Friday, June 27, 2014

The Lonely Lady - Harold Robbins

“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. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sea-Horse in the Sky - Edmund Cooper

“My dear,” he said lightly. “You must allow me the privilege of a certain quaint hypocrisy. A gentleman never does his nut in the presence of a lady.”

ACE Books, May 1978 - Cover artist David Bergen
Sea-Horse in the Sky, by Edmund Cooper is the first "vintage" (from 1969) Science Fiction novel that I've read recently that provided that "gee-wow" sense of wonder that turned me on to the genre when I was a nerdy kid. No, it hasn't made the upper echelons of Sci-Fi classics, but it’s a pretty cool book anyway, and it would have probably been a favorite had I read it back in junior high.

The novel begins with 16 strangers waking up in coffin-like containers on an empty street in the middle of a plain in seeming wilderness. On one side of the street is a hotel, and on the other side sits a grocery store. An empty cab is parked in front of the hotel, and an empty Saab is parked by the grocery store. The street seems to exist as something seen on a film set, disappearing into forest land in either direction. A hotel, a supermarket and the road, and 16 strangers waking in coffins, with no memory of how they got there.

As the strangers adjust to their surroundings they discover that even though they are from different countries, and speak in different languages, they can each understand each other, as though the speaker is being dubbed into the listener’s native language. They soon come to the realization that all of them were on the same flight from Stockholm to London, and that was the last thing that any of them remember.

It’s one of those setups that was all the rage a couple years ago with shows like Lost and Persons Unknown, and even further back from shows like Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Stories like this are irresistible to me, more fantasy than anything scientific. As each stranger overcomes their shock and makes their way into the hotel, they convene in the lobby bar to find it well stocked with much needed libation. Inside the lobby of the hotel they find their luggage waiting. There is no desk clerk, no staff, no one else in the town. Theories are tossed about, guesses are made, hysterics erupt, but eventually they all come to the same conclusion that they've been placed in this setting by unknown means for reasons that have yet to be revealed. Eight men and eight women, strangers to each other except for two married couples.

In addition to the stocked bar of the hotel, they learn that the grocery store is well stocked with canned goods. Nothing fresh, but a supply of food that can be prepared, thanks to electricity and running water at the hotel. The cars are empty props, no engines, no working parts to them. They are all alone and stranded and, it would seem, paired off.

The nominal leader of the group is Russell Grahame, a Londoner, a Member of Parliament and a man at a crossroads in his career. He doesn't particularly want the role of leader, but accepts it dutifully. Introductions are made and roles are established.

I should mention here that Edmund Cooper was a prolific science fiction novelist and reviewer and gained the reputation of a misogynist, so I couldn't help but look for examples of it in the novel. I didn't have to look hard. The women, except for Russian beauty Anna Markova, (who wisely pairs off with Russell Grahame) are mostly relegated to positions of cooking and housekeeping. None are considered apt enough to handle the homemade crossbows and weapons devised by British civil servant Robert Hyman. One is even jettisoned via suicide early in the novel. Even so, I've been exposed to far more overt piggery by other authors, many of whom don’t have the disadvantage of living in another generation than ours. Also, there is a strange sidestep into a diary entry that is worth mentioning. It’s only one chapter, and is written by Robert Hyman, who reveals to the reader that he’s homosexual. Apparently, Edmund Cooper didn't feel like exploring this dynamic any further than this one brief diary entry, because no mention of it is made again. And as for the rest of them, the sex in the novel mostly in the boudoirs behind closed doors, except for one hot rutting scene between a couple of stone-age "savages" who show the stiff-upper-lipped set how it's done.  Also, Cooper was an atheist (not exactly unusual with science fiction authors) so I expected a little bit of religion bashing here and there. The only notable aspect of that is that no mention of God or a Higher Being was brought up. There was no argument among the castaways of a heaven, hell, death or afterlife other than Anna Markova admitting, as something of an afterthought, to Russell that she’s an Atheist. This seemed a little bit strange; however Cooper decides to hold those wildcards for the final chapters, which I won’t give away here.

As the novel progresses, our castaways discover that they’re not exactly alone. The grocery store, the hotel bar, the electricity and plumbing are kept stocked and maintained by invisible guardians. The only conclusion they can draw is that they’re housed in some form of zoo. Also, nightmarish glimpses of spider-like robots are seen, as are flying fairy type beings with flaming hair (don’t laugh!) who can disappear. It's all a bit troubling, and one castaway has a mental breakdown after discovering the spider-bots stocking the grocery store! Another is killed in a hunter’s trap, and still another is dispatched in an failed attempt to trap and follow a spider-bot. In addition to the strange and alien beings glimpsed, it’s discovered that other tribes live in the forests beyond the road leaving town. One is medieval in customs, and the other is almost stone-age in their evolutionary path, barely able to communicate with our modern day castaways.

