Book Review: Stud Service by John D. Revere

In 1985, Justin Perry’s fifth and final adventure was published.  In Stud Service, the CIA’s most deadly and sex-obsessed assassin discovers that his whole life has been manipulated to lead to one moment, the moment when he will be sacrificed to Halley’s Comet.  Before the sacrifice, of course, his sperm will be preserved by a secret cult that will use it to create hundreds of genetically perfect warriors who will conquer the Earth and rule it for the next 50,000 years….

Okay, I’m sensing that some of you think I’m making this up.  I’m not.  That is the plot of the final Assassin novel.  Justin Perry discovers that SADIF is a front for a cult that worships Halley’s Comet and that his sperm is the key to their plan to rule the world.  Actually, there’s several cults.  It turns out that there’s many different divisions within the Halley Society and one of them is run the Old Man, who was Justin’s mysterious handler at the CIA.  As the Old Man explains it, he just wanted to serve his country and make the world a better place.  But he also has a brain tumor that is driving him mad.

It’s actually kind of an interesting wrap-up for the series.  If nothing else, it actually explains why, over the course of the previous four books, people from Justin’s past kept randomly popping up and turning out to be SADIF agents.  Since birth, Justin has been cultivated and developed to be a potential sacrifice to the comet.  Even the Old Man and his sister were involved in it.  Everything over the past four books has been about developing Justin into a heartless killing machine and, significantly, this book features Justin realizing that he no longer “enjoys” killing as much as he once did.  He’s rediscovered his humanity and that humanity allows him to survive, even when he has hundreds of Halley cultists trying to masturbate him to death.

That said, even though the book nicely wraps up the weirdness of the series, it’s still a bit of mess.  Trying to keep straight who works for each faction of the Halley Society requires taking notes, which is more activity than Justin Perry really deserves and this is one of those action novels where there’s considerably more exposition than action.  It’s safe to skim over the final fourth of the book because nothing really happens until the final page or so.  Somehow, the book manages to be extremely sordid and rather dull at the same time.

This was the final Justin Perry story.  He saved the world a lot.  Interestingly, it does appear that the author meant for this to be the final novel.  This wasn’t a case of the publisher saying, “We’re not wasting any more money on this series.”  Instead, all four of the previous book lead to this fifth one and it ends on a definite note of conclusion.  One gets the feeling that the author felt that he had said everything that he needed to say.  Of course, it’s impossible to guess what exactly it was that he was trying to say.  I personally suspect the whole thing was meant to be an elaborate joke on the people who regularly read novels about violent spies and never once considered that their literary heroes were actually deeply damaged sociopaths.  If so, bravo.

Book Review: Death’s Running Mate by John D. Revere

Having previously taken on mutant chickens and barnyard sex, the fourth Justin Perry novel takes on the American political system!

First published in 1985, Death’s Running Mate is all over the place.  Author John D. Revere plays with time in Death’s Running Mate, which means that the book opens minutes before the climax of oversexed super assassin Justin Perry’s latest mission and then flashes back to how Perry and the readers arrived at that moment but the flashbacks themselves contain their own flashbacks and even the occasional flash forward.  It leaves the plot so jumbled that it would probably require keeping extensive notes to really understand everything that happens and jotting down notes is a bit more effort than a Justin Perry novel deserves.  The previous three Justin Perry novels were surreal but the fourth one plays out like an extended fever dream.  And yet, because it’s so strange, it’s also probably the most compelling of all of the Perry novels.  You keep turning page after page, just to see how much stranger it can get.

