Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Cape

The Cape, by Martin Caidin
No month stated, 1971  Doubleday

The last of the space race novels Martin Caidin published before he hit the big time with Cyborg (which would of course become better known as The Six Million Dollar Man), The Cape takes place in the near-future year of 1972 and is more focused on the ground crew than the astronauts. Also, like Caidin’s earlier No Man’s World, The Cape clearly didn’t resonate with readers of the day, as it only received this original hardcover edition – which, also like No Man’s World, is now grossly overpriced on the used books market. 

I will concur with the contemporary Kirkus review that The Cape was likely influenced by Countdown, only I feel it is a much inferior work to Frank Slaughter’s beach read potboiler. Caidin too attempts to write a sort of melodrama set in the space program, occuring in the titular Cape Kennedy and environs, only he lets his technical familiarity with the program get in the way of telling an entertaining tale. Whereas Slaughter put the characters first, Caidin is more about the nuts and bolts; as with Countdown the tale is more about the preparation for launch rather than the launch itself, with the astronauts minor characters in the narrative. The Cape is all about the technicians and managers behind the scene, and as in No Man’s World Caidin is sure to let you know he’s been there and knows all about it. 

To that end our hero is Ray Curtis, the director of Manned Launch Operations, a brawny and hirsute individual (Caidin often mentions the “thick hair” on the guy’s chest, stomach, and shoulders, giving the impression he’s more ape than man) who currently is overseeing the launch of Apollo 17. In reality this was the last lunar mission, commanded by Gene Cernan and featured in the great mini-documentary The Last Steps. Probably writing in 1971 (the most recent real-world Apollo launch mentioned is Apollo 14, but Caidin refers to it in such a way that I got the impression it hadn’t actually happened yet), Caidin presents a 1972 in which the space program hasn’t been totally gutted, and the US is still actively pursuing “this new ocean.” 

Also another difference here is that the Apollo 17 in Caidin’s novel will be launching the space station Skylab, something that didn’t happen in the real world until 1973 (and had nothing to do with Apollo 17). So again, Caidin was certainly familiar with NASA’s plans, and uses this setup to flesh out the surrounding Cape Kennedy…which turns out to have a somewhat rotten core, again as per Countdown. Actually there’s more to NASA’s plan: for reasons not suitably explained, the agency plans to launch Skylab via Apollo 17, and then secretly launch Apollo 18, a moon shot, immediately after. But Apollo 18 will rendezvous with 17 in Earth orbit, switch commanders, and the commander of Apollo 17 will get in Apollo 18’s command module and continue on the voyage to the moon. I couldn’t understand why the plan was so complicated, other than a vague reference that it might be a way to boost interest in the program again or somesuch. 

At any rate, the major issue with The Cape is that Caidin seems to want to write a beach-read sort of affair at first, but then changes course and turns in a tense thriller that’s undone by too much pedantic info and stalling. While Ray Curtis is the protagonist for the most part, Caidin also introduces a host of other characters, and humorously enough tells us about their past sexploits with girlfriends or mistresses or whatnot in their intros. Again, this just gives the impression that Caidin’s about to attempt a torrid novel about the space race, but ultimately he fails to deliver. Also the underground stuff is as reactionary as Caidin’s later Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve, with marijuana and hash literally turning one minor character’s teenaged daughter into a mindless sex-slave. This revelation only occurs at the very end, and as ever isn’t much exploited, though it does have the laugh-out-loud moment where the father, a bigwig in the space program, is taken to a hippie crash pad by the cops, and there is shown his nude daughter, fresh from her latest orgy and lying in a stupor on the floor. When she sees her dad, whom she is too drugged to even recognize, she asks him, “Wanna fuck?” It’s so over the top it could be out of a Jack Chick comic. 

In addition to Ray Curtis we have a score of supporting characters. Most interesting is Danny Stuart, an Apollo astronaut who has already been to the moon, and will now be the first person to walk on the moon twice, given that he’ll be the Apollo 17 commander who switches over to 18 and heads for the moon. His intro also has us expecting the beach read stuff, as it opens with him flying a jet, ruminating on how astronauts like to have a little extra something on the side in Florida while keeping their wives back in Houston, and then has him meeting up with his mistress – only to learn she’s pregnant! But unfortunately Stuart will soon fade away in the text, his plot more focused on the ramifications of a blackmail scheme cooked up against him by another minor character. At any rate, the opening bit on astronaut marital infidelity could almost come out of Tom Wolfe’s later The Right Stuff (or even “Post-Orbital Remorse”): 

But man, Caidin could have delivered on the “space race beach read” novel I’ve been looking for, by just making Danny Stuart the hero and focusing on his extramarital exploits. And speaking of which all these guys have pretty hectic personal lives; even Paul Jaeger, the fussy ex-Nazi Quality Control Inspector, has his own mistress. Caidin is so focused on quickly dispensing with such info that he loses control of any plotting: for example, we learn early on that Ray Curtis’s secretary, Ginny, is so in love (or actually lust) with her boss that she fantasizes all the time about having sex with him. She’s prone to giving him footrubs and other perks that of course would be frowned upon today. So Caidin establishes this, and will have unintentionally hurmorous moments later in the book where Ginny, all aflutter, will stumble away from a confused Curtis. But Caidin lacks follow-through skills; after Ginny’s secret lust has been established, we cut over to Curtis, unaware of his secretary’s love for him, as he drives off to meet his latest girlfriend. But instead of telling us about her, Caidin instead has Curtis flash back to how he met his first wife, what she was like in bed, and etc…and then neither the first wife nor the latest girlfriend appear in the text again! 

