“What’s she look like?” he echoed. “She’s sensational. Stacked like you would not believe, but very classy. Sort of a combination Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. She’s the kind who when she comes into your office you want to bend down and kiss her pussy out of sheer reverence. So send me the script and I’ll get on it right away.”
|Pocket Book, March 1977|
Who knew this is how agents talked about their clients back in the 60s? Why Harold Robbins of course. And there is plenty more dialog like that nugget crammed into this thick blockbuster novel o’ trash by “the world’s best storyteller…”
The Lonely Lady by Harold Robbins is another paperback I’d picked up from a library sale. It’s, I think, the 5th novel of his I've read in the past year or two and for sheer guilty pleasure it ranks second to The Carpetbaggers in enjoyment. Absent from this novel are the long passages of endless talk that marred The Betsy and The Inheritors. This novel is just as dialog driven as those novels are, but where this novel edges them out is that the dialog drives the story instead of just filling pages. If I were teaching a class in commercial fiction, I think I’d put The Carpetbaggers, or The Lonely Lady, on the syllabus and force all those earnest young English majors out there to check their lit-soaked baggage at the door learn how a master did it.
Yes, the novel is loaded with literary sins like shifting POVs and awkward transitions in time, characters introduced to be dropped without explanation. But if you’re reading a book like this, you’re not looking for something deep to sink your teeth into, you’re looking for something that has no more nutritional value then edible underwear.
The plot of the novel is simple. Nice girl from a small town in New York state named JeriLee has dreams of becoming a writer some day. Her father is barely home from WW II when he passes away suddenly. Luckily her mother meets a nice guy at the bank, John Randall, who falls in love and marries her. He adopts JeriLee and her brother Bobby and moves them all into his house as befits a young banker on the rise in his career. His devotion to JeriLee and Bobby is never in question, and soon the children come to love him as much as they would have their real father.
One day, JeriLee is riding the bus and notices a fellow traveler talking to himself in the seat across from her. She recognizes him as famous novelist and playwright Walter Thornton. Thornton is struck that this pretty high school girl actually knows who he is and strikes up a friendship with her. Thornton is in town working on a new play. He gives her some encouraging words on becoming a writer and a bond is made. From that brief meeting, JeriLee’s path is set. JeriLee is one of the prettiest girls in high school, is a cheerleader, of course, and one of the most popular girls in town. Her boyfriend Bernie plays football and is just as good-looking and popular as JeriLee. Together, they’re that high school couple that made the rest of us want to puke in our Cheerios. It’s all very Father Knows Best, only Harold Robbins decides that he’s got to make JeriLee the most frustrated, horniest girl on Main Street as well. She discovers masturbation and fantasizes about what’s packing under Bernie’s football uniform. Hey, Bernie is human too, and has his own longing for what’s under JeriLee’s skirt. But in spite of his advances, JeriLee manages to keep Bernie at bay. Then one night, she makes the mistake of accepting a ride home with a couple of ne’er-do-wells from the country club where she works. One of them just happens to be Walter Thornton’s teenage son. Along for the ride is Marian, the high school slut. JeriLee is beaten, burned with cigarettes and almost raped when she’s saved at the last minute by Bernie and Fred Lafayette, a young black singer gigging at the Country Club.
Apparently this is the notorious garden hose scene that the Pia Zadora movie adaptation is remembered for. I've not seen the movie, and unless it pops up on some crappy cable channel at some point, probably won’t. I know it has its fans though.
Anyway, JeriLee recovers from the attempted rape and beating, but her rep is shot to shit. She accepts the town’s rumors, decides to give the town and everyone in it a big Fuck You by dating and marrying Walter Thornton. “What is love, Mother?” she asked. “I like him, I admire him, I respect him, I want to go to bed with him.”
Part 2 of the novel is told in 1st person, and it’s here that we learn that, surprise surprise! Walter Thornton has a lot of self esteem issues. He’s threatened by JeriLee’s burgeoning talent as a writer and an actress. Soon their Manhattan apartment is way too small for both their egos and they split. JeriLee decides that she’s not taking a dime in alimony from Walter, and proceeds to bang her head against closed doors all by her lonesome. She is “ The Lonely Lady” (cue cheesy music). She’s also a pothead and a pill-popper. She meets agents and producers and various sleazeballs, has a lot of sex, a lot of drama and gets fucked over by their bullshit. There is a also a dream she describes in which she is a naked human football, getting screwed and hiked and thrown around by all the guys she’s known, wearing “heavy padded pants” with “no fronts and their huge cocks hung out almost to their knees.” It’s a bizarre passage and Robbins’s attempt at one of those literary tricks professors get off on. Take from it what you will.
Part 3 of the novel we’re back in 3rd person and witness JeriLee hitting the skids. The drugs, the booze, the sex and poverty have reduced her to stripping for money while writing by day.
The amber spot set in the ceiling over the tiny platform on which she was dancing blurred everything in front of her and the loud acid rock drowned out all the other sounds in the crowded club. Her face and body were covered with a fine patina and the perspiration ran in rivulets between her naked breasts. She gulped for air between smiling parted lips. She was beginning to feel exhausted. Her back and arms were aching, even her breasts were sore from the gyrations of the dance. Suddenly the music stopped in the midst of a wild movement, taking her by surprise. She stood for a moment, then raised both arms over her head in the standard gogo dancer’s bow, giving the customers one last free look as the spot died.
Nothing she turns out from her typewriter opens any doors for her, until a sleazy drive-in movie producer buys one of her “short stories” to turn it into a motorcycle movie. And, thanks to JeriLee’s great tits and ass, she’s the perfect star for the flick. More booze, more pills, more sex (both straight and lesbian), more motorcycle movies, and soon JeriLee gets offered a shot at porn. Thankfully, sort of, she’s ensnared in a huge pot bust that sends her to county lockup. Luckily, her arresting officer has a soft heart and feels sorry for her. He gives her the name of a lawyer who gets her sprung and later buys an airline ticket back to New York for her, where she ends up in a psych ward. Talking here about a major downward spiral.
And this is where the novel collapses, sort of. Harold Robbins got tired of the story and wraps up the whole resolution of JeriLee’s fall and comeback (I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to say there is a comeback) in quick scenes of dialog and narrative summary. The ending is one of those scenes that can only happen in a trashy novel, proving once again that the reading public out there in the 70s was one weird collective headcase.
Lucky for me, and the rest of us who like this stuff, there is plenty more where this came from.