The book deals with politics.  A 36 year-old woman named Andrea McKay has come out of nowhere and is running for President as the candidate of the Federalist-Liberal Party.  She’s running on a platform to “throw the rats out” and she proves her sincerity by eating rat meat at her campaign events.  Those who have read the previous volumes of the Justin Perry series will not be a surprised to learn that Andrea McKay is actually being backed by SADIF, an evil conspiracy that previously infiltrated the Vatican and developed mutant chickens.  And since a major theme of these books is that Justin Perry is somehow at the center of everything that happens on the planet, most readers will not be surprised to learn that Andrea’s political platform was developed by SADIF abducting Justin during an orgy, holding him captive in a mental hospital for several months, and then interviewing him about his thoughts on politics.  Justin is not only an expert killer who literally can’t leave the house with getting laid.  He’s also so in touch with the American people that his vague political opinions can serve as the basis of a successful third party presidential campaign.  Interestingly enough, it turns out that Andrea McKay is being as manipulated by SADIF as Justin is by The Old Man, his boss at the CIA.  The suggestion, of course, is that Andrea, Justin, and the voters are all in the same situation.  They’re all being manipulated and used like pawns on a chessboard.

As strange as the Andrea McKay presidential campaign is, it’s not the strangest part of the book.  This is a novel that starts with Justin bragging about how he’s going to kill the population of an entire town in Illinois and then flashes back to Justin disguising himself as a psychologist so that he can prevent SADIF from breaking into a mental hospital and releasing all of the patients.  (It turns out that the mental hospital uses sex therapy and, of course, Justin has to be carefully examined before he’s allowed to work there.)  Among other events, Justin gets attacked by a woman driving a pumpkin truck and then later, he discovers the truth of his parentage.  And I’m not even getting into the scenes of teenage Justin learning how to make love with a girl named Thelma who later turns out to be a spy herself.  Did Justin Perry ever know anyone who didn’t turn out to be a spy?

To be honest, I’m probably not communicating just how weird this book is.  I haven’t even gotten to the stuff about Illinois or the author’s apparent belief that a presidential vacancy is filled by a special election.  (I laugh out loud at that part of the book, if just because it reminded me of Sally Kohn’s theory that impeaching Trump and Pence would lead to a special election between Paul Ryan and Hillary Clinton.  “Straight forward from here,” as Sally put it.)  Earlier, I described the book as being a fever dream but it’s really like several hundred fever dreams, all crammed together to form one big epic.  Not a bit of it makes sense but the total lack of coherence is undeniably fascinating.  Justin’s as much of a sex-crazed misogynist as he was in the previous books but, at least in this case, it nearly leads to collapse of the United States (which, I might add, leads me to suspect that these books were meant to be satirical).  Will Justin learn a lesson from this?  I’ve read the final book in the series and no.  He does not.

Speaking of that fifth book, I’ll be reviewing that one on Saturday!  And then, we’ll be done with Justin Perry.

Book Review: Born to Kill by John D. Revere

Published in 1984, Born to Kill is the third volume in the Justin Perry saga.

This time, the CIA’s most sex-obsessed assassin is on assignment in Jamaica.  There have been a series of mysterious chicken attacks in both Jamaica and Florida and Justin’s boss, the Old Man, is sure that it is somehow connected to the upcoming launching of a space shuttle in Cape Canaveral.  However, it’s not only chickens that have been making trouble.  Someone has been beheading government officials across Europe.  Justin’s assignment is to solve the mystery behind the chicken attacks and make sure that SADIF doesn’t interfere with the shuttle launch.  The Old Man has decide that he doesn’t want any SADIF operatives taken alive so, naturally, Justin Perry is the man to send.

Of course, Justin is more concerned with his latest girlfriend but she’s apparently blown up while driving to the airport.  Now, Justin not only has to solve the mystery of the killer chickens but he also has to get vengeance for his latest murdered lover.  But, before he does that, he has to spend a few days at the local brothel with another CIA agent because he’s Justin Perry.

Anyway, Born to Kill moves along at a decent enough pace, up until we get a flashback to the time that an 8 year-old Justin Perry had sex with a chicken and was then traumatized when his grandparents possibly served him the same chicken for dinner and then …. wait, what?  Justin Perry did what?  Yes, you read that correctly.  The action in the book stops so that Justin Perry can remember the time that he had sex with a chicken.  First off, ew.  Secondly, does this guy even have any good childhood memories?  Third, why is this even in the book?  It certainly doesn’t make Justin Perry into a sympathetic character.  Later on, when Perry was attacked by several mutant chickens, I was rooting for the chickens.

