THEMES? WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ THEMES! (Monthly Book Report: August through December, 2018)

The last five months of 2018 were a busy time overall but a slow reading period. I read as many books in January as I read from August to December. Still, such as they are–a pulp near-masterpiece set in the world of pro football; a couple from a pulp master (one of which was a re-read); a tantalizing book about the original October Surprise; and a WWII combat memoir by Great Britain’s last great man of letters. if there was a theme in there, I couldn’t find it.

North Dallas Forty (1973)
Peter Gent

Though it occasionally bogs down in Gent’s need to project his protagonist’s (a wide receiver on a Dallas Cowboys-style team named Phil Elliot) sensitivity, most of this goes by like a speeding bullet. Some of its more sensational aspects have long since lost their shock value but Elliot’s moral outrage and eye for both his circumstance’s patent absurdity and his own fatal attraction to it, give it enough relevance to count as a pulp classic. For all its keen insider awareness of the world it depicts, the novel a kind of detective story. Not whodunit or even “why done it,” but will the only man who has any sense of moral order even survive, let alone solve anything.?

Even if you’ve seen the excellent 1979 movie with Nick Nolte, you won’t know the answer until the very end.

And you won’t be comforted.

Dead Low Tide  (1953) and The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1975)
(John D. MacDonald)

Dead Low Tide is early MacDonald and it shows. Things that would later become hallmarks of his best writing–the eye for physical detail and physical space, the craft of his action scenes, the knack for trenchant social commentary–are all present but in nascent form. Without their full development, the story’s tragedies play more like bummers than events that might scar either the soul or the social fabric. It would rank in the lower third of the Travis McGee novels and is nowhere near as good as Cape Fear. Still a swift read, though. You can spot the talent, struggling to find a proper form.

There are no such problems with The Dreadful Lemon Sky, one of the most important pulp novels ever written.

I reviewed it a couple of years ago and mentioned its prescience in giving a full-blooded portrait of a Bill Clinton-style Southern pol on the make in the Deep South circa 1975.

But there’s much more. It’s really a layered look at the men who are always working behind the scenes to give us such lovely choices (and Clinton’s sociopathy isn’t unique among post-modern pols–it isn’t even unusual, something I don’t think would have surprised MacDonald if he had lived to see it) and the social order where such men breed.

You can take cold comfort from MacDonald dispatching his villain by having him stung to death by fire ants–the most Florida death you’ll ever find. But you can’t say we weren’t warned.

Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery (1993)
Robert Parry

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, the “October Surprise” was a theory that held Vice Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush and other high ranking members of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign conducted secret meetings with Iran to ensure that American hostages would not be released before that year’s presidential election and boost Jimmy Carter’s chance for reelection.

I have a personal stake in the subject for two reasons. One is that, in the early 80s, my father sat next to a retired general at a rubber chicken dinner on the Southern Baptist missionary circuit. Without divulging anything classified, the general nonetheless strongly intimated that, at very least, Carter’s hostage rescue mission was sabotaged by forces inside the American government as part of a plot to make him a one-term president. The Intelligence Community, as it has come to be called, didn’t care much for Ronald Reagan either. Their hopes lay in Bush himself (one of their own) or Ted Kennedy (who, after Chappaquiddick, they owned outright and who did indeed mount a strong primary challenge to Carter that year).

All of which leads to my second level of personal interest–my belief that 1980 was the year said Intelligence Community fulfilled the program that had begun with John Kennedy’s assassination (whether they had anything to do with the assassination is almost irrelevant–they certainly took advantage of it to begin whittling away the power of the elected government which they held in complete contempt, then and now) and reduced all subsequent choices to their own preferences.

Which left only one question for me, as I perused Parry’s rather dry book. Did it tend to prove or disprove my theories?

I’m disappointed to say it didn’t do much of either. But since it is not so much an account of any government or campaign’s shady dealings as proof of just how difficult it is to pin down even one fact such forces don’t want you to know, it still served a purpose. It showed me how unlikely either the October Surprise or any other possible misconduct in high places will ever see the light of day.

If that’s something you need to have proved beyond all doubt, this is the book for you.

Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (1992)
George MacDonald Fraser

Though Fraser was never shy about offering his own opinion, this is really a memoir of his unit. It took me a while to sort them out, in part because Fraser has them speak in their own voices. Here’s a sample:

“We’ll all get killed”

“Fook this!”

“Whee’s smeukin’ then?”

“Booger off Forster, scrounge soomw’eers else.”

“Ahh, ye miserable, mingy Egremont twat!”

. . . .

“Idle Scotch git. Ye want us to strike the fookin’ matches, an a’?”

Having spent a few hundred pages with “Jock” MacDonald’s crew, I now long for the chance to call someone an “idle Scotch git” but I confess page after page of this took some getting used to. I wasn’t even aware of the comradery creeping up on me until near the very end, when, in one of the last British campaigns, in Burma, on a field far from Glory’s eye, Fraser made me feel the loss of men who, a moment before, were nothing more than an annoyance to either author or reader.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Knowing the creator of Flashman had a rare ability to journey through the British Empire’s mighty time and space, never losing sight of either its majesty or its absurdity, it was only to be expected that he would be a master observer of his own role in its dying breath.

…Til next time. I promise it won’t be so long.


I promise this post–unlike your average root canal–will be more fun than it sounds!

The issues change…the dynamic never does. From 1973:

Richardson was an activist and I respected him for it. But all I needed to know about the war had been babbled to me years ago by a drunken political science professor I had met at the Michigan State Varsity Club Chicken Fry. After several stiff drinks he confided to me that not only did he work for the CIA, but he had been in on the final planning of Diem’s assassination. I pointed out that Diem was still alive.

“I’ll tell you this,” the professor had spit, his eyes blazing from my rebuff, “the son of a bitch’ll be dead in six weeks.”

The “son of a bitch” was killed three weeks later. Since that time I have tried to ignore politics; if a man with no innate political interests at all could find out such things because he was a football player, I didn’t want to know the real secrets. Thomas Richardson was finding out that the hero status of professional football merely allowed him to become privy to the bigger lies.

(North Dallas Forty, Peter Gent, 1973)

I saw the movie based on Pete Gent’s novel when it came out in 1979. I remember it being pretty good though I haven’t seen it since. Very seventies.

Fifty pages in, the novel is already deeper and better and more farsighted–the kind of high quality pulp that has made up the bulk of our national literary achievement since WWII.

Of course the war hanging over North Dallas Forty (the novel at least) is Viet Nam and, if time (the beast!) allows, I may have to finally get around to reading Normal Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? when I’m done just for the sake of comparison.

Our wars don’t hang over us any more. We just ignore them, with or without the CIA’s assistance. Keep the army all volunteer. Keep the casualties to an acceptable minimum–with “acceptable” defined by a compliant media. Keep time and the empire rolling along.

Gent seems to be catching it at a crucial turning point. He had been a player for the Dallas Cowboys in the sixties. People had a lot of fun, when the book was first published and again when the movie came out, trying to decide who was who in his fictionalized account. If Thomas Richardson, the black player Gent’s stand-in, Phil Elliot. references above (the next paragraph deals with Richardson’s frustrated attempt to get fair housing for black players), was based on anybody real, then whoever he is can probably relate to Colin Kaepernick these days.

I’ve never been a red hot fan of the NFL and I can think of a thousand good reasons why I wouldn’t mind seeing The League fall flat on its face–not least being the capacity of the professional game’s authoritarian nature to rot the national soul. Before pro football became the national sport we never lost a war. Afterwards (round about the time Gent’s novel is set) we’ve never won one–and, as I like to point out now and then–we never will.

Our best hope, then, is to become adept at avoiding them. If Colin Kaepernick and other protesters can help that come about, I’ll support them whole-heartedly.

I’m guessing fat contracts with Nike aren’t the way–or the point–but, if he proves me wrong I’ll be happy to admit it.

Meanwhile, the great pulp novels–of which I already suspect North Dallas Forty is a fine example–have been far better at telling us why than any “serious” literature, let alone history or journalism.

Now if we only still had great pulp novels  (I’m working on it, folks, I’m working on it!)….we wouldn’t have to leave it all up to the rock and rollers:

…See, I told you it would be fun!