The Last Great Death Stunt, by Clark Howard
January, 1977 Berkley Medallion
With a plot that practically cries out for a film adaptation, The Last Great Death Stunt is courtesy prolific author Clark Howard, who published many novels, both hardcover and paperback, but this is the first of them I’ve read. The plot is also as “late ‘70s” as you can get, however the novel takes place in the future – only it’s the best kind of pseudo-future, as it’s basically just the 1970s with slightly higher technology, a la The Savage Report.
Howard clearly seems to have been inspired by the bummer “future ‘70s” movies of the day, particularly Rollerball, but with much less of a downer vibe. The Last Great Death Stunt takes place in the then-future of the mid-1980s, in which there is no war or other sorts of suffering. All professional sports have vanished: people just want to watch Death Stunts, which have taken over from boxing, basketball, football, and etc. From vehicular jumps to high-wire walking to free-falling, these “Death Stunt” athletes certainly have a broad portfolio, and don’t just stick to one stunt like Evel Kneivel did. And yes folks, just to let you know how “futuristic ‘70s” this is, Evel Kneivel is in fact mentioned frequently in the narrative – even by the President of the United States in a televised address to the nation!
This is how the novel opens; the President is unveiling to the public the “Anti Death Stunt Bill,” which within a month will ban death stunts forever. The President, who is young at 50 and serving “the first of what he hoped would be two six-year terms” (remember, it’s the future, folks!), states that this bill is near and dear to him, as human life is precious and the death stunts have resulted in too many fatalities…not just among the actual stuntmen, but also due to civilians, particularly children, who have tried to recreate the dangerous stunts. Although “only a few thousand” people have died in this manner, the President is still concerned. He somewhat needlessly reminds his public that the population is tightly controlled in this future era: immigration is banned (no comment!) and the government has become so totalitarian that it even mandates how many children a family can have (no comment!).
The novel concerns two Death Stunt artists who try to achieve the titular “last great Death Stunt” before the ban kicks in: Jerry Fallon, 42 years old and retired, but considered the greatest Death Stunt artist of all time, and Nick Bell, 28 year-old current Death Stunt champion who many consider to be even greater than Fallon was. Like I said, the plot of this one is so geared for film adaptation that you can almost see the “Soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin” credit. It seems pretty evident that Howard has James Caan in mind for Bell and maybe Paul Newman for Fallon. He even lets us know his casting ideas directly: Bell’s girlfriend is a “Death Stunt groupie” named Janis who looks “like a young, blond Ali McGraw.” Throughout the novel the cultural references are from the 1970s; this isn’t a complaint, as I sure would’ve preferred a “futuristic 1970s” than the actual future we got. It’s sort of like the Buck Rogers TV series that came on around this time. I mean dammit, I’m still waiting for disco clubs on the moon!
The biggest problem with The Last Great Death Stunt is that there’s little difference between Fallon and Bell. Save for that Fallon is older and has a wife and a teenaged daughter, there’s no real differentiator between the two men. Both are calmly detached about their superhuman skills, both are confident that they are the top of their field, and both have a sort of humble approach to their fame. I mean I thought there’d be the total cliché with Bell the arrogant young punk, eager to destroy Fallon’s legendary record, but nope…Bell only claims he’s the “greatest” after a notoriously-aggressive sports reporter pushes and pushes him for a comment to that effect. And this happens toward the very end of the novel. Otherwise the two men are so identical in their natures that there’s hardly any tension in the plot Howard attempts to cook up.
Another big problem is that we hardly see any Death Stunts. The novel opens with the President announcing they’re to be banned, thus we’re constantly told about such and such Death Stunt of the past. Indeed, there are only two Death Stunts in the novel: Nick Bell gets in his “Death Sled” and rides it down a mountain early in the book, and then there’s a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge…at the very end of the book. Actually we don’t even see the jump, either. We see the events leading up to it, then move forward to the aftermath in the next chapter. So basically there’s an entire “future world” that hinges around Death Stunts – it’s literally the only thing people talk about, with crowds of thousands congregating at each Death Stunt location – but none of it is brought to life for us readers.
So the only real Death Stunt we see is Bell’s slide down Mount Witney early in the novel. He wears a “padded gunmetal-red racing suit” and a visored helmet, and Howard makes the internal workings of the Death Sled suitably “futuristic:” viewscreens that allow him to see outside and keep him connected with the live TV coverage. This is a suitably tense sequence that nonetheless seems to go on too long. The Sled is rigged up so that it’s like a snowsled high up on the mountain, but then treads roll out for when it gets lower, so it can navigate the rocks and foliage and such. Bell gets bashed around a lot, suffering minor injuries in the suicidal race down the hill, yet at the same time it’s not the most effective Death Stunt for us readers to witness, as really he’s just sitting in a sled throughout. And sad to say, this will be the only Death Stunt we get to witness!
Meanwhile Jerry Fallon is content with his domesticated life in California, watching all this on TV like the others. We learn he retired two years before and is content that his legend will never be outdone; he is roundly considered the greatest of all time, but there is the nagging worry of Nick Bell taking the top spot. Actually this is only inferred. Fallon is so calmly blasé about the whole thing that it almost comes off like the author is pushing him into being worried about Bell’s rising star. At any rate, we learn that Fallon started off as a race car driver, but when that circuit washed up, like all other professional sports, he moved into Death Stunts – and was about to jump the infamous Snake River in his first go. This was only the beginning of his legend. And yes, Evel Kneivel’s failure “some years ago” at Snake River is mentioned frequently in the narrative, even by the President in his address – now there’s a State of the Union I’d enjoy watching.
