Thursday, July 25, 2019

Real Endings

Real Endings, by Gene Duris
No month stated, 1978  Manor Books

It’s summertime, which means I’m in the mood for sleazy ‘70s crime novels…and this obscure Manor paperback original somewhat fits the bill. But while its plot of an “artsy” porn film turned snuff flick is certainly sleazy, author Gene Duris writes the book like he’s shooting for the literary market.

No idea who Duris was, but the book’s copyright Manor and I can find no other info about the author, even in the Catalog of Copyright Entries. In cases like this I just assume the book was written by J.D. Salinger. Overall Real Endings is pretty entertaining, and sometimes as sleazy as I wanted it to be, but the problem is the front and back cover copy completely ruin the suspense Duris builds for 255 big-print pages.

And that spoiler is that we know, before even opening the book, that protagonist Kim Scott is going to be killed in a snuff flick. And yet that doesn’t happen until the final quarter of the novel. Most of the text concerns Kim deciding to become an actress, being cast in a new film which promises to push the envelope, and then gradually suspecting she’s gotten into a horrific situation. The last pages concern her friend and her uncle trying to figure out what happened to her.

Kim proves to be a likable if generic character. In particular Duris makes us feel sorry for her in the opening chapters. She’s 22, smart, pretty and built, but a bit of a wallflower – not that this stops her from letting her boss at the ad agency have sex with her. Kim’s very concerned about her job because the company’s been cutting back, as has most every business in Manhattan. This will prove to be the only sex scene in the novel, and it’s done more for comedic value, with the boss – old, heavyset, and sopping drunk – fumbling all over her and unable to even get it up when the time comes, so Kim has to go the extra mile and give him some oral inspiration.

But the sex turns out to be lousy and Kim’s fired after all. She struggles to find a job but there’s nothing out there. Duris sort of brings Manhattan to life in these pages, but not as much as other New York-set novels I’ve read from this era. Kim goes to a couple bars with her galpal Sara, gradually beginning to wonder if she should take the job Sara told her about months ago – the lead role in a hardcore movie, one with “artistic” aspirations. Sara works in a PR agency and swears that it won’t be one of those grungy movies they show over on 42nd Street, but something for mainstream theaters.

Kim still has the clipping Sara gave her, taken from an underground paper – the producers are looking for a good lookin’ young gal with a nice bod, and Kim feels she has the goods. Duris exploits Kim’s body good and proper during an arbitrary shower sequence, but curiously I don’t believe he ever tells us what color her hair is. She decides she has nothing to lose – other than her apartment due to the outstanding rent – and calls the number. A sort of pushy sounding older women tells Kim to be at a certain downtown address at eight in the evening.

Duris handles this meeting very well, ramping up the suspense. It’s a grungy factory building in a quiet, off-the-map area of Manhattan, and Kim feels all alone in this strange place. The address itself turns out to be a vast room on the top floor, basically empty save for background matte paintings and overhead lights. And the only person who claims to be here is Jason Elliott, the director of the film, who projects a big, “artist” personality but wears elevator shoes to compensate for his shortness. His main concern is whether Kim has any family or friends; Kim lies that she doesn’t have either, suspecting that’s what Jason wants to hear.

Jason comes off as a combo artistic genius mixed and pure psycho creep. He almost manages to get Kim nude in front of cameras, but she’s certain she hears another person lurking in the vast, dark space – possibly the mean-sounding woman from the phone. So she begs to leave, and Jason gives her a ride home, basically telling her the job is hers. He even offers her an advance on the three thousand bucks she’ll get for being in the film. Here the novel proves it’s too long for its own good with an arbitrary trip back home to Kingston where Kim tries to figure out if she should be in the movie. This part also serves to introduce her beloved Uncle Jim, who much to Kim’s dismay is about to marry some bitchy woman.

