BOOK REVIEW: “After Things Fell Apart” by Ron Goulart (1970)

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Funniest. Book. Ever.

No, seriously, this book is hysterical. I first read it about twelve years or so ago when a local mom-and-pop second-hand bookshop was going out of business, and I just sort of scooped up everything I could carry. The book was so funny that I actually decided to write an unlicenced spec screenplay of it on the spot, it was just that good. And, of course, I was just that stupid. Then, when my script hit about 20 pages, I actually got to the end of the book, was very let down by the ending, and gave up on the whole project, never to think of it again.

I rediscovered the book a week back, tore through it at hyperdrive speeds, laughed myself into spasms of aching muscles several times, and you know what? Even the ending wasn’t that bad. I dunno what I was smoking back in the Clinton years. But whatever it was, I can assure you: I didn’t inhale.

Bottom line: Funniest book ever. Go and find yourself a copy on Amazon right now.

What? You want more to go on? Fine…

PLAY BY PLAY

It is the not-too-distant future: 1995 AD, or thereabouts. The United States of America collapsed somewhere in the first half of the 1970s. This was really more annoying than disastrous. We didn’t end up with world-wide communism or a Road Warrior-styled post apocalypse. Instead we end up with a bunch of little city-states and weird fringe groups, all impotently bickering with each other.

As with all good noirs, this noir-parody starts out in San Francisco. There have been a series of murders by a radical lesbian separatist group called “Mankill, Inc,” but more commonly known as “Lady Day.” Jim Haley is a detective who takes the case, trying to figure out who the killers are, and what they want. From there on out, the book is a hybrid of your standard Chandleresque sleuthing about, and a 1960s-styled road movie.

The world of the future (As seen from the past) is full of little enclaves of whack jobs, all running their little ideal worlds, all more-or-less with their heads stuck in the sand, ignoring the larger problems of the world and intent on remaining firmly in control of their useless little kingdoms. As parodies of the fragmented politics and special interest groups of the 1960s go, this one is spot on, and really really funny.

Haley eventually travels to a sort of perpetual Renaissance festival, where he gets a lead on a former Lady Day member. He tracks her down - she’s kind of a hippie chick - and in exchange for protection, she gives him a lead on a gay actor who’s affiliated with the terrorists. Haley and the hippie chick hook up - of course - and then she gets kidnapped by her former gang members. He chases after her, has various increasingly silly adventures, and then we reach the climax.

I’m being deliberately vague because this is a comedy, and a mystery, neither of which handle spoilers well. You really need to read this one, not read about it. What I *will* do, however, is give you a bunch of lines from the book that jumped out at me, so you can sort of gauge how funny it is

RANDOM FUNNY BITS I LIKED

“McGuiness scowled at the [Computer]’s slightly askew speaker grid. “Give us what you have on the assassinations of Dante B. Fortalanza.”

“That’s a good subject,” said the box. “Now, I’ve been worrying a lot about these killings and about the senseless violence rampant in our culture in general. The problem is, everyone these days is too cerebral. I think we need a turning back to the simple virtues of the past, a turning back to the glorious days when each citizen of San Francisco was responsible for law enforcement. In those golden vigilante days of yore, it was relatively - “

Chief McGuiness kicked the box in the side. “Give us the damn data, and don’t editorialize. Not verbally, either. Print me the info.”

***

“We live like pioneers,” said the spokesman of the Natty Bumpo Brigade men. “We tell time by the sun and moon. And that’s tough in fog like today. He rubbed his fur hat nervously over his groin for a moment. “Can’t I even read the statement about why we claim this half of the bridge should be ours permanently? How we feel that America went off the track politically sometime in August of 1776?”

“No, you’re too late.”

“I guess you don’t want the wild turkey we cooked for you, either?”

***

“Nat‘s Garbage Service,” said the old man.

“Pleased to meet you, Nat, my name’s Haley.”

“No, man, I’m not Nat. I’m Nat’s Garbage Service. That is, I’m the only surviving member.”

“A music group?”

“THE music group,” said the old man, “We got the Grammy in 1972. You wouldn’t remember our big ones I guess: ‘Flowers Growing in the Cracks’ and ‘Fragmented Syntaptic Authenticated Hallucinogenic Anthrax?’”

“No,” said Haley.

***

“Why don’t you have any pants on, Joel?

“I’m using that ballet academy across the road as an observation point. You know how ballet dancers are. Girl ballet dancers, I mean. I just happened to look up and notice you were being pushed out of the tower. ‘Hey, that’s Jim Haley being tossed off the top of the Nixon Institute,’ I said to Inga. It didn’t mean anything to her. […] Most women today don’t too much understand loyalty to a profession. You kow why that is? Because a lot of guys are in lines of work they don’t enjoy. You’re lucky I put loyalty before screwing.”

***

The toll man said, “This is San Rafael. You’re getting off on the wrong foot.”

“I don’t like gambling,” said Haley. “I came for the perversions.”

***

“Course all them dagos are goofy about sex. You take this here now Mafia them wops started. Basically, down at the ground level of it, that was a danged good idea. Still, good, aint it? What they sometimes call organized crime. Now, if one of your major races had of thought of the Mafia first, why things wouldn't be in the sorry shape they are nowadays. A good god-fearing white protestant Mafia could have held the United States together. You bet your ass. Well, now, better late than never. We got the Amateur Mafia going now, got organized crime in the hands of a better class of people.”

***

[When a black man is asked about the whereabouts of some other black men, simply because he's black he replies:]
“I’m not up on everything in the world with a touch of negritude in it, after all.”

***

“You care very little for my talent, Penny. This version of Body and Soul you’ve been yawning through I copied note for note from a famous Coleman Hawkins solo on a real old record.”

“Since you’re neither Hawkins nor a saxophone,” said the girl, “What difference does it make?’

“You’re a dialectic bitch.”

***

A blonde teenaged girl next to him said, “Don’t use dirty language with a blind lady, you blackamoor!”

“You can cut the crap up, too, missy,” replied the black man. “I came here to enjoy this anti-feminine play. I share an anti-feminine view with this troup and you and the old bimbo with the big bazoo are adding to my bias right now.”

“Well, I don’t think you should say crap to a blind person.

“That’s all right,” said the frail woman, “I’m only partially blind, young lady.”

“In point of fact,” said the fat black man, “I happen to be totally sightless myself. You may even have heard of me. I’m a blues singer. Blind Sunflower Slim.”

“Who cares?” said the girl, “Blues are outmoded. Mechanical jazz is what’s of the moment.”

“Shut up,” cried a redhaired Negro man from across the aisle.

“That’s my partner,” said Blind Sunflower Slim. “That’s Cripple Memphis Red himself.”

“None of you sound in very good shape,” said the young blonde.

“At least I ain’t up in Oakland.”

***

The old FBI chief said, “Sure thing. We have a big portable computer in a trailer out next to Cabin 26. I drove all the way from Washington DC with that baby. A few days after the United States went into decline.

“Brought some of your agents with you?”

“Yes, six of my closest associates. We’d all of us nursed a dream of some day retiring to California. Those Washington DC winters can be dreadful. One morning when there were an exceptional log of riots in the capital, I said to my closest friend in the FBI, ‘Well, 22, let’s get out while the getting’s good. We’ll drive to sunny California and open that motel we’ve always dreamed about.’ 22, he’s been dead and gone four years now. You wouldn’t have found a more rugged and masculine man, yet he never married. He was a lifetime bachelor. As I am. We all of us were, who came out, except for 33. And he was most anxious to get out from under the thumb of his wife. So we loaded up six big trucks and trailers with personal belongings and FBI curiosities and equipment and we came westward. Like the pioneers of old, our rugged and masculine ancestors.”

***

“That last couple: I deduce they’re an adultery case. We allow it. As long as they don’t use dangerous drugs or mechanisms, and don’t advocate treason or make mealy mouthed pleas for the underdog while they’re registered here, they can do as they please in bed.”

***

“I’m due to ship out later in the day. We’re going after mutant fish and I expect to hit many strange ports of call before my cruise is done. I’m concerned - as no doubt you will be when you reach my age - with my vitality. With my vim and vigor, if you follow my drift. I have quite a reputation for raising cain in the remaining hellholes of the Pacific. I need a product that will assure my prowess.”

