Monday, October 29, 2012
The Martian Viking, by Tim Sullivan
May, 1991 Avon Books
The concept of this novel sounded too good to pass up – a Classics professor of 2070 or thereabouts is banned to a penal colony on Mars, where he gets hooked on psychedelic drugs that give him visions of ancient Vikings that surf the cosmos on their battle ships! It’s all very Philip K. Dick (whom author Sullivan even thanks in the dedication), combined with a definite sort of late ‘60s radical feel…I mean, there’s even a Patty Hearst analog here.
I get the feeling Sullivan must’ve seen the (awesome) 1990 film version of PK Dick’s Total Recall, which subdued Dick’s philosophies and replaced them with prime-era Arnold and Verhovian gore (not to mention triple-breasted mutant gals), and figured to himself, “Hey, I should do my own version of this, only more faithful to reality-questioning spirit of Dick’s original, a-and I’ll add lots of drugs! And vikings!” And somehow he pulled it off – this breezy novel, not even 300 pages, has all the signs of a late ‘60s slice of psychedelic sci-fi.
But the debt to PK Dick’s work is strongest; Sullivan even replicates the goofy names Dick would give his characters. To wit, our hero is Johnsmith Biberkopf, a professor of the Classics living in the Conglom world of the future, where Big Brother has taken over good and proper. Johnsmith actually reads the Classics, much to the puzzlement of his fellows. But such radical thinking raises eyebrows, and soon enough Johnsmith finds himself without a job – which is against the law in this grim future, one punishable by banishment, usually to the moon.
Johnsmith has also been left by his wife Ronindella, a thoroughly unlikable character who does nothing but instill reader animosity. Perhaps the biggest question is why a nice guy like Johnsmith would even get involved with her in the first place, but this is one of the many questions Sullivan leaves unanswered. Anyway, Ronindella, who wants more out of life, has contrived to get Johnsmith fired from his job so he can get banned to the lunar minepits, where Ronindella will be able to cushily live off of half of Johnsmith’s ensuing paychecks. Oh, and she’s secretly sleeping with Johnsmith’s best friend.
For a bit of a brighter note, there’s Smitty, Johnsmith’s 9 year-old son, who looks up to his dad and of course doesn’t want him to be banned to the moon. But Johnsmith has no choice and, the night before he’s to appear before a committee for his official banishment, he indulges in some illegal “onees” (pronounced “one-nees,” the narrative would imply): psychedelic drugs which look like ball bearings. Hold one of them and you’re off on a trip; hold three and you’re in another world.
Johnsmith, for his first time out, holds all three at once and suddenly finds himself in an ocean, a massive Viking ship coming at him. Johnsmith, who has a special fondness for Beowulf, spends the novel wondering if they’re really Geats – since he’s a professor he’s given to such pedantic concerns.
Another thing never properly explained is that Johnsmith is banned to Mars instead of the moon – actually, a better fate, as the Mars colony has it easy compared to the lot of prisoners on the moon. Along with him go Alderice, a heavyset gay black man who was actually employed as a government tail on Johnsmith, but who was so bad at his job that he too was fired, and Felica, the aforementioned Patty Hearst type, a radical devoted to ousting the Conglom, who in reality is the daughter of a mega-wealthy family and who was kidnapped by some anarchists and eventually turned over to their side.
The characters are basicaly two-dimensional, even Johnsmith himself. My assumption is that this is just due to the fact that Sullivan intends The Martian Viking as satire. There’s a lot of material in this book, a lot of subplots and characters, and a vast world with a history that’s untapped. What I mean to say is, the novel easily could’ve been twice its length, and this is both a strength and a weakness. I guess it’s a sign of the novel’s quality that I wished there was more of it.
Anyway, Johnsmith finally arrives on Mars, where he lives in a military complex overseen by the cliched sort of lieutenant you’d expect, who rules the prisoners with a steel fist. Johnsmith and his two friends (Felicia though soon becomes more than a friend) assume they’re here to help in the agricultural projects going on, terraforming the planet for eventual human colonization, but first they’re put through army training, firing guns and laser weapons and etc. Turns out there are “Arkies” here, aka anarchists, who rebel against the Conglom and attack the military base. How these Arkies got here is yet another unanswered question.
Eventually Johnsmith is told his true reason for being here – he’s supposed to take onees in a sort of controlled experiment. Turns out onees are developed here on Mars; some of them have been “archecoded” to give the Viking ship visions, and the government wants to find out how it’s happening. Gradually Johnsmith will learn that it’s the work of the Arkies, who have an insider agent who archecodes the onees as they are made; the Arkies, beyond their political beliefs, are also psuedo-religious, and believe the “Great Ship” will soon be coming to Mars to deliver them all. You guessed it – the Ship is the Viking ship Johnsmith and others see in their onee trips.
There’s more besides. Sullivan works in an elaborate subplot back on earth featuring the loathsome Ronindella and her manipulating of Johnsmith’s former best friend. There’s also another subplot about Johnsmith’s pal getting advice from a “cyber-therapist” (Madame Psychosis), and his goofy plot to get Ronindella away from what passes in this goofy future as the Christian church. All of this stuff had nothing to do with anything and just got annoying, mostly because the characters here were so self-involved and despicable.
The material on Mars is more interesting, and Sullivan keeps it moving, with Johnsmith caught up in an attack on the Arkie base, where he discovers who is the insider archecoding the onees; it’s a fellow prisoner, an attractive woman named Frankie, who too soon becomes involved with Johnsmith. Pretty soon Johnsmith is caught up in her plans to escape – plus there’s an Arkee deserter who stumbles onto the military complex, proclaiming that the Great Ship is soon to arrive. In fact, it might just appear at the site of the old Viking rover which trundled across Mars nearly a hundred years before, in 1976. Hmm...
Everything comes to a head with both Smitty and Ronindella on Mars (Smitty won a ticket for two there in an utter piece of deus ex machina), Johnsmith, Frankie, Alderice, and Felicia escaping, and the Vikings appearing in a sort of celestial whirlpool, sucking both Johnsmith and Smitty up into it so that pretty soon they’re traveling about the cosmos on the Viking ship, fighting sea monsters (!), before a strange sort of “was it all a dream?” kind of ending that seems tacked one because Sullivan couldn’t figure where else to go.
But then, the clues are there all along, and it’s not like Sullivan goes out of his way to make it subtle – one could easily see the entire book as nothing more than an onee trip on Johnsmith’s part. This is even hinted at in the finale, when Johnsmith finds himself on some barren plain, talking to his deceased father. To me the most interesting thing here is how the end of the novel prefrigures the sucktastic finale of the overpraised Lost series, with our hero not only finding himself in limbo, but also being given the scoop by the ghost of his father. And hell, the Arkies themselves come off very much like the Others on Lost, all of which makes me wonder if Sullivan ever watched that show and grit his teeth in rage.
Sullivan’s writing though is pretty good. The characters as stated don’t have much depth, and the goofy names get annoying (not to mention Sullivan’s strange decision to give two of his main female characters names that begin with an “F” – but then, that might be another clue that all of this is the product of Johnsmith’s limited imagination).
