tail it to Mexico with Allen. John too is gradually shorning his hippie image, and his character serves to represent what Hanlon suspects will happen to real-life hippies, soon enough: they’ll grow up.

The climax, such as it is, sees Arion getting confirmation that Christopher was behind the Running Star bust, and also that Carla assisted in the plot. So the two characters are outed before the others, and a late-introduced rocker named Devlin, singer for The Heavenly Bodies, takes justice into his own hands. His own hastily-sketched backstory has it that he was a streetfighting Chicago punk before he found peace and all that; another recurring theme is that, despite their hippie, peace-loving makeovers, none of these characters will escape their original makeup.

After this Hanlon cuts forward a few months, with the revelation that Arion and others have already left the Village, with John and Vicki being the trendsetters in the evacuation. Carla meanwhile is thriving, now running various shelters for the blacks and Puerto Ricans who are moving into the area. But then she was never true hippie to begin with. And Arion’s living out in the midwest under his original name, which is the true sign that the hippie thing is dead.

Overall I found The Great God Now mostly entertaining as I read it; Hanlon definitely has a skill with words, and he brings his characters to life to such an extent that you somewhat care about their troubles, no matter how insignificant they ultimately seem to be. If I’d read this one several years ago when I was on a “hippie literature” kick I probably would’ve dug it even more. But so far as that subgenre goes I’d still rank Lee Richmond’s High On Gold (1972) as the best.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve

Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve, by Martin Caidin
December, 1973  Warner Paperback Library

Sporting an unforgettable cover that seems to have come off a sweat mag of the day, Maryjane Tonight At Angel’s Twelve is courtesy the author who created The Six Million Dollar Man. Possibly due to his famous creation, all of Martin Caidin’s novels are now scarce and overpriced, and this book – both the original 1972 hardcover and this paperback – is no exception. Luckily though I was able to get it via InterLibrary Loan.

This one’s a drug smuggling caper along the lines of Night Crossing and The Mexican Connection, but unlike those novels the plot here is more focused on the actual mechanics of flying; it’s my understanding Caidin was a professional pilot for some time, thus he has no qualms with shoehorning tons of “flying details” into the narrative. In this regard his writing almost reminds me of Mark Roberts, and this goes beyond the flying fixation. Given his success in writing I was under the impression Caidin would be, well…a better writer. I can see now why the contemporary Kirkus review was so harsh on this book. Stylistically, Martin Caidin is akin to William W. Johnstone, in particular the reactionary tone of his protagonist and of the narrative itself.

Whereas those other two dope smuggling books presented some of the dope smugglers of the day as at least counterculture heroes – I mean at least the guys flying in the grass were considered okay – in Caidin’s eyes they’re all criminal scum and deserve death. The dude’s about on the level of my wife, who considers heroin and hash equal in terms of vileness. This would be fine though if Caidin didn’t present us with a protagonist so unsuited to this reactionary agenda: Jim Brian, a blonde-haired ‘Nam hellraiser of a pilot who is only 28 years old but comes off like he’s at least twenty years older. Again, there is a strong similarity to a Johnstone-type protagonist, even down to the endless “now hold on a minute” discussions he gets into.

Eventually we’ll learn that Brian took part in over 300 missions in ‘Nam, flying into various hellzones and kicking Charlie ass, but after shipping home he hit on various hard times and now flies basically for whatever passengers he can get. When we meet him he’s flying a coke dealer and the coke dealer’s hotstuff babe, though it’s intimated Brian isn’t entirely sure the guy’s a smuggler. But it turns out to be a bust and the hotstuff babe’s actually an undercover cop – indeed, one whose name turns out to be Jacqueline Black and who is proclaimed a sadist even by her fellow narcs. Her own barely-explored backstory has it that her husband, years ago, went nuts after taking LSD, drowned their baby, and then tried to strangle Jacqueline! After which she dedicated herself to bringing down all drug dealers, as permanently as possible.

Yes, folks, Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve has the tenor of an Afterschool Special taken to absurd degrees; LSD can make you go Instantly Insane, and god forbid you take a “red” or some other pill. The book is stuffed to the gills with various characters running up and telling Brian or others that such and such character has just died of an overdose – this quickly attains humorous qualities, particularly given half the time that the victims are characters we haven’t even seen. But this is another instance of Caidin’s similarity to Johnstone; he doesn’t seem to grasp the basic tenet that action should be shown, not told.