When I read the first two books, I assumed that they were meant to be a satiric and that Justin Perry was meant to be a parody of the heroes who appeared in other pulp paperbacks.  But I have to say that the book treats the chicken incident very seriously and, just as Perry spent Vatican Kill debating the existence of God, he spends a good deal of this book thinking about the decline of morality in society.  (He blames the sexual magnetism of John F. Kennedy.)  What I’m saying is that I’m getting the feeling that the author may have meant these books to be taken seriously.  If so, agck!

Anyway, to be honest with you, the whole chicken thing was really gross and I nearly stopped reading at that point.  Because I’m a completist, I did continue with the book but I have to admit that it was more skimming than in-depth reading as I was kind of worried to find out what other barnyard animals Justin Perry may have had sexual relations with.  And really, I think that might be the best way to read these books.  Skim over it all as quickly as possible and don’t make the mistake of thinking about what any of it means.  Justin Perry saves the day and kills a lot of people and, at one point, watches as a woman he’s just had sex with gets eaten by a shark.  He’s fascinated by the fact that the shark is eating a bit of him along with her.  The main theme of the series seems to be that Justin Perry really needed to get help.  Let’s just put it like that.

Book Review: Vatican Kill by John D. Revere

Justin Perry, the assassin, is back!

And he’s just as screwed up as usual.

Continuing the theme of the first Justin Perry novel, 1983’s Vatican Kill finds the CIA still battling the evil plans of SADIF.  A Nazi sympathizer named Carl Werner is working as a gardener at the Vatican and masterminding SADIF’s European operations.  Justin Perry’s boss, the enigmatic Old Man, not only wants Werner to die, he wants it to be such a cruel and sadistic death that it will send a message to all of America’s enemies.  Among Werner’s many crimes is developing a nuclear warhead that SADIF is planning to fire at Venus in an attempt to wow the world.  Unfortunately, as a scientist helpfully explains at the start of the book, blowing up Venus will also destroy the universe so the stakes are pretty high!

The reader might assume that, with the future of the universe at stake, Justin Perry might actually focus on his job for once.  The reader would be wrong.  The world’s greatest assassin is just as easily distracted in this book as he was in the second.  When I reviewed the first book, I mentioned my theory that the series was meant to be a satiric.  Justin Perry was just too weird and sex-obsessed to be viewed as anything other than a parody of the traditional, hypermasculine pulp hero.  There are definitely elements of satire in Vatican Kill but, oddly enough, there are also several passages in which Perry sincerely contemplates why he cannot accept the idea of a benevolent God, passages that suggest that the author was trying to make some sort of larger point about the mysteries of existence.  Of course, there are also several overheated flashbacks to a childhood trip to India, during which Perry both lost his virginity and he witnessed a train crash rather than run over a cow.  Just as in the first book, it turns out that everything that happened in his past is connected to what’s happening in the present….

It’s a weird book.  To be honest, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of some of the weird things that happen in Vatican Kill.  Justin Perry is as obsessed with sex and violence as ever while the villains of SADIF continue to come up with with elaborate tortures.  (This book didn’t do much to help me with my fear of dogs.)  I haven’t even gotten into Werner’s demand that Justin Perry assassinate the King and Queen of Spain for …. reasons, I guess.  Just as with the first book, describing the plot of Vatican Kill probably makes it sound more interesting than it actually is.  As over the top as all of the action and the scheming is, the prose describing it is fairly mundane and the author continually gets lost in Perry’s ruminations about God and the past.  I have to admit that I read the book very quickly, first because it was called Vatican Kill and I can only imagine what my Spanish and Italian grandmothers would have thought about that and secondly, because Justin Perry was such a creepy character that I really didn’t want to spend too much time with him.  The book ended on a note so grotesque that I washed my hands afterwards.  Seriously, Justin Perry was one messed up dude!

Book Review: Justin Perry: The Assassin by John D. Revere

About a month ago, as I continued to make my way through the paperbacks that I inherited from my aunt, I read five short paperbacks about a character known as Justin Perry, the assassin.