Cooper paces the novel rather well, in spite of a lot of narrative summary. Perhaps the ending is rushed a bit, but I don’t really have a complaint about that. After all, it’s a paperback science fiction adventure. It’s pretty much a page-turner to be enjoyed and consumed and shelved, or traded in for a Mickey Spillane novel afterward. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Sunset People - Herbert Kastle

Just three more victims. Random killings as all the others, despite the delightful daydreams. Then he would be safe forever. Then he would become the man he’d always wanted to be, immune from the imbecilic insults and violence the world imposed. Because he could ignore it, knowing what he knew, knowing who he was and what he had done! Could turn a blind eye and deaf ear on it all, smiling, forever smiling. And would be passionate enough, sexual enough, sure enough to handle not only the whale, but attractive women, many of them, on the side. As strong men did. As would be his right, his prize…

Jove, May 1980
Normally, I’m not a fan of serial killer novels. Typically they’re the same old plot, some loony whackjob who can’t relate to women, stalking and murdering them one by one under the cover of darkness. It’s been done so often, and so badly, that I often avoid the altogether. Besides, you can get that same story from CNN and it’s become tiresome. Sunset People by Herbert Kastle could have easily fallen into the same trap that so many serial killer novels fall into, that is, become boring by the whole cliché of the genre. Misfit loser who has spent his life feeling picked on?—Check! Domineering mother?—Check!  Browbeating sexless wife?—Check! Beautiful heroine who becomes the loser’s latest obsession?—Check! Set in Los Angeles?—Check! This novel covers all the bases. So, you might wonder why I should bother writing about it. Well, because this 1980 novel takes the old tropes and sets them up all neatly into a sleazy buffet for you, yet everything about the ingredients seem just a little off. As if the pages you’re turning echo with a quiet snickering between the lines and the joke is on you.

Maybe I’m reading way more into the novel than Kastle intended. Maybe it was written as a by-the-numbers potboiler for a buck. I have no idea because Kastle isn't explaining his motive for cranking out this 381 page bad boy. But I’m thinking there is something more to the novel than just a sleazy serial killer thrill-ride. Kastle seems smarter than that. And, after finishing the novel, I’m almost of the belief that it was an attempt at something of a satire of the genre.

Here we have Larry Admer, the fucked up cop. No, Larry Admer isn’t the brooding alcoholic mess that most cops in these novels are. Instead, he comes across as a petulant prick, by turns praising and berating Diana Woodruff, the heroine of the novel, and the sister of The Silencer’s first victim. As for actually working the case and following the clues…well Larry isn't that kind of cop. His idea of detective work is calling Diana on the phone and bitching to her about why she doesn't put out for him. After all, he reasons, Diana works in a massage parlor, for Christ’s sake! She’s just a cheap massage parlor whore he tells her. Sure, Diana consents to go out with him on a few dinner dates. But those dates are more whining and dining than anything else. It’s no wonder she doesn't put out for him; he’s a complete dick and a crummy detective to boot. And he’s supposed to be the good guy.

Diana Woodruff, the cheap massage parlor whore, is really an intelligent thoughtful young woman who has pretty much accepted that she’s meant to service men without forming any kind of long-lasting bond. This can be blamed on her dysfunctional parents, but that’s too easy a reason. Yeah, her parents sucked, but mostly, she’s got a yen for hot sex without the emotional baggage that comes with it. That’s something Admer can’t seem to quite wrap his ego around. Diana should be more likable a character but is really something of a cipher. There is no window to her soul that one can crawl in through. Until her sister’s murder, she had no anchor in life and nor oar to steer by. 

Diane’s life is mostly working night hours at the Grecian Massage Parlor and reading novels like Portnoy’s Complaint, until the night her sister is shot dead on a sidewalk off Sunset Strip. Immediately, the presumption is that Diane’s sister was a prostitute. Why else would she be out alone dressed the way she was dressed? Diana rightly figures that the cops don’t give a hoot about the death of another prostitute. So she decides to accept Admer’s clumsy advances in the hopes that she’ll learn who killed her sister, so that she can wreak vengeance on the motherfucker herself.

The Silencer, our serial killer, is so named because no one reports hearing any gunshot when he kills. It’s given away in the first chapter of the novel who The Silencer is. He’s a schmuck named Frank Berdon. A short dumpy fat loser of a guy who finds a loaded gun on the street after a mob hit goes haywire, leaving him alone with a dead guy and a loaded gun. The gun itself is a 10 shot .22 automatic with a MAC silencer. For Frank, it means 10 bullets of retribution to unload on all the sluts and bitches who've tormented him, ignored him, made fun of him…you get the idea. You can meet dozens like him on any given Saturday night at the clubs. Since the identity of The Silencer is given, the drive of the novel is watching him unravel as he shoots his way through one victim after another. The one thing they all have in common is not that they’re prostitutes, as The Silencer believes, but that they’re misguided dreamers lured to the Sunset Strip via events that abandon them to the whims of insanity. A rock star’s girlfriend, a jilted lover, an out of work actress who believes she’s the character she once played on TV, a teenage girl escaping from a rapist, to name a few. All of their stories are wrapped into the lure of the Strip, hopeless and ripe for the picking. These are the “Sunset People.”

This is the second novel by Herbert Kastle I've read, the other being The Millionaires, which I also liked. I can’t say why I liked these novels, by all reasons I shouldn't. Maybe it’s just a matter of sordid tales told well. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Topless Dancer Hangup - Patrick Morgan

He got a street window seat in the café so he could watch all the yummy secretaries jiggle by. Nothing was quite so sexy as a woman dressed up and in a hurry. Click, click, click went the heels, jiggle, jiggle, jiggle, went the push-up bras, chomp, chomp, chomp, went the Cartwright jaws. Floor show during lunch.  

Macfadden Books, 1971
Topless Dancer Hangup by Patrick Morgan is the 6th novel in the Operation Hang Ten series that eventually numbered 10 books. They’re a cross between surf and spy and detective novels. Bill Cartwright is an agent for Operation Hang Ten, an agency run by a cat named Jim Dana. Dana’s idea of running a spy agency is to recruit his agents from the “teeny-bopper” set. This way he can have his agents blend in on their undercover assignments much better than some Yale graduate in his white socks and black shoes, apparently. Bill Cartwright is just such an agent. He’s a surf bum, with a couple of paternity suits in his portfolio. Cartwright drives a Woody, lives in a trailer, and has a private investigator’s license. The P.I. license is Cartwright’s cover in working cases for Operation Hang Ten.

In this assignment, Cartwright is called to find another Operation Hang Ten agent who has gone missing on her assignment. Cartwright is a little irritated in getting pulled in for a job, after spending the past few weeks surfing the lower Baja coast. Cartwright’s trailer is equipped with all kind of nifty spy gadgets like a radio phone and closed circuit TV. It’s also got a bed just big enough for him and any beach bunny that catches his fancy. He bitches a little bit about having to go and rescue some other agent who’s gotten in over their head, until learning that the missing agent is Sandra Denny, whose cover job is topless dancing.

Denny’s assignment was to purchase a reel of top secret film for $10,000 from a Cuban refugee in Honolulu and deliver it to Hang Ten’s headquarters, but instead the Cuban ends up murdered and Agent Denny is missing. Cartwright ships his Woody and trailer to Honolulu and takes up the search for the missing Sandra Denny. He doesn't have a lot to go on, just the name of the private club where she stripped at.

Cartwright’s first stop in Honolulu is for lunch, where he watches the downtown secretaries hurrying to and fro in their mini-skirts and high heels. Cartwright really gets off in their company, referring to them as “little dollies” and “noisy birds as they quick-stepped with their mini-skirts twitching along every busy street.” You get the idea. It’s almost like listening to Travis McGee.

So, after oogling the girls during lunch, Cartwright decides to pay a visit to the Where It’s At club, where agent Denny did her thing. It’s there he runs into a couple of heavy’s named Tiny and Augie who are on the payroll of the club’s owner, Big Carl. It takes some smart-assed patter and a couple knuckle sandwiches, but Cartwright finally makes it into Big Carl’s office where he announces that he’s looking for his missing dancer. Big Carl really doesn't give a flip, but gives Cartwright Sandy’s home address and the name and address of another dancer, Marie, who was Sandy’s friend.

Cartwright plays private eye and learns that Sandy had a boyfriend named Don Arlen who liked to race cars. Then it’s off to Waikiki for Cartwright, where he can bitch about how all the tourists and posers have ruined all the surf for guys like him. He then takes in a couple waves, flirts with a couple bunnies, plays some volleyball with a girl named Sue, checks out her ass in her tight bikini, buys her a burger and milk shake and has his offer of sex with her shot down. Oh well, all in a day’s work.

The surfing scenes are actually well done and you get the feeling that’s where the author’s real passion is in this novel. And there is a cynical overtone that is also reminiscent of Travis McGee. The novel’s mystery is just an excuse to surf and chase the girls. A good example of that is when Cartwright manages to get grazed by a bullet and blown off his feet by an exploding car, only to have mind blowing sex with Denny’s pal Marie later that same night. I don’t know, but after I get shot and nearly blown up, it takes me at least a day or so before I’m ready to give a chick multiple orgasms…but that probably explains why I sit at a computer instead of surfing and screwing chicks.

Topless Dancer Hangup is kind of a fun novel, if you forgive the heaping doses of chauvinistic piggery that Cartwright (via Patrick Morgan) dishes out. I know I’m a product of a different age, but this stuff is right out of the Rush Limbaugh handbook. I mean, dig this neat little observation, late in the novel:

“Well,” sweet Marie said, “there’s a group of women around who call themselves feminists. They shout and make a lot of noise about equal rights with men and equal pay and equal jobs and—just everything. Most of them are fat and have skin problems and, I don’t know, maybe they think they’ll never get a man to love them, so they want to be equal with men…Well we Pussycats don’t think that way. We have our own magazine, you know, called Adam’s Rib. It says what we’re about. You see, what we think is, girls just have to realize that they are living in a man’s world and that man is, by nature, the boss. But also by nature, we girls are different. Goodness, anyone can tell we’re different from men just by looking at us. I mean, we've got all these soft curves and stuff, and the way we’re put together just makes us built to care for men and—bring them pleasure. After all, wasn't woman created for the pleasure of man?”

Oh baby, hear me roar!