Duris broadens the narrative with cutaways to the other characters: we get a long sequence from Jason’s point of view, where we see how sick he really is. His previous movie scored big on the film circuit because it appeared to have real sex in it, and also concluded on sick violence with the male protagonist strangling the female lead to death. We’re told people line up around the block to see this movie; Kim’s never heard of it, but when she reveals to Sara that Jason Elliott is the director of this new “artsy adult movie,” Sara drags Kim to a showing of Jason’s earlier film. She proclaims Jason a genius and tells Kim she’d be a fool not to take the part.

As it is, the film described sounds horrible. Kim watches in fascination as the lead actor – a handsome but evil looking guy with black hair – has his way with the lead female, and the sex doesn’t seem to be faked at all. Even crazier is the finale, which has the guy strangling the girl. Kim swears she just saw a murder onscreen but Sara says it’s all camera trickery, given the genius of Jason Elliott. All this has the ring of dark humor because later we learn that, of course, the girl really was strangled to death, an “accident” given the general insanity of the leading actor, Coolege, who got worked up during the scene and really killed the girl. This secret is only known to Coolege, Jason, and Stacey, the older woman Kim talked to on the phone, who is described as looking like Katherine Hepburn; she’s a wealthy widow and funds Jason’s films, in exhchange for a little rough sex.

Duris cuts back and forth across these characters. Jason has an insane mother in an asylum, and a bizarre backstory has it that he wanted to be a pro basketball player but was too short(!). Coolege was a former soldier turned mercenary who met Jason in Africa (where Jason was making a movie apparently) and the two hit it off with their sick interests, Coolege’s dark movie star looks the perfect compliment to Jason’s artsy aspirations. And finally Stacey is a widow with vast wealth at her disposal, and enjoys being bossed around by Jason, but through her we learn that the first film’s murder was an accident and Stacey’s afraid the truth will be uncovered and they’ll all go to prison. 

Jason’s latest film sounds awful, like New Hollywood at its worst awful. (Speaking of which I wonder if this novel was written a few years earlier, as there are no late ‘70s topical details, but platform shoes and adult actress Marilyn Chambers get mentioned.) There’s no script, and only two actors: Coolege as a farmer and Kim as some waif he comes across and falls in love with. Plus it’s a period piece. It will be shot at Stacey’s remote mansion in the Hamptons, ensuring privacy, same as Jason’s previous movie. Thankfully Duris doesn’t much bother us with details about the actual film, usually relaying bits of info via Stacey’s diary, rendered in ugly italics.

The climactic sex scene is heavily built up; Kim’s taken the job knowing she’ll have onscreen sex with Coolege, whom she finds attractive but threatening. Jason plays up on this, first acting as a taskmaster so that the two bond in hatred of him, then later using Kim’s growing fear to make her afraid for the scene – which by the way will be a rape scene. Bizarrely enough, when the sex scene finally happens Duris leaves it off page, then later has Jason secretly reading Kim’s diary to get her impressions of what it was like. To put it bluntly, she didn’t like it at all – and Duris again makes us feel bad for our leading lady with Kim’s admission that she hasn’t had sex in a long time, thus Coolege’s massive wang didn’t feel very pleasant.

Stacey tries to warn Kim what’s about to happen to her, but Jason manages to drug the older woman so she’s out of action when he and Coolege film the climax. I expected something outrageous, but it’s still dark enough; Coolege strangles Kim in the basement with a baffled Kim slowly realizing that this is for real – and then she sees Jason leaning in with the camera to get a closeup of her face as she dies! After this the novel focuses on Uncle Jim and Sara, who unite in their search of Kim, several weeks later – the novel has a nicely-unsettling finale in which what happened to Kim will always be a mystery to those who knew her.

Overall not a bad novel, certainly fast-moving, but not as crazy as that nice cover illustration promises. As a pulp crime novel about snuff flicks, it’s got nothing on Cut, that’s for sure. Or even The Big Enchilada. But I’d like to know who Gene Duris was, as the writing is pretty good, particularly when it comes to capturing the thoughts and impressions of the characters.

No comments: