Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Lone Wolf #5: Havana Hit

The Lone Wolf #5: Havana Hit, by Mike Barry
March, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

Barry “Mike Barry” Malzberg ventures even further into stream-of-conscious territory with this fifth volume of The Lone Wolf, which per series template begins immediately after the events of the previous volume. As we’ll recall, Martin (or Burt, we haven’t figured it out yet) Wulff has just gotten on a plane bound for New York, a valise with “a million dollars worth of shit” (aka uncut heroin) with him. 

As Havana Hit opens, the plane has redirected as the result of a hijacking. While initially I thought this was a coincidence, at length Wulff realizes that the hijacking has occurred because of him. Or, rather, because of the valise. Like the previous valise of heroin Wulff toted around in the earliest volumes, this one is a MaGuffin in the true sense; it moves the plot along because everyone wants it, but otherwise it has no real bearing on anything. And as mentioned it’s interchangeable with the prevoius valise of heroin, which Wulff tossed in a lake in Boston

I do like The Lone Wolf, but I’m finding myself more interested in what is going on in Barry Malzberg’s head than I am in what’s atually happening in the books. And there’s no question what’s going on in Malzberg’s head, as this time he retreats even further into his own headspace, doling out incessant observations on society, crime, Cuba, trust between colleagues, and what have you. I mean in no way whatsoever could you ever confuse this series with The Executioner. There is a strange, surreal texture to Lone Wolf that is similar to The Butcher in how it all comes off like the events of a dream. Wulff is our guide through the dream, making things happen, as ever his mere presence somehow affecting reality – nowhere more apparent than in this opening, where a plane filled with people is hijacked merely so the Syndicate can get their clutches on Wulff. 

This is the least action-centric installment yet. Not that the previous ones were action blockbusters, but Havana Hit is so confined to Wulff’s mental musings that the action comes off as a distraction. Adding to the weird vibe of the series is the fixation on death. There might be gore in other men’s adventure novels of the day, but generally the victim is forgotten about after we’ve been told how his head’s exploded and his brains have burst out. Not so here. When Wulff or someone else shoots a guy Malzberg will keep going back to him, focusing on the corpse, how it changes appearance in its postortem state, the killer thinking again of how easily life is stamped out and how death equals us all out, etc. In a way it’s so overdone that it made me think of the MST3K episode Night Of The Blood Beast, where the characters kept obsessing over the corpse of an astronaut and Mike Nelson quipped, “I’ve never seen a man so dead!” 

Well anyway, Malzberg’s clearly winging it this time. This has been apparent in previous volumes but this time it’s especially pronounced. It is clear that Malzberg just sits down at his typewriter and writes, and what comes out is what gets printed. There is no editing to take out any chaff; Malzberg-via-Wulff will wax morbidly about mundane things for pages and pages at times. The observant reader can even detect Malzberg pushing himself at times to get back to the plot – there are parts where Malzberg literally commands himself to get back on-track so far as the story goes. But as mentioned I kind of enjoy this aspect because I like to see the feverish mind of a writer at work. 

All of which is to say the plot of Havana Hit is pretty thin. In a nutshell, Wulff’s plane is hijacked, the hijackers take it to Cuba, and the passengers are anticlimactically let go (off page) and Wulff finds out the entire thing was orchestrated just to get hold of him. Meanwhile Delgado, a sadistic Cuban military official whose sadism is a gauze for the cowardice he displayed back in the ‘50s as one of Castro’s flunkies in the mountains, brutally kills off the hijackers for bringing this problem to them. As mentioned though Malzberg has no grand plan when he starts writing, thus as the novel progresses Delgado is retconned into being a Syndicate man himself, even though in his intro he hates the hijackers for being so stupid as to believe they would have friends here in Cuba. It’s all very hazy because it’s so underdeveloped. 

As for Wulff, he manages to free himself in one of the novel’s few action scenes. Taken off in a helicopter, supposedly to freedom, Wulff realizes it’s really a hit and as ever takes matters into his own hands. In this way he meets Stevens, an American expat currently working for the Cubans as a helicopter pilot. Stevens factors heavily in the second half of the novel, serving as a meek counterpoint to Wulff; whereas Wulff takes life by the reigns and makes things happen, Stevens has spent his life running from responsibility. But even in this characterization Barry Malzberg can’t stay consistent; Stevens will periodically change from resigned to inspired, whichever benefits the current whims of the plot. 

What it really comes down to is a lot of mordant commentary on Cuba. Havana Hit offers interesting period commentary in that the Castro regime is fairly new to power and, in Wulff’s eyes, Cuba had almost become an American annex during the previous regime – every native he meets speaks English and acts like an American. There’s also a lot of musing on Stevens’s lack of resolve and how it “bleeds” into Wulff, making him in danger of losing his killer drive or somesuch. To tell the truth it’s all very weird and as ever things just play out as if it’s all a dream. I mean Stevens, despite spending his life not wanting to get involved, decides to go confront Delgado with Wulff, and even though the two of them only have old revolvers the ensuing firefight is so apocalyptic that the second floor of a building explodes. 

Another recurring schtick of The Lone Wolf is that a secondary “main villain” is revealed in the final pages. The same holds true here, with Delgado, built up as the main villain in the first third of the book, unceremoniously replaced by a new guy who works in the Intelligence division of the Cuban military. But it all comes down to that damn valise of heroin, which everyone wants, but no one more so than Wulff himself. So we have yet another recurring schtick of a finale where Wulff takes on everyone – including supposed comrades – to retain possession of “his property.” 

While enjoyable just for the second-hand buzz of the whole surreal aspect, Havana Hit is really a sort of stumble in the series; I suspect you could just skip it altogether and not even miss anything. For by novel’s end Wulff is once again airborne, headed back for the US with his valise of heroin, which is exactly how the previous volume ended. But judging from the title of the next installment, it looks like Wulff ends up in Chicago instead of his desired destination of New York.


Jerry House said...

It is difficult to review a LONE WOLF book individually because, in essenece, it is really just one chapter in a 14-book novel. Of course, readers at the time the series was being released were not aware of that.

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

My favorite aspect of the series is the cover art by Mel Crair.

Shadow Scout said...

It's hilarious how all these 70s men's adventure vigilantes look exactly same. The Lone Wolf, The Marksman, The Sharpshooter, The Vigilante, The Assassin, The Butcher -- it's like they were trying to confuse you into thinking it was all one series. We need some kind of guide to this genre that sorts it all out.

TLP said...

I've been wanting to collect this series, but it demands a high price on the secondhand market. I noticed that they're releasing e-books now, but so far the only ones released have been for the last four titles. Not sure if they're going to reprint the whole run or not, but I certainly hope so!

Jerry House said...

The series is being release, two volumes at a time, by Stark House in very handsome editions. Well worth checking out.

Yes, Shadow Scout, there is a smaness to many of these men's action adventure series, despite efforts to differentiate each. I maintain, however, that the LONE WOLF series stands above the others if only because it deconstructed the genre (and does it brilliantly). I don't know if this was Malzberg's original intention or if it just naturally evolved because he's just that good of a writer. Another standout in the men's action adventure genre was Murphy and Sapir's THE DESTROYER, which seems to have taken its cues from the old pulp magazines rather than its contemporary MAA rivals.

TLP said...

Thanks to Jerry's post, I looked these up on Amazon and the whole series is available! I know what I'm going to be reading next... :)