SOBs #7: River Of Flesh, by Jack Hild
July, 1985 Gold Eagle
The seventh SOBs is by Robin Hardy, who previously wrote #4: Show No Mercy. In my review of that one I opined that Robin Hardy might have been…a woman! However all I needed to do was check the damn copyright page, which credits “Robin Hardy for his contribution to this work.” (Italics mine.) I obviously don’t know anything about Hardy, but his prose style seemed somewhat similar to me this time…so either I was flashing back to his style on the fourth volume or he’s ghostwritten something else I’ve read and reviewed on here.
Now I know you all are wondering – what about Billy Two? As we recall, the previous volume featured Billy, who had been captured in the climax of #5: Gulag War, fighting his way to freedom. Billy is seldom mentioned in River of Flesh, and there’s absolutely no indication he went through anything horrific in the past few volumes. The implication is clear that Robin Hardy was not the writer of those volumes, and likely was writing his own installment concurrently. I get the impression that the stable of SOBs authors had a few characters that were “theirs,” if you know what I mean, and thus I’m guessing that Billy Two was “owned” by Alan Philipson.
As for Robin Hardy, his character is Geoff Bishop, a mercenary pilot who last appeared in, wouldja believe, the fourth volume, which as mentioned was also by Hardy. And hey not only that, but Bishop is also banging the sole female Soldier of Barrabas, Lee Hatton. In fact we meet Bishop just after he’s gotten out of bed with Lee; true to Gold Eagle form, it’s not like there’s actually any sex in the novel. Same goes for Barrabas, who has a steady girlfriend named Erika, based out of Amsterdam. In the ‘80s, men’s adventure heroes rarely would meet some exotic floozy while on a mission, as they would have in the ‘70s…but the authors would be sure to inform us the heroes had a steady girlfriend “back some,” so we wouldn’t think they were gay or anything.
This one opens with a 17-page prologue set during the Vietnam War, with Barrabas determined to kill a “Cambodian murderer” named Kon. A warlord known for massacring entire villages, Kon has been an enternal thorn in Barrabas’s side, and Barrabas goes out with some Special Forces guys to punch his ticket. But it turns out to be an ambush and in the melee a fellow soldier named Scott is taken captive; Barrabas is certain he will be tortured to death, same as the other American captives Kon has taken prisoner.
Now, all these years later, Barrabas will finally get his chance to settle the score. He’s called in by Jessup, the obese Fed who acts as the contact for the Soldiers of Barrabas, and briefed on the apparent presence of chemical agents in the jungles of Cambodia. The Feds want Barrabas and team to go in and find out what is behind this chemical nefariousness. Little does Barrabas know it is his old nemesis Kon, who now rules his own village in Cambodia, an army of Khmer Rogue under his command. But Hardy gussies up the simple plot by making the reader sympathize with Kon, at least in some regard; despite his sadism and penchant for massacring countless innocents, Kon has populated his village with those who were victims of Agent Orange. Vietnamese, Cambodians, even Americans, all of whom have suffered in some fashion (cancer, deformities, etc) from the chemical agent used by the US during the war.
Even Kon’s little daughter suffers from a horrific facial deformity; we are informed that the children born to those who came into contact with Agent Orange also suffer from defects. So this makes the reader at least sympathize somewhat with Kon. However as mentioned he’s sadistic, and crazy to boot. And hell, even his little daughter shares his sadism, gleefully laughing as her daddy kills off entire villages of innocents while testing out his new chemical warfare. For Kon’s plan is to strike back at the US – he has put his people to work to develop a chemical agent even more devastating than Agent Orange, and he plans to pollute the waters of an American city with it.
Barrabas is unaware of any of this, however, and for the most part River Of Flesh is more of a suspense thriller than an action onslaught. This seems to be the schtick of SOBs; each volume even follows the same setup, with Barrabas briefed on the mission, then putting his team together, training them, and then the volume climaxes with the actual mission being carried out. We even have the recurring motif of the “core” SOBs going about their normal lives before receiving the call to assemble; Liam O’Toole, the warrior-poet, will be getting into some humorous situation (this time responding to a “swinger’s magazine ad” and about to have sex with a suprisingly-hotstuff woman), and Nanos, the muscular lunkheaded one, will be getting drunk, or getting over being drunk.
Hardy introduces what promises to be a developing subplot here with the guys, apropos of nothing, trying to knock Nanos out of his latest stupor by telling him to think of Lee Hatton – and how attractive she is. While we readers are reminded each volume that Lee Hatton is one smokin’ hot babe, apparently the actual members of the team have never actually noticed it! They think of her as just “one of the guys” and such. But after this errant comment Nanos becomes hooked on Lee, making insinuating comments to her throughout the rest of the novel. Meanwhile, Lee and Bishop are keeping their relationship secret, thus Hardy introduces the potential for a love triangle: Nanos now has the burnin’ yearnin’ for Lee, but Lee is developing feelings for Bishop.
Speaking of feelings, Barrabas’s girlfriend Erika has a bigger role in River Of Flesh. Hardy must have been hard-pressed to fill these particular 200+ pages, as a lot of the book’s narrative concerns Erika trying to buy artifacts from mythical Angkor Wat. In fact Hardy baldly ties the two plot threads together; Barrabas gives Erika a kiss goodbye in Amsterdam and heads to Thailand for his latest mission…and runs into Erika at the hotel, as she too has come here to acquire those artifacts. Her contact is a sleazy Frenchman named Raul, who knows how to slip over the border into Cambodia. Raul also happens to be working for the warlord Kon. Only gradually does all this come out into the open, with lots of scenes of Barrabs dithering with Raul for information.
Action is scant. There’s a part where Erika and Raul are attacked by commandos in black masks, but this turns out to be a Mission: Impossible-type ruse. In fact it occurs to me that SOBs is essentially a men’s adventure version of Mission: Impossible. I mean hell it actually just occurred to me as I was typing this sentence – Nile Barrabas even has white hair, same as the IMF team’s Jim Phelps! The difference though is that the plot builds to climactic action instead of a carefully-staged con. The finale of River Of Flesh isn’t too focused on action, though; there’s more character drama than typical of the genre, with the revelation that a core of American prisoners from ‘Nam live in Kon’s village…and might not want to leave.
That said, there is some cool stuff, like the SOBs appropriating some of Kon’s vintage American muscle cars and augmenting them with weapons – like an M-60 affixed to the roof. But we aren’t talking a super violent thrill ride here: “gore lines were drawn across his chest” and such is about the extent of the violent carnage Hardy delivers. I also wasn’t fond of the finale. Barrabas has been determined to kill Kon for decades, but Hardy has our white-haired hero held captive by Kon’s gun while another SOB sneaks up behind the Cambodian warlord…and shoots him in the back. But at least the story ends with someone getting eaten by lions…even though this too happens off-page.
Overall River Of Flesh was passable, however there was a bit more characterization than typical for the genre. Mostly I just wanted to find out what happened to Billy Two, after the crazy previous volume. Hopefully he will return in the next installment.
Happy Hollydaze, Joe! I like the SOBs series, The cover art was done by artist Ron Lesser. I'm currently working with him a series of books featuring his paperback art.
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