Brian’s hauled before a gaggle of cops from various local, state, and federal agencies, all of them under command of a guy named Smythe, who offers Brian a chance to stay out of jail and clear his name: go undercover in the Cocoa Beach area of Florida (stomping grounds of Tony and Jeannie Nelson, btw) and help them catch bigtime drug dealers. Brian’s to just pose as a pilot, same as normal, and hope to run into some scumbags who want to use his plane for drugs. Jackie Black, who is one of the officers present, is violently against the idea, swearing that Brian was indeed aware that his client in the opening pages was attempting to smuggle cocaine, and that Brian should be locked up as well.

This sets up the almost psychotic antagonism between Brian and Black, but Caidin doesn’t go the expected route with it; ie the pulpy (and thus preferred) route of the two ending up in the sack. Instead, Jackie first attempts to bug Brian’s house and then tries to bust him and his girlfriend Ina (more of whom anon) several times, which has the ultimate effect of so angering Brian that he ends up beating the shit out of Jackie and strangling her until she pukes on herself(!). But after this Caidin drops the ball and Jackie, who indeed is a nutcase sadist, is delivered her final comeuppance by a one-off character…with Brian being informed of it by the now-mandatory exposition. But the part where our hero beats up a woman – even if she is a violent “bitch” (as he constantly refers to her) – comes off as a bit rough in our #metoo society.*

Brian’s first client is the aforementied Ina Joss, a beautiful brunette babe who hires him for a late-night flight to watch a rocket launch. She brings along a group of kids and, wouldja believe it, one of them has an LSD flashback trip during the flight. But Ina herself seems pretty straightaced, and meanwhile there are sparks between Brian and her, to the extent that they go back to her place that night and have some (apparently) hot sex. Caidin keeps all of it off-page, the prude. But we learn that they both had a grand ol’ time and soon enough Brian’s head over heels. A little too soon, for my tastes, as within a couple chapters of his intro the dude’s driving around Cocoa Beach and asking after Ina because he’s so crazy about her. Some toughguy ‘Nam vet!

Through Ina Brian’s put in touch with George Baxter, a wealty young high roller with long hair and all that jazz and yep he’s a drug dealer as expected. (It’s my understanding the recent nonfiction book Thai Stick, about smuggling in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, features a real-life sadistic drugworld criminal also by the name of “Baxter,” but surely this is just coincidence and Caidin wasn’t aware of him? Anyway I’m planning to read Thai Stick soon.) Brian suspects Baxter of being up to no good, as do his narc handlers.

More off-page sex ensues when Baxter, who hires Brian for a weekend flight to the Caribbean, literally gives Brian a girl for the trip. Meanwhile Baxter keeps two girls for himself! Now that’s my kind of high-rolling drug dealer. Brian feels bad about this unfaithfulness for a hot minute, and later on admits to it when Ina questions him about it (she’s a free-lovin’ Aquarian gal so doesn’t much mind). But her curiousity is more piqued by one of Baxter’s two girls; while Brian swears she is busty, Ina insists that the girl is flat-chested. In other words the lady got a boob job. And meanwhile Jackie Black has already stormed into Brian’s place, accusing him of smuggling in a load of heroin with his flight. Eventually he realizes he did, albeit unwittingly…the drugs were smuggled inside the lady’s “fake tits!”

Brian turns out to be as sadistic as the narcs he constantly butts heads with. When they ambush Baxter in his new amphibian craft – Ina along for the flight, Brian having admitted to her that he’s sort of an undercover agent – Brian does some ‘Nam-style flying to prevent his escaping, and crashes the amphibian. It explodes on impact and Brian’s elated, which came off to me as kinda harsh, not to mention that you’d figure the feds would want Baxter alive to figure out his pipeline. But it turns out some other dude was piloting the craft and Baxter has escaped. Also Baxter’s real name is revealed to be Krauss and he himself is a fancy pilot thanks to some self-financed aggressive pilot schooling at Embry-Riddle.

