BOOK REVIEW: “Gadget Man” by Ron Goulart (1971)

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Some weeks ago, I reviewed “After Things Fell Apart…” by Ron Goulart, calling it one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and, in fact, better than several of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. In trying to find more information about it to write the review, I discovered that it was actually the first installment in a series called “Fragmented America.” Excited, I quickly tracked down a copy of “Gadget Man,” the second in the series. I tore into it, expecting more of the same, and quite eager to get more of the same, since the previous book was so darn good.

There’s no polite way to say it: This book just isn’t nearly as funny as its predecessor. It starts out dry, and chugs along for quite a while before it really decides to give us some comedy. It’s not that it’s entirely unfunny, just that it’s wry, not, you know, crazy screwball stuff like the first book. Eventually, about half or two thirds of the way through, it actually seems to remember the previous book was a comedy, and it finally brings the humor, but the fact is, even then, it’s not nearly as good as “After Things Fell Apart.” In fact, having cogitated upon it for several days now, I kinda’ don’t think it was even trying to be. The author was perhaps attempting something different, or perhaps the spark was gone, or perhaps he was just over thinking it.

Remember “Tom Tom Club” from the 80s? An offshoot of Talking Heads? Remember how they had those first two albums that were blow-offey and kinda’ great? (Built entirely around leftover Adrian Belew guitar parts from Talking Head’s album “Remain in Light” from the year before. And, yes, there was a lawsuit, since he wasn’t paid, nor even credited). No pressure, just something fun to do between ‘Heads albums. And then the Talking Heads broke up, and they came out with their long-delayed third album, and it sucked beyond the dreams of Hoover. Why? Well, firstly, no Adrian Belew, but also because there’s a change that happens when something you do on a lark becomes your day job: you over think it, and the stuff that made it fun in the first place kinda’ dies.

That might be what happened here. I don’t know. Certainly it felt like it.

Anyway: The plot is pretty similar to the previous book. We’ve got an investigative guy who’s assigned to track down a mysterious goings on, and the result is a road trip that brings him into contact with a kind of weird girl, they have various adventures, and ultimately defeat the big boss badguy in a somewhat anticlimactic and abrupt final scene.

The specifics are quite a bit different, of course: The book is far less funnier than the last one, the main character isn’t a detective, it’s not a wave of killings he’s trying to figure out, but rather a wave of riots. This book takes place in the Republic of Southern California, rather than San Francisco, and whereas the first book has the protagonist continually bumping into a friend who helps him out, this book has the protagonist continually bumping into a friend (Well, co-worker, really) who keeps trying to kill him. Also, whereas in the first book the girl was a hippie chick who’d fallen in with a bad crowd, but had repented of it, in this book the love interest is an arch-terrorist.

There’s been a wave of flash riots all throughout the republic. No one knows why, the rioters themselves don’t know why they did it after the fact. It just comes over them, then leaves an hour or so later. The police suspect it’s a band of terrorists attempting to overthrow the government, and so our protagonist - Jim Hecker - is assigned to contact one of the terrorists, a girl who’s not interested in not being a terrorist, but who’s willing to work with the police because she feels there’s a larger threat looming. She doesn’t want the other terrorists to know, however. There are a lot of them, and they’re all related to her in some fashion. He goes undercover as a shirttail relative and is attempting to get information at a family dance when the police - headed by a guy named “Sane” - raid the place. Hecker and chickiebaby escape.

There are multiple kinds of cops in this story, some working at crossed purposes. Hecker works for, essentially, a paramilitary version of Social Services, and Sane works for something called “The Manipulation Council,” which I think is supposed to be propaganda, but actually just seems like normal cops. Sane is continually trying to arrest Hecker and the girl, and it gets tedious after a time. None of the adventures are as engaging, nor as funny, nor as cavalier as in the previous book.

We have a modestly humorous run-in with a catholic priest who’s more interested in selling his cookbooks than he is in anything else (He runs a cordon bleu soup kitchen), and then about 45 pages in we finally recapture a bit of the flavor of the previous book when Hecker has a run-in with two old friends and their bitchy gay robot:

“Riot commission ain’t gonna’ find nothin’. Got men running it, men financing it. They’re all emasculated. Can’t even manufacture a robot who ain’t queer.”
“Nobody’d have you,” said Rex-06896, “you’re such a darned old nag. That’s why you hate men.”
“As a girl, I used to read stories of rich old matrons jiving with their chauffeurs. Some fun that must have been. Now I got me a chauffeur, and he’s a fairy appliance.”

This results in another showdown with Sane, but our heroes escape and end up bumping into some tourists they met at the cooking priest’s church, who take them home and they get embroiled in homeowners association stuff, which culminates in this conversation here:

>>>“Well, for a junior college, I think we’re quite liberal,” said the Everyman head. “We started off in our first year admitting students no matter what their race or creed. Then we voted that high-school grades were not important, and shortly therafter to even allow kids in to Everyman who hadn’t made it through high school. Next we liberalized our admissions further to allow kids who hadn’t even gone to high school to enter Everyman. We next ruled, uner pressure, that age was not a factor in admissions. We now admit any kid over six who wants to come, and the vice -president of the sophomore class is a ninety-six-year-old Hindu. We now even have eleven toddlers in frosh English, and last semester a one-legged grandmother captained the football team. What’s all that, if not fair?”
“No Chinese Commandos,” said Anna-Maria. “And, furthermore, not one course giving students the Chinese Commando side of the invasion!”
“You’ve got me there,” admitted [The Headmaster]<<<

I love it when Goulart makes fun of the Kalifornia Uber Alles stuff!

It turns out that the former Vice President of the United States is behind all the rioting, and Sane is working for him. The Former Vice President is continually bragging about his days in office, both how great he did his job, and how he was materially responsible for breaking up the US. There’s a funny bit of dialog about how he squandered eight years and countless billions of dollars on an entirely theoretical weapons system while neither he, nor anyone else, had ever bothered to figure out what it did. After several more fairly dry adventures, and a fun run-in with a terribly bored talking dolphin living in an abandoned aquarium, Hecker & co. decide to infiltrate the headquarters of the main bad guy, the guy *behind* the Former Vice President.
This is the titular Gadget Man, a very old man hooked up to a massive external life support system keeping him alive beyond his years. He intends to overthrow the Junta ruling the Republic, and then it’s your fairly standard “Heuta Europa, Morgan die Weldt” kinda’ thing.

After killing him, they discover the actual mechanism by which the riots were caused was a psychic Chinese commando who’d been kept in confinement all this time. They free him, and he helps them escape.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Well, despite the fact that I’ve been incessantly comparing this book to the first one in the series, it is in fact not at all fair for me to do so. The question in reviewing a book is: does it stand on its own, irrespective of other works? Is it a good read? Does it entertain and engage? Is it worth re-reading?

Sadly, no. It’s a potboiler, with nothing in particular to recommend it, aside from its association with a much better book. It’s not entirely without its charms, but the whole thing revolves around unlikely coincidences (Which you can get away with in comedy, but in a not-very-comedic book like this, ehm…) and entirely predictable doublecrosses. There’s nothing particularly thought provoking in it, either, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.

We do learn a bit more about the fall of American civilization: southern California (not the whole state) seceded from the Union in 1980, apparently somewhat in reaction to the Vice President bankrupting the country through hyperspending on dubious defense projects. Immediately thereafter, Chinese Commandos invaded the Republic of Southern California. Despite the fact that they were traitors, Southern California felt the (final) American President should have supported them in this crisis. We’re told the rest of the country was already falling apart by then. We know that SoCal beat the commandos, though how isn’t known.

I dunno. I was pretty disappointed by the whole thing. Again: I’ve conversed with Mr. Goulart a couple times, and I don’t think he’d ever deliberately write a *bad* book, and - let’s be clear here - this is *not* a bad book, but it’s nowhere near as good as the award-winning predecessor.

Still and all, there are four more books in the series. I’m looking forward to reading the third one at the very least. After all, this could be sophomore slump. It happens. If I gave up every time the second book is kina’ lame, I’d never have finished Fred Phol’s “Heechee” series, now would I?

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Actually, probably, yeah. Mr. Goulart is a self-proclaimed liberal, but both books I’ve read in this series are pretty boldfaced in making fun of the California over-the-top style of liberalism so popular in the 60s and 70s. The point seems to be that this sort of thing is inherently self-destructive, and tends to weaken the society that protects it. That could be just me reading too much into it, of course, but that’s how I take it.

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