Who is Justin Perry?  As was explained in the first book in the series, 1982’s Justin Perry: The Assassin, Justin’s name used to be Roger Johnson.  He was raised in a world of wealth and privilege, the son of a general and a socialite.  Like his father, Roger enlisted in the army.  He ended up in Vietnam and, when he saw a friend of his get blown up the Viet Cong, Roger discovered that he had it in him to be a very savage and efficient killer.  Back in the States, Roger was hailed as a hero.  He married the beautiful Bambi and they had a son named Roger, Jr.  But then, Bambi was murdered by a commie spy and Roger went mad.  A mysterious figure known as the Old Man recruited Roger to work as an assassin as the CIA.  Now known as Justin Perry, the assassin lives to kill the nation’s enemies and to have sex with every woman he meets.  Seriously, that’s all he does.

The book not only gives us Justin’s origin story but also presents us with a rather sordid adventure in which Justin Perry tracks down a Nazi collaborator in Europe.  It’s while on that assignment that Justin discovers the existence of SADIF, a secret organization that we know is evil because its acronym sounds a lot like SADIST.  His pursuit of SADIF leads to several over-the-top torture sequences and also the discovery of a huge conspiracy, one that involves almost everyone that Justin has ever known.  We also discover that SADIF has infiltrated the Church and that Josef Mengele is now working as a gardener at the Vatican.  (As an Irish-Italian-Spanish Catholic, I would be offended it wasn’t all so stupid.)  None of it makes much sense but, to be honest, I’m not totally convinced that the Justin Perry books weren’t meant to a parody of sex-obsessed pulp fiction.

When I say that Justin Perry is sex-obsessed, that is literally all that he seems to think about.  He gets an erection when he kills a man.  Every woman that he wants automatically wants him (and, apparently, they’re all into S&M to boot).  One sexual encounter is ruined by an attack by an assassin, which leads to not only Justin’s masochistic lover killing herself with a knife (and getting off on the process) but also Justin obsessing over the fact that some of his sperm ended up on a hotel room floor.  Justin, in fact, is so hypersexual and so obsessed with proving himself sexually that it’s hard not to wonder if maybe he’s killing people because he’s trying to kill something about himself that he doesn’t want to accept.  I haven’t even gotten into the weird torture sequence where Justin and his friend, Bob Dante, are threatened with being sexed to death by a group of SADIF nymphomaniacs and a feet-licking chauffeur.

Actually, I have a feeling (or maybe it’s a fear) that I’m making this book sound more interesting than it is.  Despite all of the insane things that happen, the prose itself is actually fairly dull.  If one takes the book seriously, it’s a celebration of a sociopath.  If one takes the book as being satirical, it’s still just one joke repeated over and over again.  What is interesting is that the next four books in the series were even stranger and I’ll be reviewing those over the days to come.  For now, let’s just be happy that Justin Perry: The Assassin never made it to the big screen.

Book Review: Message From Nam By Danielle Steel

This is a review of another novel from my aunt’s big collection of paperbacks.

First published in 1991, Message From Nam follows Paxton Andrews as she grows up in the 1960s.  She goes from being an idealistic, Kennedy-inspired teenager in Savannah, Georgia to being a hardened and brave war correspondent in Vietnam.  Along the way, she defies the wishes of her wealthy family, who would rather that she live in a conventional life in Georgia.  She goes to college, she protests the war, and she eventually even gets to write a weekly column about the war and how it is effecting both the combatants and the folks back home.  She also falls in love with several different men, the majority of whom end up dying in Vietnam.  I guess that’s one of the dangers that you run into when you’re a war correspondent.  Eventually, the great love of her life also disappears in Vietnam.  Is he dead or is he just waiting for Paxton to come and find him?

So, I don’t know about you but when I think of an American author who could deftly capture the intricacies of American foreign policy and the turmoil of the late 60s and the early 70s, Danielle Steel is not necessarily the first name that comes to mind.  Steel fills the book with historical detail but it all feels a bit rudimentary.  Naturally, the book opens on the day of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, of course, there are references to all of the other big events of the 60s but the book’s examination of those events don’t go much deeper than acknowledging that they happened and that Paxton was upset about some of them.  Even when Paxton goes to Vietnam, it’s an experience that’s pretty much interchangeable with what the reader might expect to see if they were watching a movie about Vietnam as opposed to reading a book about it.  There are no details that make the reader pause and think, “I bet that’s what it was really like.”  Throughout the copy of the book that I read, Steel continually referred to Vietnam as being “Viet Nam.”  Admittedly, I usually make the same mistake before autocorrect jumps in to help me out but, then again, I’ve also never written a novel about being a war correspondent in Vietnam.

I suppose Message From Nam was Steel’s attempt to show that she could write a novel that didn’t take place in a world of glamorous and glitzy rich people but the fact of the matter is that Paxton still comes from a rich family and nearly every man that she meets falls in love with her so this really isn’t that much different from a typical Danielle Steel novel.  Indeed, the novel could use a little glamour and glitz.  To be honest, the book works best when Steel stop trying to make history come to life in all of its gritty reality and instead, just embraces the melodrama.  When the book focuses on people declaring their undying love right before tragedy ensues, it works just fine.  Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with being a good romance novelist.

Book Review: Undercover by Danielle Steel

Marshall Everett was an undercover DEA agent who spent years infiltrating the drug cartels of South America.  When he got too close to the people that he was supposed to be investigating, he was yanked from the assignment and sent to work for the Secret Service.  After he took a bullet protecting the President’s wife, he retired to Paris, a city that is known for being welcoming to former members of American law enforcement.

Ariana Gregory was the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina.  When she was kidnapped by communist revolutionaries, she tried to resist the charms of their charismatic leader.  But, before you could say Patty Hearst, she was pregnant and brainwashed.  Fortunately, she was eventually rescued by the American forces.  Unfortunately, her lover died, her father died, and she eventually had a miscarriage.  A year has passed and she’s still dealing with the trauma.  And where better to deal with trauma than in Paris?

When Marshall and Ariana meet …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

Well, actually, they bond over the fact that neither one of them feels as if they belong in their home country anymore.  Both of them lost their identities in South America and now, in Europe, they can build brand new identities.  They can also fall in love!  Yay!  Unfortunately, they’re also going to have watch their step because the brother of Ariana’s revolutionary lover is looking to kill both of them.

This a typical Danielle Steel novel, one that I found in my aunt’s collection of paperbacks and which I read two weeks ago.  Though I do enjoy a good romance, I’ve never been a huge fan of Danielle Steel’s.  Her prose rarely sings.  The dialogue rarely crackles.  The characters never really feel all that developed.  That said, it’s kind of hard not to appreciate the shamelessness of Steel’s plotting.  Any romance writer could come up with a story of two lost souls meeting in Paris and finding personal and spiritual redemption through their love.  However, it takes a Danielle Steel to make them two lost souls who are recovering from being brainwashed in South America.  It takes a Danielle Steel to ask, “What if Donnie Brasco and Patty Hearst met and fell in love?”  It takes a Danielle Steel to write about  the inner workings of both an international drug cartel and a left-wing revolutionary cell, despite apparently not knowing much about either.  There’s an almost random, “just toss it in” feeling to the plot of Undercover that is definitely entertaining.

I guess my point is that, while I was reading Undercover, there were a lot of moments where I dramatically rolled my eyes.  (Anyone who has ever watched me read a book can tell you about how much I enjoy rolling my eyes.)  But the story held my interest and I certainly didn’t put the book down until I finished it.  Whatever else you may want to say about the book and Steel’s style of writing, it definitely got the job done and, it should be noted, I didn’t get brainwashed while reading it.  That’s the important thing.

Book Review: A Time To Remember by Stanley Shapiro

My aunt has always been a prodigious reader and, when I was growing up, I always enjoyed looking through the stacks of books that she had sitting in the closets of her room. A few years ago, for medical reasons, my aunt had to move out of her house. Because she wouldn’t have room for all of her books in her new place, she gave the majority of them to me. So far, I’ve only read a few but, over the course of this year, I plan to read all of them and review the ones that I like or, at the very least, find interesting. That was one of the resolutions that I made on January 1st and I have to admit that I haven’t really been doing a great job keeping up with it.  Hopefully, I’ll do better during the second half of the year.

This week, from my aunt’s book collection, I read Stanley Shapiro’s A Time To Remember.

A Time To Remember was originally published in 1986 and it tells a story that might sound a little bit familiar.  David Russell is a school teacher in Dallas.  He is haunted by the death of his brother, who was killed in Vietnam.  David has convinced himself that, if John F. Kennedy had lived, America would have withdrawn from Vietnam and his brother would still be alive.  In fact, as far as David is concerned, America itself would be a better place if Kennedy had lived.  Not only would the Vietnam War have been prevented but the Watergate break-in would never have occurred.  Nixon would never have been president.  Martin Luther King would never have been assassinated.  Robert F. Kennedy would still be alive.  Americans would never have become disillusioned with their country or their government.  America would have kept its innocence.

Too bad that David can’t do anything to change history.

Or can he?  It turns out that David’s girlfriend is a reporter and she knows a scientist named Dr. Hendrik Koopman.  Koopman has created a time machine!  David uses the machine to go to the past, intent on preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating Kennedy.  (Sorry, conspiracy folks.  Like me, A Time To Remember is firmly in the Oswald Acted Alone camp.)  Unfortunately, David doesn’t succeed and he ends up getting arrested in Oswald’s place!  Now, David has to not only escape but he also still has to find a way to save Kennedy!

Obviously, the plot is a bit similar to Stephen King’s 11/23/63.  That’s not to say that King deliberately plagiarized or even knew of the existence of Shaprio’s earlier novel.  Not only do the two books take vastly different approaches to the material but the idea of saving America by saving JFK has long been a popular one amongst the boomers.  That said, it’s interesting that it was King, who plays the epitome of a committed 60s liberal on Twitter, who wrote the book that was more skeptical about whether or not saving Kennedy would truly save the world.  Shapiro takes a much simpler approach to the material, one that’s almost charmingly naïve.  I’m fairly agnostic on whether or not JFK would have been a transformative or even a well-remembered President if he had lived but one doesn’t necessarily have to buy into the mythology that’s sprung up around JFK to appreciate the sincerity of Shapiro’s idealization of the man and the era that he represented.  Just as 11/23/63 was redeemed by King’s cynicism, A Time To Remember is redeemed by Shapiro’s nostalgia.

Shapiro, it should be noted, also tells his story far more quickly and far more economically than King did.  11/23/63 runs for close to 900 pages.  A Time To Remember doesn’t even make it to 200.  It’s a book that you can read in one sitting and Shapiro keeps the story moving at a quick pace.  Though the characters aren’t particularly deep and one can certainly debate the book’s conclusion, Shapiro tells the story well.  Those who like to play “What If?” with history will appreciate the book.

Novel Review: The Plot To Kill The President by Jack Pearl

President Harmon Stevens is a liberal who is looking to reign in the influence of the Military-Industrial complex and the CIA.  So, of course, it’s decided that the President must be taken care of.

Fortunately for the conspirators, back when Stevens was in the army, he took part in the court martial of a soldier named Paul.  Paul was given a dishonorable discharge on account of killing enemy POWs.  The reader is told that Stevens shouted, “You have the Mark of Cain on you!,” which …. okay.  I guess it’s possible that someone outside of 17th century Massachusetts spoke like that.  Now, Paul spends all of his time feeling bitter and watching cartoons.  He’s a Bugs Bunny fan because he believes that Bugs is a sociopath, just like him.  (Personally, I think Bugs is just a force of chaos.  Sociopath is a bit extreme.)  One day, Paul’s cartoon watching is interrupted by the opportunity to take part in a plan to take out Stevens.  However, Paul soon discovers that he’s being set up to be a patsy, much like Lee Harvey Oswald.  Will Paul risk his life to reveal the truth?

The Plot To Kill The President is one of the many paperbacks that I found in my aunt’s collection of old books.  It was originally published in 1972 and it’s very much a book that was inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the conspiracy theories surrounding it.  Paul is a disillusioned American.  It’s not just that he has a personal grudge against the President.  It’s that he no longer believes in the promise of America and, as a result, he has no problem with the idea of betraying it.  It’s not until an awkwardly written date with a recently naturalized citizen that Paul starts to realize that America can be saved.  (How awkward is the encounter?  At one point, Paul’s date recites the pledge of allegiance in the middle of a restaurant.)