The action scenes aren’t very violent, and beyond the occasional curse word the novel’s almost prudish…save for an unexpected and somewhat-graphic sex scene late in the game, when Johnsmith beds Frankie – who, by the way, turns out to be more of a Conglom-fighting radical than Felicia ever could be. (Felicia herself meanwhile sort of drops into the background of the narrative...more sign that all of this is the product of Johnsmith’s hallucenogenic delusions, or just Sullivan’s inability to juggle all of his characters and plots?)
Sadly, the psychedelic stuff goes away as the novel proceeds, and despite being sent to Mars to test onees, we hardly get any more scenes of a drugged-out Johnsmith. However there’s a definite lysergic haze to the novel, particularly as it approaches its freeform ending, which takes it into the outer limits of fantasia. The reader expecting a pat ending will be frustrated, as Sullivan goes for more of a “Bobby in the shower” type of a Dallas ending. But really, such endings are never satisfactory for readers who have invested themselves in a novel.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
Able Team #4: Amazon Slaughter, by Dick Stivers
March, 1983 Gold Eagle Books
It’s been too long since I’ve returned to the work of GH Frost. His contribution to the Able Team series, #8: Army of Devils, is one of the best pieces of action pulp ever, a tour de force of madness and gore, up there with the Phoenix saga. Amazon Slaughter at times approaches that unhinged level, but not quite. It more than makes up for it with the high-quality level of Frost’s writing, which again is leagues above the genre norm.
The copyright page credits the book to “CJ Shiao,” but Frost acknowledges it as his own on his website. I think Frost, again working under an alias (“LR Payne”) also wrote the first and third volumes of the series (I don’t believe he wrote the second one, though – that was Norman Winski), but I haven’t read them. At any rate this fourth volume ushered in an unbroken set of installments Frost turned in for the series, though apparently he was removed from it; his comments on his blog and also those he left on my review for Army of Devils suggest that he didn’t quite get along with Gold Eagle.
Frost’s comments make it sound that GE was unhappy with his work, or at least the direction he was taking with the characters. This is just more indication that Gold Eagle never understood quality men’s adventure and just wanted to churn out the same old “terrorist of the month” shit…and more indication why you’d have to pay me to read the majority of the books they’ve published. Anyway, that has nothing to do with the book at hand, which is a piece of quality men’s adventure.
The Able Team trio (Carl Lyons, Gadgets Schwartz, and Pol Balancales) are sent down into the Amazon due to recent evidence of a plutonium factory somewhere in the jungle, in an uncharted region of the map claimed by Bolivia. We readers know that the factory is under the control of Wei Ho (fetchingly named “Death incarnate” on the back cover), a Chinese warlord who employs a Khmer Rogue assassin as his security chief, as well as an army of mercenaries from around the world.
Wei Ho’s army ransacks the native Indian population (the Xavante), decimating entire villages. They kidnap the healthy and force them to work at the plutonium plant, which itself is a death sentence, as every Indian they’ve forced into bondage has died from working around the plutonium. All of which is to say that there’s a lot of death and bloodshed and misery going on here, and Frost really builds it up, showing the horrors of the Xavante in gruesome and excruciating detail.
Able Team is quickly on the scene, voyaging down into the jungle where they hook up with a group of Xavante warrirors. I believe this must’ve been the introduction of the Atchisson assault shotgun to the series, as Lyons has one and must explain it to his comrades. As is customary there’s a lot of witty banter between the trio, with lots of ragging and good-natured putdowns.
Even better there’s a touch of the psychedelic, when Lyons smokes some sort of substance with the Xavante. Pretty soon he’s gone native, painting himself in the black goup the Xavante make from genipap, covering themselves in it to ward off insects and to mask themselves with the terrain. Lyon’s mind is somewhat blown, and more banter ensues as Pol and Gadgets try to determine how gone he really is.
A goodly portion of the novel in fact is given over to Able Team working with the Xavante as they journey deeper into the Amazon. There are a few firefights here and there, most notably one in which they attack a group of mercenaries while they’re hauling around prisoners. One of the escaped prisoners is a young Brazilian army lieutenant named Silveres, who after initial hostility starts to help the team.
Action scenes are rendered very well, even if none of them have the savagery of Army of Devils. Frost is really good at getting you in the heads of his characters, for example Silveres as he volunteers to swim off alone through piranha-infested waters to sneak attack a ship filled with Khmer Rogue and turncoat Brazilian soldiers.
Strangely we get Wei Ho’s backstory toward the very end of the novel, as Able Team receives intel on his history. While this chapter is enjoyable, documenting how Wei Ho turned his family’s drug and crime business into an empire, blackmailing powerful communists in China, it just seems so out of place this late in the game. Even stranger is that Wei is so quickly brushed off in the last pages of the book, not nearly given the villain’s farewell you’d expect of such an evil character.
And for that matter, the finale itself is rushed. Two of Wei’s top henchmen just disappear from the narrative, and instead Able Team and the Xavante launch a dawn raid on the mercenary camp. Again, it’s a gory scene, with lots of heads exploding and guts spilling, but still nothing on the level of Frost’s later masterpiece. And again unlike Army of Devils, Amazon Slaughter just rushes to a conclusion. There’s no wrapup or even any real resolution, just a bunch of dead Cambodians and mercenaries. It’s as if Gold Eagle lost some of the pages of Frost’s manuscript during the printing process.
But for all that it was still an enjoyable book. The rapport of the team really sets this series apart from others, with the Able Team guys coming off like the soldiers in Gustav Hasford’s Short Timers, ribbing each other with that same sort of dark and morbid sense of humor. Frost returned with the next installment, Cairo Countdown, even though it too was credited to another author (Paul Hoffrichter). I’ll be reading that one next.
Monday, October 22, 2012
Doomsday Warrior #6: American Rebellion, by Ryder Stacy
September, 1985 Zebra Books
The Doomsday Warrior series storms on, picking up immediately after the events in #5: America's Last Declaration, with Rockson and Rona barely alive after a massive assault by 21st Century Nazis on the Freefighters’ home base of Century City. American Rebellion opens with Rockson knocked out cold, having been tossed like a ragdoll by a falling bomb – that imminent “Death itself” he must have felt, reaching out for him, on the last page of the previous installment.
So with American Rebellion authors Ryder Stacy finally deliver on that hoary old action-pulp cliché: the hero who suffers from amnesia. Yes, the bomb blast not only knocks Rockson unconscious (and Rona too), but when he wakes up he has no idea who he is. This makes him easy pickings for the roving bands of slavemasters who like vultures hunt and peck through the carnage of the just-ended battle; Rockson is pounced on as perfect material for the labor force being sold to newly-built Nazi city Goerringrad.
Rona meanwhile was knocked several yards away by the blast, and when she comes to Rockson is already gone, taken by the slavers. Not that Rona knows this. She has her own issues, though, captured by another group of slavers who know she’ll earn them quite a profit due to her beauty; Rona too is taken to Goerringrad, where she will be put on the auction block as a pleasure slave.
The back cover has it that this amnesia storyline will be the meat of the tale, and to tell the truth such stories have never done much for me. Luckily though Rockson has his memory back around a hundred pages into the tale. Before that though we must endure long stretches of Rockson being put in a squalid existence with the other slaves in Goerringrad, trying to foster their patriotic spirit while shovelling up corpses all day and tossing them into a toxic marshland along the outskirts of the Nazi-run city.
