RSS Feed

Tag Archives: capsule book review

Full Service ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

Full Service ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Scotty Bowers was born in 1923 and is now 95 years old. He grew up in a small town in Illinois, served in the Marine Corps in World War II and began living in California after the war. He started out as a gas station attendant in Hollywood in the 1940s and became a male prostitute (for either sex), a procurer (for anybody of any sexual orientation who wanted a sex partner), bartender, handyman (repairing anything from plumbing to electrical wiring), husband and father, sexual powerhouse, friend to many, including famous and celebrated people in and out of the movie industry, including Ramon Navarro (silent screen star), Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Harold Lloyd (silent film comedian), George Cukor (movie director), Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton, Noel Coward (English playwright), Cecil Beaton (English photographer and set designer), Cole Porter, Rita Hayworth, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, Vincent Price, Rock Hudson, J. Edgar Hoover, Tennessee Williams, Mae West, Edith Piaf (French singer), Tyrone Power and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The list goes on and on. According to Scotty Bowers’ memoir, Full Service, everybody loved Scotty and looked upon him as a great friend. He was the “go-to-guy” for fulfillment of many of their desires and needs. There was nobody ever who didn’t need and love Scotty. He was known as “Mr. Sex.”

If all of Scotty Bowers’ claims are true, he was one of the most extraordinary human beings who ever lived. He was equally accommodating for sex with either gender—of how many heterosexual men have you known this to be true?—and could perform easily at least three times a day. He was never squeamish about bizarre or repellant sexual practices or fetishes and could engage in them without reservation. According to Scotty Bowers, it’s all about giving and receiving pleasure and, as long as those requirements are met, what could possibly be wrong?

Full Service is an entertaining memoir by a man who claims to have “been there,” done it all, and known just about everybody worth knowing in the Hollywood of the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ’70s. Whether or not you believe that one man could know so many famous and celebrated people and be as prodigiously sexual as Scotty Bowers claims to have been is up to you. As with Kenneth Anger’s equally entertaining Hollywood Babylon, it might be a good idea to consider large parts of Full Service as pure fiction, especially since all the people mentioned are dead now and can’t be solicited for their opinions (and can’t sue from wherever they are).

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Advertisements

Dream Boy ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

Dream Boy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The novel Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley is set in rural North Carolina. No time is given when the novel takes place, so we’ll assume it’s in the 1950s since it has a 1950s feel. Nathan and Roy live on neighboring farms. Nathan has just moved to the area with his mother and his creepy, alcoholic father, so he’s new to the local high school. Roy is older than Nathan but still in high school. Roy drives the school bus and when they start out in the morning, Nathan is his first passenger. Nathan seems troubled and withdrawn. Roy reaches out to Nathan and they become friends, despite their obvious differences.

Since they live in an isolated farming community, Nathan and Roy have lots of chances to be alone together. They take long walks in the lonely woods where they discover an old cemetery and, later, an abandoned and long-neglected plantation house. Expectedly or not, surprisingly or not, their friendship develops into a furtive sexual relationship. Later, Roy becomes jealous when Nathan seems to be experienced in the practice of being with another man. Where did he learn it, Roy wonders?

Nathan has a secret. We know it if Roy doesn’t. Since he was a small boy, Nathan has been sexual abused by his own father, a person who has plenty of problems of his own, alcoholism being just one of them. Nathan’s mother just hangs in the background and, doing nothing to help, wallows in her own sorrows.

Afraid that his father will come into his room at night and try to rape him, Nathan begins sleeping in Roy’s barn or in the old cemetery that he and Roy discovered on one of their walks. Roy knows that something is wrong with Nathan but doesn’t suspect what it is. He helps Nathan all he can and tries to protect him. When Nathan and Roy go on a weekend camping trip with two other boys, the other boys learn firsthand the nature of Nathan and Roy’s special friendship, leading to the novel’s tragic conclusion.

Jim Grimsley is a talented, interesting writer. Besides Dream Boy, I’ve read some of his other books, including Boulevard, My Drowning, and Winter Birds. Dream Boy is a slim novel, under 200 pages, with elements of the southern gothic. The ending is a little ambiguous, but I suppose that’s the way it’s meant to be. Nathan’s victimhood is to become Roy’s lifelong sorrow.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Portnoy’s Complaint ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

Portnoy’s Complaint ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Alexander Portnoy’s father, Jack, is a downtrodden insurance salesman, under-appreciated professionally and personally. He is perpetually constipated (presumably from worry) and obsessed with his bowel movements. Alexander Portnoy’s mother, Sophie, is a stereotypical Jewish mother, a loud-mouthed, opinionated yenta who knows all the clichés and doesn’t mind using them liberally. (These two elder Portnoys are, as Alexander says, “masters of guilt.”) Alexander Portnoy’s older sister, Hannah, is a plain, quiet, mousey girl who knuckles down under Jewish parental authority and makes her parents happy by marrying a nice Jewish boy and becoming a mother.

Alexander Portnoy himself is a sex-obsessed adolescent and then a sex-obsessed adult. He is complex-ridden, psychologically “constipated,” unable to find the one thing or one person that will make him whole and satisfied. He has lots of girlfriends but, when all is said and done, he doesn’t really like any of them very much. He is confused by love and its various meanings. He is “screwed up,” presumably by his Jewishness and by his parents’ own particular brand of lunacy. When he reaches his thirties and still has not taken a wife and “settled down,” his parents wonder where they went wrong.

This is Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s satirical, fantastical (at times), outrageous, irreverent (nothing is sacred), sexually explicit, compulsively readable, funny, 1969 novel. (It must have offended a lot of Puritans back in 1969.) It’s an unusual novel, a novel not in the traditional sense of the word, but more of a loosely structured, extended monologue by Alexander “Alex” Portnoy (born 1933) to his “therapist,” Dr. Spielvogel. (In talking about his life, A. P. has a lot of territory to cover from his approximately 33 neurotic years.)

Fifty years after its initial publication, Portnoy’s Complaint has stood the test of time and stands as an American classic. It was chosen by Modern Library as number 52 on the list of the hundred greatest novels in the English language of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Jordan County ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

Jordan County ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Shelby Foote was an American writer and historian who lived from 1916 to 2005. He is best known for his monumental, three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, but he also wrote works of fiction, including Jordan County, called a novel but really a collection of novellas, short stories and sketches, all set in or around the fictional town of Bristol, Mississippi.

The collection begins with “Rain Down Home,” a story about a disturbed World War II veteran returning to his hometown after the war. He just got off the train; it’s early morning and rain is falling. He seems all right when he goes into a café and orders breakfast but before the story ends he is unexpectedly moved to violence.

Since “Ride Out” is fifty pages long, it’s more a novella than a short story. It’s about a young, disadvantaged black man named Duff Conway. He has no father and a decent mother who loves him but is barely able to provide for him. At an early age, he discovers a talent and a love for music, which he apparently inherited from his wayward father. He teaches himself to play rustic instruments and begins hanging out at night spots where jazz is played. He ends up in reform school and when he finally gets out and goes home, he pursues his music earnestly. He has some early success playing the cornet professionally, but he gets mixed up with the “wrong” kind of woman and jealously murders a rival for her affections. He is sentenced to be executed in the electric chair, but here irony intervenes. He has contracted tuberculosis from breathing “bad air” for years in nightclubs where he has played and would be dead soon anyway, even without being executed.

“Child by Fever” is a novella or short novel (150 pages) comprising half the length of Jordan County. It is the story of one Hector Sturgis, child of a wealthy family. He is dominated by his grandmother and, when she dies during an epidemic of yellow fever, his mother (who almost dies in the epidemic but doesn’t) becomes the dominating force in his life (it’s a matriarchal family). He is lonely and isolated from the rest of the world and looks for love in all the wrong places. He marries an unsuitable woman named Ella and, after the initial sexual attraction grows thin, he realizes what a mistake he has made. Ella dies tragically while committing adultery with another man (the man dies too), and Hector lapses into insanity. He stays isolated in his room all the time, imagining that his dead wife Ella has returned to him.

“Pillar of Fire” is the story of one Isaac Jameson, a soldier who fought with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and who is still alive, a very old man, when the Civil War is fought. His life story is the story of much of the history of the South. When Union soldiers burn his lifelong home over his head, he has no other choice but to stand by and watch.

Jordan County is not the best of Southern writing, but if you’ve read all the Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers you can lay your hands on, don’t count it out. It’s engaging and thoughtful writing (if second-tier) that’s worth your time and effort, if you, like me, are a compulsive reader of anything that’s good.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Over the Edge of the World ~ A Capsule Book Review

Over the Edge of the World ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In the 1500s, many people still believed the earth was flat and that if you sailed far enough, you’d fall over the edge, even though the Bible states (around 800 B.C.) in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah that the world is an orb suspended in nothing. Around 1520, Portuguese explorer and navigator Ferdinand Magellan proved the world was round by sailing west to get to the East. Although Portuguese by nationality, Magellan was employed by Spain for the simple reason that the King of Portugal wouldn’t finance an expedition for him. Magellan set out to find the Spice Islands on the other side of the world to bring back treasure for Spain (all-important spices) that was to be found there.

