Monday, April 13, 2020

The Pleasure Principle

The Pleasure Principle, by Peter McCurtin
December, 1974  Leisure Books

Peter McCurtin tries his hand at some contemporary Harold Robbins-esque trash fiction in this obscure Leisure Books paperback original; actually, a better point of comparison would be the sleazy paperbacks Dell was publishing at the time, a la Sexual Strike Force, Michelle, My BelleMaking U-Hoo, and The Secret Sex Curse Of Bertha T. (one I never reviewed because it was so bad, despite the great title and cover!). The Pleasure Principle is similar to those Dell books, what with its risque cover photo (look closely and you’ll see some nipple action from our uncredited cover model), its salacious back cover copy…and its unfortunately-“comedic” narrative style.

Yes, folks, those Dell books were for the most part sex comedies, squandering their exploitative potential with “goofy” plots and scenarios. Most of them, judging from the ones I’ve read, also employed a pseudo-omniscient tone, to the point that I assume a certain editor at Dell was behind the line of books and had specific guidelines for the authors to follow. McCurtin so closely follows the style of these Dell sleaze paperbacks that I wonder if he actually wrote this book for that line, got rejected, and just published it through Leisure. (McCurtin was in fact publishing with Dell at this time, with the three-volume Assassin series, so it’s possible.)

The novel takes place over a few days in the summer of 1969 and is set in Chapmans Corners, a fictional beachside hamlet in Maine. McCurtin hopscotches across a diverse group of characters, and honestly he doesn’t have much of a story to tell; a plot doesn’t really start to build until near the very end of the novel’s 142 big-print pages. As with those Dell books McCurtin employs an omniscient tone, jumping wily-nily into the thoughts of his various characters, telling more than he shows. The first thirty or so pages in particular are hard going, at least for the poor reader who just wants a book with a basic plot to follow: it’s a succession of characters, all of them in the act of jerking off, with random asides on their personalities, backgrounds, and past sexual experiences.

Yes, this round-robin masturbation motif does indeed open the novel; we meet uber-wealthy Rudolph Zabriskie, who I guess is the closest we get to a “main protagonist” in the novel, in the process of jerking off…to a photo of JFK. He’s unable to rise to the occasion, thus resorts to a photo of Richard Nixon. Figuring he’s the first person in history to do such a thing, Zabriskie beats off to a photo of Nixon in a glossy magazine propped on his silk-cushioned bed. Unfortunately, “Richard M. Nixon ha[s] no come-quality,” and Zabriskie still can’t achieve orgasm. So next he goes into a pages-long fantasy about screwing a young boy in his native Poland! (“Without further ado, [Zabriskie] commenced to bugger the boy.”) Now folks I’ve read strange opening chapters in my time, but this one might take the cake – jerking off to two presidents, then into a bunch of hardcore gay fantasy action…!

McCurtin is just getting started. Meanwhile Paul McAngus, a middle-aged, middle-income dude who lives a few miles from Zabriskie’s mansion, is also masturbating…and also having a hard time of it. Mostly because his wife, Martha, is so loudly masturbating in the next room, playing with herself as she imagines the hot French actor on TV screwing her. So hard-pressed is Paul that he gives up on jerking off and instead goes into the room with his wife. McCurtin renders the ensuing oral sex from Martha’s point of view – Paul isn’t very skilled at the whole thing, but at least Martha can pretend it’s the French actor down there. Curiously though McCurtin leaves the ensuing sex mostly off page, ending the chapter with the unforgettable line, “Paul waved his white ass like a castaway signaling for help.”

Next we meet Gardner Dettrick, a portly wanna-be jetsetter who fantasizes about partying with Herman Goerring. He’s in the process of hosting a party in his house, also in Chapmans Corners, a small party only attended by Sally, Gardner’s ex-wife, and Herbert Blaney, a somewhat-successful novelist. Blaney’s latest novel has been optoined by Hollywood and Gardner gets off on parading the new celebrity around town as his “best bud.” Also at the party is Blaney’s hot girlfriend, Peggy; we learn incidentally that both men screwed her as soon as the party started, and now the action centers around Dettrick getting Sally drunk enough that she’ll lay there willingly while Peggy goes down on her. They almost succeed in this until Dettrick blows the moment, after which he gets out his whip and chases a nude and screaming Sally out into the street. Curiously McCurtin forgets all about Sally and last we see of her she’s huddled, naked and crying, beneath a car in the street in the middle of a thunderstorm.

