Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Butler #6: Killer Satellites

 

Butler #6: Killer Satellites, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1980  Leisure Books

This was the last volume of Butler written by series creator Len Levinson, and it’s clear that Len intended Killer Satellites to be the final volume of the series, as it wraps up the storyline of hero Butler, essentially taking him full-circle from where he started in the first volume. There is also a focus on telling us more about Butler this time – we even learn his first name! – as well as giving him a Happily Ever After. Which of course makes it all the more frustrating that Leisure Books continued the series in 1982 – without Len’s involvement or awareness – farming it out to some unknown writer(s) for an additional six volumes. 

But honestly, I have no intention of seeking out or reading those later Butler books; this was Len Levinson’s series, and his volumes are the only ones that exist in my world. So basically there’s a “Len six” and a “Ghostwriters six” for Butler, and curiously it’s the latter six volumes that are the most overpriced on the used books marketplace, indicating that they had scarce print runs. It’s funny that they even exist, as Killer Satellites is clearly a send-off for Butler, courtesy his creator. 

This one picks up a few months after the previous volume, and Butler is still with the CIA. In fact there is no mention whatsoever of the Bancroft Instititute, and as mentioned above it’s the first volume of the series that is most often referred to in the narrative – particularly, that Butler was fired from the CIA by series regular FJ Shankham in that volume, “two years ago.” (Though in the typically-poor editing of a Leisure publication, on the very next page we’re told this happened “a year ago.”) But now with this sixth volume, Butler is so ingrained in the CIA that he’s spent six months studying how to speak Russian (and curious spoiler alert, but he never even gets a chance to speak Russian in the course of the novel!). The Bancroft Institute setup is dropped, as is recurring enemy organization HYDRA. 

The back-cover copy as usual tries to heighten the “thriller” elements of the story, but more than any previous volume Killer Satellites is less concerned with action than it is with Butler’s soap-opera life. When we meet him he’s boarding a small plane for a vacation in nearby Cape Cod. As I’ve mentioned frequently in past reviews, Len Levinson’s protagonists are unique in the men’s adventure field in that they try their damnest to pick up women; an inversion of the usual pulp template of the lady throwing herself at the protagonist. Butler hits hard on an attractive young woman on the plane (she looks, we’re informed, like Faye Dunaway), as usual saying stuff that would get a guy at least slapped in the real world. For instance: “You’re rather attractive, and I’m rather horny.” 

And, as usual for Butler, he’s rebuffed; the girl, Mary Ellen, has no interest in him, and just wishes to read her novel. In a curious miss on Len’s part that drove me crazy, we never learn what novel the girl is reading, despite Butler incessantly asking her what the title is! I was hoping Len would do a little in-joke and have Mary Ellen reading one of his own books. Anyway, it’s not that they have much time to really talk, as the front of the plane explodes and it crashes into the ocean – moments after we’re informed Butler is afraid to fly. But Butler’s able to keep his wits and swims to safety, rescuing the girl as well. The plane was intentionally crashed – though how is curiously never stated – and Butler soon learns that a host of his CIA colleauges have also been killed. Oh, and Mary Ellen vows that she will be Butler’s “slave” for having saved her life. 

Soon Butler is made the director of the CIA by whiskey-sipping President Smith; there’s a super-goofy part where Smith, in the bunker beneath the White House, bluffs on the phone with Premiere Brezhnev in the USSR about a satellite being shot down. This part again confirms that Butler is essentially a comedy series,with the assembled joint chiefs of staff even taking off their hats and yelling “hooray!” when the Soviet satellite is shot down. All this, by the way, is in retaliation for a US satellite that was destroyed, and I love the way Len has these heads of state calling each other directly and bluffing one another, making idle threats, etc. There’s also a goofy recurring joke about the Albanians. 

