CURIOUS TO KNOW WHAT WAS selling these days I gleaned a selection of popular paperback books from such unbookish places as airports, supermarkets, drugstores, and 7-Elevens. There were ten books, among them Chariots of the Gods, The Late Great Planet Earth, The Crazy Ladies, The Executioners #16, and they had sold an average of 2 million copies each. The Lord must love cheap paperbacks, he made so many of them.
I began with The Crazy Ladies by Joyce Elbert. The cover blurb said, “The first really great dirty book. COSMOPOLITAN.” It seemed like something they would know. I bought the other books rather impulsively, too, since paperback distributors told me that most people buy the books in convenience stands on impulse. “I put out as many different titles as I can and change them often as I can,” one distributor told me, “because that increases the chances of striking that hidden chord—the one that makes people buy a book they didn’t know they were going to buy when they walked in the store.” A book that doesn’t sell enough to pay its keep is seldom around longer than two weeks.
If the book I chose impulsively also seemed to fulfill my taste requirements, I bought it if it was either a current best seller or a past best seller that was still selling well and if it was an original paperback publication or had become a paperback best seller without the benefit of a hardcover reputation. No The Best and the Brightest; no I’m O.K., You’re O.K. And (evidently I had as much fun making up rules as reading the books) I tried to choose examples of the most persistent strains of popular literature. I came up with some friends and relations of the hard-boiled detective novel, historical romances, classy porn (remember The Crazy Ladies?), and two expressions of popular paranoid fantasies.
I chose no westerns. None appealed. I chose no science fiction. None of it appealed either. (A distributor in Austin told me he loads the stands around The University of Texas with science fiction since students and professors buy it proportionately more than the population at large; a distributor in San Antonio told me he did the same thing around military bases for the same reason.)
Now, about The Crazy Ladies. It was a pretty dirty book, all right. On the other hand I didn’t think it was either a great book that was dirty or a dirty book that was great, but it does have an ingenious structure for floating characters through bedroom after bedroom. There are two revolving circles—one, a group of women who are more or less friends; the other, their men. The circles slowly revolve bringing this couple together, then that, until 477 pages later the body mingling ends.
We’re told all this from the point of view of four girls living in New York in the late Sixties. They are aware of only three things: They are aware of men; they are aware of other women who are aware of the same men; and they are aware of products. They are the kind of young women who, dressing for a party, weigh in on a pink Detecto scale before languishing in Relaxor bath oil. Then from a W & J Sloane chest of drawers they pull a pair of Van Raalte bikini briefs and a Hollywood Vassarette bra, later a touch of Germaine Monteil’s strawberry lip dew just before slipping into Roger Vivier crocodile pumps, checkng the Pepperidge Farm Lobster Bisque on the stove and wondering,as they wait for their guests, which man will later slip between their flowered Porthault sheets. In other words, they are upper-middle class office girls in the big city who’ve made enough money (W & J Sloane chest of drawers) by now to feel both independent (Van Raalte bikini briefs) and aggressive (strawberry lip dew) but still middle class enough (flowered Porthault sheets) to be worried about finding a man before it’s too late (pink Detecto scale).
These are not the young women of yesterday’s popular fiction who came to the big city well warned by mother of the wickedness they would find and enjoined by father against soiling their ideals. The Crazy Ladies are tough customers, experienced in a variety of sexual oddities and endities, manipulative, sometimes mean, only kind when it’s easy, and always dissatisfied either with their lives or with…you know, dissatisfied. And they’ll try anything to get satisfied. Since coming to New York one girl had had 12 lovers including a midget, a dental assistant who stuttered, a series of men wielding hotdogs, electric toothbrushes, and candles, and the “literary” Mr. E. L. Kuberstein who kept her captive for six days. After all that, this same girl, just before a date with a foreign gentleman, reflects that tonight “she might even have her first orgasm in this life—in Spanish”; though I understand these are generally considered inferior to the Flemish. Reading The Crazy Ladies teaches, and teaches well, “how frequently one person’s exoticism turned out to be another person’s Woolworth.”
The Crazy Ladies is cut from the same cloth as Jacqueline Suzanne’s Valley of the Dolls, a book that broke some previous assumptions about popular fiction. Before then, romances written by women and read generally by women, were reticent about sex. Valley attracted a whole motherlode of readers who relished reading a woman writing about women who get it on. Gwen Davis (The Pretenders, etc.) is of the same school. Joyce Elbert, who has three or four books besides The Crazy Ladies, is of the school’s second generation. So successful has the idea been that there is now a third generation of lady sex writers, among them Cheryl Nash, author of the cloying The Ms. Girls which, with a bow to its forbearee, is billed as “The first really great dirty book since The Crazy Ladies!”
This doesn’t mean that the sentimental, chaste popular romance is dead or even in poor health. I picked up I Take This Man by Emilie Loring, an author whose books have been selling by the ton for 25 years. She is the author of at least 45 novels with titles like What Then Is Love, With This Ring, When Hearts are Light Again, Hilltops Clear, Spring Always Comes. First published in 1955, I Take This Man has been through 26 printings in four different editions, never out of print, and sold thousands upon thousands of copies. The odds are you’ve never heard of it.
It’s a book about Penelope, for that is the name of our heroine, whose “blouses” are either “crisp” or “tailored.” On page one Penelope is dressing to marry Donald Garth. She isn’t marrying him for love—she couldn’t love Donald Garth because she loves Dick Wentworth—but because she needs money for her mother’s doctor bills and Donald Garth has money. In fact, although American, Garth seems to be some kind of combination of feudal baron and Adolph Krupp. He has an estate named Uplands, the “fabulous Garth jewels,” a huge industrial plant referred to simply as “the Works” and a village for the employees of the Works. In addition to these fabulous assets Donald Garth is acceptable to Penelope because he’s not in any great hurry to consummate this marriage because he knows she loves Dick Wentworth; but Donald loves her and hopes someday she’ll change her mind and so on and etc.
Penelope’s first idea is to spend her married life improving the lot of the people in the village where there is “a growing tragedy of juvenile delinquency” and children with crooked legs from “unsound menu-planning.” But this plan falls by the wayside with the exciting discovery of a foreign plot against the Works. Various characters start lurking mysteriously about and running from here to there in the dark. Donald Garth performs so admirably and Dick Wentworth so caddishly (“How could you? Oh, how could you?” Penelope berates him) that she decides she loves Donald after all. And, as it turns out, Fane the butler is not a villain but Macy the valet is.
Dorothy Eden’s Speak to me of Love is quite a bit better. It was the best selling paperback in San Antonio at a time when it hadn’t even appeared on the charts in other Texas cities. It’s about the daughter of a wealthy English shopkeeper who marries a suitably epicene young Victorian aristocrat. The marriage has its ups and downs; the lady, Beatrice, takes over running the store to keep up the ancestral manor of her husband’s family; she raises children and then some grandchildren, always remaining a stern, capable woman with no nonsense about her who moves through her world with the resolve of a battleship. The book is filled with archaic words like “trousseaux” and “needlewoman,” with archaic expressions like “Why ever not?” and with constant references to the costumes and furnishings of the period, things like “crepe de Chine” and “Indian gauze” and “boudoir caps.” The novel proceeds with the confidence that Beatrice’s shopkeeper’s energy and values are a boon to the aristocracy into which she married, and perhaps that’s a correct assumption. The novel is readable, has a plot that makes a certain amount of sense (unlike I Take This Man), and is utterly forgettable (like I Take This Man). Why it should have been especially popular in San Antonio is one of life’s little mysteries.
I read a mystery next, The Schack Job by an old pro, Henry Kane. It is the first in his series of “X-rated” mysteries. More likely it is R-rated, but there’s enough sex to show that Kane recognizes passion’s inconveniences: “She laughed. And drained her drink and flung the glass. It hit a wall and shattered. I’ll have to be careful later, he thought, or I’ll be walking around with bleeding feet.” And nothing is taken too seriously: “She sucked his tongue, worked her own tongue against it. He got the message. Hell, Garcia would have gotten the message.” And Henry Kane can nail down a sense of place with one blow: “It was an old saloon with a beery smell and a lot of customers and elderly, stomach-aproned waiters.”
But, sad to say, Peter Chambers, Kane’s private detective and once one of the great hard-boiled dicks, is here reduced to social climbing to make business contacts. The hard-boiled detective, once a staple of popular writing, seems to have gone the way of all flesh. I didn’t find a single book with the battered-fedora, lipped-cigarette insouciance of “My name is April—Johnny April—and I say cabs are like broads and cops,” which is the first line of a thriller from 20 years back by, get this, Mike Roscoe.
Today’s hero, judging by the paperback thrillers that are selling the most, is a different breed. He is Mack Bolan “The Executioner,” Remo Williams “The Destroyer,” Richard Camellion “The Death Merchant,” Robert Biganti “The Assassin,” Franco Arronelli “The Arrow,” or the black Louis Luther King “The Murder Master.” Each of these pulp figures has his own growing series of books. Each has sworn a private war against the Mafia for reasons of his own, usually the murder or degradation by the Mafia of a close relative. The hero proceeds to murder Mafiosi through book after book with numbing brutality: “He sighted the .44 automag and blew the don’s head off, literally.” Of course it’s pretty hard to blow someone’s head off, figuratively.