Anyway, it’s a fairly silly and overheated book.  It’s written in the first person, so we’re not only subjected to Paul as a character but we’re also forced to spend way too much time in his head.  Paul is one of those people who has a lot of ideas but none of them are particularly interesting.  Before I started writing this review, I looked up the book online and I came across someone speculating that Jack Pearl was a pen name for Jack Ruby!  Actually, Jack Pearl was a journalist who wrote several paperback thrillers.  He also wrote a non-fiction book about the JFK assassination, in which he supported the idea that Oswald was a part of a larger conspiracy.  That’s not surprising.  The Plot To Kill The President was clearly written by a true believer, even if it’s never as convincing as it tries to be.

Probably the most interesting thing about the novel is that the copy that I read had a cigarette advertisement inserted into the middle of it.  It was for Kent cigarettes and featured attractive people laughing while holding cigarettes.  They all had perfectly white teeth, without a hint of nicotine staining.  I’ve noticed that quite a few 70s paperbacks came with cigarette ads.  I always wonder how effective they were.  In 1972, was anyone reading The Plot To Kill The President and thinking to themselves, “Damn, I need a cigarette?”

Book Review: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

After having watched the film version a few hundred times, I figured that it was time for me to sit down and actually read Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. 

First published in 1985 (and written when Ellis was only 19 years old and still a college student), Less Than Zero tells the story Clay.  Clay is a rich college student who returns home to Los Angeles for winter break.  It’s his first time to be back home since starting college and he quickly discovers that all of his old friends are, for the most part, hooked on drugs and self-destruction.  Clay’s friend Rip deals drugs and buys underage sex slaves.  Clay’s former best friend, Julian, is now a heroin addict who has sex for money.  Clay’s other best friend, Trent, is a model who watches snuff films.  Meanwhile, Clay’s girlfriend, Blair, isn’t even sure that she likes Clay.  Clay goes to therapy and the therapist tries to sell his screenplay.  Clay struggles to tell apart his two sisters and he rarely speaks to his mother or his father.  He’s haunted by memories of his grandmother slowly dying of cancer.  As winter break progresses, Clay finds himself growing more and more alienated from everyone and everything around him.  He feels less and less.

I had often heard that the film version was dramatically different from the book but nothing could prepare me for just how different.  In the film, Clay is an anti-drug crusader who reacts to everything that he sees in Los Angeles with self-righteous revulsion.  In the book, Clay simply doesn’t care.  Clay’s narration is written in a flat, minimalist style, one that makes Clay into a dispassionate observer.  Over the course of the narrative, there are times that Clay obviously know that he should probably feel something but he just can’t bring himself to do it.  Even when he objects to Rip buying a 12 year-old sex slave, Clay doesn’t do anything to stop Rip or to help his victim.  Clay is the epitome of someone who has everything but feels nothing.  Most of the memorable things that happen in the movie — Julian begging his father for forgiveness and money, Clay and Blair being chased by Rip’s goons, Julian dying in the desert — do not happen in the book.  They couldn’t happen in the book because all of those scenes require the characters to have identifiably human reactions to the things that they’re seeing around them.

It’s not necessarily a happy book but, fortunately, it’s also a frequently (if darkly) funny book.  Bret Easton Ellis has a good ear for the absurdities of everyday conversation and some of the book’s best moments are the ones that contrast Clay’s lack of a reaction to the frequently weird things being discussed around him.  Even more importantly, it’s a short book.  Just when you think you can’t take another page of Clay failing to care that everyone around him will probably be dead before they hit 30, the story ends.  Ellis writes just enough to let the reader understand Clay’s world and then, mercifully, the reader is allowed to escape.

Just as the movie is definitely a product of its time, the same can be said of the original novel.  Reading Less than Zero is a bit like stepping into a time machine.  It’s a way to experience the coke-fueled 80s without actually traveling to them.