Spain and Portugal, side-by-side European countries, were both world powers and were involved in a fierce struggle to be the first to the Spice (Molucca) Islands. Spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, etc.) were more valuable than gold and were playing an ever-important role in the world’s economy. Whichever country claimed the Spice Islands for its own was going to have an enormous economic and political advantage.

In 1519, Magellan set out with 260 men in five ships. This fleet of ships was called the “Armada de Molucca.” Over the next three years or so, the men of these five ships would experience untold danger, hardship and deprivation. Magellan was a good administrator and manager, but he was driven by ambition and seemed to lack the human element to make him popular with this men. Most of his men despised him for his hardness and cruelty and for his steadfast adherence to rules. He refused at times to give his men as much food as they needed, even when supplies were plentiful.

Magellan’s voyage to find the Spice Islands was only marginally successful, but he has taken his place in the history books because he was the first person to circumnavigate (go all the way around) the earth, a voyage of 60,000 miles. His men believed that, if they were just able to survive the hardships (hunger, danger, extremes of weather, loneliness, fear, discomfort, disease) of the voyage, they’d have enough money at the end of it to live the rest of their lives in financial security. Sadly, their dreams were never to be realized.

Magellan met a bloody end in the Philippine Islands when he overplayed his hand in trying to convert some of the natives to Christianity; some were compliant while others were not. (The irony is that Magellan wasn’t supposed to be trying to convert the natives; he was only there to claim the Spice Islands for Spain.) After Magellan’s death, his men continued on to the Spice Islands, but they knew, even the ones who despised him, that they were at a loss without his guiding hand and managerial skills.

Over the Edge of the World, by Laurence Bergreen, is a fascinating and detailed account of the life and times of Ferdinand Magellan and his daring voyage all the way around the world. It’s a true-life story with an ironic and bitter ending. Once again, we see how truth is stranger than fiction. People play only a small part in controlling their own destinies.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Boulevard of Broken Dreams ~ A Capsule Book Review

Boulevard of Broken Dreams ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Paul Alexander’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams—The Life, Times and Legend of James Dean is a fascinating and compulsively readable biography of bad-boy 1950s movie actor James Dean.

There has never been anybody else quite like James Dean. He was born in 1931, an Indiana farm boy. His mother died when he was nine years old, causing him lifelong emotional insecurity. (He was always looking for a surrogate mother.) His father never really wanted him (or even liked him), so he was raised by an uncle and aunt. Despite his unlikely environment, he wanted to be an actor from an early age. He was always artistic and temperamental, the kind of boy that most people don’t even try to understand. As he grew to manhood, he was extraordinarily good-looking (though slight, weighing only about 135 pounds) and was discovered to be an exceptionally gifted and unique actor. Overcoming many obstacles, including lack of money, he ended up in Hollywood after appearing in a couple of Broadway plays and studying acting at the prestigious Actors’ Studio in New York City.

James Dean was a rebel in the 1950s, an age of clean-cut, cookie-cutter conformity. He was homosexual but never in a fey, obvious, or stereotypical way. (He played basketball in high school and was a racing-car enthusiast, for Christ’s sake.) His manner and style of dress put off most traditional-minded people. When he dated young “starlets” in Hollywood (as part of the Hollywood image-making machine), he was any mothers’ worst nightmare.

In Hollywood, James Dean traded on his good looks to get acting jobs in exchange for sex from gay male producers and casting agents (the other side of the “casting couch”). When he landed his first part in an important movie, a film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, directed by the most important director of the day, Elia Kazan, he was still only twenty-three years old but had struggled to “make it” in the difficult profession of acting for a long time. He was still an unknown, of course, but anybody who knew him believed he was destined for movie stardom.

When East of Eden was released, James Dean was found to be a sensation. He connected with audiences (and not just teenage girls) in a visceral, emotional, unique way. He had a style of acting that was new and mostly his own. People went crazy over him. His next move, Rebel Without a Cause, seemed tailor-made for him. He played a sensitive, moody, misunderstood, spectacularly good-looking boy named Jim Stark. His self-absorbed parents mostly ignored him. He didn’t fit in at school. It wasn’t until he became friends with Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) that he seemed like a person, a real human being.

After Rebel Without a Cause was Giant, a movie about Texans based on a best-selling novel by Edna Ferber. Two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, played opposite James Dean. He was Jett Rink, the Texas outsider, the counterpoint to Rock Hudson’s character, the “nobody” who becomes a big man in his own right. Again, the rebel.