The Executioner was the first of these series and is still the one with the most sales. War Against the Mafia, the first book in the now 16-book series, has six million copies in print. The Executioner is Vietnam veteran Mack Bolan who thinks of himself as a “duty killer”: “He saw a cancerous leech at the throat of America, and he saw the inability or the indisposition of American institutions to deal with it.” So Bolan deals with it by taking it upon himself to murder every Mafioso he can bring within his sights. But the Mafia must be a pretty hardy organization since through these 16 books Bolan has accounted for the death, literally or figuratively, of thousands of their members. Yet there are apparently enough left for future books. The Executioner’s rationale is simple: “Life was just an overgrown game of cowboys and Indians. There were good guys, and there were bad guys. The bad guys had to lose.” We later learn he’s Polish. Well, what if he is? The Happy Hooker is Jewish and it didn’t seem to slow her down any either.
Unlike the hard-boiled detective who walked the streets of his city with an eye for dames with a nice set of gams, Mack Bolan the Executioner roams from town to town and is outraged by any citified woman: “High fashion could cram it.” In one incident he shoots out the window of a plane so that one such woman is sucked through the opening to her death. The hard-boiled detective would revive himself after a tough night with a cup of java, the harsh, acrid smoke from a few Luckies, and a belt of whiskey. The Executioner employs more exotic methods. In Sicilian Slaughter, the current book in the series, Mack has already stopped his bleeding by covering his wounds with spider webs when he “forced open the case of medical supplies and went to work on himself. First a transfusion of albumin to replace lost blood. He bound himself up in tight and proper fashion. He found the bottles and took a handful of vitamin B-12 and almost as many vitamin E pills. He shot a half million units of penicillin into his butt. He crammed his mouth full of high energy chocolate bar rations, munching as he worked.” What a guy! In a little while he took off again with his “night vision unimpaired.”
The hard-boiled detective was always sentimental about something, about a woman (though not usually about women), about his code, about a dead buddy. Or, as in Mike Roscoe, about kids: “The idea of the kid growing up in an orphan asylum didn’t set any better with me than the idea of his mother’s death. I kept quiet and hated.” In the Executioner sentimentality has been replaced by arrogance: “There had been a certain friendship between them. The least Bolan could do was to look him in the eye as he killed him.”
A slightly different arrogance possesses Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth, and Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods. Either book could be subtitled Dagwood in Occultland but both seem to be saying some indiscernible right thing at just the right time. Planet Earth, originally published by a small religious house, is now a Bantam paperback with over two million copies in print. It is taught in more Sunday schools than is healthy to think about and during the last of my infrequent visits with a minister was held up to me as essential reading for modern man. Chariots has been sanctified by sales in excess of three million, a Rod Serling television special (that man simply hasn’t any shame) and a host of sequels and imitations like Gods From Outer Space, The Gold of the Gods, The Bible and Flying Saucers, and, the tackiest of them all, God Drives a Flying Saucer. Now really.
These are the books expressing contemporary paranoia I mentioned earlier. Hal Lindsey’s Planet Earth claims, among so many other incredible things, that the Bible predicts a dictator will soon arise to brand the number 666 on every man, woman, and child in the world. The Bible further predicts that sometime in the future there are going to be “144,000 Jewish Billy Grahams turned loose on this earth.” Furthermore, Biblical prophesy explained the present Middle East crisis, not only predicting that it would happen but showing us that Israel will be invaded by both Russia and China (there are even maps Lindsey offers of the attack routes predicted in the Bible) not too long after which there will be a nuclear holocaust followed by a Second Coming. The dictator is going to crop up somewhere along in there and will rise to power by promising peace (could it be Kissinger? had even the ancient prophets heard of Kissinger?) but since this dictator will be the tool of Satan we ought to be careful of anyone promoting peace in the world. I told you it was paranoid.
Of course there’s no way to prove that these assertions are wrong, but why does anyone want to waste his time worrying that there may be some demon with a 666 stamp lurking in the shadows? Or why while away your time thinking about this: “Imagine what would have happened if the president of the United States, after being shot and declared dead, had come to life again.” Sounds like the kind of thing the press would play up way out of proportion. Lindsey also says, after previously asserting “Christianity is not a religion,” that “you shouldn’t be surprised when Christ returns to take you with him. Unfortunately this does not refer to all believers. We may have to go over to some of them and say, ‘I told you so friend.'” Now if I had just been condemned to an eternity of the torments of Hell and some sanctimonious little twit came over and said, “I told you so,” I’d abuse him enough to last me through an eternity of sinful gloating. Lindsey says “blaspheme” means “bad-mouth.” He should get his terms straight. What I’ve been doing here is bad-mouthing; what he’s been doing is the blasphemy.
Daniken, in case you haven’t heard, claims that not only events in the Bible but virtually every accomplishment of ancient man is the result of visitations from wise creatures from outer space. Here again, there’s no way to prove this never happened and it might even be fun to let roll around in your mind when you’re trying to drop off to sleep. But why take it seriously? Even Daniken says, “Admittedly this speculation is still full of holes.”
And indeed it is. The man is either a fraud or a fool, a rich fraud or rich fool by now, but still one or the other. Daniken just has never realized there’s such a thing as imagination: “The epic of Gilgamesh also contains descriptions of extraordinary things that could not have been made up by any intelligence living at the time tablets were written.” Or, “Where did the narrators of the thousand and one nights get their staggering wealth of ideas? How did anyone come to describe a lamp from which a magician spoke when the owner wished?” Obviously the only possible answer is the idea came from spacemen. At one point he claims that Jonathan Swift, of all people, was visited by spacemen who gave him the idea for Gulliver’s Travels.
Daniken makes no bones about shading the truth. “Without actually consulting Exodus,” he says on one page, although he quotes Exodus at length in the very next paragraph, “I seem to remember that the Ark was often surrounded by flashing sparks.” Of course Exodus says no such thing, which is why he says he didn’t consult it. But the Ark had to be surrounded by sparks, you see, because the Ark was really a spaceship and who but visitors from another planet could have known how to build it? “Petrified excrement, possibly not of human origin,” he says later on, “was found at the same place.” And, sure enough, I found excrement possibly not of human origin in the kitty litter just this morning. Summing up, he says, “Quite simply what I mean is that everything, both myth and actual experience, makes up the history of a people. No more. But even that, I claim, is quite a lot.” If you understand what that means, just keep it to yourself.
But the deepest paranoid fears Chariots touches have to do with our precious bodily fluids. Speaking of early man, Daniken claims the visiting spacemen “annihilated” the degenerate stock. In another context he asks “Does not this seriously pose the question whether the human race is not an act of deliberate breeding by unknown beings from outer space?” It sounds like a theme he copped from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End; but wouldn’t that be an uncomfortable little bone to have stuck in your craw?
I READ ONLY ONE MORE book worth talking about. I saved it for last since it has the single wisest sentence to be found in all the pages of all the paperbacks I read. It’s strange that that sentence should appear in a book that’s otherwise so bad. Death Trap, the first number in the Murder Master series whose hero is black agent Louis Luther King (patterned after the Executioner), begins with the worst first sentence I’ve ever been privileged to read: “Leaving Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, one drives southeast on Kennedy Expressway to get to the Holiday Inn.”
The book’s humor is sophomoric; bras are called “over the shoulder boulder holders.” Minor characters are given to the most peculiar idle musings: “Miss Wildersen was wondering if she could talk her future husband into a vasectomy.” The hero is an unlikeable smart ass who uses words like “Pygmalionist” and “pedophile” to show his erudition (the author apparently opened the dictionary to the letter P). But out of nowhere as I was reading along, numbed to the bone by hours of reading, hours of lying on my back, hours of junk food and junk sweets and junk liquor, this sentence came to put everything into place: “He faithfully followed the dictum that half the work in this world is to make things appear as they are not.”
Of course there’s no speculation about why that should be. This is popular fiction, entertainment, not great literature. Take it for what it’s worth. Remember that all the paperbacks in all the grocerettes and bus terminals and newsstands in America are testimony to that statement’s truth. Imagine the elaborate organization of human energy those books represent—writer, editor, printer, binder, distributor, grocery store owner. And only one out of a hundred of those books has anything to do with anything real. None of the ones I read did. Someone might look at all the sex books and say that we are consumed with sex or look at the violent books and say we are infatuated with violence. Some of the books themselves will say sex is the most powerful force in man’s psychology; others that violence is. They are both wrong. It’s dreaming, it’s fantasy, it’s imagining other lives and other places, it’s Murder Masters and Happy Hookers and Crazy Ladies and Private Eyes and Strange Events and Clashing Swords and Chariots, even Chariots from Outer Space.