After his own plane is ambushed, courtesy a bomb someone’s hid in one of the engines, Brian gets a new one: an Excalibur. More aeronautical detailing ensues, taking us into the homestretch, which concerns an anticlimactic chase, most of it relayed via exposition and dialog: Brian trying to finally get the jump on Baxter/Krauss on one of his smuggling flights. This part is only salvaged by the .30 caliber machine gun Brian has installed on his Excalibur.  Meanwhile Caidin leaves the more interesting climax – Jackie Black’s fate – off-page. Her attempted bust of Ina has so angered the resident hippie community that one of them, a dopesmoking former ‘Nam helicopter pilot (yet another pilot in a book filled with them), devises a special torture for her.

The lurid cover painting actually details what happens, off-page, to Jackie Black…when he’s told about it at the end of the book, Brian says it’s an infamous VC torture technique. You take someone and tie them to an airplane with a three-blade propeller and gun it over and over. This acts as a centrifuge and mashes all the blood around in the victim’s head, making a “sponge” of the brain and rendering the victim into an almost vegetable state. This is what’s done to Jackie (after the hippies ply her with acid, we’re told), but again it’s all relayed via clunky exposition in the final pages. It’s interesting that the uncredited paperback cover artist realized there was more to exploit here than Caidin himself did, but as I say the majority of the book is more focused on explaining how pilots handle things and also detailing the rampant horrors of drugs.

*I’m so out of touch with social media that, I kid you not, I have always pronounced “#” the American way, ie “pound.” I’ve never “Tweeted” or followed a hashtag or any of that bullshit, so I honestly thought that “#metoo” was pronounced “pound me too.” Then I happened to say it aloud one day during a conversation with a coworker, and judging from their reaction I quickly realized my mistake…

Monday, April 8, 2019

K’ing Kung-Fu #1: Son Of The Flying Tiger

K'ing Kung-Fu #1: Son Of The Flying Tiger, by Marshall Macao
No month stated, 1973  Venus Freeway Press

The other week I was in a resale store with a used book section and it was the expected junk you find in such places – lots of textbooks and John Grisham paperbacks and stuff. Just as I figured I was wasting my time I came across this rare first installment of the seven-volume K’ing Kung-Fu series, squished between two hardcovers. How exactly this beaten little paperback made it to a store in Frisco, Texas we’ll never know, but at times like this I figure the trash gods are at work so I ask no questions. Plus it only cost me 60 cents!

I’ve never bothered tracking down K’ing Kung-Fu because, for one, I’ve spent enough time tracking down various obscure men’s adventure series and paying through the nose for many of them, and also because the plot has just never appealed to me. I read somewhere that the series is set in the early ‘60s or something and honestly, that’s not the era I think of when I think “kung fu.” I want pure bell bottom fury, as I’ve always referred to it – martial arts mayhem set in the funky ‘70s. I mean, at least Mace got that right, even if the books themselves sucked. But regardless this series must’ve done well enough that it garnered seven volumes, though this might’ve had more to do with the aggressive publication agenda of Freeway Press. Like The Savage Report, this one promised to be a monthly series, which must’ve been a helluva schedule for the writers to keep up with.

Speaking of which there appears to still be some mystery on who “Marshall Macao” was. I’ve gone with Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes Of Pulp Fiction, which states that it was someone named Thaddeus Tuleja. However it would appear it was actually Thaddeus Tuleja III, as this is the name that appears on some of the copyrights of the K’ing Kung-Fu books (this first one’s copyright Venus Freeway Press). Brad further states that Tuleja was born in 1941; I’ve come across online mentions of a Thaddeus Tuleja who was born in 1917 and died in 2001. Presumably this was Thaddeus Tuleja II, and further I’ll guess it was he who published the WWII naval battle history book Climax At Midway in 1960. Google brings up a listing which states there’s a Thaddeus Tuleja who lives down in Austin, but this one’s year of birth is given as 1944. I mean how many Thaddeus Tulejas can there be?? Well anyway, for convenience I’ll just refer to the author as “Macao.”

