Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dog Soldiers - Robert Stone

"I've been waiting my whole life to fuck up like this."
"Well," Elmer said. "You made the big time. Congratulations."

Ballantine Books, 1975
Were Americans ever really naïve or is that just something that our collective modern myth tries to convince us of. Personally, I don’t think so. The 60s is a just a duplicitous reflection of history that’s become cliché. The reality depends on where one stood at the time. Were you in the back of the bus? In a segregated school? Were you going to Stanford? Were you one of the multitude (if you believe most aging boomers) at Woodstock waking up to Jimi Hendrix? Or were you carrying a weapon in a jungle on the other side of the world? I was born in the early 60s so none of the tropes were in my radar. For me the 60s was Captain Kangaroo on TV. Coming to age in the 70s I’m the first to admit that my mind went into shutdown mode whenever some pampered suburbanite started waxing poetic about their rebellious youth living a life somewhere between Easy Rider and Woodstock. Especially when I knew they voted for Reagan and both Bushes.I thought most of the crap I heard second hand about the 60s was bullshit slung around by old farts trying to relive some kind of life they saw in the movies. I probably sound the same to others generations after me. 

So we have Dog Soldiers, a novel deemed by critics to be an allegory of the waning 60s. Or really, was that Robert Stone’s intention with this book? I have no idea. Clearly it’s a product of his experiences. My recollection of the 70s, when this novel takes place, is of television, skateboards and school. Then girls, sports, pot, going to movies and part-time work at Winn Dixie. I was sheltered from the ugliness of the world mostly, given that ugliness still seeped into the ‘burbs in spite of our parents’ best and failed efforts. So this book is a look at a time and place involving a couple of young wasted lives pursuing a fool’s dream with heroin. The deck is stacked against them, as it is for most of us in this crazy country of movies, music and jingoism. You want to read a good and sordid book about drugs and dreams, then you’ll like this book. I liked this book. I probably read it at the right time in life. Had I read it when I was 25 I might not have cared.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Kubla Khan Caper - Richard S. Prather

From where I lay in lazy ease on a poolside chaise lounge, I could see a gaggle of Bikini-clad Hollywood houris squealing and splashing in the water. On the blue-tiled deck across the pool from me half a dozen bare-midriffed nautch girls wiggled, doing what comes nautchurally.

Pocket Books - 1967
Oh man, that's painful. But that's just what you'd expect from our pal Shell Scott. For anyone who doesn't know, Shell is a tough and randy Hollywood private eye who never lets a tomato escape his attention in the pursuit of solving the various "capers" he's involved in. Published in 1966 The Kubla Khan Caper is approximately the 31st appearance of Shell Scott in Richard Prather's series. I say approximately because along the way he was featured in a few collections, including Three's a Shroud and Have Gat - Will Travel. His 1st appearance was 1950 in The Case of the Vanishing Beauty and continued clear to 1987's Shellshock. He's the kind of guy who'll definitely stand out in a crowd with his white hair, white inverted V-shaped eyebrows, scar over his right eye and a bullet-clipped ear. All that and a total horndog for any lusciously curved twist, dame, tomato, skirt, babe, dish, doll, cutie, etc, who crosses his path. And believe me, cross his path they do. Which is all part of the charm of these novels. Certainly written as something of a satire of the whole paperback private-eye genre, these novels still have enough tough-guy violence and mayhem to please fans of Mickey Spillane.

Here in The Kubla Kahn Caper, Shell is hired, initially, to locate a missing beauty contestant, Jeanne Jax, for the grand opening of a desert resort named The Kubla Khan. Shell's cover is to act as a judge for the beauty contest, a job he considers himself more than qualified for. His client is Ormand Monaco, the managing director of the Kubla Khan. Monaco is adamant that Shell Scott carry out his investigation for the missing girl with the utmost discreetness, as any adverse publicity could damage what is intended to be a lavish grand opening, full of all the celebrities and dignitaries appropriate to such an event. Shell Scott is no more than an hour or so into the investigation when the missing Jeanne Jax turns up dead, gunned down in her sports car on the side of a desert road that leads from Monaco's home. Also dead is the reclusive millionaire owner of the Kubla Khan, Ephraim Sardis. It turns out that Jeanne Jax was intent on getting in touch with Ephraim Sardis about something, only someone put a stop to it by putting them both on ice. The same someone who's taken a couple wild shots at Shell Scott when he arrives on the scene in his robin's-egg blue Cadillac. Now what had been a missing person case is a murder. Monaco is promptly arrested for the killing of Jeanne Jax and insists that Shell Scott find the true murderer before the grand opening beauty pageant takes place in 24 hours. Scott's got his hands full, what with interrogating a slew of kooky contestants, a shifty hotel manager, and various assorted heavy types including a jealous-minded green giant of a man named Bull Harper.

Along the way we've got fights, make-out sessions, a two-page rant against girdles(?!), a nude foot-chase, mucho cocktail guzzling, plenty of eye candy and babes, dames, dishes, get the picture.

Up close she was all velvet and fire, skin like silken umber, the eyes still dark and almost brown, but with lots of green in them, the color of wet moss, or the sea, or emeralds in shadow. They were big and round and that look of constant surprise in them gave her an air of virginal innocence--when you looked at her eyes. But a breath below was where the virgin died and a bawd was born. 

I think these novels are a blast. Certainly they're dated and so goofy that you can't believe you're reading them, but they're also way too much fun to put one down once you start it. Most of them are now available on e-reader format, which is a good thing. More fun though is seeking out the vintage paperbacks, which are still relatively easy to come buy. Happy hunting!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Astounding Science Fiction - The Naked Sun

Hers was a triangular face--rather broad at the cheekbones--which grew prominent when she smiled--and narrowing to a gentle curve past full lips to a small chin. Her head was not high above the ground. Baley judged her to be about five-feet-two in height. (This was not typical. At least not to Baley's way of thinking. Spacer women were supposed to lean toward the tall and stately.) Nor was her hair the Spacer bronze. It was light brown, tinging toward yellow, and moderately long. At the moment, it was fluffed out in what Baley imagined to be a stream of warm air. The whole picture was quite pleasing. 

Astounding Science Fiction - Oct, Nov and Dec 1956
cover artists Richard Van Dongen and
Frank Kelly Freas
A couple years ago I happened upon an old stack of Astounding Science Fiction magazines in a local comic book store. I browsed through them and discovered that three of them contained the full serialized novel of Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun. And this for only a few dollars each! It was a no-brainer to take them home with me. Last weekend I had the opportunity to finally crack them open and read the novel in its entirety, It was pretty much what you'd expect from a classic Sci-Fi writer like Asimov, clear and swift story telling, compelling psychology, a dash of science, and a cracking-good puzzle. Oh yeah, and the random nerd flourishes that Asimov couldn't seem to prevent from popping up in his writing. For example, the Spacer babe in the above passage as having a "head not high above the ground" instead of just being petite. He was, after all, a scientist. I should also mention that this Spacer babe was also naked, which sent our hero Plainclothesman Elijah Baley into stuttering fits.

For anyone who doesn't know, The Naked Sun is the second in a series of Sci-Fi mysteries featuring Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw solving a seemingly impossible murder among an alien setting. They're Asimov's versions of locked-room mysteries in that the crimes seem to violate his famous Three Laws of Robotics. If you don't know what the Three Laws of Robotics are, my friend, you are woefully behind in your science fiction education.

The crime in this novel is the murder of a Dr. Rickain Delmarre on one of the Outer Worlds known as Solaris. The cool thing about Solaris is that the entire human population of the planet numbers about 20,000, give or take one or two (you know, what with the murders and all!) The robot population of Solaris is 200,000,000, or one human per ten thousand robots. Each human has been conditioned since birth to live alone amount his or her own estate on a parcel of land with a slew of robot servants. Communication is done through a means termed viewing, which is a sort of three dimensional "televised" process, so realistic that it's become a complete substitute for personal contact. In fact, residents of Solaris find personal human contact as horrific, or unthinkable. Yes, marriages are assigned and population is controlled by means of rare physical joining, but such things are deemed unspeakable in polite society. It's in this setting that Dr. Delmarre was murdered by blunt-force trauma, which means some human being (not a robot as that would violate the First Rule of Robotics) had to get near Delmarre. The only witness to the crime was his robot servant, which somehow violates the Second Rule of Robotics in that no robot can allow harm to come to a human. The only possible suspect is his wife Gladia Delmarre, who shared his estate. But how could she have done it? The Delmarre's have no children, and contact between the two of them was done only through viewing. The concept of marriage, as Earth knows it, is non-existent on Solaris.

As for Earth, Elijah Baley's home turf, well its inhabitants live in crowded "caves of steel" deep beneath the surface of the planet. The idea of dwelling on the surface is so far from day to day concept that most of the Earth's population have developed an agoraphobia that prevents them from functioning outside their overcrowded underground cities. So you have a study in extreme opposites with Earth and Solaris, which causes fits for our detective hero Elijah Baley and his robot partner Daneel Olivaw. Well, not for Olivaw since he's a robot, a highly programmed humanoid robot who could easily pass for human if not for being bound by the Three Laws of Robotics.

The novel is a lot of fun for mystery fans, as well as classic science fiction fans. I've yet to read anything by Asimov that wasn't enjoyable. This murder plays within the rules of Robotics, and along the way we get a study of Asimov's thoughts concerning over-population, robotics, psychology, and sociology. That and a handful of eccentric characters bound by their own human weaknesses and prejudices. In addition to the Asimov novel, the magazines also contain stories by Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, Algis Budrys and others whose work I'm not yet familiar with. All three of the issues were edited by John Campbell Jr. and the artwork throughout is appropriately retro for sci-fi nerds like me. I'm sure these later issues of science fiction mags are readily available to collectors and for reasonable prices. Combined I got these issues for less than what I would have paid for a new paperback copy of anything current in Barnes & Noble--parish the thought!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Richard Brautigan - The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966

When I first met Vida she had been born inside the wrong body and was barely able to look at people, she wanted to crawl off and hide from the thing that she was contained within.

Pocket Book edition 4th printing 1975
I guess, after a half century on this planet, it's about time that I would get around to reading something by Brautigan. I found this one in a used bookshop some time back, and remember someone once telling me about Trout Fishing in America. He didn't really sell Trout Fishing, nor Richard Brautigan, well enough to get my interest revved up. I was into the beats at the time and not really aware of hippie-lit as such. I was also going through a series of relationships with women who didn't know me beyond a surface level, which resulted in nothing except unread poetry. 

So I read this one on a single Friday several weeks ago and enjoyed it. Not really sure what the message is, or if there really is a message behind it. Is Vida's spiritual escape from the most gorgeous body in the world a symbolic abortion? Is the Librarian and Vida's leaving the womb of the library of unread books a symbolic abortion? Is their farewell to a life of lonely solitude an abortion? 

Simply, it's about a librarian working in a library of "unwanted" books written by anyone with the desire to create such a thing. One day a girl shows up at the library with about about her book about hating her own body. She's the most beautiful girl in the world, with hair as black as a bat's. She stays with the librarian and the two of them make love. Eventually she is pregnant, and she and the librarian agree to go to Tijuana where she can get an abortion. They enlist the aid of the librarian's associate who provides them the name of a doctor to see. They go to Tijuana and...

The novel is delivered in simple prose with no fancy tricks, no self-aware indulgence that writers often go for in novels about nothing. So you have a novel about nothing, where there exists a place for books that will never be read and two lovers who share a relationship of uncertain prospects. And they're fulfilled. 

I liked this book. I can see why people would be drawn to Brautigan's novels. But I have a hunch that novels like this one are now passe, considering the glut of pseudo-lit memoirs and zombie novels that clog the shelves in Barnes & Noble. I stopped going to Barnes & Noble a few years ago, when I noticed that they starting looking more like a Toys-R-Us than a bookstore. I wonder if your typical college lit major would bother with a novel like this one, or appreciate its simplicity. 

I also have In Watermelon Sugar on my stack of books to read next year.