I really get the impression Len was winging his way through this one; the plot changes willy-nilly, with Butler thrust from one crazy situation to another. So he’s made director of the CIA because everyone else was killed, and his first act in this capacity is to call back onto duty the love of his life, Wilma B. Willoughby, who quit after the caper in the previous volume and now teaches at UCLA. In the meantime we are almost casually informed that Butler’s first name is Andrew – his full name is Andrew P. Butler – by a radio announcement Butler listens to while shaving in the shower, announcing that he’s been made the new director of the CIA. Butler’s first name has always been a mystery and no mention is made here that Butler hates it, something that was often remarked upon in previous installments. But the very fact that we’re told Butler’s first name this time could be another indication that Len intended Killer Satellites to be the series finale. 

Meanwhile, Mary Ellen has come to Butler’s home in Georgetown to be his slave, leading to the typical XXX-rated sex scene of the series. I found myself laughing out loud, though, because even in the sex scenes Len goes for laughs – in particular Mary Ellen bluntly asking Butler, “Do you want me to kiss your dicky?” To which a shocked Butler responds, “I beg your pardon?” Len has a lot of fun with this sequence, as it’s a reversal of the earlier scene betwee the two, when Butler was hitting on Mary Ellen on the plane; here it’s Mary Ellen who must convince Butler to have sex with her. Finally he does, in full-bore detail – only for Wilma to come in and catch them together and throw a hissy fit, calling Butler a “pig” and leaving. 

Again we get indication that this is the final volume when Mary Ellen explains to Butler that Wilma is only upset because she clearly loves Butler. Otherwise why would Wilma be so angry to find Butler in bed with another woman? Butler realizes this must be true, but meanwhile Wilma is kidnapped on her way to her hotel. When Butler finally figures out she’s been captured the following day, he decides to make none other than FJ Shankham the deputy director of the CIA, to handle the administrative side of the job while Butler goes out in the field to find Wilma. Here’s where we have the reverse setup of Butler #1, with Butler reflecting on the irony of his being in charge of the man who fired him “two years” (or was it one year?) ago. 

But man, it seems evident that Len was winging his way through Killer Satellites. Subplots are brought up and cast aside within a few pages. Like for example Mary Ellen. Despite pledging herself as Butler’s “slave,” she’s quickly removed from the narrative, Butler insisting that she go home so he can figure out who has been killing his fellow CIA agents. Then next thing you know, Butler is in his red Corvette and driving cross-country; his goal, apparently, is to act as bait for the people who kidnapped Wilma, but still…I mean he literally just drives across the country. We even get more of Butler’s random attempted pickups when he hits on an attractive female bartender who (per the template) turns Butler down, given that she’s married. But if you haven’t noticed, this is how the plot constantly changes in Killer Satellites; just a few chapters ago he was conferring with the President on how he could stop the “killer satellite” business, and now he’s on a cross-country road trip. 

Even what appears to be the big villain reveal is brushed aside after a few pages; Butler does indeed get captured by the same people who took Wilma captive, and they turn out to be…right-wing Canadian extremists. From their hidden location deep in the wilds of Canada they have a missile silo and have been taking down US and USSR satellites in the hopes of causing a war between the two superpowers…but man, like just a few pages after all of this is revealed, US planes come out of nowhere and bomb the place to the ground and Butler and Wilma escape into the snowy forest. The entire “Canadian radicals” development only takes up a handful of pages, and again the focus is placed more on Butler’s love life. 

But still, it’s very funny. Butler and Wilma hide in a cave and Wilma makes it clear that she has no intention of sleeping with Butler, even though we know from the scenes in her perspective that Butler’s the best lay she ever had, and she still dreams of the previous times they made it, etc. But as usual Wilma plays it tough, not wanting to look a “fool” for Butler, and she makes him sleep on the other side of the cave. Butler, sure that Wilma will shoot him with her machine gun if he tries to go over to her, decides to jerk off…no mention is made, by the way, of the “vow” Butler made to himself to never masturbate, as stated back in the fourth volume. Meanwhile Wilma, who is impatiently waiting for Butler to come over to her, looks over and sees “a piston” pumping beneath Butler’s sleeping bag, and angrily realizes he’s jerking off. So she has to take matters into her own hands, so to speak, leading to a sex scene between the two that takes up several pages of text. Even here it’s a payoff on those earlier sex scenes between the two, with Wilma finally giving herself in full to Butler and not pretending like it all was a “mistake” or etc. 

