Marina Tower, by Charles Beardsley
No month stated, 1978 Popular Library
You’ve gotta love the front cover of this fat paperback, which compares itself to not one but two Burt Hirschfeld novels – Fire Island and Aspen (which I haven’t read yet). Author Charles Beardsley was almost as prolific as Hirschfeld, but doesn’t seem to have achieved the same success; I believe all his novels were published as paperback originals, and all were churned out between 1960 and 1980 (I think).
This is the first of his novels I’ve read, and I chose this one due to Kurt’s review at The Ringer Files a few years back, which really drew my attention. I’ve collected a lot of Beardsley’s novels, though, and they all seem to follow the True Trash template: beautiful people in a beautiful location experiencing various soap opera-esque activities over a couple hundred long-simmer pages. Everything about Marina Tower screams exploitation, from the bikini-clad gals on the cover (curious though that none of these California babes are blonde!) to various promises of sex and sin on the front and back cover copy.
And yet this is one of those perplexing “dirty” novels in which hardly any dirty stuff happens! Folks this is one of those mysteries I always ponder…how in the world can an author turn out a “trash” novel that’s not even trashy? Rather, the book is a slow-moving soap opera positively overstuffed with flighty mid-‘70s California types, young and old. It is also very heavy on the New Age tip, similar to another novel of the era that also focused on ‘70s California, The Serial, but this one barrels right on past New Age and into the paranormal. You’d never guess it from the cover art but there’s actually a ghost in the novel, one that gradually possess one of the main characters.
While that’s all well and good, it’s not really the book I wanted. I wanted ‘70s sleaze, folks! I wanted post-hippie Southern California types snorting coke and popping amyl nitrates while engaging in “group activities.” Instead it’s all long-simmer, more about the various characters and their various hangups. There’s even a ‘70s-mandatory government conspiracy afoot, one that of course has to do with the environment. Well anyway, it’s fairly well written, if a bit too overstuffed with characters and subplots. Yet Beardsley mostly does a good job of keeping it moving.
The novel takes place over the Fourth of July weekend of the U.S. Bicentennial, ie 1976. I’m pretty sure the Bicentennial is among my earliest memories; I was born in October of 1974, and I seem to recall looking out the living room window of my house as a small, flag-bearing parade went by. Unless I’ve imagined this it would have to be my earliest memory, as I would’ve only been around a year and a half old in July of 1976. Well anyway I digress.
The titular Marina Tower is a deluxe apartment community along the Pacific Ocean, near Los Angeles. There’s the main Tower, with fifty floors, and a North and South community adjacent to the Tower. The novel concerns the Bicentennial activities of a few of the residents, but as mentioned the focus is more so on the paranormal, with a ghostly presence emanating on the actual holiday and witnessed by a few of the residents. As Kurt notes in his review, some of the characters and stories are more interesting than others. Here are a few of them:
Kay Francis – A reclusive, 68 year-old lady who lives in the Tower penthouse with her maid. The mystery of who Kay is dangles for nearly 200 pages before we learn she is a retired madam, and is being kept in Marina Tower by a wealthy man named Gregg Howard. Her parts are overlong and trying for the reader, but they have to do with her sponsor at the Tower being blackmailed by someone. However we do get a humorous but random bit where Kay goes to a bookstore and tries to steal a book.
Jill Hightower – A pretty young nurse who has recently untapped her psychic talents, thanks to a traumatic event two years ago. A drunk guy at a pool party tried to drown her, and soon thereafter Jill discovered her latent skills with ESP and such. Her main storyline has her channelling a vengeful spirit from the past.
Rayne Bergen – The very same dude who nearly drowned Jill two years ago. He now lives in Marina Tower too, but doesn’t seem to recognize Jill. He’s too busy hanging out by the pool with all the “stews” who flock to him, Marina Tower being a popular residence for stewardesses. He’s a struggling actor who just got a role in a new series – a paranormal TV series, naturally, and thus he soon reaches out to Jill to become his guru on the path to redemption.
Eve Black – A heavyset lesbian real estate mogul who cruises the pool for cuties; among her various egregious subplots is her trying to sell “hexed house” in which a murder took place years before (more paranormal stuff courtesy Beardsley, who clearly had an interest in the subject). She also gets in a random fight in a lesbian bar, and finally the revelation is that she is the one who is blackmailing Kay Francis and Gregg Howard.
Gary Minor – A former porn star with a 10” dick that has a bumblebee tattooed on the head. He’s in hiding from the government on trumped-up federal charges, given that a crusading senator has vowed to take down the star of that scandalous porn flick. He too is being kept at the Tower by someone, but finds out halfway through the novel that he’ll need to vacate the premises – and he doesn’t have any money or anywhere to go.
“Captain” Horatio and wife Tina – An older couple who hit the lottery, bought a yacht, and now tool it around the harbor outside the Tower. Their subplot seems to come from an entirely different novel, given that a trio of punks, hired as temporary crew, plot to hijack the yacht and use it for a cocaine run.