While the other books might indeed take place in the ‘60s, this first installment doesn’t even leave the 1950s – it opens with a prologue set on December 26, 1941, with old kung fu master Lin Fong in Rangoon, introducing himself to a never-named American pilot. This guy is one of the Flying Tigers – the text implies he’s the guy who organized and trained them – and Lin Fong keeps referring to him as “the Flying Tiger.” Flash-forward ten years and now Lin Fong’s in the middle of the Gobi Desert, raising the guy’s son: Chong Fei K’ing. Macao flashes forward and backward throughout the text, so that we know by adulthood K’ing will have a handsome face, muscular build, “chestnut colored” hair that goes to his shoulders, and blue eyes, the latter a source of much conversation of the Gobi natives.

When we meet him K’ing is only eight years old and knows nothing of the outside world, nor even anything about his famous father or his mother – a Chinese woman, apparently of some fame herself. Methinks Macao must be building some mystery here, but who knows. This first installment is not concerned with any of that at all and is more of an overlong origin story for the hero, showing how he goes from being a Tao master before he’s ten to becoming one of the chief kung fu warriors ever by the time he’s a teenager. Lin Fong drops some Heavy Knowledge on him throughout; the book is stuffed to the gills with “kung fu wisdom” because, as Zwolf so accurately stated, the Kung Fu TV show was big at the time and “readers would want that.”

But man there’s a lot of expository dialog throughout. Like when Fong tells the kid about how he first saw his dad in aerial combat, on December 25th, 1941 – ie the day before the prologue – and it goes on for several pages, with Fong describing the battle. Fong has it that as he watched the fight he knew the lead Flying Tiger pilot would have a son who would be the greatest kung fu warrior of all time. Yet despite all this Fong doesn’t feel the need to say who exactly K’ing’s dad was, let alone his mother. The narrative implies that even K’ing doesn’t know either of them, and has only seen his mother from afar or some such shit. Like I say all this stuff is just sort of dropped in the text and not expanded on. I got the impression I was more interested in it than Macao was.

Lin Fong is a master of the Tao and all that jazz and goes into almost mystical connotations of the power of kung fu, which lends the novel a sort of proto-Star Wars vibe. This is particularly true in the quasi-mthical story (again told via endless exposition) of the Blue Circle and the Red Circle, aka the good guys and the bad guys. Basically there was this ancient kingdom with various sages who were kung fu wizards, and eventually it split down the line between good and evil, with Lin Fong now the master of the Blue Circle. This stuff doesn’t really get played up much until the final quarter. The majority of the book – which by the way has big print, guaranteeing a quick read – details K’ing’s training in kung fu, with only occasional moments of kung fu action. The narrative employs almost a juvenile vibe, mostly because it’s relayed through young K’ing’s limited understanding of things – that is, when the perspective doesn’t abruptly jump to some other character without any warning. Macao is an unrepentant POV-hopper.

The first action scene happens to be K’ing’s first action scene, as well as the first time he takes a life. Lin Fong and K’ing live in a shack in the middle of the desert, and Fong is seen as almost godly by the natives. Thus they come running for help when bandits attack a village and kill some people. One of them wears ancient armor and a mask and declares himself the spirit of Gengis Khan, but of course he proves no match for Lin Fong. Turns out these are bandits who are into the opium trade and Ling Fong and K’ing destroy the place. In addition to hands and feet they also use weapons, and in fact K’ing’s first kill is via machine gun. By the way Lin Fong relates to K’ing that in his seventy-plus years he’s killed over a thousand people! But to quote Arnold, “They were all bad.”

Speaking of which, around this time a third character is introduced to the narrative: Kak Nam Ting, two years K’ing’s elder and Lin Fong’s other kung fu protégé. It’s intimated that he too has some mysterious but important parentage, and now he’ll live here in this damn shack in the middle of the Gobi with them and train in the higher arts of kung fu wizadry. More “cosmic power of the Tao” talk ensues, but laughably Kak ends up proving it’s all baloney, or at least that Lin Fong isn’t the wizened martial arts mystic he claims to be. Because even a glue-sniffing kid could see Kak’s plain evil straight off the bat – hell, even 8 year old K’ing harbors brief suspicions when he meets him – yet Lin Fong is oblivious. He’s so busy pondering the profundities of the Tao that he doesn’t realize his own student is like a step away from growing a moustache so he can twirl it.

