Monday, November 29, 2021

The Lone Wolf #2: Bay Prowler

The Lone Wolf #2: Bay Prowler, by Mike Barry
October, 1973  Berkley Medallion Books

Burt Wulff returns in the second installment of The Lone Wolf, and this one’s just as surreal and wild as the first volume. I’m only two volumes in, but I’m ready to put Barry “Mike Barry” Malzberg’s series up on the same twisted pedestal as Hal Bennett’s Justin Perry: The Assassin. Now, The Lone Wolf isn’t that weird, at least not yet, but it’s similar in that it comes from the mind of a gifted writer who has an unusual perspective. The entirety of Bay Prowler almost seems to be a fever dream. Speaking of which, the title alone is a clue that this series is a bit wacky; I mean “Bay Prowler” sounds like a serial killer, but it actually refers to our hero

And since I’m in a “speaking of which” kind of mood – speaking of which, Marty McKee notes that Wulff’s first name changes in later volumes. Well, that “name uncertainty” is already here in the second volume. Twice in Bay Prowler, on pages 97 and 170, Wulff is mistakenly referred to as “Conlan.” This is in the narrative, not in dialog or anything – it’s Malzberg clearly forgetting the name of his hero. I’m not very familiar with Malzberg’s work, so maybe there was a “Conlan” in something else he wrote, or maybe it was his original name for Wulff. Who knows. This would seem to confirm the comment Stephen Mertz left for my review of the first volume; per Stephen, Malzberg wrote about the Lone Wolf series in one of his nonfiction books, saying that he’d written the fourteen volumes in a hurry, thus the sloppiness. This essay appears in Malzberg’s collection Breakfast In The Ruins, which I currently have on the way to me thanks to my good friends in Interlibrary Loan. 

I still see a lot of parallels between The Lone Wolf and The Vigilante. And, just like that later Robert Lory series, this one seems to occur over a short span of time; we learn that it’s just a few days after the first volume – long enough for Wulff to drive from New York to San Francisco – and Malzberg hits the ground running with our hero blowing away a heroin dealer in the first few pages. This opening sequence gives us a taste of what’s to come; the writing is just “different” than the genre norm…literary, but not in the somewhat-stuffy Manning Lee Stokes sense, but definitely above what you’d usually encounter. But there’s just a strange vibe to it, and it’s not just because of Wulff’s fatalism. We know from the first volume that he considers himself a dead man, and that’s focused on here as well, and this adds an entertaining vibe to the series in which Wulff just bluffs himself into impossible situations but somehow manages to survive. 

As I say, there is a dreamlike quality to the books. And indeed, this opening sequence has Wulff meeting a “regular” person, a pretty young girl hooked on speed named Tamara, and she seems to speak for reality in the book, constantly commenting on how crazy everything has become now that Wulff’s arrived on the scene. You know as I typed this I think I realized what exactly makes this series feel different – Wulff as we know is determined to kill the heroin trade, and he’s against all drugs. Yet Malzberg, whether from personal experience or interest I can’t say, taps into the mindset of the drug addicts Wulff encounters; here in the opening, when Wulff comes upon a near-OD’d Tamara in a flophouse and Tamara’s dealer comes in and Wulff shoots him, the majority of the scene is written from Tamara’s skewed perspective, of her being “trapped in the nightmare.” 

This vibe permeates the book…that, and a cynicism that makes the hero of Operation Hang Ten come off like Stuart Smalley in comparison. But whereas the griping in the Operation Hang Ten books is more from a jaded hipster perspective, the poisonous ruminations throughout The Lone Wolf come from a deeper and darker place. I mean Wulff is burned out, and he doesn’t lie when he says he’s already dead. Crazily enough, we learn here that he’s only 32. I say “only” because I’m like 15 years older than him, but still…there’s a hardbitten callousness to Wulff that is beyond his years. And again, it stems from the murder of his fiance, which occurred before the events of the first book even started…and which aren’t covered at all, this time. I was hoping there’d be some “big reveal” about his fiance’s death, which the first book seemed to hint at, but so far as this volume goes it’s all over and done with. 

Instead, the theme of Bay Prowler is how Tamara ultimately makes Wulff “feel again.” Yet another of those female characters who only exist in crime fiction (which The Lone Wolf certainly is – it’s definitely more Parker than The Executioner), Tamara is a hotstuff blonde who instantly takes to Wulff, and is there to offer him all the solace and healing he could need…even if he doesn’t want it. I got some humor out of how Tamara kept calling Wulff “Avenger,” her name for a mythical figure she’s fantasized about since she was a kid. Actually it’s not really “humorous,” not sure why I said that…just interesting, I guess, given that there was a later men’s adventure hero, also obsessed with stopping drug-dealers, called The Avenger

Wulff, against his better instincts, finds himself trying to help Tamara recover from her near-OD. He drops her off in an apartment and, uncertain why, even checks on her later. She is presumably the inspiration for the “red-haired companion with deep cleavage” (per Marty McKee) on Mel Crair’s typically-awesome cover, however Tamara is a blonde and we’re specifically informed she has small breasts. We get detailed info on them later in the book, when the expected sex scene occurs; Malzberg, bless him, doesn’t shy from any sleazy details, giving us pervy readers all we could want. But this sequence too seems to be filtered through that same skewed style…and besides, Malzberg’s tongue seems to be in his cheek, as the dialog here, which is separated by a lot of explicit detail, amounts to a lot of “It’s all right/It isn’t all right” bantering. Speaking of which (there I go again), Tamara’s dialog at the end is especially humorous, “That was the first time I’ve come in months, do you know that?” 