I’m learning though that this is part and parcel of Caidin’s writing style. I’m always comparing him to Mark Roberts, but in reality his prose style is most similar to William Crawford. So similar in fact that if I didn’t know better I’d hypothesize that “William Crawford” was a pseudonym of Martin Caidin, but then we know they were two separate people. But their narrative style, dialog, and storytelling peculiarities are almost identical. Neither seems capable of allowing their characters to breathe, and neither seems unable to stop lecturing the reader via the narrative. There is so much info-dumping in The Cape that you quickly lose all interest. It would be great if you were learning about the space program, or how NASA works, or some other interesting period detail, but for the most part it just comes off like arbitrary ranting and digressing…same as in Crawford. 

Another interesting character who initially seems important but ultimately becomes trivial is Gene DeBarry, a dashing reporter (he’s compared to a young Orson Welles) who lives in an entire apartment complex along the beach. Caidin has it that when all the “pink slips” were handed out at NASA after Apollo 11, real estate was cheap given how many fired employees left the Cape. DeBarry purchased an entire building and refitted into his own domain, continnuing to write about the space program here. His intro too makes us expect some kinky stuff, opening as it does with his nude girlfriend commenting on how the naked DeBarry’s balls look when he’s sitting down(!). DeBarry too could’ve made for a fine protagonist in a torrid melodrama about the space program, but he soon fades into the narrative woodwork. I did think his pad sounded super-cool in that late ‘60s way I so enjoy, though:

There are other characters as well, but most of them gradually hinge around Ben Rayburn, a Cape-based crime boss who acts as a liason for people engaged in various underground activities, and usually blackmails them for it. For example, we learn that Danny Stuart’s mistress is pregnant. They both decide on an abortion, and Stuart tells the girl he knows a guy named Ben Rayburn who could help set up something – like what doctor they could use, or where they could go to have it done discreetly. Then we flash over to Houston, where Danny’s wife Dee suspects her husband of being a cheater. She decides to hire a Cape-based private eye to shadow him…and the name she’s given for the job is Ben Rayburn. Thus Rayburn is hired separately by both husband and wife, and ultimately uses this to blackmail Stuart. But even this is only a minor distubrance in the narrative, and even here Caidin fails to deliver on the dramatic potential. Danny Stuart pretty much disappears from the text after his intro! 

Rather, the focus is on a panoply of characters and the fact that the CIA et al suspect the Reds are going to sabotage the Skylab launch. Worse yet, intel has it that one of the top men at NASA is a traitor. This suspense angle becomes the impetus of the plot, which plays out over a week. Curtis doesn’t take the info seriously, claiming that there have been sabotage warnings on every prior launch, but soon gets the vibe that this one might be legit. At one point he comes up with the novel idea to use the recently-hired “Negro” engineers at NASA as undercover monitors to ferret out Reds, figuring they’d be less capable of treason than the Germans who came over to NASA after WWII. 

Speaking of which there’s a whole bunch of stuff here that readers today (and even in 1971) would find unpleasant, like Curtis “jokingly” referring to his black colleague by the dreaded N-word. For that matter, when villain Gene Clayburn later finds out that one of his hookers had sex with one of the black engineers, he goes ballistic: “You balled the jig?!” I know that’s racist and all, but it made me laugh to think how younger readers of today probably wouldn’t understand what the sentence even means. They’d probably think it was some new dance move. That said, Rayburn goes on to beat the woman unmerciful for it. As for the other “inappropriate today” stuff, I did enjoy how the novel took place in a working world in which Human Resources hadn’t yet been invented; as mentioned secretary Ginny enjoys giving her boss rubdowns, and there’s a bunch of smoking and drinking in the office. 

The Cape slowly builds up steam as various government agents come on the scene to help figure out the sabotage plot. I got another postmodern chuckle out of how one of them, a notorious killer, had the last name Clinton. That Cartel’s everywhere, man! But it’s all just so static and listless. The finale is pretty apocalyptic, though, with the massive Vehicle Assembly Building nearly being destroyed in a planned explosion. This part was an almost eerie prediction of 9/11, with thousands of employees in the building losing their life in the destruction. But Curtis pushes on with the Skylab launch, leading to a anticlimactic finale in which the main villain is outed – though this is a nice bit of misdirection from Caidin, who has us suspecting someone else. 

It’s no mystery why The Cape failed to make any traction. Caidin does himself no favors by turning in an un-thrilling thriller. Also I’d say public interest in the space race was at its lowest around this time; Caidin does mention the same thing in his novel, but also has the Russians still in open competition with the US, which at least still lends the launches and whatnot a little public awareness. In reality though the Russians had pretty much thrown in the towel at this point. At any rate, The Cape only received this original 374-page hardcover edition, and as mentioned it’s now pricey like most of Caidin’s other novels are. If you still want to read it, just do what I did and request it via Interlibrary Loan.

1 comment:

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

Interesting. Thanks for saving me some bucks and time.