Despite this K’ing and Kak become best friends and the novel jumps forward five years. The two travel around the Gobi and get in various adventures. All the while Fong only becomes more evil, wearing special bracelets and learning spells or something that will help him beat K’ing in their sparring sessions. Fong remains oblivious, too busy meditating. He’s quick to talk, though, treating us to a story that runs several pages of full exposition – bad flashsbacks to his earlier WWII story – all about the origins of the Blue Circle and Red Circle. As if on cue an evil American karate champion shows up at the shack one day, accompanied by two martial arts kids, and challenges him.

Instead of jumping into the fray, it’s back up into that damn meditation tower for Fong. In reasoning that sounds absurd coming from a guy who has admitted to killing a thousand people, Fong swears that whoever kills this evil American karate guy will become evil himself. WTF? Of course this dude, who announces himself as Loki, is a rep of the evil Red Circle. Kak is familiar with him and says there’s nothing mystically special about him; he’s just some asshole champion who has killed a bunch of his opponents. Lin Fong keeps meditating and stays out of the fray. Things go the expected route with Kak taking on all three of them and apparently ripping them to pieces – again all of it relayed via clunky exposition.

Here the novel takes a “shocking” turn, but no spoilers because the back cover copy blows it, anyway: Kak kills Lin Fong. This is also unintentionally humorous because first Kak just unloads on the guy, ridiculing him and calling him a coward and all that jazz, and Lin Fong just stands there and takes it. Then Kak blows him away with a pistol, and I have to say I wasn’t much upset because Lin Fong got on my nerves. But K’ing, who has stood there in shock, finally jumps to the attack, leading to a practically endless fight between the two boys. This should give you an idea of how the kung fu action scenes are rendered in the novel:

As mentioned this one doesn’t even get out of the 1950s so we leave K’ing where we met him, in the Gobi; Kak has escaped, with two “gouges” on his brow thanks to K’ing. I assume he’ll return in future volumes, but the only other one I’ve got is the fourth. I wasn’t blown away by this first one so I doubt I’ll do anything to correct that…unless of course the trash gods deem to put another of these in my path someday. I’d say my favorite thing about Son Of The Flying Tiger is Barry Windsor-Smith’s cover; he’s credited on the back under his original dba of “Barry Smith.”

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Rock & Roll Retreat Blues

Rock & Roll Retreat Blues, by Douglas Kent Hall
November, 1974  Avon Books

I’ve been meaning to get to this rock novel for a while now, but have been put off by its undue length – 256 pages of small, dense print. But that cover! That back cover! The comment on the copyright page that portions of the novel first appeared in the September 1974 issue of Penthouse! I knew I’d have to get to Rock & Roll Retreat Blues one of these days, and I’m glad I finally did, but be aware that once again we have a “rock novel” that has precious friggin’ little to actually do with rock music. This is a shame, because it features one of the most outrageous openings of any novel I’ve ever read, and promises the reader a sleazy thrill-ride; a promise the narrative ultimately does not keep.

Douglas Kent Hall, who died in 2008, was a photographer, reporter, novelist, what-have-you; it appears he first came to prominence via photos of Jimi Hendrix, so you know the guy was cool. According to the Rolling Stone CD-ROM database Cover To Cover he also submitted two articles to the magazine, both of them in ’74, the same year this novel came out. Strangely Rolling Stone didn’t review this novel, which is surprising given that they’d usually at least give a passing nod to books by “Friends of the Library.” One of Hall’s RS articles is a lengthy account of cattle-rustling and the like, and surprisingly enough this is the sort of thing you encounter more of in Rock & Roll Retreat Blues than rock stuff.

Another thing I don’t dig about the novel is that it’s narrated in first person. This isn’t a kiss of death, though; look at The Tale Of Willy’s Rats, which didn’t suffer for it. I just prefer my trash to be in third-person, I don’t know why. And in fact our narrator is so disassociated from reality and the people he encounters that you could very easily change all the narratorial instances of “I” to “he,” and nothing would seem amiss. Also there are long portions where the narrator just stands around and monitors others and relays what’s happening, and it goes on for pages without him even saying anything or contributing to the proceedings.