The action focus of previous books is lost here; Ryder Stacy focus more on Rockson’s inherent ability to lead and inspire. In a way the plot of this one’s sort of original because from the start we’ve been told that Rockson is regarded as “the Ultimate American;” here we see him still having the same charismatic effect on others, even when he just thinks he’s some anonymous slave.
Also, American Rebellion further plays out an element that has been featured in every novel in the series yet – namely, a group of American slaves “becoming men again” and turning on their Red captors. In previous books these have usually been little bits, usually having nothing to do with the larger storyline, and usually ending with the slaves dying as a result…that is, after killing a bunch of Russians. So then this novel pretty much plays out like one of those incidents, only in full, going on and on, with Rockson always on the cusp of remembering who he is.
Rona’s storyline is more entertaining. She’s sold to a high-ranking Nazi who takes her into Goerringrad’s Nazi palace. In a chuckle-inducing and bizarre scene the commandant of Goerringrad falls at Rona’s feet and begins licking them…turns out Rona is a dead ringer for the Nazi-worshipped Eva Braun!
Not the real Eva Braun, that is; in a goofy turn of the narrative Ryder Stacy explain that Rona looks like an idealized portrait of Eva…one where Eva has been given red hair and a killer bod…! Anyway the Nazis now worship Rona as Eva reborn, a goddess in flesh, and put her up in an ivory tower where no one may touch her or even look at her.
But guess what – Rockson has a perfect view of her while on his daily rounds of corpse-dumping. Of course, he can only see the gorgeous redhead gawking down at him, waving her arms frantically as if she recognizes him. Rockson can only suspect that he must know the woman, but meanwhile he has other issues, like the endless ringing of alien voices in his brain (turns out to be psychic messages being sent out to him but going unanswered) as well as the dark shape he sees skimming beneath the surface in that toxic marshland.
Anyway, before you can’t take much more Rockson has regained his memory (in true cliched fashion it’s only after some ruffian slave, jealous of Rockson’s power over the others, bashes him on the head during a sneak attack) and is leading the slaves in a riot. They manage to free Rona but Rockson and Rona are pulled away by an escape rocket sled or something, leaving the just-freed slaves to their fate.
Rockson wants to go back, but they’re pursued by Nazis and end up in the marshland, where Ryder Stacy get to unleash another family of monsters into their unfolding epic. Each volume of the series has had some new monster in it, and American Rebellion doesn’t disappoint. This time we have the Narga, Swamp Thing-like monsters who once were human but were killed by the Nazis and dumped into that toxic dump, which brought them back to life; Rockson is only able to keep them from eating him and Rona with his psychic skills. Soon enough he is friends with the leader.
The Narga are basically like the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are, only they like to eat people, even “smoking” their corpses over campfires to save for later. Ryder Stacy published a book on movie monsters in 1984 and you can tell that here they were indulging in all of their horror movie joys; the Narga are probably the most frightening and gorge-inducing creatures the authors have yet presented us. Plus their names are damn awesome: there’s the leader, Nitrogen Carnivore, and others like Sulphuric Death, Monoxide Blood, and even Methane Death. It’s surprising some ‘80s speed metal band didn’t lift one of these for an album title, or even a group name.
The novel’s only halfway through and Rockson has already launched a raid on Goerringrad, the Narga at his side; here the authors delight in giving us all sorts of gruesome detail about the monsters biting off heads and eating guts, all delivered in their patented clunky style. If I’m right in my estimation of who wrote what, then I’m betting Jan Stacy wrote the majority of American Rebellion, as it has little of the psychedelic/New Age flourish I suspect was the work of Ryder Syvertsen. (Though there is a cool scene where we see the bizarre cult rituals of the Narga, who, to quote the old Sho Kosugi film, pray for death – if there’s any scene in American Rebellion written by Syvertsen, this would be it.)
Unfortunately the novel sort of plods on after this. Having freed the slaves and bid farewell to the Narga, Rockson and Rona and a young slave Rockson has taking a liking to make their way to Century City, which when we last saw it in the previous book had been hit by an indirect thermonuclear blast. They arrive to find the place in a total shambles, a mere shadow of the underground paradise of previous books.
The novel takes on a Jules Verne feel as Rockson, back together with his pals “the Rock squad,” ventures into the pits of the earth, trying to discover and fix whatever has ruined Century City’s power supply. This section just kind of goes on and on, with the team in their asbestos suits making their way down into 200+ degree heat.
But what’s weird is that the authors seemingly tack on a finale that has nothing to do with anything; like a jump cut in a film, a missing frame or something, immediately after fixing the power supply Rockson is squared off by himself by some hidden explosives and suddenly must fight an entire team of martial arts masters! This goes on for about fifty pages, just one kung-fu fighter after another introducing himself to Rockson and then engaging him in a fight to the death. There are even a few ninjas.
I’ve always felt that martial arts fights don’t translate as well to fiction as gun-fights do…it gets very repetitive to read about someone throwing a punch or a kick. And here it gets very repetitive, just going on and on and on…not helped by Rockson’s sudden knack for delivering bad one-liners to his opponents, something even the assassins make note of. My assumption is the killers were sent by the Reds – in a brief scene earlier in the tale we witnessed the first meeting of Premier Vassily, President Zhabnov, and Colonel Killov, who united in their determination to kill Rockson, agreeing to send out “the best of the best” to assassinate him.
But our authors sort of leave this vague; only after the endless battle has ended does Rockson stop to ponder how the assassins got there, beneath the guts of Century City, and if they relayed its location back to the Reds. I mean, it’s pretty admirable that these dudes were able to so easily find the place that Killov has been fruitlessly searching for since before the series began!
We get another attempted assassination scene, this one better than all the others combined, as another ninja-type materializes in Rockson’s room and uses mental trickery on him, not to mention a flaming sword. But still, American Rebellion has lost steam long before, the entire last half coming off like padded wheel-spinning and padded endless fighting.
Interestingly though this volume does not end on a cliffhanger – unless, that is, you want to count the sex scene that’s brewing between Rockson and Rona on the very last sentence of the book. And speaking of which, this is the only book yet in the series that doesn’t feature one of Ryder Stacy’s trademark goofy-but-graphic sex scenes…dammit!!
Thursday, October 18, 2012
The Marksman #4: Mafia Wipe-Out, by Frank Scarpetta
August, 1973 Belmont-Tower Books
Without a doubt this is the strangest volume of the Marksman yet. Coming off like a Marx Brothers movie with gore, Mafia Wipe-Out combines the mob-wasting nihilism of previous books with a lowbrow sense of humor, one that bounds right over the limits of reality and into full-on fantasy. Only problem is, it’s not very funny. And it’s not very good.
As mentioned in my review of #3: Kill Them All, this volume falls outside of the mini-storyline that started in the third volume and continued in #5: Headhunter. But then, Mafia Wipe-Out doesn’t have much to do with any Marksman novel. “Hero” Philip Magellan in this one is a superhero, famed for his Mafia vanquishing, unable to be harmed or killed. Not only that, but he’s developed a penchant for (really bad) one-liners, ones that would even make James Bond shake his head.
There isn’t much of a plot here, just a series of madcap confrontations between Magellan and a revolving door of bizarro mobsters, a new villain each chapter, each chapter ending on a lame cliffhanger. Well, there’s sort of a plot – Magellan discovers that the Mafia plans a council meeting in Elgin, Ohio, and there they will have two points of discussion: the death of Philip “Marksman” Magellan and the installation of a Mafia puppet into the White House.
Magellan, who is spurred by the memories of his slain family in this novel more than any other I’ve yet read, burns with a desire to kill all of the mobsters in Elgin and prevent their “Mafia President” idea from happening. But the Elgin summit meeting doesn’t occur until toward the very end; instead, Mafia Wipe-Out concerns itself with playing up to its own title, with Magellan wiping out mobster after mobster.
One thing I can say is that the book goes by like a rocket. In fact it moves so quickly that little sticks with you; it’s just an endless series of Magellan coming upon the latest mobster, killing him, offering a lame one-liner, and then running into the next mobster. True to the series, Magellan is so superheroic that his victory is never in doubt, even in the few instances when the mobsters get the advantage on him. There are laughably-stupid scenes where Magellan is able to muscle his way out of his bonds or even recover from significant damage and just brush it all off – that is, after he’s killed the mobster who got the jump on him.
Let me give you an idea of how goofy and stupid this novel is by examing one particular sequence. Okay, Magellan has killed a bunch of mobsters unrelated to anything in New York, and then he comes upon the info about the Elgin meeting. After a quick gunfight in a funhouse and park, he’s briefly kidnapped by a Mafia don who takes Magellan away in his car. Magellan of course manages to not only kill the guy but his henchmen as well, in a big firefight along a turnpike. As the cops swarm in, Magellan tries to figure out how to get away from them and prevent the Mafia takeover of the White House.
Then a sportscar driven by a gorgeous blonde pulls up, and the girl, whom Magellan has never seen before, says she’s here to pick him up. All of this a show for the cops…who just let Magellan hop in the car and leave the crime scene. (This is just a taste of the lack of reality in the novel.) Magellan assumes the girl, who calls herself Tina, has picked him up due to his good looks – Magellan reminsces over all the women who have flocked to him over the years, so this isn’t all that new to him!
But no, Tina reveals that she knows who Magellan is, and in fact she needs his help. At that moment some heavy trucks bear in on them, blasting away. “I wish we had some grenades or something,” says Magellan. Then he looks in the glove compartment – only to find some grenades in there. Again, it’s all like a lame Duck Soup riff or something. After Magellan kills the pursuers, Tina reveals that they were actually Feds, and further Tina is the daughter of a Mafia don – in fact, the don Magellan just killed on the turnpike, though she doesn’t know Magellan has killed her dad.
Next Tina imprisons Magellan in metal straps that come out of the carseats, and tells him that not only is she into s&m, she also wants to screw Magellan before taking him to Elgin, where the Mafia has plans for him. Magellan goes on about how disgusted he would be to even touch a member of the Mafia, and there ensues an unsettling scene where Tina tries to rape Magellan, and he bites a huge gaping hole in her mouth (!). Finally he gets the upper hand, and then debases Tina in such a way that the reader is truly unsettled…making her crawl around like a dog and say how she’s no-good slime and etc.
But wait, it gets worse. Magellan doesn’t want to kill a woman (despite the fact that earlier in the book he had no qualms with killing a 300-lbs hitwoman or the fact that he just bit off a portion of Tina’s face), and tells Tina he’ll let her go, but she manages to grab his gun and blast at him as she runs into the woods. Magellan throws one of those grenades at her and in yet another unsettling moment blown-off pieces of Tina fly out of the woods and overtop Magellan: Tina’s arms, Tina’s head. Magellan says “Bye-bye” to the pieces, but as he turns Tina’s flying severed leg hits him in the ass, and Magellan mutters that it’s just like a woman to get in the last word.
Now, I’ve had my problems with women (who hasn’t?), but blowing them up with grenades just seems a little too much, especially when it’s all played for laughs. But that’s the other thing. As you’ve no doubt registered from my little rundown, this novel just ain’t funny. It’s just stupid, mean-spirited, and scatterbrained.
Unbelievably, it only proceeds to get more inane, as when Magellan arrives in Elgin he just sort of walks around the mansion where the meeting will take place, and takes on the occasional mobster who happens to walk by, all of whom know who Magellan is and who try to dispense with him quickly, to no avail.
Then there’s another character, a rogue scientist who creates chemical warfare, and there follows a long protracted sequence where Magellan is sprayed by an experimental gas which he just happens to have read about, so he knows how to overcome its effects, only to turn it around and use it on a bunch of other mobsters. (This isn’t even mentioning the other gas, one which gives people superhuman power.)
The “climax” in the Elgin mansion is also seriously stupid, with Magellan just walking in and making all of the mobsters lay down on the floor! There’s absolutely no tension or drama or anything, just superhero Magellan doling out glib and unfunny lines as he blows away various mobsters. And more unsettling stuff besides, as you actually start to feel bad for the mobsters, in particular one who wears a leather suit and comes at Magellan with a whip: Magellan figures the guy must be a “sado-masee” gay and calls him all sorts of names as a result, toying with him before killing him.
I was under the impression that this one had been written by series editor Peter McCurtin. But reading the book made it clear that someone else was behind it. After a little research I discovered here that Mafia Wipe-Out was in fact written by someone named Michael Harris. I have no idea who he is/was, or if he wrote more volumes of the Marksman. We can only hope he did not.
Despite the irreverent spirit and Keystone Cops mindset, Mafia Wipe-Out just comes off as being a stupid waste of time, churned out by an author not taking the story, series, or character at all seriously. And if the author doesn’t care, why should you?
Monday, October 15, 2012
Island Paradise, by P.R. Pickney
August, 1973 Avon Books
My definition of “pure” trash fiction is simple: glamorous people, exotic setting, lots of sex. Island Paradise falls firmly into this mold, a novel very much like Fire Island (a hallmark of pure trash fiction) in that it’s such a beach read that it’s about people going to the beach. Unlike Burt Hirschfeld’s classic, though, Island Paradise doesn’t appear to have had much impact on readers, so obscure that I couldn’t even find a cover scan online, and had to make do with taking a photo on my work-issued “smart phone” (a ZTE Anthem, for those taking notes).
As is expected, the cover painting and back cover copy oversell the novel’s “sizzling” elements. In fact, Island Paradise is a pretty tame read, never graphic, never going beyond the constraints of the average romance novel of the time. And worst of all, it derails from the expected (and desired) plot about jetsetters frolicking in a posh island resort and instead becomes embroiled in a banal storyline about island politics and a brewing native revolt.
The book starts off capturing the feel of the jetsetting elite, circa summer 1973, as a bevy of people descend upon the resort of Shalimar, located on a fictional island in the Caribbean, for a weekend of sun and fun. Newly opened, Shalimar is trying to get its name made, and the opulent resort is managed by Grov, a former tennis pro, and his wife Denise, a swinging and insatiable French beauty who you’ll not be surprised to know was my favorite character in the book. (Unfortunately her collected scenes don’t amount to much.)
But man there are a lot of characters here to keep track of. It would be one thing if they weren’t all so similar. And it would be another if the majority of them weren’t so damn boring. Unbelievably, Pickney chooses to focus on the bland characters of the huge cast, given more-compelling characters like Denise short narrative shrift.