This scene leads to an even more surreal bit where a few guys storm in on the post-coital bliss (Wulff is forever being snuck-attack…and, compounding the surreality, it’s never explained how anyone ever finds him) and Wulff, of course, manages to get the upper hand despite the odds. But one guy manages to put a gun on Tamara’s head, meanwhile screaming “You son of a bitch!” at Wulff because he’s been shot in the leg. This is another example of how these characters, like Tamara, seem completely out of sorts, as if Wulff’s mere presence has thrown a monkeywrench in their entire worldview. It goes without saying that Wulff manages to get the upper hand here, too. Not to beat this dead horse, but again it’s like a dream, like it’s all Wulff’s dream, and he always manages to come out unscathed no matter what happens. Really though it’s the increasing madness of this injured, would-be assassin that adds an extra weird layer to the scene. 

Another bizarre scene that indicates The Lone Wolf couldn’t be confused with Ed McBain is when Wulff, again, gets the upper hand on another pair of would-be assassins. This bit, which occurs earlier in the book, is another instance where these guys find Wulff, with absolutely no explanation of how they’ve done so. Humorously, one of them’s built up early in the book as a super tough guy who carries a “luger” and drives a car that’s like an armored tank. But none of that’s actually demonstrated in the novel itself. Instead Wulff gets this guy, who instantly turns into a sniveling coward, and makes him drive a car over the Golden Gate Bridge and on into Sausalito. This scene just keeps going and going, and there’s just a weird vibe to it, especially given that you start feeling bad for the would-be assassin, who soon pleads for his life to no avail. But it’s another demonstration of how Wulff isn’t your typical men’s adventure hero…he is in many ways worse than the villains he’s sworn to destroy. 

As with the previous book, the novel occurs in a world in which reality hangs in the balance, with society in an almost pre-apocalyptic state. This bit here, where Wulff extermintes his would-be killer, is a case in point: Wulff has the man pull off into a residential area, then has the man get out of the car and stand there, so Wulff can blow him away – heedless of any passing cars. For, as Wulff demonstrates, no one gives a damn. This theme, of society falling apart, is carried through Bay Prowler, not only in Wulff’s bitter ruminations on the shitty state of the world but also in how the plot unfolds. Like for example when Wulff gears up for the big hit at novel’s end. He calls up his only friend, his rookie cop partner from the first volume, and gets info on where he can buy illegal arms here in San Francisco. This takes him to a shop where the proprietor sells his illegal stock practically in the open, with no fear of reprisal; it’s Wulff’s certainty that the cops themselves are his customers. 

But as Zwolf stated, “Malzberg apparently has no knowledge of weapons at all, referring to guns as ‘point thirty-eights’ and ‘point forty-fives’ and thinking grenades are a whole lot more powerful than they are.” For that matter, Wulff gets a “machine gun” from the underground weapons store, and this is all Malzberg ever refers to it as. Zwolf was definitely correct on the grenades, too; the finale sees Wulff using a seemingly endless supply of them to blow up a ship that’s bringing in heroin. These grenades are almost like miniature atom bombs, blasting the ship apart. And Wulff mows down a hundred men in this finale without breaking a sweat; he figures more stooges will make things easier than fewer stooges, and proves his point posthaste, lobbing some of his superpowered grenades and blasting away with his machine gun. And as Zwolf again so aptly put it, “When [Wulff] has to go through their 100-man army it’s so easy for him that he literally worries more about catching bronchitis from the cold air than getting shot.” 

I’m sure you’ve already beaten me to it, but all of this – wait for it – only adds to the dreamlike quality of the book. And I have to say, I really enjoyed this bizarre, somewhat surreal spin on the crime genre. The only thing that undermines Bay Prowler is that it’s a bit too long for its own good, coming in at 192 pages. And Malzberg has trouble filling the pages, even serving up egregious chapters from the points of view of various one-off Mafia characters. He does excel at unexpected characterization, though; the storyline with Tamara is one of the highlights of the novel, delivering a nicely sentimental touch; the only light in the overly dark world of The Lone Wolf. I was especially surprised at the finale, which sees Wulff staying true to his promise and calling Tamara, who has returned to her previous life, to tell her goodbye. She asks him multiple times if she’ll see him again, to which Wulff responds “I don’t know.” I doubt though that we’ll ever see Tamara (whose real name, she reveals, is Betty) again. 

Malzberg has a neat gimmick of tying the installments together; the first book ended with Wulff killing a Mafia stooge who had an attache case filled with insider info. Wulff used this info to go to San Francisco, where he learned a big heroin shipment was coming in. And, upon stealing said heroin shipment, Wulff’s now learned that it was bound for Boston. So Bay Prowler ends with our demented hero on the way to Boston to stir up more trouble for the drug-pushers of the Mafia. I look forward to it.


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

Great review. And, thanks for IDing Mel Crair as the cover artist!

Marty McKee said...

My incentive to live a good clean life is that I want to live long enough to read your reviews of all the Lone Wolf books.

John M. Cowan said...

I think his name was originally Wulff Conlan, but that sounded too close to the name of a real person, possibly Groff Conklin, an anthology editor (lots of sci-fi anthologies that I read as a kid), so they changed it, but missed a few references. And then there's the whole change of his name from Burton Wulff to Martin Wulff and finally Martin Burton Wulff, or maybe the other way around.

When I reread these everal years ago they blew me away. Almost the anti-Executioner in tone, style, and worldview. Great series.