Speaking of the President, Howard only vaguely brings to life this future world. The focus is really on the popularlity of Death Stunts. But we are informed that “the world is half-Communist, half-quasi-Socialist” (no comment!), and that there are no wars supposedly as a result. This would be a naïve assumption on Howard’s part, but at any rate the political climate isn’t much explored – save, that is, how Nick Bell’s abruptly announced “last Death Stunt” of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge causes ripples in California. For some curious reason Howard burns pages on subplots about politicians, from “the first black Governor of California” to the Mayor of San Francisco, all of them heated up over Bell’s announcement. He’s made it right after the President’s address; the ban will go into effect on New Year’s Day, thus Bell announces he’ll jump on New Year’s Eve.
This pisses off the President, who spends a lot of the narrative on the phone with various California politicians, usually while watching his wife get dressed. Howard almost half-assedly caters to the ‘70s demand for sex with occasional scenes of undressed women, like here, with the President’s wife coming out of the shower and trying to keep on her towel while the President talks on the phone. Yet this only displays Howard’s non-understanding of what us sleazebag readers want. I mean who gives a shit about the dude’s wife! Make it the President’s whip-cracking bondage mistress or something who keeps dropping the towel. Further displaying this non-understanding, Howard later gives us a somewhat-explict sex scene between Fallon and his wife. We also get minor hanky-panky between Bell and his girlfriend, but again this is a miss, as Bell is so devoted to her that she is practically his wife. And yes, in case you are taking notes, the only female characters in the novel are either wives or girlfriends, with none of them having any roles of importance in this future world, meaning that this is likely another book that will be consigned to the flames when the perennially-aggrieved Millennials finally take over.
So much of the novel is padding, though. It opens memorably enough, with the President’s announcement of the ban, followed by Bell’s plunge down Mount Witney. But then the narrative goes into a stall as we get a lof of stuff about minor characters, from local politicians to various reporters. Meanwhile Fallon just sits calmly in his home, drinking various juices. Eventually he meets with a psychiatrist to see what would compel Bell to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, given how “over six hundred people” have attempted this, but only eight of them have ever survived. Through this we are to understand that Fallon is interested in jumping himself, but again the reader has to do a lot of heavy lifting here, as Fallon is presented as such a complacently content guy that there’s no real impetus for him to cement his legacy.
Bell for his part begins to practice jumping off a smaller bridge in Lake Havasu, this one a mere sixty feet above the water. But even this is sort of lost in the narrative, which more so spends its time on background of how Bell met groupie Janis and fell in love with her. Through Bell’s character Howard really had an opportunity to bring this future era to life, but for the most part the opportunity is lost. This is also due to the fact that the novel occurs over just a few weeks, and Bell spends it jumping off this practice bridge. Oh and also it’s via the Golden Gate that we get an indication of when the novel is set; we’re told it was built in 1937, “nearly fifty years ago.” And here’s another line I jotted down, from the aforementioned part where Bell gets it on with Janis: “[Nick] looked down the length of their bodies and watched himself enter her through the field of pubic hair that was as yellow as the hair on her head.” See, friends, even the pubic references are from the shaggy ‘70s!
Finally New Year’s Eve is upon us, the last quarter of the novel taking place on this day. Nick Bell arrives in San Francisco amid much hoopla; throngs of his followers who are excited to see him, and cops who are determined to prevent his jump. Howard adds some lame eleventh hour suspense when Bell goes out on his stories-high hotel windowsill to wave to his throngs far below, but he stumbles on his way back inside and nearly falls over – the first time, we are portentiously informed, he’s ever lost his balance. Just mere hours before his jump off the Golden Gate! Shortly after this a pushy reporter basically corners Bell into “admitting” he’s the greatest Death Stunt guy in history, and this finally gets through the frosty exterior (and interior) of Jerry Fallon…who is, you guessed it, once again watching it all on TV back home.
Now it becomes ridiculous as Fallon merely goes to his gym out back and does two workouts, like on the parallel bars and whatnot, and then he says so long to the wife and kid and hops in his car and drives on over to San Francisco. Yes, he’s decided to jump off the bridge as well! Zero training, zero practice other than those two workouts – however we are informed that he’s already stayed in peak condition. Must be all that pinneapple juice he drinks. The novel climaxes with Fallon making a surprise appearance on the bridge and telling Bell he’s come because Bell should never have said he was the greatest. The two men jump off at the same time.
And, infuriatingly, Howard jumps forward to the aftermath in the next chapter. It gets even more ridiculous as the mystery of whether either of them survived is teased out past the breaking point. SPOILER WARNING so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Well anyway friends, this is a tension-lacking book, ‘cause they both survive…Fallon with nothing more than a broken ankle, but Bell all busted up, with smashed knees, knocked out teeth, and basically just in general broken apart. However the doc says in time “he may be a man again,” and Fallon invites Bell to come stay with him and work out in the gym together! Further, nice guy Fallon tells the press that “the last great Death Stunt” was a draw, as both men survived – both are now the greatest.
Overall The Last Great Death Stunt was marginally entertaining, but there was a lot of potential that wasn’t reaped. It just felt like the reader was missing out on the larger story. So in other words, if this really was a ‘70s movie, it would be more along the lines of a TV movie.