Even having read all 300-some pages of this thick book, I don’t think I could give a complete rundown of the cast. But the standouts, bland as they are, would be David, a famous author firmly in the Norman Mailer mode, who has come to Shalimar with his alcoholic wife. David becomes such an annoyance that the reader cannot stand him; so immersed in his own ego as to be infantile, he ignores his wife and instead begins to obsess over Emily, a former paramour who just happens to be here in Shalimar, where she is having an affair with the island’s mayor. (That the mayor is black is a huge cause of concern for David.)
There’s also a New York senator and his wife, and their plot is by far the worst, with lots of backstory and worrying over the political climate back in New York…stuff which, I have to tell you, has absolutely no bearing on the plot, let alone any resolution. Then there’s the couple’s mousy friend, Margaret, who finds herself in Shalimar, deciding after a lot of introspection that she should cave in and marry the millionaire who has been pursuing her, after all. Her storyline especially seems cribbed from the most chaste Harlequin romance imaginable.
On a more interesting note there’s Pammy and Buffy, young and beautiful siblings who gallivant about the globe from one hotspot to another, their little dog in tow. Fresh out of finishing school, they have no care in the world other than when the next lavish meal is coming and if they should smoke dope or not. (They do.) They also engage in one of the only two sex scenes in the book, where they take turns with studly Shalimar employee Rod while skinnydipping in the ocean. But even this scene is so prudishly-rendered as to be bland.
There are others…Simon, a British photojournalist who appears to be trying to make for Pammy and Buffy, but instead spends a lot of time researching the island’s politcal climate. Then there’s Duke, a gay member of the elite whose mere word can make or break one’s public image. Another character who could steal away scenes, Duke too is relegated to third-class status and is instead mocked by the others…not to mention suffering a horrible fate which is all the more horrible for how little attention or care Pickney gives it.
And now let’s get to the island political tale, which unfortunately takes up way too much of the book. For one, Pickney pulls a fast one on us; we assume this novel is about the jetsetters, and that’s how things go for about 70 fun pages. Then Pickney introduces Sebastian, the aforementioned mayor of the island…and he becomes basically the major protagonist of the tale. So we go from a book about the wealthy elite sunning and sinning in paradise to a boring, boring storyline about Sebastian and his problems with the locals, all of whom take umbrage at having to serve “whitey.”
There are several scenes of the jetsetters, in particular David, trying to get to the root of this, even talking to the leader of the rebels, who happens to be Sebastian’s cousin. You keep wanting the story to get back to Denise, who we’re told likes to sun each morning practically nude, her nipples covered by nothing more than tiny sea shells which all the guys keep standing around and watching in the hopes that one of them might slip off, though they never do.
A bit of narrative relief comes with the late arrival of a makeup tycoon who shows up with his own mousy and subservient wife; this guy sort of tramples over everyone, emotionally and verbally at least, and he also manages to score with Denise on his yacht in the book’s only other sex scene – but it’s over in a second (literally), and that’s that. (Denise is even more disappointed than the reader, I’m sure.) But for the most part, these characters are sort of put on hold so Pickney can focus on the storyline about island politics and a brewing native revolt.
And what’s funny is, Sebastian and the jetsetters are so damn stupid that, even when they’re practically told by the locals that they’re planning to revolt that night, they still don’t know what’s going on when it happens! And the revolt itself is so hamfisted and poorly-conceived…the locals converging on Shalimar, depositing the beaten and bloody body of Duke, whom they’ve captured and even friggin’ emasculated, and after a talk between Sebastian and the rebel leader it’s all over!
Part of the appeal about these classic trash fiction novels is the long-simmer nature of the plots…like in the best of Hirschfeld, where he takes various characters and puts them together in one location and lets them brew. That’s what I wanted here, and that’s what seemingly was promised…until the derailment into the storyline about Sebastian and the natives. Even the end is sort of hamfisted, everyone just leaving and Sebastian welcoming the next round of guests to his island, the majority of the various storylines not even wrapped up.
P.R. Pickney is a psuedonym of Patricia Tierney and Rita Rothschild Picker, who out themselves on the copyright page. I don’t see any other novels published by the latter, but it looks like Tierney moved into nonfiction after this. Of course I have no idea who wrote what on this collaboration, but I can say that these authors POV-hop on the level of another writing duo, Ryder Stacy. Also they seem to enjoy inserting commas into sentences with no rhyme or reason.
And by the way, check out my copy of the book in the photo above. The top half of the cover is loose from the spine, there are multiple tears and creases, the book itself is about to fall apart in the middle, and there’s even what appear to be burn marks on the cover. I mean, what the hell did this book go through? In a way it’s more interesting than its actual contents…
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Slaves Of The Empire #1: Barba The Slaver, by Dael Forest
August, 1978 Ballantine Books
This was the start of a five-volume series, originally published in the UK in 1975, which takes place during some unspecified time in the Roman Empire. The author, Stephen Frances posing as “Dael Forest,” namedrops a few people here and there: Poppaea for one is often mentioned, but it’s never stated if in fact this is the same woman who was Nero’s Empress of Rome (or, for that matter, Poppea the Elder). And one of the protagonists is named Hadrian, but it’s certainly not the future emperor. So there's no way to exactly pinpoint when it all takes place.
Anyway, the awesome Boris Vallejo cover and the exploitative title have you expecting a full-on blast of toga porn, but the novel itself is moreso a drawn out soap opera. The story is very domestic, with none of the empire-spanning travel you normally get in such books. Instead everything plays out on an almost humdrum level, not even bothering to play up on the salacious aspect of life in the ancient world.
Five young siblings from Briton are taken captive and imported to Rome as slaves, and I assume they will be the driving force of the series: Haesel, a pretty young girl who hates slavery; Saelig, a good-looking hunk of muscle who makes the ladies quiver; Redwall, who takes up a smidgen of the narrative but thrives in slavery, given his business acumen; Thane, a hot-tempered leader who quickly revolts and therefore is sent into hard labor; and beautiful Mertice, with the flowing blonde hair to her waist who falls in love with her handsome young master.
This first installment is titled “Barba The Slaver,” but Barba himself has little screen time. He’s the Rome-based slavemaster who sells the five youths, but other than a brief scene where he oversees their selling he doesn’t have much to do with the book. I’d imagine the book was named after him for the exploitative effect…which, again, the novel itself really doesn’t have much of.
Instead we hopscotch across a wide group of characters, sometimes from the point of view of the slaves, other times from their masters. Nothing much really happens, and given the book’s short length (barely 160 pages) it comes off more like the opening quarter of a larger novel – my assumption is all five books were written at once, but that might not be so. What I mean is, you could probably just read all five books as one novel.
But really, the multitude of characters overwhelms the paucity of pages…it’s like Frances has a hard time juggling everything and just says to hell with it and spins his wheels. So for one storyline we have Hadrian, intelligent business leader who has been given the job of building a new town. His slave is Haesel, who herself is intelligent, given that she was a high-born Briton. But as mentioned Haesel burns with a hatred of slavery and takes to her new lot in life hard, especially when she begins to grow feelings for Hadrian. Frances appears to be building up something between her and Hadrian, but leaves it open at the end of the novel.
Then there’s Areta, Hadrian’s wife, who has dedicated her life to pleasure and so is very much the cliched Roman harlot-wife. Her daily routine consists of going to the Baths, gossiping, and going home with some random guy – not that Frances ever gets explicit in the least. In fact the whole novel is written in a sort of antiseptic tone, which as I’ve mentioned before I find pretty common in British pulp. Dammit, I want trash, not psuedo-literature!!