More finalities – on the morning after their idyllic tryst in the cave, Wilma informs Butler that she is saying goodbye to him forever, because she’s too crazy about him, and knows she’ll do nothing but have sex with him all day. (This after Butler asks her to marry him!) We also get the interesting backstory that Wilma was a hippie in the late ‘60s and dropped out of school to screw her boyfriend all the time, and she’s afraid she’ll do the same with Butler, because she likes him even more. So again, despite the “killer satellite” setup and Butler being in charge of the CIA and whatnot, it’s more about Butler moping around and wondering if he’ll ever find true love – not that this stops him from scoring again. In another humorous XXX passage, Butler goes up to Canada to look into the leader of the Canadian radicals, and ends up banging the secretary at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police HQ. 

Here we have another of Butler’s don’t-try-this-at-home pickup lines: “You’re the kind of woman a man would love to go down on.” This is stated mere moments after the woman happens to sit by Butler in the park, and soon enough Butler’s gotten it out of her that no one’s ever gone down on her and etc. So they go back to his hotel where they go down on each other, then have sex, all of it in the usual explicit detail of the series, but again a lot of it’s funny because of the dialog Len gives the characters throughout. But also, none of it has any real bearing on the plot, and is another indication of the ever-changing nature of the storyline; just twenty or so pages ago Butler was the captive of some right-wing Canadians in the woods, and now here he is dining at the Y with a slim secretary who looks “like the actress Lee Remick.” 

It all moves so quickly that Len has to go for a finale that is more out of a mystery than an action thriller, with Butler exposing who secretly funds the Canadian satellite-killing radicals. SPOILER ALERT, so skip this and the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to know, but given that Killer Satellites appears to be so scarce I thought I’d be comprehensive in my review for the people who can’t find a copy. Anyway, it turns out that FJ Shankham has been behind the plot, financing the Canadian radicals – and here we have a reprisal of the first volume, with Shankham again the manipulative bastard who holds Butler’s fate in his hands. But in another strong indication that this was intended as the final volume of the series, Butler literally blows Shankham’s brains out, blasting him point-blank in the forehead with his pistol. 

Even in the final pages subplots are brought up and cast aside within the span of a few paragraphs. Butler meets with President Smith again, and none other than Brezhnev calls in and offers Butler an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow as thanks for preventing WWIII, insisting that Butler come to Russia within a few weeks, and Butler accepts. Meanwhile President Smith floats the idea of making Butler the ambassador to Russia (and curiously, at no point in this entire exchange is it mentioned that Butler now speaks fluent Russian)…but a page or two later Butler’s already decided he’ll turn down the offer. 

The biggest indication that Killer Satellites was intended to be Butler’s send-off comes next: Butler goes back to his pad in Georgetown…to find Wilma waiting there for him. Wilma tells Butler she loves him and would “rather go crazy with him than without him,” and the book – and series – ends with the two having sex. In fact the last line of the novel is Wilma’s “OOOH!” as Butler gives her the goods – and speaking of which, we’ve learned earlier in the book, courtesy a ruler Mary Ellen puts alongside Butler’s erection, that Butler measures eight-and-a-half inches; which is “only two-and-a-half inches more than the average,” Butler argues! 

This of course is a fitting finale for Butler, given the strong focus on XXX-rated sex since the beginning, not to mention that Butler’s been hooked on Wilma since the beginning. (And apparently vice-versa.) For decades Len Levinson thought this was it for Butler, until I happened to mention to him when we talked on the phone in 2012 that the series had continued on for six more volumes. I still recall how flabbergasted Len was; “That was my series!” he kept saying. A commenter named TrueAim left a note on a previous Butler review that at least some of those non-Len volumes tried to retain the feel of the original six books…so if anyone else out there has read them, please let us know. I’m curious if Wilma even factors into the books. 