Anyway our narrator is Arthur “Artie” Webber, 23 year-old bassist for rock group The Machine. Artie is in the Syd Barrett/Skip Spence realm of out-thereness, friends. He’s so spaced out that even the drug-addled members of his own band think he’s a weirdo. And speaking of the group, Hall provides absolutely zero info on how they sound, how they started, or any of that. The absolute most we get about their sound is in a brief gig very early in the book in which it’s mentioned that guitarist Bob (no last name given, I think) employs a wah-wah pedal. Otherwise that’s it. I mean they could sound like the Monkees for all we know, though I assume they’re more in a Led Zeppelin mold.

This also brings up the question of when the novel takes place. My guess is it’s either intended to be set around the time it was published or slightly earlier; it’s certainly no earlier than 1969, given a few minor details: someone plays Abbey Road, there’s mention of a ’69 Plymouth, and at one point Artie briefly thinks of Altamont. In my mind the novel occurs in that very early ‘70s era that was the twilight of the counterculture movement, when the Aquarian dream was fading away, as evidenced by the spaced-out characters and the vibe of angst and burnout that permeates the text.

Now about that opening sequence. It’s beyond insane – Artie brings us right into the tale with no setup or intro or anything. He’s just hanging out in a hotel room before a concert with Machine drummer Bill, a black guy who gets more narrative time than all the other Machine members. (The only other member I haven’t mentioned yet is Steve, the singer, who is the brother of Bob.) Then a young girl with a star tattoo beneath her eye crawls through their window, having climbed up a few storeys to get here, bloodying her knuckles in the process. She whips out a stiletto and commands both Artie and Bill to strip and double-team her, now! And we’re talking full “d.p.,” friends, with Artie sparing no details as he takes the front and Bill takes the rear. All the while the girl threatens them with the knife. And afterwards Artie realizes the girl is young. Like real young: “Not even thirteen.”

Openings like this don’t come along every day. The problem is there’s no way the rest of the novel can maintain this sort of insanity. Particularly when the novel goes on for another 250+ pages of small, dense print. And sadly Hall doesn’t even try. I’m not saying I expected a novel filled with preteen sleaze, I’m just saying that this sort of crazy shit at the very beginning sets the bar too high. But at least the downshift occurs gradually; we do get that aforementioned brief concert, which takes place immediately after the double penetration of “the knifer,” as Artie will refer to her throughout, followed by some ribald dialog courtesy Bill about this strange experience he and Artie have shared. Meanwhile the knifer has absconded, pissed that she didn’t get to double-team Steve and Bob as well. 

This, we’re to understand, is the plight of the mega-famous rock star. Artie and The Machine have reached such lofty heights that they are wholly separated from the real world. This is especially true of Artie, who is so disassociated from reality that he’s taken to visiting the subway or bus stations in each city they hit on their tour, finding the instant photo booths, and snapping photos of himself. He keeps them in a big photo book he carries around and studies the self-portraits for hidden signs about himself. Usually he has Machine roadie Baby (a guy) chaffeur him around in a limo on the hunt for these stations, passing joints back and forth. He also dreams about Vivaldi and thinks he’s been seeing the same ghostly female face in the audience, city after city.

Meanwhile there’s trouble in The Machine; Artie often tells us he’s afraid the band is on the verge of falling apart, and implies it’s because they’ve come to such mega-fame so soon. In the process they’ve lost their common bond, or something; brothers Steve and Bob don’t even talk to each other, and Steve’s hotstuff girlfriend Faye, apparently a former groupie turned model turned writer, isn’t helping things with her recent commission to write a book on The Machine. Bob, apparently a control freak, is totally against the idea, while Steve expectedly is in support of it.

Not that anything comes of this, friends. Rock & Roll Retreat Blues drops so damn many subplots and characters that you wonder how it even got published without at least some editorial interference. I mean don’t get me wrong. The writing I think is masterful, particularly in the dialog. It’s much more a “literary” sort of novel in its vibe than the average rock novel, that’s for sure. But ultimately Hall seems to fall so in love with his fringe-world characters and their spaced-out dialog that he’s guilty of overlooking the more interesting material he sets up early in the novel.