Sadly, after those three movies (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant), there would be no more for James Dean. On September 30, 1955, at age 24, he was killed in a gruesome, two-car crash on a California highway. He was driving his sportscar, a Spyder Porsche (which he had just recently had the money to buy), to a racing competition in Salinas, California, when he collided with another car. (Nobody’s fault, just an accident.) The wreck was so violent that he had no way of surviving. On that day, the day of his death, the myth of James Dean was born.

East of Eden was the only one of James Dean’s three movies to be released during his lifetime. Rebel Without a Cause and Giant were released posthumously, to great acclaim and increasing sorrow over his tragic and unexpected death. People went to see his movies to cry over what was lost and what “might have been” if he had lived. Is there anything any sadder to contemplate?

When he died, James Dean was still mostly an unknown actor. In the year following his death, after the release of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, he became as famous as any movie actor of the 1950s. Not since the death of Rudolph Valentino in 1926 had the death of a Hollywood figure caused such a stir, in America and around the world. Today the cult of James Dean lives on, the myth of the tragic young hero who was too good for this world.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Crowned Heads ~ A Capsule Book Review

Crowned Heads ~ A Capsule Book Review

Thomas Tryon (1926-1991) was a movie actor turned fiction writer who had several successful and best-selling books in the 1970s and ‘80s. Crowned Heads is a 1976 collection of four novellas (each about a hundred pages) in one book about (fictional) movie people who, after they have become as famous as they’re ever going to be, are on the down-side of movie fame. Though these characters are fictional inventions, we assume that they are all based, at least in part, on real people.

The four novellas in Crowned Heads are “Fedora,” “Lorna,” “Bobbitt” and “Willie.”

“Fedora” is a Garbo-like movie star, reclusive and mysterious. She is described as being one of the biggest movie stars ever. She has an alluring European accent and when she gets in front of a movie camera, she generates movie magic. People love her and flock to her movies. One of the amazing things about her is that, even well into her seventies, she still looks young and can play characters much younger than her actual years. Just what is her secret? (No, she hasn’t made a pact with the devil and, no, she doesn’t have a magic youth potion like the one Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn had in Death Becomes Her.)

“Lorna” is one Lorna Doone, a middle-aged, one-time movie actress better known for TV commercials she has appeared in. She has tons of personal problems, including a shoplifting charge and an insurance investigation into a fire she supposedly set in her home, and she needs a “rest.” She takes her rest at a remote, seaside Mexican resort, where she alienates all the guests, sleeps with as many men as she can, drinks lots of booze, takes pills, and has the kind of breakdown that only a woman can have in a tropical paradise. She only goes downhill from there, setting fire to her cabana, inflaming the local riffraff to passion, and having an encounter with a snake god in an ancient jungle temple. If you like stories about a woman coming “undone,” you’ll love this one.

“Bobbitt” is a character in a series of popular movies for children. The name of the child actor who plays Bobbitt is Bobby Ransome. Decades after Bobby Ransome’s star has fallen, he reappears to the people who knew him and worked with him. He is now an adult, of course, and, except for being “older,” he seems much the same as the kid actor who played the part in the movies. In fact, he hasn’t changed at all. As he adult, he lives in a world of fantasy, make-believe and illusion. Will a little sky-writing help to straighten him out?

“Willie” is Willie Marsh, a has-been movie star who seems to have nothing better to do than sit around his lavish Hollywood home and remember the glory days when his star was at its pinnacle. His home is a kind of museum, but, alas, he is alone and has no one to enjoy it with him. His “mate,” Bee Marsh, has died and left him alone. (We believe, of course, that Bee Marsh was Willie’s wife until it is revealed to us, bizarrely, that she was his mother.) With the obvious Hollywood “treasures” that Willie has in his home, he is certain to attract a criminal element (the “have-nots”) who resents him because he is one of the “haves” and is obviously rich. When a trio of “have-nots” make their way into Willie’s home (under false pretenses), he at first welcomes them because he is lonely but soon discovers what a mistake he has made. The leader of the trio, whose name is Arco, is a lunatic and will resort to any means to get his hands on a certain priceless artifact that Willie is rumored to own. (This novella is based on the infamous 1968 Hollywood murder of silent-screen idol Ramon Navarro.)

Crowned Heads is a “dark” book, engaging, breezy to read, somewhere about halfway between pop fiction and contemporary American literature. It has become a kind of minor classic of the crime/Hollywood lore genre. Thomas Tryon was a talented writer who knew how to deliver a chilling story. He probably made the right decision to give up acting for writing. I first read all of his books years ago and was reading Crowned Heads for the second time.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp