Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Lives Of John Lennon

The Lives Of John Lennon, by Albert Goldman
July, 1989  Bantam Books
(Original hardcover edition November 1988)

Well friends, here’s the book that brought the blog to a standstill. Actually to tell the truth, this book alone didn’t bring the blog to a standstill; the Thanksgiving holiday also contributed, as I didn’t get a chance to go online at all last week. But also, this book is nearly 900 pages long, which really throws a kink in a two-reviews-a-week review schedule. I have to say, though, despite the stigma associated with it, I found myself very caught up in Albert Goldman’s notorious The Lives Of John Lennon, often putting aside stuff just to keep reading it. Time’s cover blurb “Compulsively readable” aptly sums it up. The question of course is how trustworthy the book is. 

First of all, a big thanks to a commenter named “Intrigued,” who recently left a comment on my review of Dakota Days suggesting that I read this book. It had been a few years since I’d read any books about John Lennon, and to be honest I wasn’t thinking about reading another, but Intrigued’s comment hit me at the right time and I found myself starting The Lives Of John Lennon a day or two after they left their comment. It’s a book I have thought about reading for many years. As I mentioned in my reply to Intrigued, I first heard of Albert Goldman’s book thanks to a 1988 skit on Saturday Night Live, aired when the original hardcover edition was published; it featured Phil Hartman as Goldman, who had an axe to grind with John Lennon because Goldman had originally been a Beatle – one who played the trombone – and Lennon pushed to have him kicked out of the band. I only saw that skit that one time (and it’s never on Youtube due to NBC’s lawyers), but it must’ve made an impression on me (I was 13 when it aired), as I’ve always remembered it. 

That a biography was actually the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit (with Jon Lovitz as Ringo!!) should be indication of how much of a ripple The Lives Of John Lennon made when it was published. It was quite the news item for a while, mostly because it was condemned as a savage attack on John Lennon, who was no longer around to defend himself from Goldman’s allegations. That was the impression I got, going into the book. But as it turns out, I didn’t think John Lennon came off too badly in Goldman’s book…I mean sure, other than the insinuation that he might’ve accidentally murdered Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe, or that he might’ve also murdered some random British sailor during a mugging going wild in Hamburg…or even that he had a latent homosexuality (indeed, that he was “mostly bisexual”), and not only had a relationship with Beatles manager Brian Epstein but once attempted to rape him. Or hell, how he even would often “rape” female fans who were yanked willy-nilly from the audience for John to slam up against the wall and have his way with to get rid of his pre-stage jitters. Or how he’d kick around his little kid Sean, or claim his other son Julian was gay (while ignoring him most of his life), or how he’d beat on his girlfriend May Pang…or tons of other similar allegations in the book. 

Despite all that (and more!), I don’t think John Lennon came off to poorly in this book. Indeed it is a testament to his character – his true character, I’d say – that you still don’t want to finish this never-ending book because you know that when you do finish it, John Lennon will be dead. But it’s hard to take all of Goldman’s allegations without a big heaping grain of salt; he lists hundreds of sources at the end of the book, people who knew Lennon with whom Goldman (or his “researchers”) talked, but it soon becomes clear that Goldman has parsed the bad stuff and expanded on it. There’s no way in hell those hundreds of sources all said negative things about John Lennon. But then, Goldman had already proved this was his m.o., with the earlier Elvis, which so “displeased” Paul McCartney that he turned down Goldman’s request to be intereviewed for The Lives Of John Lennon

That said, Goldman is one helluva good writer. I personally loved his narrative style, alternately informative and bitchy, with a snobbery that comes off as wonderfully un-PC in today’s emasculated world. Minor asides, like calling out the “black bullshit” Lennon spoofs in the lyrics to “Come Together,” or the random, super-incidental note that the written Japanese word (ie, kanji) looks like “chicken scratches.” There’s another part that made me laugh out loud, where Goldman mocks the Black Panther party’s message – certainly dangerous ground for a mainstream writer to approach these days – and follows up a quote of a Black Power speech with, “Can you dig it, man?” And of course, we’re frequently informed of Yoko’s “chattering” in Japanese. 

Otherwise Goldman keeps the story moving; even when John Lennon friggin’ disappears from the narrative for like a hundred-page stretch toward the end, and Yoko becomes the star. In many regards this book could’ve just as easily been titled The Lives Of Yoko Ono, as John Lennon’s story, from roughly 1970 to 1980, is also Yoko Ono’s story. Even when John is off on his so-called “Lost Weekend,” Yoko is still there. In many ways the book is almost an extension of Fred Seaman’s later The Last Days Of John Lennon; Goldman actually makes much use of Seaman’s yet-published book here, with the caveat that Yoko doesn’t come off quite as malicious and malevolent as she does in Seaman’s account. At the same time, she isn’t the easily-confused housewife seen in John Green’s Dakota Days – another source Goldman leans on in The Lives Of John Lennon, though the Green stuff here is better; as Intrigued mentioned in their comment, we actually learn all the stuff about Green’s tarot-reading that Green himself didn’t tell us in Dakota Days

Like a fool, I failed to keep notes as I read this 877-page book of small, dense print; I just wanted to get caught up in Goldman’s mad tale, but now the whole thing is a damn blur and I’m having a hard time remembering a lot of it. But I tell you, I enjoyed the hell out of it while I was reading it! For the first 500 or so pages, at least. A couple hundred pages could’ve been easily cut, particularly the section covering the mid-late ‘70s, when John (as Goldman most often refers to Lennon…and I’ll follow suit) disappears. The book is nothing if not exhaustive…though “exhausting” might be the more accurate term. As mentioned Goldman lists a ton of sources at the end of the book, meaning that he could’ve given us the definitive bio of John Lennon, but instead he chose the low road and focused solely on the bad stuff, with the end result that the John Lennon seen here is alternately a self-destructive monster or a self-obsessed narcissist, one who jumps from one “mommy figure” to another without once displaying any backbone. 

Actually the book isn’t that comprehensive in one key area – humorously, we are told hardly anything about the main thing John Lennon is even known for: his music. Goldman brushes off entire albums with acidic wit – actually venomous wit – and even ignores lots of stuff. I mean let alone minor stuff, like the self-titled album by the group Elephant’s Memory that John and Yoko produced (and provided backup vocals on) in 1972, or even bigger stuff, like Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band, on which John played some serious psych-fuzz experimental guitar. (Say what you will about Yoko’s music, but she sure as hell had a knack for getting Lennon to play some serious rock guitar – just check out his last-ever recording, Yoko’s incredible 1980 disco-rock single “Walking On Thin Ice;” it was years before I learned the guitar on it was played by John.) 

But even Beatles albums are dismissed with a sentence or two. Now this I could kind of understand; doubtless Albert Goldman realized that a study of Beatles music was outside the realm of his book, and indeed “only” the first 400 pages of the book are devoted to the Beatles era. But when Goldman does write about John Lennon’s music, often times he proves a very compelling case: like for example how the musical theme of the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” so often appears in John’s songs. But this book is not music criticism at all; more critical, really, as Goldman certainly isn’t a believer in Grandma’s rule (“if you can’t say anything nice…”). When he mentions a song, it’s usually to piss on it. That said, he does seem to like “I Am The Walrus,” and he also ranks John’s Plastic Ono Band as his best solo LP – but on the other hand, Goldman also dismisses “Imagine” as a shitty song. (Personally I’m not crazy about it either.) 

But even I, definitely no Beatles scholar, could see that much of what Goldberg writes simply is incorrect. For one, he has it that John was suffering heroin withdrawl during the recording of Get Back, making him even worse of a guitar player (Goldman really hammers it in that John Lennon has no talent with the guitar, btw); indeed, so disassociated from the sessions that he might as well not have been there. But reading The Lives Of John Lennon inspired me to finally check out Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary…8 friggin’ hours of the Beatles recording Get Back (don’t get me wrong – it’s awesome, one of the best things I’ve seen in years), and while John does seem a little out of it in Part 1, he’s truly on form in Part 2, once they’ve moved into the new Apple Studios. Five minutes of Get Back is enough to disprove practically everything Goldman claims; John’s rockin’ on the guitar, he’s creating and changing songs on the fly, he’s John Lennon

Well anyway. The Lives Of John Lennon starts with this excellently-handled opening sequence of New Journalism (ie nonfiction written as fiction) that takes us into “a day in the life” of John Lennon, circa 1979. He’s in his “tomb” of a room in the Dakota, coming out to enjoy “his favorite time of the day” (breakfast), and soon he’s declaiming on the topic of assassination to Marnie Hair, a Dakota neighbor whose daughter is roughly the same age as John and Yoko’s son Sean – and Marnie Hair was one of Goldman’s main sources for the latter half of the book. But this opening is not picked up on again in the book, sort of existing on its own, and indeed it presents a different, more relatable John Lennon than Goldman will give us in the actual narrative. 

The only problem is, this intro ultimately will undermine Goldman’s dark exegesis that follows. John is not presented as the heroin-ravaged, weak-willed, Yoko-controlled pawn as he will be, later in the book; nor is he shown to be the vindictive, hate-filled prick Goldman will strive to present him as. He’s just a world-famous guy enjoying some down time. Yoko also comes across slightly better here than she will later on; sure, in her intro she’s making her heroin contact and then “retching” in the bathroom after snorting some, but shorly after this there’s a cute bit (sorry, but there’s no other word for it) where she and Marnie Hair are sitting there and patitently listening to John expound on his assassination subject, and Yoko impishly keeps pushing John’s ashtray farther out of his reach, without his noticing. 

So what are we to take from this opening? It’s never picked up on in the ensuing narrative, never mentioned again. When we do get to the shut-in years, hundred and hundreds of pages later, there’s none of this “cute” stuff. What’s funny is, this opening is actually more in-line with what Robert Rosen presented in Nowhere Man – published later, but supposedly written earlier than Goldman’s book, and based directly off of John Lennon’s personal journals. For once again Rosen’s book can be seen as an alternate image to Goldman’s portrait of Lennon, same as it could be for Frederic Seaman’s The Last Days Of John Lennon – but then, Seaman was one of Goldman’s sources. Where Goldman and Seaman present Yoko as this controlling force who is alternately bored with John or trying to cause him trouble, Rosen presents an altogether different side of her. But which one is real? 

Does it really matter? John Lennon has been gone now for longer than he was here. All of this was so long ago, and it’s clear that John Lennon’s legend will persist. People born decades after his death are still listening to his music. My six-year-old was born 37 years after John Lennon’s death; the other day, no doubt inspired by this book, I was playing The White Album for the first time in years, and my kid was playing with his toys and not paying attention, but when “I’m So Tired” came on he got quiet, sat and watched the stereo while the song played, and then finally announced, “I like that song.” Thus it seems clear that Albert Goldman’s attempt to cut John Lennon down could never succeed; his music will always prevail. Now I’ll admit, I did get kind of sick of John and Yoko and their unceasing tide of one obsession after another – the entire middle and latter part of the book becomes, to use the word again, exhausting. I mean these two are like a pair of social influencers before there was any such thing…a reality TV couple before there was reality TV. 

And really, the ‘70s stuff is what Goldman focuses on most in the book…likely because this is when John went out of the public eye, thus Goldman was able to go into a little more shall we say speculative fiction. I mean folks there’s a part, late in the book, where John has to go through Southeast Asia, all as part of Yoko’s latest obsession (traveling westward from the east so as to purify yourself or some other such money-wasting pursuit), and John, travelling on his own, has to stop in Bangkok. Here Goldman cattily informs us that John no doubt enjoyed himself some young boys there, because it’s legal and all; I mean the entire sequence is written as straight-up fiction narrative, John going to cathouses and whatnot. I actually laughed out loud at how brazen it all was. 

For it’s Goldman’s assertion from the start that John Lennon is deeply troubled: filled with rage and hostility, perhaps due to his refusal to accept that he’s “basically bisexual.” To Goldman’s credit, this is a full, comprehensive bio, starting with how John’s parents met, on to how John was troubled even as a toddler, getting kicked out of kindergarten at one point. There’s a heartbreaking scene where he’s forced to choose between living with his mom or living with his dad. His childhood was not pleasant, certainly, but again here one cannot help but feel sorry for little John Lennon, which again makes it odd that Goldman will go on to present the man as a monster – of sorts. I mean like I said before, despite Goldman’s best efforts he still can’t make John Lennon hateable. It’s my understanding that Goldman went into this book as a “fan” of Lennon’s, but then that doesn’t count for much. The guy who killed Lennon was also a “fan.” But it was Goldman’s claim that when he saw the true man behind the music, he lost his fandom. 

But it’s hard to tell Goldman ever was a fan in the first place; reading the book, you get the impression John Lennon was a barely talented twit who only managed to get a few good songs because other people pushed him to it. And also the guy who did all the peace rallies was only doing so to hide his penchant for beating up women. This is another of Goldman’s conceits; that John Lennon was a violent man, headed for a violent end, and his huge fame was only a brief detour before he headed for his inevitable fate. But the thing is, the book is just so well written I couldn’t stop reading it! Goldman doesn’t litter the book with footnotes or asides; it’s written in a gossipy tabloid manner, but with a definite comedic touch. As mentioned a dark one; another goofy conceit Goldman does throughout the book is “subtly” foreshadow John’s violent end, with sentences comparing John’s voice to a “fired bullet” and the like. Or even darker, a bit where psychedelic ’60s-era John has a trick car that plays random messages in the front seat, surprising people John’s asked to sit up there, and he’ll sit in the back and “die” laughing – or, as Goldman puts it, “John died in the back seat.” (John actually died in the back seat of a police car that was speeding him to the hospital.) 

I’m jumping all over the place in my review, no doubt due to not taking any notes as I read this behemoth of a book. Goldman makes the earlies days of the Beatles a more interesting topic than I thought it would be; his theme has it that John is an antisocial punk who finds only brief solace in rock music, soon putting together his own group. Paul McCartney then enters the narrative – and Paul is not as big a presence in the book as you might expect. It’s clear though that Goldman actually respects McCartney, casting him and his actions in good light throughout the book. Even with offhand minor mentions like how Paul will be the only Beatle who reaches out to John’s ex-wife Cynthia after the divorce. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Paul, even though barely into his teens, is already eager to show off his guitar-playing and singing skills, and soon wins his way onto the older Lennon’s group. 

Goldman, doubtless realizing tons of books have been written on this very subject, doesn’t get much into the nitty gritty of the Beatles. His forte is the realm of supposition; it’s the grayer areas he clings to, as he is free to fill in the gaps with his imagination. So we have it that John Lennon himself might have caused the death of original Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe, kicking him in the head after one of John’s frequent rages – an admission John supposedly made, himself, to Dakota neighbor Marnie Hair many years later. Then later we have the aforementioned note that John would often “rape” girls moments before going on stage for those big Beatles concerts, to calm his nerves, and also that he likely had a fling going with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. 

The actual music of the Beatles isn’t much dwelt upon, though I have to say I agree with Goldman when he considers Sgt. Pepper’s a little overrated, particularly when compared to Revolver. The former, as Goldman argues (and which is clear from the aural evidence), is mostly the work of Paul, and has his whimsy in full force. But then, Goldman also argues how Lennon and McCartney were such a strong team, one that Lennon turned his back on for no other reason than ego; Goldman also notes how Paul “pursued” John even up until the end of John’s life, trying to write with him again. I found this note particularly resonate, given how even today, over four decades after John Lennon died, Paul is still taking John on tour:

Where The Lives Of John Lennon really comes into its own is in the post-Beatles era. Here is where John’s life became even more hectic and surreal…and, not so coincidentally, this is when Yoko Ono became the main part of his life, instead of the Beatles. It’s essentially one madcap bit after another, and indeed John and Yoko in the ‘70s almost come off like the Rolling Stones in how they corrupt and cast aside anyone who comes into their orbit. It’s chapter after chapter of some new acquaintance or guru or assistant or lawyer or musician or whatever who becomes the greatest friend ever of the Lennons, before ultimately being dismissed for some infraction or other. But it’s all here: the Primal Scream era, the flirtation with radical leftist politics (though as Goldman notes, neither John nor Yoko were very political, given that neither of them had ever bothered to even vote in an election!), the so-called “Lost Weekend” in which John was separated from Yoko, and finally the reconcilliation, followed by five years of being a “recluse” (though as I said before, John Lennon sure as hell traveled a lot for a recluse). 

It's those last five years that Goldman focuses on the most – again, because this is the most shadowy era of John Lennon’s life. What Goldman enthuses in doing is gutting the official narrative and twisting the knife; if the official story is that Yoko “asked” John to leave, the real story is that Yoko kicked him out because she wanted to be “royally laid” by a studio guitarist named Dave Spinoza. If the official story is that Yoko “just happened” to be at Elton John’s big NYC concert a few years later – the concert in which John made a surprise appearance – the real story is that Yoko called John beforehand and demanded specific seats. It’s like this on and on…John’s trip to Bermuda in the late ‘70s was, again, so Yoko could get him out of the Dakota so she could have some adulterous fun…or that “John’s idea” for he and Yoko to trade songs on Double Fantasy was really Yoko’s idea (an idea taken from Seaman’s book, where a lot of the later material here is sourced from). 

The thing is, it’s all gripping reading, despite how self-involved and annoying John and Yoko increasingly become as the book progresses: John losing more and more of his spine, Yoko becoming more of a junk-snorting harpie. There is as ever an element of dark comedy to it all, particularly when John is sent off on global jaunts to appease Yoko’s latest metaphysical obsession. We get the story, recounted in Dakota Days, where Yoko visits a witch in South America, as well as the big family trips to Japan. One that was new to me was that John and Yoko went to Egypt in the late ‘70s, with John walking around the pyramids and claiming he’d “been here before.” Again, there’s just a surreal, almost Spinal Tap vibe to the whole thing…with the caveat that there’s no rock anymore, by this point. Goldman focuses so little on John’s music in The Lives Of John Lennon that you could often forget you’re reading the bio of one of the greatest – if not the greatest – rocker of all time. 

This music blindness is just one of Goldman’s many misses. For example, he tells us unequivocably that John didn’t write any songs once he’d locked himself up in the Dakota. This of course is incorrect; John was always writing and recording stuff on tape. This is how the recent “last Beatles song” even came to be, same as the earlier “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love.” Goldman also misses out on a big, if relatively obscure, moment in the John and Paul story; in Goldman’s book, John and Paul basically don’t see each other again after the split of the Beatles. However they did see each other from time to time, even meeting up in the studio one night, during the recordings for John’s Rock & Roll album; back in the ‘90s there was a bootleg Beatles CD with the unforgettable title A Toot And A Snore In ‘74, documenting this (coke-fueled) recording session (if I’m not mistaken, Stevie Wonder was also present), which was the first and last time John and Paul were in the studio together since the Beatles breakup. Goldman doesn’t mention it. 

Actually, I found the stuff from this period the most interesting in the book otherwise. John’s life becomes even more crazed with the intro of Phil Spector, who “produces” John’s roots-rock album, but meanwhile John and cohorts just become increasingly drunk and stoned in the studio. Goldman has it, though, that the drugs bring out Lennon’s sadistic side, thus there’s lots of stuff about him treating girlfriend May Pang like a sex toy or beating her up and choking her. John Lennon certainly comes off poorly in this regard, and these sections would trigger the sensitive readers of today – and I haven’t even mentioned John’s frequent usage of the n-word. John Lennon’s basically a racist and sexist progenitor of the entire “#metoo” movement – but then, in Goldman’s confused narrative, he’s also kind of a loser, unable to muster the courage to ask women out and thus resorting to brutish means. Or, in one of the book’s more humorous bits, John has no idea what to do around women: there’s a part where his childhood obsession Brigitte Bardot invites him to her hotel room, and an anxious John drops a ton of acid beforehand (this is during the psychedelic Beatles era) and pretends to “meditate” the entire time, not saying a word to the sex goddess. 

To continue with my Stones analogy, of John and Yoko using and casting aside a revolving cast of innocents, May Pang would have to be the biggest victim here. One can’t help but feel sorry for her; young and somewhat innocent, she was essentially “set up” to be John’s mistress (by Yoko herself!), but the affair became more serious than anyone could realize. Indeed, John clearly seemed to fall in love with May, and here in The Lives Of John Lennon we get to see stuff that Rosen (I believe) only alluded to in Nowhere Man; that John continued to carry a torch for May even after returning to Yoko, and would come up with elaborate schemes to be with her while Yoko was out of the city. This is a nice antidote to Seaman’s The Last Days Of John Lennon, which presented John as a cuckolded nitwit, his wife carrying on two affairs and John obvlious to it all. At least in Goldman’s account, John is getting his own side action. It’s also revealed here that the whole May Pang thing was concocted by Yoko because she’d set her sights on that aforementioned guitarist Dave Spinoza, and went to her own elaborate ends to ensnare him, complete with planning a big tour of Japan – which Spinoza backed out of at the last minute! 

One of Goldman’s main conceits is that John Lennon suffered from rage incidents throughout his life, going into fits and swinging and punching at anyone in his path, particularly women. There’s a lot of stuff about people treading on eggshells in his presence and whatnot. Judging from the greasy-haired, rail-thin weakling presented in the Get Back documentary, I personally doubt how much damage Lennon could do (and Goldman makes a huge production over John’s poor physical condition), but then that’s another thing from Seaman’s book I recall – that John was insanely jealous of muscular, fit men and had an irrational hatred of them. This irrational rage, Goldman argues, is why John became such a peace advocate; here Goldman uses John’s own words, from a late interview, of something to the effect that the most violent people are the ones who ultimately go for peace. 

Speaking of John and Yoko’s peace bed-in movement, one source I was bummed Goldman didn’t get in touch with was Len Levinson; as recounted in In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, Len handled the PR for the Toronto bed-in, and became friendly with John – to the point that John even gave Len a sort of impromptu performance on acoustic guitar. John Lennon comes more to life in Len’s short essay than he does in the entirety of Albert Goldman’s book. But then, even if Len had spoken with Goldman, it’s debatable how much of Len’s words would have been accurately used. This contemporary rebuttal by Rolling Stone really lays bare much of Goldman’s truth-stretching; the Rolling Stone piece even puts the majority of Fred Seaman’s book in question, and that book hadn’t even been published yet; particularly telling is Seaman’s uncle – who got Fred Seaman the job with John and Yoko – stating that his nephew hardly had much interraction with John. 

Again, it’s all so hard to tell what is true and what is fiction. Compounding the issue, here is an interview with Seaman, May Pang, and Yoko’s “archivist,” from when Seaman’s book was published; it’s from Joan Rivers’s short-lived show. These are people who served as Goldman’s key sources for the latter days of John Lennon, and it seems clear that in a way all three of them are disgruntled ex-employees. I especially love how Seaman keeps hammering home that he was beaten up by an off-duty cop who was on Yoko’s payroll, and Joan Rivers keeps refusing to pick up on this comment – probably hoping herself to evade any “litigious” action on Yoko’s part! But as mentioned in my review of The Last Days Of John Lennon, Seaman was ultimately sued by Yoko for that book. Albert Goldman, as his supporters often state, was not sued for his book – but then, in that Rolling Stone rebuttal I linked to above, Yoko herself says that she doubts she will sue Goldman. 

At any rate, Albert Goldman died in 1994 – while working on a bio of Jim Morrison, no less – so it’s debatable whether Yoko would’ve indeed taken him to court at some point. After all, she’d waited some years to sue Fred Seaman. What’s interesting is that Goldman seems to support Yoko throughout the book – she was her own creative person (seriously, a lot of the book is about her artwork and performance pieces), but after meeting John she was hated by all Beatledom for “breaking up” the band. But then as the book goes on, Goldman turns Yoko into this heroin-sniffing shrew from hell, sending John and Sean around the world on metaphysical jaunts not so much for spiritual cleansing but to get them out of the house so she can snort more heroin and shack up with two guys who are both, confusingly enough, named “Sam.” I mean it becomes so crazy, with John increasingly so spineless – even giving Yoko full legal authority for him – that it’s almost as if John is being put out of his misery at book’s end. 

That’s another thing. Goldman focuses on John’s killer for a few chapters, giving his history and what he did on the day of the killing. Beatles fans like to purge this guy’s name from the history books, which of course is a futile gesture – he will of course only and ever be remembered for this – but just a word of warning that you have to spend a lot of time in his shoes at the end. Goldman does not try to make him relatable, or to engender any sort of reader sympathy for him; he’s bound and determined to kill someone famous, and John Lennon just happens to be the target he finally settles on. 

No matter what book on John Lennon you read, his last day just comes as a shock. It’s just so senseless and comes out of nowhere, even though you know it’s going to happen; check the Joan Rivers interview above, and you’ll see the three interviewees claim that John himself knew it was going to happen. Goldman of course uses this idea as the impetus for the flurry of work John suddenly did in the studio in a few short months in late 1980 – and also, I’ve forgotten to mention that Goldman is very critical of John’s solo work (that is, when he bothers to mention it), claiming the piano melody of “Imagine” is hamfisted and childish and also noting that John’s solo albums did not sell in the expected numbers. He is of course especially critical of Double Fantasy, but also notes how the album was savaged by critics when first released. 

I’ve kind of just rambled all over the place in this review, but at nearly 900 pages there was a lot to digest in The Lives Of John Lennon. I can only say again that, for most of the book, I was greatly entertained – the writing was good, it was often funny, and I enjoyed the snobby vibe of Goldman’s narrative. The truth of it all I cannot say, but for the most part I treated it like a novel; I mean I didn’t go into the book expecting the real true picture of John Lennon. So for the entertainment value alone I’d say this book was a success. Until around a third of the way through, when as mentioned John sort of disappeared and Yoko and her various schemes and obsessions took center stage. This material just came off as too much and could’ve been cut – and speaking of which, supposedly Albert Goldman had a lot of positive things to say about John Lennon in his original draft, but the publisher cut it out so that the book would maintain the same mean-spirited critical tone throughout. I’m not even sure if that is true, but I recall reading it somewhere. 