Faye in a way also invokes the reader’s anger, for she is the one who tells Artie and the others about the “retreat” outside of San Francisco which will ultimately derail Rock & Roll Retreat Blues from being a rock novel into being…I don’t know how the hell you’d categorize it, really. Like a slice of surreal life vignette set in the country, populated by complete freaks who spout endless dialog about random things while engaging in bizarre activities. One could easily imagine Dennis Hopper or Peter Fonda making a film out of it, filled with meandering ad-libbed dialog, long shots of the setting sun, and a soundtrack heavy with echoplexed acoustic guitar.

It’s an old, three-storey house on a farm, and its owned by a guy named Bentley, a bald dude who comes off as straightlaced but who turns out to have like tattoos literally all over his body. He’s a wealthy cartoonist(!) and bought this land years back, living here now with a heavyset gal named Dolores, who takes care of the cooking and whatnot, and a hardbitten farmer-type named Poet. There’s also an attractive young black lady whose “African name” no one can remember or pronounce, so she goes around without being called anything. She’ll have a brief off-page relationship with Bill and then disappear from the text, as so many other characters will. The place has been used by other rockers as a country getaway, Bentley relates: the Dead, the Airplane (“Jack and Jorma especially”), but whereas those rockers came and went, Artie and Bill will, unfortunately for those of us hoping for a rock novel, ultimately decide to live here.

At this point the novel splinters off into various arbitrary storylines; Bill gets a boil on his ass and it must be lanced off, one of the pigs has a runt that the mother will ignore so Dolores raises it, Baby has a water bed brought in and fills it with catfish so he can sit in the darkened room all day and watch them with a flashlight. Occasionally fellow Machine members Steve and Bob will come along, accompanied by Faye, and the band will goof off near a desolate section of the beach, where they encounter such fringe characters as a beach bum who lives off a handful of rice each meal and inspects his own shit every morning for an idea of his health condition. Once in a while we’ll see the band performing in some new city. Here we learn Artie has the hots for Faye. Later, back on the farm, they have sex while Steve is away, but Artie doesn’t go into details and Faye says it’s a one-time-only thing. Oh, Artie also has sex with super-heavy Dolores, so stoned out on various drugs that he doesn’t even remember it afterward.

Speaking of fringe characters, I haven’t even mentioned PJ Tropp, a nutjob who apparently assumes a new carefully-constructed identity a few times a year, or something. He’s one of the people on Bentley’s farm, and while he’s initially set up as an important character he disappears for pretty much the entire novel until the very end; Artie even wonders if the beach bum is another of PJ’s identities. In his intro PJ is accompanied by “the bomber,” as Artie will solely refer to the young woman who here enters the text; she’s a Weather Underground type who blows up buidings and structures and plants poetry in the bombs, sometimes containing snatches of Dylan lyrics or even Machine lyrics. But when we meet her she’s more interested in a poem a famous poet has left on the door to a bathroom at Bentley’s place, and she tears the door off and leaves with it. As I say, it’s a strange book with strange characters.

What exactly attracts Artie to the rural life isn’t much explained; I guess he’s so spaced out that the slow pace of the farm appeals to him. The subtext is that he’s gotten away from all the material pursuits of the world: we learn he has basically nothing in his little room on the third floor. Not that even this is much explored. This is not a novel that exactly develops or resolves any of its subplots. Only occasionally will we get back to the rock stuff, in particular a too-brief sequence focusing on a concert in Chicago. Hall is more focused on Artie’s reunion with Sylvia, ie the dark-haired young beauty who has been following the Machine around the country on their tour.

The ghostly face Artie’s been seeing in the audience, Sylvia first introduces herself by waltzing backstage after a show early in the book and just taking Artie away. They drive along the coast, stop at a KFC, and share a bucket of the Colonel’s chicken and some wine on the beach, talking sparingly and of banalities. All the while Artie pushes himself to at least touch her hair or something, but doesn’t. She tells him he’s exactly like she thought he’d be, then drops him back off at his hotel and leaves! And only then does Artie realize he never even asked what her name was! Honestly friends you could almost get a contact high from Rock & Roll Retreat Blues. Artie’s so out of it that his disassociated narration gradually has a hypnotic effect on the reader.

