Thursday, May 14, 2020

Another Roadside Attraction and the Popular Cover-Up Genre

I am currently reading Another Roadside Attraction for a second time, more than forty years after reading as a virginal senior in high school. Recommended to me by Nikki Robertson, the quintessential daughter of fortune-telling free spirits who attended the Livonia Career Center, the book had a profound effect on me, and as I'm reading it again, I remember almost every bit of it.

Published in 1971, it is Tom Robbins's first novel. Its clear language and precise wording describe a world that is still highly organized but on the verge of madcap liberation. Its satirical voice has a lot in common with the acerbic comedy of Mort Sahl; Dan Aykroyd should record an audio version.

Cover illustration by Wilson McLean of the first edition I read forty years ago. I'm rereading a recent trade paperback with a completely unexceptional, unevocative cover.

But what is interesting about it is that it has a lot in common with two other books written about the same time: Jeff Rice's The Night Stalker (an unpublished novel in 1970 but adapted into a TV movie and published as a paperback in 1973), and Philip José Farmer's Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, published in 1973.

The Night Stalker became the basis for the minor TV franchise starring Darren McGavin that came to be known as Kolchak: The Night Stalker (noteworthy since it debuted around the time as those TV series that must be disambiguated, Kojak and Kodiak, all three, broadly speaking, detective-mysteries). Apocalyptic Life, although ostensibly dissecting the popular Bantam paperback reprintings of the pulp Doc Savage novels, is today perhaps best remembered as codifying what would become known as the Wold-Newton Universe.

All three books, in playful ways, deal with conspiracy theories and cover-ups as their central theme. In Another Roadside Attraction, its the revelation that the earthly remains of Jesus Christ have made their way to a hot dog stand with a flea circus by way of a VW microbus; in The Night Stalker, that a vampire is robbing blood banks and threatening the tourism industry in Las Vegas; and in Apocalyptic, that the pulp adventures of yesteryear were not fictional at all, but real and further inter-related in one extended family tree.

The paperback I read only a year or two ago.  (Note: avoid the Moonstone reprint at all costs; it is a completely botched, amateurish abortion, badly laid out and chock full of typos).

Why these truths had to be covered up differ from book to book. In Roadside, obviously, it's because two thousand years of organized Christianity might be upended if it were known that Christ did not ascend into heaven but lived to a ripe old middle age then laid down and died in his sleep; in Stalker, it's because gambling revenues are taking a hit on the Vegas Strip; and in Apocalyptic, it's because for some reason the world can't handle the truth that a universal struggle for good and evil is taking place between the forces of good and evil, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, and that the reportage can only be passed of as juvenile escapist fiction.

All three books participate, to one degree or another, in the cynicism and suspicion of the 1970s spawned by the Warren Commission Report (September 1964), the less-than-satisfying account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the 1971 publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, the suppressed internal report that the Viet Nam war was not going well.

This cynicism and suspicion of a Big Lie kept hidden by powerful forces had its apotheosis in events surrounding the Watergate break-in (the first burglary occurring in May 1972, the second a month later). Televised hearings began the following year (May 1973), and culminated with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 1974.

What is interesting is that, while all three books (Another Roadside Attraction, The Night Stalker, and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life) unmistakably conjure up Watergate-Era associations, all three books were written prior to the first break-in at the Hotel Watergate. One wonders whether Woodward and Bernstein would have even been thinking along the lines that led to investigating this otherwise trivial and unexceptional burglary had not cover-ups of Big Lies been "in the air."

Were it not for the Warren Commission Report, the Pentagon Papers, and three entertaining books (among many others one could name, to say nothing of movies like 1967's The President's Analyst or Steven Spielberg's epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, the plot of which involves the government usin a derailed nerve agent to cover up an extraterrestrial landing), there may have been no predisposition to question a sitting president on his insane paranoia and extreme, criminal behaviors to get himself reelected.

A book that's never had a decent cover illustration; this is the best of a bad lot (by Ken Barr), although it's not the edition I read and own (the unthrilling 1975 white Bantam cover).
 The paradox (and I have read or reread all three of the above-mentioned books recently) is that there is no such universal predisposition today to scrutinize a sitting president who is demonstrably criminal, a compulsive liar, grossly incompetent, and patently insane. That is to say that while the majority of Americans are painfully aware of the situation, there is (still) a sizeable and growing portion of the electorate that wants to remain asleep despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

These people don't want to know that the divine is simply human, or that vampires are real, or that Professor Moriarty and Johnny Sunlight are scheming to take over the world. And nothing will wake up these somnambulists from their slumber.

Those are the thoughts that occur to me as I read Another Roadside Attraction for a second time.

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