I realize now that I am posting a review of a John Lennon book around Thanksgiving, which is fitting on a personal level. (BTW this review was supposed to post last Wednesday, but I wasn’t able to get it up in time due to vacation.) Back in Thanksgiving of 1997 I had one of the very few times in my life when I was depressed – I was 23, relatively new to Dallas, and had no family here, and it was the first Thanksgiving that I’d never gone home. So I went over to the North Dallas Half Price Books the day before Thanksgiving and bought a vinyl copy of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, the original US Apple pressing, for like two bucks. (They were basically giving away records back then – and yes, I still have my copy!) I played that record over and over that Thanksgiving day. It was just one of those albums that resonated so perfectly with how I was feeling at the time…and a record that helped me feel better. It’s also one of those records that when I hear it now, on the rare occasion I play it, it takes me right back to that first time I heard it. So this is just another indication that the true testament of who John Lennon was cannot be found in any book that is written about him – it is in the music he left behind.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Atomic Werewolves And Man-Eating Plants

Atomic Werewolves And Man-Eating Plants, edited by Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle
August, 2023  New Texture

Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle knock it out of the park again with another gift-quality hardcover anthology of vintage men’s adventure magazine yarns. The theme this time is similar to their earlier publication Cryptozoology Anthology, but whereas the men’s mag stories in that one at least attempted a “realistic” vibe, the stories in the fantastically-titled Atomic Werewolves And Man-Eating Plants are for the most part straight fiction with a supernatural bent. That so many such stories could be collected for this 300-page tome once again indicates how fertile the men’s mag genre really was; it wasn’t just all war stories and the like. 

Publication quality is phenomenal, with thick, pulpy paper and full-color art reproduced throughout the book, as well as copious black-and-white illustrations. If you are looking for a nice Christmas present for that men’s adventure magazine lover in your life, then Atomic Werewolves And Man-Eating Plants would make for a fine gift. Or if you’re still in the Halloween spirit, pick up a copy for yourself; I read my copy around that time, and it made for a perfect seasonal read. For indeed herein you will find werewolves, man-eating plants, bloodthirsty stone age cults, and even post-nuke mutant hellbeasts. 

The book opens with a few well-written essays from various sources, going over the connections between the pulps of the early 20th Century and the later men’s adventure magazines, noting how some of the latter would even reprint stories from the former. As ever Bob Deis’s intro was my favorite, as he provides an overview of every story collected along with what’s known about the writer. In most cases not much at all is known, likely because the author was a pseudonym; especially true in Atomic Werewolves because so many of these stories are the b.s. “as told to” yarns that constantly ran in men’s magazines – meaning a fictional narrator tells you “what really happened” directly. Bob also does a great job giving details on the various men’s mag artists who worked on these stories. 

As usual the stories are arranged chronologically by order of publication. Thus first story “The Flag Of The Stonewall Brigade,” from the March, 1953 Action, is the earliest, taking place while the Korean War was still going on. This fun story, credited to Ronald Adamson, really comes from a different era, as Bob alludes to in his intro: the gist of it concerns an old Confederate flag which brings luck to a battered platoon in the thick of it in Korea. Hoisted by a new guy from deep in the South – the flag belonged to his grandfather – the flag seems to keep the soldiers from any casualties. And when things get real bad, the ghosts of the old Stonewall Brigade show up to help! A fun, goofy tale, one that tries to retain the “true” conceit of most men’s mags – our narrator just knows that no one will believe him, but he knows what he saw, dammit! 

“When The Vampire Was Captured,” by Ward Semple and from the March 1953 True Weird, takes a page from Bram Stoker (again as noted by Bob!). This one tells us of “England’s famous Croglin Grange vampire,” told in an expose sort of style. The titular vampire gets his fangs into a local virgin, and some concerned folk set a trap for it. Very gothic story, and worth noting that the vampire isn’t the lothario type that woos his female prey but is instead a decayed and repugnant freak. 

“Vampires Ripped My Flesh,” by Lewis Greer and from the March 1956 Man’s Life, features a title that calls back to a more famous men’s mag story (even though as Bob notes in his intro, this one was published first), and the story could’ve come right out Bob and Wyatt’s I Watched Them Eat Me Alive anthology (review forthcoming!). It’s 1946, the jungles of Colombia, and the narrator tells us how he and his companions had just “escaped the spears of the savages” when they ended up in a worse predicament – a cave filled with blood-thirsty vampire bats. 

Up next is one that could’ve appeared in Cryptozoology: “Island Of Doom,” by Bill Wharton and from the Spring 1957 Sport Trails. This one’s in third person and concerns a trio of guys on an island with a fifteen foot high, fifty foot “dragon,” one that has a taste for human flesh. (A recurring theme if ever there was one in this anthology!) Wharton plays fast and loose with his “true” vibe, telling us at the end that the dragon might’ve been a really big iguana! 

Those “man-eating plants” of the book’s title appear in the ghoulish “Trapped By A Man-Eating Tree,” by Robert Moore and from the March 1958 Man’s Life. Another “as told to” yarn, this one purports to be the account of a Dutch guy who escaped a Japanese camp in 1943 and ended up shipwrecked on an island. His two companions, hungering for a smoke, set upon a tree with tobacco-like leaves…but it’s a tree that friggin’ eats people, setting off a gharish story – one with very nice, Hannes Bok-esque art that is nicely rendered in green-and-black duotone on the front and back covers of Atomic Werewolves And Man-Eating Plants

One of my favorite stories here is “The Hunted,” by Rick Rubin and from the October 1961 issue of Adventure. Decades before he produced the Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin turned out this piece of fast-moving sci-fi. (Just kidding – it’s another guy of the same name…or pseudonym.) It’s a third-person tale in which a male and female, both described as “big” and “rugged,” escape the slavepens humans are kept in by robots in this grim future – where “The strong will survive” is emblazoned on posters everywhere. The two lose some comrades as they make their way across harsh terrain, occasionally chased by robots, while also (inevitably) becoming close with one another – not that the story has any naughty stuff. Indeed, their relationship is based off mutual need for survival, then blossoms into respect for one another. This one also features a goofy “surprise” ending that, despite being goofy, just feels right. Oh, and a great line’s in this one: “Maybe brutality is the price of freedom.” 

We get the titular “werewolf” of the anthology next, in “The Werewolf And The Cowboy,” from the November 1961 See For Men and written by Stuart Evans. Set in 1937, this one’s about a werewolf plaguing a rural area, showing up each fool moon and killing sheep or people. Features an evocative finale in which the protagonist sets up a trap for the werewolf and waits for him with a .44 magnum; if Stephen King had ever written expressly for men’s adventure magazines (not withstanding the stories he had printed in girlie mags and whatnot), it would’ve been something like this. 

“Mad Doctor Of No-Name Key” is really along the horror lines; it’s by Peter Aldridge and from the December 1961 Adventure Life. This one was pretty ghoulish, but not done in a very exploitative style, concerning an old doctor who falls in love with a young girl – a love that spans into necrophilia (helpfully explained for us…a sad indictment of our times that “necrophilia” no longer has to be explained!). 

Probably the most (intentionally?) funny story in the book follows: “Her Body Belonged To The Devil,” a paranoid trip into the narrator’s psyche, courtesy George Venner and from the December 1961 Man’s Look. This one’s really over the top – “You see that pretty girl over there? She could be a WITCH!” and the like. I got a good laugh out of it, particularly how the narrator informs us that a sexy young gal back in Omaha once took him to a party…one that turned out to be a Black Mass, and he ran away from her in a panic. Now he has “the mark” on him, and witches and warlocks all over the world are coming for him…maybe! 

“Their Bodies Glowed With Fire,” by Dave Marshall and from the December 1961 Peril, is my favorite story in the collection. This one almost seems like an abdridgement of a longer work: told in first person, it concerns Joe Rainwater, an American Indian ex-GI who sees a UFO land in the desert and is soon approached by its occupants – a trio in form-fitting metallic spacesuits that glow. But things are getting more risque here in the early ‘60s, as these aliens are hotstuff women of the most curvaceous sort (indeed, with “voluptuous breasts”)…and buddy they each want a go at Mr. Rainwater. The one in charge tells Joe he will become their “high priest,” after which the three alien babes take him through “the rites of love.” It’s all pretty crazy, but also pretty vague given that it is just the early ‘60s, but features a crazy ending where Joe Rainwater tells us that, like Nietszche’s Zarathustra, he’s now coming down the mountain and he has “plans” for those yokels who used to race-bait him. Man, I almost wish this one was a novel. 

“Fowl Play” by William Bayne, from the May 1962 Escape To Adventure, is like an EC Comic without the art. It’s also very much on the Stephen King tip, about a guy whose job it is to chop off chicken heads plotting to kill his wife and mother-in-law. The dark comedy is thick in this one, climaxing in a scene as illustrated in the splash, of our “hero” strapped to a bed and about to find out how those poor chickens feel. 

“Strange Cult Of The Vampire Tarantulas,” by Rick Manners and from the September 1962 Peril, again shows how things are getting a bit more risque in the world of men’s mags here in the early ‘60s: our narrator, a “marine growth” researcher or somesuch, is sent on an expedition with his colleague Elaine who has “luscious breasts.” Hey, my favorite kind! There’s a lot of heavy petting between the two (“My hands sought the twin globes of her breasts…”), but no sexual hijinks – the two keep putting it off, wanting it to be “good” when they finally do the deed. Meanwhile we’re in sweat mag territory, as their ship crashes, same as the previous expeditions did, and they’re washed up on an island with…giant tarantulas! And there’s a psycho named Dr. Unicorn who runs his own castle! It’s all straight out of Ed Wood, and also ends on a humorous final note about there not being any cobwebs in the narrator’s apartment these days. 

Up next is a sweat mag yarn I’ve wanted to read for a while, if only for Norm Eastman’s typically-crazy cover art: “Soft Nudes For The Nazis’ Doktor Horror,” by Martin Bowers and from the September 1964 Man’s Story. True to the men’s mag style, the story opens depicting Eastman’s illustration: a hotstuff, half-nude babe is strapped to a table while some deformed Nazi sadist saws off the arm of an ape…and then proceeds to saw off the babe’s arm. Why? So to see if the sutures and whatnot will work and the ape’s arm will latch onto the girl’s body. From here we go into an almost perfunctory overview of the “Traveling Circus” of Nazi doctors who went all-in for sadism; typical of a lot of these sweat mag yarns, only the opening itself is a piece of horror fiction – likely catered to the art – after which the story becomes a dry sort of overview on the topic. I personally hoped for a story of a Nazi-brainwashed babe raising havoc with her surgically-implanted ape arm! Oh and also, there’s no character named “Doktor Horror” in the story! 

Next up is another sweaty one: “Stone Age Lust – Today,” credited to Geoffrey Costain and from the July 1965 Man’s Daring. Another first-person yarn in which “Geoffrey,” a British anthropologist or something, is tasked with looking into a recent string of cult killings. His sexy colleague Doris wants to come along on the trip, but Geoffrey tells her it will be too dangerous. The future #metoo movement be damned, Doris changes our hero’s mind the old fashioned way: she offers herself to him in his office. We already know Doris should’ve heeded our narrator’s initial refusal, however; typical of men’s mag yarns, this one opens en media res, with Doris the bound victim of a cult of druids – and indeed she will be gang-raped by them before Geoffrey manages to save her. Interesting note of comparison here: in “The Strange Cult Of The Vampire Tarantulas,” Elaine is not raped after being captured – she is about to be, but the narrator saves her. And remember, the narrator and Elaine have not had sex yet. But here in “Stone Age Lust – Today,” the narrator has already had his way with Doris before she is captured…and in the climax she is gang-raped by the villains. So it’s very similar to the slasher movie gimmick of the ‘80s in which the girls who have sex are the first ones to be killed. 

We’re in post-nuke pulp territory next: “Killer Of The Cave” by Gene Preen and from the April 1966 Adventure. This one doesn’t even fool around with pretending to be true: it’s a third-person tale concerning Don Newman, one of the few survivors of an atomic war. Spelunking in some caves with a handful of others, Don came out to find the world destroyed. They try to survive in this hellish new world, living in the safety of the caves, but something keeps killing them one by one every night. It’s more of a suspense yarn, one with a shock twist ending that becomes more and more apparent the longer the story goes on. But special mention must be made of Basil Gogos’ art, featured on the front cover of the dustjacket for Atomic Werewolves And Man-Eating Plants; it almost looks like a still from a never-made film in which John Philip Law played a werewolf. 

This hardcover edition contains a bonus story that is not featured in the other editions: “Tonight Satan Claims His Naked Bride,” by Ted McDonald and from the December 1971 Man’s Story. This one is definitely in “sweats” territory, part of the hippie-killer craze of the early ‘70s; I reviewed a few such yarns in a previous sweat mags round-up post. Bob provides a special intro for this one, but one thing I wondered was if “Ted” McDonald was a pseudonym for Jim McDonald, a prolific sweat mag writer of the day. And this one follows the same template of the other such yarns: our narrator, a doctor, tells us of how a mind-blown hippie girl was brought into the hospital one day by the seductive and mysterious Monique…who kept coming by to check on the girl’s condition. It all leads up to the narrator’s lovely and innocent girlfriend, Alice, about to be the sacrificial victim of a cult of Satanic hippies! Overall a fun one, not too exploitative but still with more of a sleazy and lurid vibe than the earlier stories in the collection; I know these sweat yarns aren’t Bob’s favorite, but it might be fun to do a special Halloween edition or somesuch devoted to them. 

In addition to all the above we also get vintage pulp stories from Manly Wade Wellman and Gardner Fox, as well as frequent pieces of art from assorted men’s mags that fall within the collection’s theme. All told Atomic Werewolves And Man-Eating Plants is yet another stellar publication from Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle, and as mentioned would make for a great gift this holiday season – even if it’s just a gift for yourself! Here’s hoping there are many more of these collections on the way.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

America 2040 (America 2040 #1)

America 2040, by Evan Innes
April, 1986  Bantam Books

“I think I held onto this $3.95 Bantam paperback as proof that this was as far as it could go – as far as the spirit of our time and place could celebrate itself, shame itself, parody itself, fuck itself to death.” -- Greil Marcus 

I just knew that book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel had to have done a sci-fi series in the epic tradition of his bestselling productions Wagons West or The Kent Family Chronicles. Something with mainstream readers in mind, with the same vibe as those historical fiction novels, but placing events in the future. And yet, try as I might, I could never find any indication that Engel or his company BCI had ever produced such a series. 

Then one day recently I went on another random kick to see if he ever had – and I did what any other guy would do: I started searching “Lyle Kenyon Engel” on Google Books, with the years filtered to 1986-1989. And in this manner I hit paydirt: the America 2040 series, which began in 1986 and ran for five volumes, through 1988. Published by Bantam as paperback originals, the novels credited to Evan Innes…and, on the copyright page, the note that the series had been produced by Book Creations, Inc, with Lyle Kenyon Engel credited as “Chairman of the Board.” 

Not only is the series obscure, but I’m not sure how well it’s even known that it was an Engel production. Some years back I worked on a list of Lyle Kenyon Engel books with Justin “Paperback Fanatic” Marriott, and I don’t believe either of us were aware of America 2040. I know I wasn’t. But then, the series was in the latter era of Engel’s publications, and in fact Engel died two months after this first volume was published. It’s clear though that it was intended to be a long-running epic in the manner of the John Jakes blockbusters, even following the same “pioneer” theme as Engel’s other big ‘80s success Wagons West

A great concept…but one that was undermined by a wrong author choice. Same as Engel undermined a similar series that had a good setup the decade before with a poor choice for writer (Chopper Cop, which was initially given to Dan Streib), Engel hired a veteran sci-fi author named Hugh Zachary (real name Zach Hughes) to serve as “Evan Innes” on America 2040. Now I’m not saying Zachary’s writing is as subpar as Streib’s was on Chopper Cop, but it’s got that same pedestrian, just-the-facts tone, and the plotting is a bit of a mess. But hell, this was the start of an epic, so it’s possible Zachary was just getting his footing, not to mention working with whatever guidelines “Chairman of the Board” Engel had him work with. 

But at 344 pages, America 2040 is itself an epic, though the next three volumes would all be longer (the last one, The Star Explorer, is the shortest of the series, at 320 pages – and also the most scarce volume of the series, too). This first one does the heavy lifting of setting up the series concept and introducing some of the large cast of characters. This volume is also the only one that’s ever mentioned in the few online reviews, plus it’s the only volume I can find that received a contemporary review. Other than Greil Marcus’s humorous diatribe, linked to above, it seems that America 2040 flew under the radar, and the fact that Bantam ended it with the fifth volume would indicate the readership just wasn’t there. But then, Lyle Kenyon Engel passed away in August of 1986, the same month the second volume of the series was published, so it could also be that America 2040 suffered due to losing Engel’s guiding hand. 

Well anyway, in true “paperback epic” style America 2040 opens with a few pages previewing some of the characters we will meet in the narrative, in total bestselling potboiler style – I mean notes like that Captain Dunan Rodrick has “wide shoulders” or that the spotlighted female characters are all ready and willing. As I wrote, the series was certainly intended for a mainstream readership; soapy melodrama is more focused on than science fiction. Indeed, the world of 2040 doesn’t seem that much different from 1986: the Cold War still rages, the mainstream of America mostly comprised of conservative-leaning white people, and politicians can still speak of “American superiority” without being condemned as right-wing extremists. 

But then, one can see why Publisher’s Weekly dismissed America 2040 as a “neoconservative pulp novel” in the review mentioned above. Or as Greil Marcus so humorously put it: “You mean that the ‘spirit of America’ is more important than the EARTH ITSELF?” For this folks is the concept of the series: In 2032 Young US President Dexter Hamilton orders the construction of a massive starship which will carry a thousand pioneers to a far-off planet that seems identical to Earth, so that the spirit of America will survive the threat of nuclear war. So, to Greil Marcus’s point, the concern isn’t hummanity itself, or saving the planet: it’s the spirit of America that must survive and thrive on a new world, the thousand colonists serving, not so subtly, as the future versions of the pioneers seen in Engels’s historical blockbusters. 

Even by 1986 this must have seemed a bit out of step; I mean the spaceship is even literally painted red white and blue, whereas in the actual reality of 1986 the space race had cooled off into the international cooperation of today. But the Cold War rages harder than ever in this pseudo-future; actually, the series title is very misleading, as “2040” itself only features in a few pages of this first book! The novel actually opens in 2032, as Hamilton arrives in Moscow to meet with Soviet Premier Kolchak, who tells Hamilton in private that he is dying, will be dead in eight years, and thus Kolchak intends to blow up the planet before his death – that is, unless the entire world has gone red by then. And indeed most of the world is red, we’re informed, with communism having conquered most of the western world. (Zachary was really on point with this particular prediction!!) Hamilton balks at Kolchak’s offer to make America a satellite country of the USSR and, instead of ramping up on the increasing arms race, he greenlights a mission to a nearby star, so that at least some Americans can survive the possible armageddon and start anew. 

So the first hundred pages of America 2040 actually takes place from 2032-2040, and focus most on President Hamilton; this makes it a bit bumpy when Hamilton abruptly drops from the book on page 100 when the spaceship takes off. Even odder is that the majority of the characters in these first 100 pages will also not be seen again; the “stars” of the series are the pioneers themselves, and we don’t even meet most of them until the ship takes off on Christmas day 2040. Meaning that in a few pages we have New Year’s Day 2041…and the novel goes on to encompass a few more years. So why exactly was the series titled “America 2040?” I also found it incredibly curious that Zachary didn’t dwell at all on the selection process for these colonists; we’re informed that the selection is underway, but what the criteria was and etc is never stated. Hard to tell if this is just a miss on Zachary’s part or him trying to cater to what Lyle Kenyon Engel wanted. 

Have I mentioned yet that the spaceship itself is named “The Spirit Of America?” This is why I think Zachary was catering to Engel’s whims; the “America first” stuff isn’t layed on too thick, but it’s certainly there. In fact it’s mostly in the sequences with President Hamilton, who as mentioned carries the brunt of the first 100 pages. There’s also a subplot with Theresita Pulaski, the “first Russian woman general,” who is alternately described as “pretty” and “a big woman.” One thing that becomes clear very early on is that Hugh Zachary can’t be much bothered with describing his characters. Seldom do we get much in the way of characteristics or any other sort of descriptions for the characters, and exploitation is at a minimum – we’re told how most of the female characters are attractive, but there’s none of the “full breasts” one would expect if America 2040 had been “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel in the 1970s. 

In fact, the novel is for the most part PG. It really is very much with a mainstream readership in mind; I would have been 11 when this novel was published, and I’m surprised I didn’t come across it then, as I was an avid sci-fi reading geek even then and constantly scanned the science fiction shelves at the local WaldenBooks. But I only just discovered this series the other week; maybe this is indication America 2040 had poor distribution, hence the minimal awareness of it even today. Well anyway, the infrequent sex is all off-page, save for one part midway through where two characters are discovered in the midst of a secret boink; this part is also the only place, I believe, where the word “breasts” appears – but even here Zachary doesn’t dwell on the juicy details. I only bring this up so as to indicate how different America 2040 is in comparison to Engel’s earlier productions – but then, those were squarely targeted for a horny male readership. 

The setup is pretty implausible, but Zachary does his best to make it believable: that Premier Kolchak is nuts and will annihilate the Earth in eight years. One wonders why they don’t just assassinate the guy instead of building a friggin’ spaceship, and Zachary tries to work this into the subplot with Theresita…who ingratiates herself into Kolchak’s life so as to assassinate him, and eventually works her way into his bed, this being more of a soapy melodrama. And of course she falls in love with him! However, this subplot paid off differently than I expected – with the caveat that Theresita also disappears from the novel a hundred pages in, but there’s enough foreshadowing in there to indicate that she will return in a future volume. 

But from page 100 to the end we are onboard the Spirit of America as it makes its two-year voyage past Pluto, then goes into “lighstep,” which is this novel’s version of hyperspeed and is something developed by another minor character. Zachary tries to make it all scientific sounding with the explanation that a precious metal called rhenium fuels lighstep, but it’s such a precious commodity that a lot of time is invested in finding it – a subplot that brings a kid into the big cast of characters: Clay Girard, a preteen orphan who has a friggin’ dog named Jupiter, and who manages to get on board the ship – I mean one can almost see Lyle Keynon Engel just ticking off all the character types he wants to populate the novel. “I want a boy and his dog, dammit!” The only thing we’re missing for this to be a true soapy melodrama is the once-famous actress who is looking for her last big role. Maybe she’ll show up in a future volume! 

Zachary doesn’t beat us over the head with “the science” too much, though. Indeed, some of the novel comes off as stupid for a person with even passing knowledge on the subject. For one, we’re told again and again how precious rhenium is and how it must be conserved and whatnot. And yet, the spaceship is built underground in a giant factory, so as to hide the existence of the craft from spying Red eyes, and then takes off from Earth into space…I mean folks the fuel that would be destroyed getting lift for the size of this craft would be tremendous. And that’s another thing; I had a hard time picturing the spaceship. It almost sounded more like a space station, with an “outer ring” that would revolve to simulate gravity and whatnot. Of course the important thing is that it’s painted red white and blue! 

The remainder of the novel focuses on the few years of the voyage to the distant star. The first few years are dedicated to flight to Pluto, after which it’s into the hyperspace of lighstep, which itself occurs in a fraction of a moment. So for the long haul it’s more about various soapy events transpiring on the ship: we have a little adultery between a couple of married characters (leading to the sole sex scene, mentioned above), and there’s even a “crime novel” element at play when it turns out there’s a killer on board. And the chief security guy is a former New York City cop, so this lends the novel a whole different feel at times, as this guy tries to make sense out of the few clues left at the murder scenes. The killer wants everyone dead, leading to sequences like the water onboard being poisoned and the scientists working to fix it, or another part where a key wire blows and it’s almost impossible to get to. In these sequences Hugh Zachary well captures how stranded and desolate the people on board the ship are. 

Oh, and as mentioned in that Publishers Weekly review, one goofy conceit is that all contact with Earth is lost – one of the killer’s plots ends up destroying the radio that’s hooked up to Earth. So a dangling question in the novel is whether Earth is even still there; the ship takes off just as nuclear war seems imminent, and the last Captain Rodrick and crew hears from Earth is that the US is under attack. Speaking of Rodrick, he does little to make himself memorable; Zachary actually rips off his own idea here, with Rodrick being in love with the wife of his First Officer, and the lady (Amanda Miller) feeling the same for Rodrick, but it’s mostly just a lot of pining for one another – it’s another set of characters who do the actual adulterous deeds. But Zachary’s so busy he forgets his own plotting, as at the start Rodrick thinks he’s about to start something with a single young woman at his command, a lady named Jackie who also likes Rodrick – and she’s almost entirely forgotten about as the novel progresses. 

I could’ve done with more description of the ship itself, or even of the clothing the people wore on the ship (I imagined them all in retro-style jumpsuits, as befitting classic sci-fi), or even what life itself was like on board. But Zachary surprisingly doesn’t tell us much. He does throw in random stuff at the end, like a sort of AI personality called “Juke” which handles all the music on board, slipping in really, really bad jokes between songs. Speaking of which, there are also a few robot characters: there’s “the Admiral,” an android who can shoot real good and patch into the ship’s systems, and also “Cat,” a sentient sort of glob that can shape itself into various things, but usually looks like a cat, changing the colors of its body to suit its feelings. Zachary does a good job of bringing these non-human characters to life. Overall he manages to carry the plot along nicely, but I really got annoyed with his penchant for POV-hopping – that is, how we jump from the thoughts of one character into the thoughts of another character, between paragraphs, with no white space or anything to indicate the perspective transition. This always makes for a bumpy read, pulling the reader out of the narrative. 

But part of the pleasure of reading these kinds of melodramatic epics is that you can get caught up in their worlds, and that did happen for me with America 2040. I’m not saying it was the greatest sci-fi novel ever, or even a very good one, but I did find myself wanting to get back to it to see what happened next. This is what I mean when I say the focus here is more mainstream entertainment than anything deep. Yet at the same time, the novel does lack the pulp spark I’d expect from a Lyle Kenyon Engel production; the few action scenes are not only bloodless, but almost vaguely described. And I can’t say the characters really carried the book, because I got a lot of them confused – only a few really rose above the surface to make themselves memorable. 

Things do pick up once the ship comes out of lighstep and finds itself way too close to the sun in this corner of the galaxy. This is probably the most harrowing bit in the novel as Zachary again well depicts how stranded and alone these people are. This sequence also leads to some unexpected emotional depth, as a pair of characters end up losing their lives in the novel’s most memorable scene – a scene that is, granted, a little let down by Zachary’s meat-and-potatoes prose style. And also the finale’s a little goofy because it’s like Zachary can’t make up his mind what he wants the planet that’s about to be colonized look like – first it’s too big for humans to survive on (due to gravity), then “new reports” come in and it turns out the gravity’s much less than it should be, for reasons vague and uncertain. 

America 2040 comes to a close with The Spirit of America landing on a new world. A new American world, baby! Interestingly, the plot is dangled that the Russians and the Brazilians (?!) have their own spaceships, and also for reasons never explained have also discovered the top-secret lightstep process, so one expects to encounter some spacefaring Russians and Brazilians in a future book. I’ll find out soon, as I’ve already started to read the second volume of the series, The Golden World, which was published just a few months after America 2040; the month after Lyle Kenyon Engel died, in fact.