Well, here in Chicago, much later in the novel, Sylvia shows up again – with the infamous Plaster Casters. Here Artie finally learns her name and also that she’s a child of wealth who is supposed to be in Europe but instead lied to her parents that she left but in reality is following the Machine around the country – actually, following Artie around the country. She joined the Plaster Casters because she thought it would be her best chance of meeting Artie again(?!). Both Artie and Bill have their, uh, casters plastered, and afterwards Artie sleeps with Sylvia, who turns out to be a virgin. There’s clearly a romantic something building here, but next morning Artie finds Sylvia gone and she never returns to the narrative. It’s like that throughout the damn novel, friends – no resolution, no followup. This would be fine if the novel sucked, if the writing was subpar, but that’s not the case.

Instead it’s back to the farm, where the new story now is the Hell’s Angels who have descended on the scene. Just as Hall page-filled with dialog on farm life, now he page-fills with dialog about fixing up motorcycles and the like. Hall is very much one of those writers who has learned a lot about various subjects and by god he wants you to know it. Meanwhile one of the Angels fucks a sheep. Later another of them tries to hit on the bomber, who has returned to the text (and brought the Angels with her), but Dolores comes to the rescue, threatening to cut the dude’s balls off and hang ‘em on a doorknob. Ultimately Dolores becomes a biker mama, and last we see of her she’s busy ripping around the countryside with the Angels. There’s also a lot of arbitrary Jesus-bashing afoot, as Poet’s seldom-scene wife, a “Jesus freak,” returns to the farm and her beliefs get ridiculed by Dolores and others.

Speaking of the bomber, her off-page activities take us into the homestretch. The bombings have become so frequent that the FBI is on the trail, and using a literature professor named Glitz they’ve put together a composite sketch of who they think the bomber is – a young male. Glitz follows The Machine around due to the increasing usage of their lyrics in the bomber’s bombs. Meanwhile PJ Tropp has returned, now dressing like T.S. Eliot and only answering to that name(??), and also the knifer herself, that prepubescent stiletto-wielder from the opening sequence, has come to the farm. Now she calls herself Blue Sky and has taken over the house chores from Dolores.

Rather than following up on his various, more-interesting subplots, Hall instead takes us into the finale with Bentley and the Angels harrassing Professor Glitz, who seems certain PJ Tropp (aka “T.S. Eliot”) might be the bomber. And meanwhile the real bomber has again left the narrative (and won’t return). There’s no big payoff, no big concert scene where The Machine get back together, nothing. Instead, Artie informs Baby that he’s decided to quit the group. When? Why? We’re not told. Meanwhile Bill’s also decided to quit. Not that he and Artie discussed it or anything. Actually Bob and Steve don’t even return to the novel, nor does Faye.

Artie has apparently decided to go the Skip Spence route and do his own album. But we have to go out on a bummer, even if it’s as arbitrary as can be, so Blue Sky (formerly known as “the knifer”) relates a long expository story to Artie about how she killed a guy once, and then she goes upstairs and hangs herself – mostly because she’s given Baby crabs, which she herself got “from one of Joe Cocker’s guys.” I guess a 13 year-old girl hanging from a noose in a spartanly-furnished farmhouse room is Hall’s commentary on the death of the flower power youth movement. Hell, I don’t know. When you’re not given much you’ve gotta reach for something.

Does Artie ever reconnect with Sylvia? Is the bomber caught? Was PJ Tropp helping her all along as Artie supsected? Do Artie and Bill decide to stay in The Machine after all? Does Artie ever finish his solo work, which he tells Vivaldi about in his dreams? Does Faye finish her book? Does Dolores become a full-time motorcycle mama? Absolutely none of these questions are answered. Instead, the novel opens with no setup, spirals along for 256 slow-moving pages of various surrealisms, and then cuts off with no resolution or payoff.

As mentioned Hall is a gifted writer, so perhaps his intention is to convey the isolation of the famous rock star. If so then he has succeeded wildly. However I fear the only readers who could empathize with his freak characters would be…well, famous rock stars who are isolated from reality. In the end, I don’t know how I feel about Rock & Roll Retreat Blues. The lack of plot frustrates me, but at the same time I can’t say I hated reading the novel. In fact I enjoyed my time with it – and it did take a while to finish the book, especially when compared to the average men’s adventure novel I review here on the blog. I’d love to hear from others who have read it.

Here’s the back cover – and this is another of those times where everything described does occur in the text, but not nearly to the exploitative lengths promised: