Saturday, February 27, 2016

Vineland - Thomas Pynchon

"I'm not gonna forget," Zoyd vowed, "fuck 'em. While we had it, we really had some fun."

"And they never forgave us," Mucho went to the stereo and put on The Best of Sam Cooke, volumes 1 and 2, and they sat together and listened, both of them this time, to the sermon, one they knew and felt their hearts comforted by, though outside spread the lampless wastes, the unseen paybacks, the heartless power of the scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhoods even then was turning into.

Penguin Books, 1991

So let's see if I get this all straight here, In the mid 60's Zoyd Wheeler and his buddies in Gordita Beach have a psychedelic surf combo named The Corvairs gigging around the Inland Empire. Somewhere near El Paso, on one of their gigs, Zoyd hooks up with Frenesi Gates who is on the lam, kinda sorta, from a turn in a militant anti-establishment hippie gang known as the 24 fps, They were something of a documentary film group who liked to stir up shit on college campuses and film it happening. Frenesi had a major role in turning the formerly uptight buttoned down College of the Surf into its own self contained nation called The People's Republic of Rock and Roll. This came about by the seemingly innocuous introduction of a joint shared between two students, whose eyes were opened at once onto the oppressively fascist Nixonian truth of their USA, and fueled somewhat by popular professor of mathematics, Weed Atman. Frenesi and Weed have a hot affair of sorts going on the side, but unknown to Frenesi's comrades in the 24 fps, Frenesi has been also ensnared by the mesmeric Brock Vond, a federal prosecutor who has made it his mission to eradicate hippies and their drugs permanently from the landscape. Brock Vond seems to have the inexhaustible backings of the government behind him, giving him free reign to use whatever means needed to accomplish his mission. Frenisi, thanks to Brock's sexual manipulation, is something of a double agent until she goes off the grid and runs into Zoyd.

But our pal Zoyd's got his own issues. He's been set up by DEA federale Hector Zuniga to turn stoolie on Gordita Beach's marijuana supplier. Zoyd and Frenesi tangle briefly before she's swept into hiding by Brock Vonn. Frenesi's pals in the 24 fps include DL Chastain, who herself is a female ninja (yes, a lot like Uma Thurman's character in Kill Bill) who is later lured into a bizarre assassination attempt on Brock Vond in Japan by Ralph Wayvone, a sort of nefarious millionaire with connections to the underworld. DL Chastain will pose as a Japanese schoolgirl prostitute and seduce Brock Vond into a compromising situation wherein she'll deliver a Vibrating Palm death-blow on him, from which he'll live approximately one year before dropping dead of a heart attack. Brock Vond gets hip to Wayvone's scheme to kill him and arranges a substitute patsy to meet DL Chastain in her slutty little schoolgirl disguise by kidnapping Takeshi Fumimota and sending him into The Gentlemen's Tits and Ass Club in his stead. Before getting kidnapped by Brock and his agents, Takeshi has his hands full investigating the total destruction of Chipco by what appears to be a giant dinosaur-like taloned footprint, not unlike Japan's favorite celluloid monster Gojira! But instead, Takeshi and DL tangle and Takeshi gets laid the Vibrating Palm on him. Wayvone, realizing Brock has outsmarted him, whisks DL back to the U.S. Takeshi follows her, after discovering he's got about a year to live thanks to the deadly Vibrating Palm that DL laid upon him.

Where does this leave Zoyd? Remember Zoyd? He's the sap in the surfadelic combo who had the bad luck to fall in love with Frenesi Gates, who has left him high and dry with a daughter named Prairie before disappearing. Brock Vond eventually hooks up with Zoyd and frames him with a shit-ton of marijuana. Or was it Hector Zuniga who framed Zoyd? Shit, now I can't remember myself, and I just read the damn book about a week ago! Anyway, Zoyd's looking at something like 900 years in prison if he doesn't come clean on Frenesi's whereabouts. 'Course he doesn't know, and neither does anyone else.

Now dig, all this is told in retrospect of sorts through various characters in the present day, in this case 1984 in Reagan's America. It's come to a head because Zoyd has been paid a visit from Hector Zuniga again after all these years since the wild and crazy hippie 60's. Now Zoyd is older, mellower, sadder and living on mental disability checks. Only thing is, to keep these checks coming in Zoyd has to perform some kind of public act of insanity once a year, like jumping through a plate-glass window for TV cameras. Hector reappears in Zoyd's life, looking for Frenesi Gates, with word of warning that Brock Vond is back on the scene. But Hector is now addicted to his own narcotic, The Tube, meaning that one-eyed monster sitting in household living rooms across the U.S.A. Hector quotes Star Trek, Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch indiscriminately as he carries out some quest to film a documentary on the drug-fueled 60's produced by one Sid Liftoff and which he hopes he can get Frenesi Gates to star in. The Tube is this ubiquitous force that's got Frenesi masturbating to Ponch and Jon in CHiPs as though "some Cosmic Fascist had spliced in a DNA sequence requiring this form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control."

This all goes to show that Vineland is Pynchon somewhere between the grandiose chaos of Gravity's Rainbow and the loopiness of Inherent Vice. The connection is Gordita Beach, where Doc Sportello himself probably caught a few gigs of The Corvairs with Shasta Fay at his side. Mucho Maas from The Crying of Lot 49 makes a cameo as well. I think that V. had a guy jumping through plate-glass window for kicks but I can't be sure. I can't be sure of anything anymore...

There is a lot in Vineland to admire. The plot is Pynchonesque, obviously, but never too hard to follow. There are dense slabs of prose that mine the craziness and contradictions of America and freedom and growing old and love and loss and dreams. There are puns and songs and movies and TV, and there is warmth and soul throughout. I'd recommend it.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well tended crop from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. 

Bantam Books 12th Printing

This is the second reading of Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49 for me. The first time was in college almost 30 years ago when I was too busy to let all of the novels I was reading at the time really make an impact. It's one of those English major reads that students had to go through to get their degrees. It's also one of Pynchon's most accessible novels, and my recommendation for the Pynchon novel newcomers should start with.

Consider this before starting though. You know how it is when you're going along through day to day life, then you happen to notice that odd little thing that's out of place, whatever it is, that's been there the whole time but you've just never paid any attention to it before? You think about it, remark upon it to your friends, and then shrug it off. But then you see it again in another part of the city, or hear it mentioned in a coffee shop, and soon you see the trail of this very thing everywhere, that it's infected everything around you in a subtle way, daring you to pursue it, to pull the threads of meaning loose from it, but the more you try, the vaster it becomes until...

The novel follows a suburban wife Oedipa Maas after she's named co-executor of her former lover Pierce Inverarity's vast estate. Oedipa is now married to a DJ named Wendell (Mucho) Maas. Oedipa faces her duties with vague consternation and arrives in San Narciso at a roadside motel named Echo Courts which lies under the tall highway sign featuring a nymphet (yes, you're supposed to think of Lolita when seeing the term nymphet). There she meets Metzger, lawyer and co-executor who will be working with her on Inverarity's vast estate. Metzger has a deep understanding of all the property and holdings and investments that Pierce Inverarity controlled. He's also a former child actor and so good-looking that within hours both he and Oedipa are bumping fuzzies after after an exploding can of hair spray wreaks havoc in her motel room which resulted from a stripping game made up of a bet on the ending of one of Metzger's old movies that just happens to be playing on the TV. You got all that? Because that's pretty much the kind of looping zaniness you're going to deal with when reading this, or any other novel by Pynchon. It's a love hate, patience or not, kind of thing with Pynchon's plots. But since this novel clocks in at only 138 pages, you can take it. And doing so you'll get rewarded with some really cool conspiracy stuff involving an underground mail system, a Jacobean play of murder and revenge, a sinister entity known as Tristero, a muted post horn symbol showing up in the most bizarre places, heaping doses of paranoia, LSD, a Nazi disguised as a therapist, and a Beatleesque band of pot smoking mop-tops and their sexy teenage girlfriends. You also get mythic men in black, entropy, gay bars, a play within a novel, nocturnal wanderings into the seedy side of San Francisco, a used bookstore that holds more clues to a vast network of a society off the grid, or a big fat grand fucking hoax played on our heroine Oedipa as she follows a thread of conspiracy that seems everywhere around her. In addition, the short novel is rife with references to TV shows, songs, and mores of the 60's.

In a short novel like this, giving much of the plot away would ruin the fun for anyone who may be interested in reading it. Is it all a farce? Or is it something far more dark and sinister going on. The last paragraph of the novel could be interpreted in different ways. Forget about Gravity's Rainbow, or V. or even Inherent Vice. Yeah, those books get the spotlight from the intelligentsia but let's face it, a vast majority of people who start Gravity's Rainbow will never finish it. Pick up The Crying of Lot 49 instead and you'll get Pynchon's themes without having to tax the noodle, and your patience.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Junky Goes to Lunch - William S. Burroughs

Things went on like this for several weeks. One by one, Nick's contacts located me. They were tired of scoring through Nick and having him steal the head of their caps. What a crew! Mooches, fags, four-flushers, stool pigeons, bums--unwilling to work, unable to steal, always short of money, always whining for credit. In the whole lot there was not one who wouldn't wilt and spill as soon as someone belted him in the mouth and said "Where did you get it?" - Junky

Black Cat Grove Edition

I first read Naked Lunch by William Burroughs over 30 years ago, back when I was in college and on a mid-century Beat kick thanks to one of my English professor's expertise in the field. I'd seen the book on shelves of fellow English Lit students as well. I'll just say it, English Lit majors, along with Art majors, have the best parties. But I digress. I'd read Naked Lunch first, years before getting around to reading Junky. I like Naked Lunch, but there's no way to summarize it in any meaningful way. It's something that you'll read and either appreciate it or not. Junky is a far different reading experience. Junky is a laconic, almost hard-boiled tour of a drug addict's day to day life as experienced in middle 20th century America. Junky is the key to  opening the door to Naked Lunch. Both books should be read together. Junky illuminates Naked Lunch,

Perhaps he stores something in his body--a substance to prolong life--of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialized as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function. 

There is somewhat of a linear structure, a loose plot of sorts, on which you can hitch a ride with in Junky. Our narrator, Bill Lee, lives of a small trust he inherits from a somewhat wealthy family (as did Burroughs) which provides him just enough to live on without having to succumb to any 9 to 5 job. He hooks up with a couple hoodlums trying to move guns and morphine. For no good reason, he tries the morphine.

Morphine hits the back of the legs first, then the back of the neck, a spreading wave of relaxation slackening the muscles away from the bones so that you seem to float without outlines, like lying in warm salt water. 

A taste for the stuff is awakened. The novel follows Bill Lee and a large assortment of characters as they roam the city feeding their appetites for junk. We're given a primer in the way a junky operates. We learn how doctors (croakers) are approached for scripts, how junk is moved, ingested, and kicked. It's also a travelogue of sorts as Bill Lee moves from New York to New Orleans, through Texas and down to Mexico City. We're provided a glossary of mid-century jive-talk, a street level tour of Junk hangouts and a breakdown of the varieties of junk and their effects. Bill Lee navigates the novel with a plainspoken voice, telling you the score,

But not so much with Naked Lunch.

I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up the devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station...

And with this opening line we're "vaulting the turnstile" with Bill Lee, on the lam from the fresh faced squares in the fuzz out to get him, spiraling down a paranoid hallucinogenic recap of Junky as he goes down to Mexico City, where Lupita "sits like an Aztec Earth-goddess doling out her little papers of lousy shit." From Mexico, Lee is assigned to a sadist, Dr. Benway, who called the shots in a totalitarian country named Annexia. Annexia seems to have a dark reflection of America in her sights, at least as depicted by its rat race of of hopeless bureaucracy and imprisonment. But time and place shifts to Interzone.

Naked Lunch is Junky turned inside out. It's the stuff between the lines of that earlier novel. It's the paranoia and nightmares, the stream of conscious ramblings of the angry addict as writer, the scribbled notes, the hunger for junk, vignettes and dialog. Burroughs pulled it all together with help from Jack Kerouac who gave him the title. It's much like Kerouac's other road novel Visions of Cody that turned On the Road inside out. You dig it or you don't,

Now, 50 plus years after it's controversial full U.S. publication (the year of my birth) we can still read Naked Lunch and admire its place in time. It shocks and humors and disgusts us. I don't imagine today's youth is interested in books like these anymore. There is too much self absorption to compete. Not that Burrough's and the rest of the Beats weren't self absorbed, to be sure they were. But for a time, they had a voice and it screamed out in pages of books like these. And some people read them, They're still in print, still published, but unappreciated today. They're like the old queen of the ball, tired, wrinkled and cynical, who sits against the wall next to a decanter of amber liquid watching the crowd around her imitating dance moves they think they've invented.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Lust Queen - Don Elliott

She sat up casually, reaching for the bikini halter in such a way as to give me a momentary but vivid view, in profile, of her bare breasts. They reminded me of Lisa's. Not quite as opulent, perhaps, but certainly big enough, and high and firm and pointed, the nipples tipped sharply upward. An instant later she had the bikini straps tied, and she was uncoiling from the mattress like a sleepy panther awakening from a noonday nap. 

Cover art by Robert Bonfils

I'm hoping that there is a cold pool nearby for our narrator. It's sounds like he'll need it!

I don't own the original edition of this terrific lusty novel by Don Elliot, whom you will all know as writer Robert Silverberg. I do however have the nice two-fer edition produced by Stark House Press, which also comes with another Don Elliott classic, Lust Victim. There were a lot of "Lust" titles produced back in the day, and I would imagine it would be great fun checking them all out, purely for educational purposes mind you. I don't imagine they're so easy to find in their original formats. Thankfully Stark House Press is providing us fans a chance at reading them in these nice reprints. 

Originally published in 1961 by Midnight Readers (Greenleaf Classics) Lust Queen was reprinted in 1974 by Reed Nightstand Books as The Decadent, which I'm assuming is the version we have in the Stark House Edition due to references to the 70's and a handful of F-bombs dropped into the dialog here and there. Lust Queen is an interesting novel because it provides us a glimpse into a pulp writer's life as it might have been in 1960. Our hero Joey Baldwin makes a comfortable enough living as a "pulp hack" churning out detective stories under various pseudonyms when he's offered a ghost writing gig to write the autobiography of a reclusive Hollywood sex goddess, Mona Thorne. Miss Thorne has something of a notorious reputation for sexy films directed by husbands/lovers in a wake of scandalous affairs. For the past several years she's taken a reclusive existence in her Hollywood mansion, but is now on the verge of a comeback thanks to a juicy tell-all bio. The one condition that might be a problem for Joey, is that in order to write Mona's bio, he'll have to fly out to California and stay there for the next six weeks, until the book is finished. Not such an easy thing to consider for Joey, since he's engaged to his girlfriend Lisa. Still, the money offered for the gig is too good to pass up. So, with a reluctant (and steamy!) goodbye to Lisa, Joey's off to California to work with Mona on the book. 

Joey assumes he'll be living in a hotel, paid for by Mona and her studio, while he works on the book. At least that was the plan. Instead he's dropped off at Mona's lavish home where our sexpot movie star likes to lounge around her opulent digs in a topless bikini. After meeting Joey, Mona is having none of this putting him up in a hotel nonsense, and demands that he move into a room in her mansion. A room adjoining her own naturally. A room into which she waits all of a few hours before climbing into his bed and giving him a ride on the stuff dreams are made of.

Here is where the novel moves into an updated take on Sunset Blvd. Joey is keeping things moving along with his book outline, Mona is dishing the dirt on her life, and they're both screwing their brains out. But Mona is a bit of a head case. She doesn't do rejection, at all. She's had a whole lifetime of keeping men around her steppin' and fetchin' like their balls are on fire and their asses are ketchin'! But Joey has his fiancee Lisa waiting for him back home. His letters to Lisa are perfunctory. He has no intention of letting Lisa know his living arrangements while working on Mona's book. It's bad enough he feels like a heel for cheating on her. He tells himself it'll all be worth it once the book is done and the money for it is banked.

But...Lisa has other plans. Like a surprise visit to Joey. A surprise call from the airport and Joey's up to his ass in dames and trouble!

I enjoy the hell out of these old novels. Especially well-written ones like this one. Robert Silverberg produced these novels at an astounding rate in the 60's, in addition to his other work in the Science Fiction and Non-Fiction fields. His prose is effortless, which sounds like a cliche. If you've ever struggled through those snooty novels by so-called literature writers where you have to wade through slabs of prose to decipher that someone is jealous or horny, you really appreciate when a professional lays it out in a few clear and concise sentences.

I'm looking forward to reading the second novel Lust Victim. I'll let you know what I think about it. In the meantime, you should give these Stark House reprints a try.