“Maybe you should thing about retiring from the sea?”
***

“As a matter of fact, I know a couple guys on the Buffalo Bill. Met them a few days back, up the coast. I’m not a double-gator. These guys are straight. They’re just on board that fag ship writing the script for this new swish film. It’s going to be a gay patriotic Technicolor western.”

***

“This kind of film can’t be done. A gay western? Yes. A patriotic western, perhaps. A gay conservative western? Nix!”

“The faggots didn’t have enough money,” said Baxter, “So they had to get outside financing from wealthy citizens and from some groups like that Natty Bumpo Brigade up in Frisco. We don’t have to waste time going over all that again.”

“The title is maybe fair, ‘the Rio Rita kid.’ That’s fair. The concept is not too awful, a sort of Robin Hood of the old west. By night the mysterious masked avenger, fearless swordsman and peerless horseman. By day, the sweet new schoomarm. Good. I buy that. A nice switch on the old dual identity gimmick, and it satisfies our faggot public. Myself, I can’t really identify with a hero who goes around in drag. Still, I don’t have to like the crap I write. What I can’t cope with is how we rationalize his being against sex education in the schools.”

“Well, he’s the school marm,” said Baxter

“All the teachers I know are liberals.”

“Yes, but how many do you know who go around in drag with a parasol and a blonde wig?” He took a swing of his beer, “I see no reason we can’t integrate all the messages and still have a damn fine action film”

***

“Buddy Plastino may be a little too gay for your tastes, and he may appear in fag westerns too often in the role of Esperanza, the Spanish Flamenco Beauty, but he is always a gentleman.”

***

“No immolations, no conflagrations,” said the Sheriff, “I’d take that as a definite violation of our agreement.”

“We just only want to set him on fire for a little bit,” pleaded a thin blonde boy.

“No immolations, no conflagrations,” pointed out the sheriff, “Everybody agreed on that. Now if it was just up to me, kids, I’d say okey dokey, light him up for a couple minutes. Son long as you snuffed him out before he got seriously burned. See, but I got the city fathers to think about and a lot of other prominent people in the area.”

“Frick the prominent people, we thought you meant we couldn’t set ourselves on fire.”

“I knocked him down,” Said the blonde boy, “I don’t see why I can’t do what I want with him.”

The sheriff gave a sigh, “Look now, suppose I let you give him a hotfoot. Would that satisfy you for a while and help clear the air?”

“What the frack is a hotfoot?”

And on and on and on it goes

OBSERVATIONS

As deliberately offensive as all this is, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a hateful, racist, or homophobic book. Everyone in this story hates everyone else, and there isn’t a group in here that comes across as anything other than petty, ignorant, stupid, and fundamentally self-obsessed. The point of all this bickering and infighting is essentially a commentary on the social disintegration of the US at the period in which it was written, extrapolated to ludicrous levels. In the hands of a lesser author, this could be seen as a cautionary tale, but Goulart’s story is first and foremost a detective mystery, which happens to be taking place in something like a parody of a cautionary tale.

Beneath the mystery itself, we’re looking at a commentary on how special interest groups and narrow political agendas and racial divides have more-or-less destroyed the American Identity (Whatever that is). The idea here is that if everyone is pulling for their own group, then no one is pulling for the whole, and the whole falls apart. We’re never actually told what caused the US to fall apart, but pretty obviously it’s a case of “United we stand, Divided we fall.” No one stood together, and hence…

I’ve recently discovered that this book was the first in a series, and I’ve tracked down a copy of the second installment, “Gadget Man” (1971), which I’ll review here shortly. Assuming it’s as much fun as this one was, I’m hoping to review the entire series.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

It would be constitutionally impossible for a conservative not to like this novel, since it maintains what we’ve been saying all along: work together for the common good, and your own subculture will prosper. Work only for your subculture and nobody prospers. It’s entirely possible that some Conservatives - particularly Social Conservatives - won’t ‘get it’, though. In any event: Recommended.

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