The only real enjoyable part of the novel occurs soon after; the next day Chief Kinch, 62 and soon to retire – and in the pocket of Zabriskie – finds out that yet another pair of hippies have been found in Chapmans Corner. One of his deputies hauls them in; they were caught “fucking in the dunes.” One’s a surly young black man and the other’s a pretty young blonde who insists her name is “Beautiful One.” Eventually we’ll learn her name is Mary and the guy’s name is Bobby. This is discovered by Zabriskie, who hears that Kinch has collared a couple hippies and demands the loyal cop bring them over to his mansion, on the pretense that Zabriskie’s cat has gone missing and the hippies might have stolen it.

This is of course just a ruse, as Zabriskie wants to have more fun at the expense of the hoi-poloi. Kinch busy with the big breakfast the maid has prepared for him, Zabriskie is free to harras the two young hippies for his own amusement. Telling them that he owns the town and that they’d better please him or else, Zabriskie goes right into the hardcore sex questions, demanding to know if Bobby ever goes down on Mary. After this it’s onto the next topic, “Now, Mary, this big black cock of Bobby’s – do you ever suck it?” Once his fun is done Zabriskie has Kinch take the hippies away, telling Kinch he thinks they should be let go without charges, to which Kinch of course agrees. After this Zabriskie snorts coke and plays old tunes on his viola; the back cover incorrectly states that Zabriskie plays “pop songs” on it.

We’re now in the last third of the novel and only here does McCurtin go about the motions of fashioning a half-assed plot. While soaring on coke and playing violin, apropos of nothing Zabriskie remembers how Paul McAngus once “refused the honor” of sucking Zabriskie’s dick. This occurred at one of Zabriskie’s parties, several years ago, and now Zabriskie feels he must get revenge. He calls up his fascist friend Gardner Dettrick and insists the portly sadist have another of his parties tonight – and to be sure and invite Paul and Martha McAngus. Meanwhile Garnder himself invites the hot little number who works at the local grocery store, a teenaged girl named Mary-Ann, who gets her own chapter in which she tries to figure out what to wear for the party.

Humorously, McCurtin pretty much says to hell with it at this point and takes the novel into a wholly-unexpected dark climax. Gardner gets progressively hammered and the party takes on an increasingly deranged atmosphere, with Gardner’s “scratched records” from the ‘50s blasting on the stereo. While Blaney, who is also in attendance, gets cozy with Martha McAngus, Zabriskie gets Paul so drunk that he passes out…and then sodomizes his unconscious form. Meanwhile Dettrick takes Mary-Ann up to his room, apparently gets rejected by the young girl, freaks out, and throws her off the balcony. Then he goes into his room, gets a gun, and starts shooting everyone. This appears to be another of those scarce paperbacks – and probably for good reason – but if you don’t want the finale spoiled skip to the next paragraph. In the span of a few nonchalant sentences McCurtin kills off practically the entire cast of characters, with only Zabriskie and Blaney still alive after Dettrick’s crazed gunplay – and when Chief Kinch shows up on the scene, Zabriskie snatches his service revolver and blows Dettrick away!

And on this sour note The Pleasure Principle comes to an abrupt close, featuring one of the most jarring finales I’ve encountered in a long time. I forgot to mention, but Zabriskie also gives us the meaning behind the title; it’s a phrase of his own coin which means that “anything that gives pleasure is good.” I guess perhaps McCurtin’s intent was to play this principle out through the various characters, clearly trying to show the dark side of total pleasure indulgence, but at 142 pages of clunky narrative it just doesn’t pan out. The abrubt, “screw it” climax implies that McCurtin himself got tired with the whole thing and just threw in the towel.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

It's mind-boggling how many novels McCurtin wrote and how many characters he helped launch but had other writers develop.

Unknown said...

This is gonna sound crazy, but this book is set in the same town as features in a mafia novel of his, Cosa Nostra! I only recognized it after seeing the town name and the familiar character of Captain Kinch (spelled Kinsch in Cosa Nostra). I have to track down a copy of this book now!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments! Sorry I missed yours back in April, Bob. Unknown, interesting to hear this place factors into Cosa Nostra...which I believe I also have, so I look forward to reading it someday!