Anyway, Areta initiates the novel because she’s envious of the oft-mentioned but never-seen Poppaea, who shows up at the Baths with a studly male slave that has all the women atwitter. Areta wants one of her own. So Hadrian takes her to Barba’s slave shop, where they spot Saelig, who is everything Areta could want. While there Hadrian kills the proverbial two birds by picking up Haesel, not because she’s Saelig’s sister but because he needs a new slave anyway. I guess Barba’s is like the Wal-mart of slave shops, but he does not discount on the double purchase.
The majority of the novel is given over to the interractions between Hadrian and Haesel and Areta and Saelig, with for example much focus given to Areta preparing Saelig for his debut at the Baths, where she’s sure he will be the envy of all the Roman women. Frances also dwells on initially-unrelated characters, like Melanos, a highborn Roman lady who has a casual sex thing with Hadrian and who enjoys competing against men in various pursuits. Frances intimates she might have Sapphic tendencies as well, but doesn’t elaborate.
Then there’s Alexander, studly young Roman of the priviledged class who gets ownership of beautiful Mertice, but doesn’t even notice her given that he owns a few hundred slaves. Mertice notices him, though, and so pines for him throughout the book, in what is by far the most annoying part. In fact Mertice is so stupid and docile that you eventually get a sick delight in her ensuing bad treatment, particularly when Alexander only notices her in his attempts to gain favor with Melanos, whom he lusts for (Melanos meanwhile loathes him).
A problem with the book is not only the similarity of characters and situations but also of names. Frances does himself no favors with character names like Melanos, Mertice, Areta, and even Rheta (Areta’s female slave steward). There are others besides, and it gets to be a chore keeping them apart.
Another problem is the aforementioned lack of events. The novel moves at its own torpid pace, with nothing major occurring. Saelig mimics various people for Areta’s amusement, Areta later throws herself at him demanding that he love her, Hadrian works on his new town with Haesel eventually becoming his right-hand woman, and in the only moment when the novel comes out of its own lastitude Alexander orders Mertice to wrestle another slave-girl, again in the vain hopes of gaining Melanos’s favor.
What’s missing is the sense of escapism one looks for in historical fiction, or the feeling of a lost age. Frances relates it all in a casual, offhand manner. I guess that could be seen as part of the book’s charm; whereas other Rome-centric historical fiction goes big and flashy, Frances here instead plays it low key and subdued, but still. When you read a novel titled Barba The Slaver which is announced as the first installment of a series called Slaves Of The Empire, you want something more than “low key.”
Monday, October 8, 2012
Ninja Master #2: Mountain Of Fear, by Wade Barker
November, 1981 Warner Books
The Ninja Master series improves in a major way with this installment. After the tepid bore that was Vengeance Is His, Mountain Of Fear comes as a definite jolt and is great throughout. We have Ric Meyers to thank, making his debut here as “Wade Barker;” who knows whatever happened to the first dude who used the house name, but thankfully he’s gone, and he isn’t missed. Warner Books should’ve hired Meyers from the start.
As mentioned in my review of Vengeance Is His, Meyers was brought in after the original guy had already penned his second volume, but the publisher felt it wasn’t fit to print. The title and cover were already done, and it shows, as the cover for Mountain Of Fear doesn’t have much to do with the actual manuscript Meyers turned in. Which isn’t a complaint; take a look at that cover and you expect a tale of some bare-chested guy beating the shit out of pitchfork-wielding hicks in some mine shaft.
Instead, Meyers delivers a super lurid tale about a former Nazi concentration camp doctor who has bought out a town in rural Virginia, where he and his perverted son rule with complete control; wayward females and orphans are captured and brought here, where, after being raped by the town’s “police” (who are really just convicts in uniform), they are sent up the mountain which looms in the center of town, where they are further raped and tortured by the Nazi’s son…before moving on down the line to the doctor himself, who experiments on them.
So we have here, obviously, the making of some truly sick and warped stuff. Meyers doesn’t fail when it comes to making the villains thoroughly evil and deserving of grisly deaths, and then he sets our series hero, Brett Wallace, upon them, so that we actually cheer as he eviscerates cops and slices out their brains…even torturing some in such a fashion that they know they are dying, and who their killer is.
Brett is also changed to drastic effect. Meyers must’ve read Vengeance Is His and tossed it aside in anger (like I almost did), as he spends the first quarter of the novel quickly disposing of all of the characterizations and series set-up that the previous author introduced. For one, young martial artist Jeff Archer, who was geared toward being Brett’s acolyte in the final pages of Vengeance Is His, is basically removed from the narrative, as is Rhea, the Japanese-American beauty who served as Brett’s occasional girlfriend. They’re still there to aid Brett in his vow to protect the innocent, but in much reduced roles than what a reader of the previous volume might have expected.
Brett has no time for such niceties, given that Meyers has remolded him into a grim sort of killing machine who almost makes Richard Camellion look like Mister Rogers. In the opening of Mountain Of Fear, after Brett is already on the scene in Virginia, he flashes back to his recent re-training in the art of ninjutsu. Meyers obviously realized that the carefree Brett of Vengeance Is His was not suitable material for an action protagonist, and thus has Brett’s former ninja trainers realize the same thing. After calling him out on his apparent “desire for death,” they return him to Japan where Brett dives back into ninja training, emerging more deadly than ever.
But in addition to his new and refined deadliness he’s also cast aside any sort of humanity. Gone is the David Sanborn-listening, Absolut vodka-drinking rake of the previous book, always seen around town with the latest popular bimbo on his arm. Now Brett goes to extreme lengths to be “no man,” as he often refers to himself. A human shadow, melding into crowds, only seen when he wants to be seen.
All of which serves to recreate Brett Wallace into the most devestating and deadly protagonist I’ve yet encountered in a men’s adventure series. Anything he touches he can turn into a weapon, and his skill is such that he can even gain mental holds over his opponents. I guess the only problem then is the villains he fights throughout Mountain Of Fear are no match for him. Sure, they’re brawny thugs who have gone to prison for murders and rapes and etc, and they come bearing down on Brett with shotguns and Uzis, but still. It’s kind of like in Airwolf when that “high-tech helicopter” would go up against twenty year-old Hueys or whatever.
Meyers weaves in the lurid stuff by opening the novel from the perspectives of two young black ladies from New York who run into a roving patrol of “cops” here in Tylerville, Virginia. This is just the start of the degredations women endure throughout the novel…one of them is insantly raped and the other manages to run away, only to find the locals are just as sadistic as the police. The whole town is guilty, something Brett quicky deduces – he’s come here, by the way, after studying various data reports of rapes on the east coast, stumbling over the apparent fact that something strange is going on in Tylerville.
Mountain Of Fear is yet more proof that the shorter these books are, the better. At 156 pages, it moves at a steady clip, never once falling into repetition or dullness. This is the first Meyers novel I’ve read and I have to say I’m impressed. He has a definite knack for creating sordid atmospheres, warped villains, and gory action scenes; this book is more violent than most others of its ilk, up there with GH Frosts’s legendary Army Of Devils.
Meyers certainly knows his martial arts stuff. He namedrops various ninja moves and weapons with abandon, but unlike the execrable Mace series by Joseph Rosenberger, he actually bothers to explain each term. Brett is a living weapon, but he also uses a host of weaponry, ancient and modern; unlike the characters in most ninja pulp, Brett has no problem with picking up a dropped firearm and blowing away some thugs, but mostly he uses his katana sword and other exotic weaponry. There’s also a cool scene at the climax where he straps armor over his ninja costume.
Where Meyers really excels is the inventiveness of Brett’s many kills. In this novel he kills people with shards of an ice cube (!), a drumkit cymbal, and even the tripod that held up the cymbals. But he sows the most damage with his traditional weaponry, particularly in the climax, with an armored Brett infiltrating the Nazi’s mountain fortress and chopping the shit out of legions of armed goons -- another scene reminiscent of Army Of Darnkess, even complete with ankle-deep pools of blood and gore. It comes off like Die Hard if it had starred Sho Kosugi and been directed by Paul Verhoeven. (Now that would’ve been a movie…)
The action scenes, as mentioned, are plentiful and gory, but it bugged me a bit that Meyers would write a lot of them from the perspective of the cops as Brett was killing them. In other words, we're in the perspectives of these convict cops as they go about their latest atrocity, then suddenly they're being hit by something and not knowing what’s happening, and then they're seeing Brett’s masked face a second before they die. I prefer action scenes to be relayed from the protagonists’s point of view, so we see what he’s doing and to whom. To be fair, though, Meyers moves away from the thug-perspective as the novel continues, and the majority of the thrilling climax is solely from Brett’s point of view.
I really enjoyed the book, and it makes me happy that Meyers eventually became “the” Wade Barker, though there are a few more volumes in this initial series that he did not write. Meyers wrote the entirety of the ensuing Year of the Ninja Master and War of the Ninja Master series, but as for the Ninja Master series, he only wrote this volume, #4: Million Dollar Massacre, #6: Death’s Door, and #8: Only The Good Die. (Million Dollar Massacre was apparently another case where the author of the first volume had turned in a manuscript that was rejected, and Meyers had to fill in, catering to the title and the already-completed cover.)
Thursday, October 4, 2012
MIA Hunter #5: Exodus From Hell, by Jack Buchanan
February, 1986 Jove books
The MIA Hunter series gets another shot in the arm with its latest version of “Jack Buchanan,” who turns out to be none other than our old friend Chet Cunningham of the Penetrator series. Cunningham’s prose here is a little more polished than that earlier series, but make no mistake there’s still his patented sadism and characters who do bizarre things with little explanation.
As I’ve mentioned before this series is very repetitive. Each novel is basically the same as the one that came before, only the minor details are different. And what with the repetitive story angle and the revolving cast of journeyman ghostwriters (most of whom only stuck around for two novels or so), there’s no continuity or any sense of a building narrative. It’s just Mark “MIA Hunter” Stone once again sneaking into ‘Nam to break out some prisoners of war, along with a team of natives and his ersthwhile partners Hog Wiley and Terrance McLoughlin.
Actually that’s not fully true. This time Stone goes into Cambodia, not Vietnam. Already then the novel is worlds different from its predecessors. Okay, enough sarcasm. The country-change doesn’t make much difference at all. What’s funny though is that Stone and his team have freed the POWs within the first forty pages of the novel; Exodus From Hell is really about Stone and his team’s long journey back through Cambodia as they try to avoid enemy patrols, pick up a missionary (who is of course gorgeous) and her flock of orphans, and even encounter pygmies.
The reason they have to hoof it through Cambodia is because Stone’s helicopter is destroyed after they free the POWs. Speaking of which it’s here that Cunningham gets to unleash his trademark sadism, as one of the prisoners, Patterson, relishes the opportunity to mess up the camp commander pretty royally, basically butchering the guy. But after this pretty great opening scene the novel settles into more of an adventure-fiction flair, with the team trying to survive the elements.
Cunningham also indulges in his other trademark, the infrequent stream-of-consciousness material where he can jump into a character’s mind and go from topics A to Z in the course of a single sentence. He does so here with Patterson, who as we meet him is strung up in the camp for some minor infraction; he does so again later in the novel with Hillburton, the other freed POW, one who is close to losing his sanity.
Another constant with this series is the endless onslaught of action. Exodus From Hell is no exception. It starts off pretty well, with the expected skirmish as Stone frees the prisoners and then makes his escape, but gradually the book wears you down with nonstop scenes of Stone et al bumping into some Camodian (or Vietnamese) patrol and getting into yet another firefight. Stone by the way uses an SPAS-12 combat shotgun this time, newly introduced by Cunningham, as in the past Stone basically stuck with a CAR-15. However Cunningham plays it conservative with the many action scenes, not dwelling on the violence and gore as he did in say Bloody Boston.
One of the many goofy charms of Cunningham’s entries in the Penetrator series was hero Mark Hardin’s frequent encounters with nubile women, most of whom would throw themselves into his arms with almost a reckless abandon. It actually happens here as well, with Stone scoring with that missionary gal, an actual virgin named Mary Eve who has taught orphans in Cambodia for the past decade. The scene where she gives herself to Stone – while the rest of the team is apparently just a few feet away – is especially chuckle-inducing, mostly because it’s just so hamfisted and hard to believe. But at least Cunningham put some sex in the book, a rarity in the sterile, gung-ho world of ‘80s men’s adventure novels.
There’s a definite air of desperation as Stone and his men realize they’re up shit creek without a paddle. Cunningham works some tension into the narrative as they begin the dangerous journey back the way they came, and along the way they take a lot of damage. Loughlin gets hurt early on, but since he’s more cipher than man you quickly forget about it. But Hog really gets hurt, to such a point that they have to construct a rig to carry his massive frame – all of which adds to the futility of their plight.
The action scenes, while too frequent, are nevertheless well done, with Stone and team using their better equipment and training to take on much larger forces. Cunningham also jumps often into the POVs of the native guides, in particular Sen, a Cambodian woman who serves as interpreter before Mary Eve arrives on the scene. (Another hallmark of Cunningham’s is the sudden dropping of characters with no warning or reunion, as if he forgets about them before finishing the manuscript; Sen just drops out of the tale and we keep waiting for her to return but she never does.)
I think Cunningham also wrote Stone: MIA Hunter, ie the unnumbered volume of the series that was published after volume #6, but I’m not sure. Who all served as “Jack Buchanan” is something of a mystery, and it would be great if series honcho Stephen Mertz could someday shed light on it.
Monday, October 1, 2012
The Betsy, by Harold Robbins
July, 1972 Pocket Books
Here’s another now-forgotten Harold Robbins novel that was a massive bestseller in its day. In fact if The Betsy is remembered at all today, it’s for the 1977 film version starring Tommy Lee Jones and Laurence Olivier…which itself is pretty much forgotten.
But anyway, if you’ve read one Robbins you’ve read them all, and this one follows the same template: alpha male protagonist screws his way through a book filled with interminable business meetings, bland dialog, and a careless and casual plot, combined with a freewheeling approach toward time, jumping from one decade to another with little rhyme or reason.
But I’ve learned that one doesn’t read Robbins for story or narrative. No, you read his novels for the dirty parts, and luckily The Betsy is filled with them. True, they taper off after a while, and none of them match the sadomasochistic weirdness of Goodbye, Janette, but what’s here certainly packs a punch, and gets weird too, as I will eventually demonstrate.