But again, I’d say those latter six installments are alternate-reality Butler. The series clearly comes to a close with Killer Satellites, and I’d say overall I really enjoyed these books. Again, the cover illustrations and back-cover copy are all misleading; Butler is more of a humorous affair than an action thriller. As usual with a Len Levinson book, it is the personality of the author that most stands out, and no doubt given that Butler was his own creation, Len’s personality is very evident as the series progresses. Indeed, parts of Killer Satellite, in which Butler reflects on his life or the sad state of his romantic affairs, could almost come straight out of Len’s decades-later autobiography, In The Pulp Fiction Trenches. I also appreciated the glimpse into Butler’s personal interests; this time he has a sudden interest in jazz music, with mentions of The Jazz Crusaders and Ramsey Lewis…I got a chuckle out of this, given that Len had to patiently wait while I shopped for Jazz LPs when I met him in Chicago in 2016

If I recall, only the first few volumes of Butler were reprinted as eBooks a few years back. Hopefully the time will come when all six volumes will be available again as paperbacks. Personally I’ll miss Butler and his madcap adventures, but I’m happy that Len gave him a proper send-off.

3 comments:

Drew Salzen said...

Thanks for this, Joe. I had some of Len's e-book reprints on my kindle but somehow lost my account and everything on it, so I'll have to get them again as I didn't read all of them - Cabby was really good, I did get that far! The Last Buffoon is one of my favorite books because of its subject matter (I also loved The Fan Man as a teen and must have read it at least a dozen times in ten years, before leaving it behind in my twenties. Maybe need to give it another go). My main point - and I do have one - is that after two years of meaning to, this prompted me to buy In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, which should arrive next week. Always like Len's takes on his books and life at that time, so very much looking forward to it. Thanks for nudging me.

Drew Salzen said...

At the risk of looking like a knob for replying to myself, the book has arrved and I'm about to start it. Meanwhile, here's what I wrote about The Last Buffoon on the Vault of Evil forum about a decade ago. It sums up how I feel about Len and his place in my personal paperback universe, I suppose...

"Meanwhile, I note that I never did write up Len Levinson's The Last Buffoon. This thread seemed to die, so I never got around to it. Not a horror publisher, really, so I can see why. Who gives a monkeys about a book about a writer in NYC forty years ago?

Well, you should if you ever read the kind of embossed horror toss that ended up in newsagents dump bins over here (those were the days!), as this is about the kind of eejits that wrote them.

Plot wise it's a thinly veiled autobiographical account of a disastrous run in a paperback writer's life. Lots of NYC colour and 70's reference, as you would expect. It gets compared to Kotzwinke's The Fan Man, and while I loved that book as a youth, I think this is - by design - more real and less poetic.

Yes, all his publishers are cheap sleazebags. There's a portrait of Peter McCurtin that is loving and makes you realise the pressure all 'creatives' were under in the paperback trade from the quick-buck businessmen. And hack writing for a living may have changed in social details, but not in essence over the decades. Really.

But above all it's a joy to read as Levinson can really write: it flows, the jokes are smooth, the characters become three dimensional quickly. Len writes a lot about his past work on Joe Kenney's Glorious Trash blog, whenever Joe reviews one of his old books, and the old chap is far too harsh on himself. True, it could be better - we all say that when we look back, but that's only because we see the shite parts. Truth is, Len could write rings round most paperbacks hacks then AND now, and should be national treasure in the US. That he isn't while others (no names) are feted is appalling."

I was a paperback hack about 25/30 years after Len, and in truth things hadn't changed that much. But even that last market is receding, and we are history. Perhaps that's how it should be, just how things are, etc... But it's still sad for those of us who enjoyed the business from either end of the typewriter.

Drew Salzen said...

Still talking to myself - two things. One, although I wrote about The Last Buffoon in the thread on Manor Books on the Vault, it isn't a Manor book, is it... Silly me. Also, I can't have read Cabby as it wasn't e-booked - looking at my Amazon purchases, I lost two Butler books, Perfidia, and the Bar Studs when I messed up my Kindle account. So it was The Bar Studs I really liked, but why did I think it was Cabby? Because I'm old, those two are bunched together in my head from reading about them, and becasue I would really LIKE to read Cabby, more so after Len's brief chapter in his Pulp Trenches book - only 42pp in, but already loving it. Joe, do God's sake stop me talking to myself!