Gloria Deal – A smokin’ hot hooker who lives in the Tower thanks to a rich old guy she sees one night a week (a recurring theme is that many of these characters live here at someone else’s expense). By far the most interesting character in the novel, Gloria cruises the pool and asks “Are you lonely?” as a pickup line for johns (and janes; the lady will swing for whoever pays). She also sells coke and uppers. The narrative always picks up when Gloria is around, and her subplots are the most racy: in addition to cruising for customers, she’s raped by a dude who fools her into thinking he has coke to sell, then finds out the same night her sugar daddy can’t put up her keep any longer (another recurring theme). She and Gary soon realize they are soul mates.
Fumiko Reilly – A Japanese babe who gives shiatsu massages at the Tower; she’s turned on by a new resident, a hunky Iranian dude who turns out to be the new owner of Marina Tower.
Jay Wolfe and Shelly Grau – He’s an exhibitionist looking to do an “immersion couch” act in the bay outside Marina Tower, she’s a black reporter who is falling for her subject. The entire subplot is page-filling boredom, but it too delves into the New Age vibe that permeates the entire book; Jay nearly drowns in the climax and telepathically calls for Shelly…and she hears him.
In addition to this there is the above-mentioned conspiracy; a one-off character discovers that nuclear waste has been dumped into the Pacific near Marina Tower’s harbor, and even a minor underwater incident could knock the cannisters loose and bring the radioactive waste right onto the shore. For his trouble this character is killed by a “random” hit and run driver. And meanwhile an underwater earthquake does indeed knock those cannisters loose, bringing radioactive death to Marina Tower…coinciding with the supernatural vengeance sworn by Mist, the vindictive spirit which has possessed Jill Hightower…
Vindictive spirit? That’s right, folks. After a group meditation session aboard Horatio’s yacht, Caligula, Jill starts hearing a voice in her head, and will sit at her typewriter and begin transcribing the words. For the reader this translates into more egregious material, each bit subtitled “The Island Woman,” as Mist, the ghost, tells her story of suffering and despair. She has vowed revenge on the people who now live in this part of California, but promises Jill she’ll be safe so long as Jill keeps secret the words Mist tells her.
As expected things ramp up the closer we get to the Fourth of July. Horatio and wife are kidnapped by the thugs and taken out to sea; there follows more New Agey stuff in which Jill’s psychic instructor, a lady named Kay, tries to use ESP to figure out where the yacht is, giving the info to the police. Both Gloria and Gary find out they need to leave the Tower, and again Gloria’s storyline is much more interesting – there’s a nice bit where she realizes she’s wasting her life and she’s only in her early 20s. This realization occurs to her as she’s locked inside Eve Black’s bathroom, having barricaded herself from the rampaging, drunken lesbian.
The Gloria-Gary romance is probably the highlight of the novel, if only that it captures the era. Their first boink isn’t overly explicit – again, the novel is perplexingly shy when it comes to the dirty stuff – but it does feature a little amyl nitrate popping. (Kurt quoted this part in the opening of his review, memorably noting how it almost sounds like something out of a horror novel!) I would’ve preferred if there had been more material with these two, or hell maybe if Beardsley had opened up the locale a little more. I mean is there a disco club at Marina Tower? I’m sure there is, but for the most part these characters just sit around in their rooms or by the pool, plumbing the depths of their self-involved problems.
The supernatural stuff takes over in the finale, and initially it seems Beardsley is implying that all this is a mass hallucination borne by the escaping radioactive waste; first Gloria sees a ghost by the pool and runs from it in shock, and later Eve Black, drunk up in her room, has a fatal encounter with the very same vision. But soon we learn that this is in fact the reborn Mist, and by novel’s end – in which a couple characters are promptly (and somewhat shockingly) killed off – we see that it’s indeed a ghost and not just radiation-spawn visions run amok.
I don’t know, friends. Marina Tower isn’t bad, but it’s not what I was expecting. There’s definitely some cool ‘70s touches throughout, like the group meditation stuff and the focus on New Age interests, but too many of the subplots are boring, making the novel an uphill climb at times. I also didn’t dig how the raunch was constantly shackled; I mean Beardsley drops the note early on that Rayne (whose character goes ultimately nowhere) is popular with all the sexy stews who live in the Tower, but instead we get more material on how Rayne isn’t sure if he’s in love with one of them in particular.
So really it’s more of a soap opera potboiler than anything, with nothing really standing out. Neither does Beardsley’s writing; there’s nothing flashy nor memorable about it, but he does an adequate job of capturing the voices of his various characters. He definitely needed to tighten up on the plotting, though; not nearly enough happens in Marina Tower to justify its excessive length, but then I imagine the novel was intended to be picked up by bored housewives on their way to summer vacation. Here’s hoping Beardsley’s other novels have a bit more bite.