The main plot concerns Angelo Perino, aforementioned alpha male, who as we meet him late in 1969 is a race car driver who, due to his most recent crash, has had to have his face repaired. Angelo is contacted by Number One, aka Loren Hardeman I, founder of Bethlehem Motors, and the Henry Ford to Angelo’s Lee Iaccoca. Wheelchair-bound Number One is “retired” in Florida, leaving the running of his company to Number Three, aka Loren Hardeman the Third. (There’s also the second Loren, Number One’s son, and lazy Robbins will actually just write “Loren” at times through the novel and you have no idea which one he’s referring to!)
Number One has been inspired to release a brand new car, and further he wants to name it “The Betsy,” after his nubile 18 year-old great granddaughter. Sounds simple, but in reality this is just the setup for endless, endless scenes where board members at Bethlehem Motors will get together and talk about the impracticalities of this initiative, given the incipient energy crisis. And besides, Loren III wants to get out of the car business and focus on the company’s more-profitable ventures in appliances and whatnot.
So Angelo goes about putting together a team to create a new car, one that will be powered by a friggin’ turbine engine. He and Loren III butt heads, and Number One will occasionally step in; that is, when he isn’t flashing back at random points in the narrative to his own life, reliving this or that event which in the hands of a better author would set up ramifications in the “present” narrative, but in the hands of Robbins just come off as extranneous elements.
I mean, hell, there’s a very lurid part where we learn that Number One slept with his own son’s wife and conceived a child with her, and yet the ensuing daughter has absolutely zero effect on the events of the novel, and indeed Robbins introduces her into the narrative almost casually after detailing the lurid nature of her conception, quickly casting her aside. Why it never occurred to him to make the child a son -- more particularly Loren III himself – was beyond me.
Because as it stands, the major theme of The Betsy is the battle between father and son. In the sections in the 1920s and 1930s, Number One fights against his son (Number Two), to whom he has granted presidency of Bethlehem Motors. After returing from a years-long trip to Europe (after the death of his wife and after he’s impregnated his own son’s wife), Number One finds that Junior has basically given control of the company to a fascist security chief…who also happens to be Number Two’s lover. This initiates a whole new round of warfare between Number One and his son.
And then in the “present” portion of the tale, in the early 1970s, Number One, now nearly a hundred, carries on the battle with Loren III. It’s very wearying and very repetitive, not to mention confusing. Hell, even Robbins got confused – there’s a part toward the end where Loren III talks about the latest round of fighting with “my dad,” when it should be “granddad,” but Robbins himself was obviously confusing the similar characters and their similar situations. Do you think he cared? Doubtful. Like most other Robbins novels I’ve read, The Betsy comes off like a first draft, hastily banged out in some posh hotel on the French Riviera in between snorts of cocaine.
Ah, but the sex scenes. When it comes to them, Robbins excels. I’m an “in the tradition of” kind of guy, meaning that I usually enjoy novels that are taglined as being “in the tradition of” a bestselling novel, mostly because those books are more extreme and lurid. But this is not true when it comes to Harold Robbins, who always went further than any of his followers. By the time The Betsy was released, the world of publishing was loose enough that Robbins could get away with some seriously sleazy shit.
Take for example this little hummdinger, which takes place between Angelo Perino and “the Hertz girl,” ie some young and attractive girl he picks up at Hertz rental. And, mind you, this occurs immediately after a graphic sex scene in which the girl implores Angelo to let her swallow his…well, you know:
She was still holding me, playing with me. “Do you have to pee?” she asked.
“Now that you mention it, I do.” I started out of the bed.
She followed me into the bathroom. “Let me hold it for you.”
I looked at her. “Be my guest.”
She stood behind me and aimed it at the bowl, but it was awkward and splashed over the seat.
“Just what I thought,” I said. “Women don’t know anything about taking a piss.”
“Let me try,” she said and climbed into the bathtub next to the toilet bowl. Then she held it. This time her aim was true.
I looked at her face. There was an expression of rapt concentration there that I had never seen before. A fascination that was almost childish. She turned her face up to me. Almost as if she were in a spell she put her free hand in the path of the stream. Abruptly she turned it to her.
I stopped in surprise.
She pulled angrily at my cock. “Don’t stop!” she cried. “It’s beautiful. Bathe me in it.”
“Different strokes for different folks,” I said. If that was what she wanted, who was I to say no?
This novel was a damn bestseller!! It really blows my mind. Today stuff like this probably would only see print through some “Erotica” house that caters to the most kinkiest of kinks. But in the ‘70s, this could be printed in a novel that sold millions and millions of copies. And though it’s the most extreme example, there are countless more such scenes throughout The Betsy, though none of it reaches the insane heights of Goodbye, Janette. But then, it seems to me that Robbins got more extreme as he got older, which I guess is one thing you could at least respect him for. (He does slack off on the drugs here, though; while everyone smokes and drinks, only one character indulges in anything illegal – Betsy herself, who in true hippie-girl fashion enjoys smoking dope.)
And as usual these bizarre and outrageous sex scenes are the only things that keep you reading, enduring the endless and banal business room meetings filled with extranneous dialog, in the hopes that, after suffering enough, you will be rewarded like some Pavlovian dog with another oddball and graphic sex scene. And sometimes you are. But not nearly enough. The good does not outweigh the bad in The Betsy, and by the time Angelo and Number One are unveiling the titular car you’ve long since stopped giving a damn.
“Spiced with girls,” taglined the Saturday Review in its review of The Betsy, and the novel certainly is. In fact the female characters are more memorable than the males, and there are more of them. Unfortunately though they’re all sort of clones of one another. For example, there’s Cindy, Angelo’s casual girlfriend, who gets off on the sound of racing engines. Cue several scenes where Cindy orgasms while listening to a tape of Angelo racing, even setting up playback in quadraphonic! I mean, that’s weird and memorable, right? But then…the Hertz girl is the same! She too orgasms at the sound of racing engines, which gives Robbins opportunity to go into some pretty gross detail on how, uh, soiled she gets after riding with Angelo as he races along a street.
But as I say, these quirky characters and outrageous sex scenes are all that keep you reading. And again as usual, the architecture is all there – Robbins easily could’ve turned in a good novel here, even keeping the dirty parts. The battle between the young generation and the old has always interested me, and it’s a story Robbins weaves throughout, with Number One in a generations-long battle with his own progeny. But there are so many missteps and wastes of time that it’s all lost in the mire of characters and subplots…subplots that have no setup or impact. It still boggles my mind that Robbins failed to make Number Three the illegitimate (and unknowing) son of Number One. But that’s just one example of many.
What’s crazy is that Robbins can write when he wants to, as he proves in each of his books. And, following the pattern of many of his novels, this one is told in a variety of styles, bookended with narratives from Angelo’s first-person perspective before jumping into third-person for the majority of the tale. And the way Robbins hopscotches across decades is almost surreal, or at the very least brazen…which again makes it unfortunate that there’s such little payoff. He does try to tie up the novel by bringing to light the mysterious fate of Number Two, but does himself no favors by only introducing the mystery late in the tale, and not really bothering to explore it. But then, that’s another hallmark of Robbins: hasty wrap-ups.
Robbins published a sequel in 1995, The Stallion, but rumor has it the novel was actually written by his wife Jann. I’ve got the book and will eventually get to it.