I was surprised when I was at the bookstore and saw Norman Spinrad had come out with a new book.
It had been a while and I figured Norman was old and senile and probably wouldn’t write any more.
I was wrong.
He’s old. He’s not senile. He is more evil than ever, Praise the Lord.
He is even more handsome, it seems, than when he was younger:
Meet me below the flip and I’ll give you a review.
So there’s this stereotypical, albeit authentic, “hack” agent, “Texas Jimmy” Balaban, and he takes his most recent arm candy to the Catskills, inadvertently witnessing the debut of a new comic, Ralf:
Beat. Empty stage. Beat
The MC staggered onto the stage, looking backward over his shoulder with a goofy dazed expression. “Uh, ah, ladies and gentlemen, ah, I’ve been informed that Jack Dunphy can’t be with us tonight, he, uh …”
“Fell into the reactor pool and turned back into a two-hundred-pound frog!”
A loud offstage voice, penetrating and raspy: a bit like Jimmy Durante, a bit like Popeye, a bit like a circular saw hitting sheet-metal.
The MC looked back at the audience with a sickly dumb-ass grin; given the previous level of acting ability he had displayed, Jimmy was pretty sure this was not an act of which he had expected to be part. What gives?
“But, uh, he has arranged for a replacement, the fabulous, the world-famous, the one and only, uh ah –”
“Ralf! barked the offstage voice. Really barked it. “Ralf! Ralf! Ar-A-El-Ef, just like it’s spelled, Monkey Boy!
“The amazing, uh, Ralf …”
The MC exited rather hurriedly stage right, as the man behind the voice bustled on from stage left.
He was built like a slightly overweight miniature gorilla, legs a bit too short for the body, arms a bit too long. He had thick curly black hair looked like it was combed with an eggbeater, blazed with silver here and there like he once stuck his dork in a light socket. He had dumbo ears that Jimmy would’ve almost bet were prehensile, and big brilliant blue eyes rolling like slot machine tumblers that just didn’t seem to go with his grayish and unhealthy-looking Mediterranean complexion. Bulbous beaky nose that seemed redone by a plastic surgeon for comic effect, and a huge thick-lipped mouth in constant motion.
“Peace and Love, people to the power,” he rasped, making a V-sign with his pudgy right hand.
He was wearing blue jeans, some kind of tie-dyed satin peasant blouse, Reeboks with the laces untied, and a brass peace sign on a leather thong approximately the diameter of a small Domino’s pizza.
He paused, did a take, took two steps forward, shielding his eyes from the glare of the spot with his hand like an Indian scout, peered out into the audience.
“Hey, wait a minute, this don’t look like Woodstock! Wheresa tie-dyes? Wheresa dope? Whersea topless knockers?”
Although this failed to raise the audience from the dead, Texas Jimmy found himself moving to the edge of his chair. There was something about this guy …
Turns out Ralf claims to be a time traveler from the not too distant dystopian future. We have destroyed the biosphere and instead of the usual flashy dystopian notion of big domes for the rich while the poor become weird mutants, Spinrad doesn’t give us the comfort of believing class will be an issue after this destruction.
The only “domes” are makeshift environments created in hastily converted shopping malls, where folks live a minimal existence.
Ralf believed he was going back in time to the Golden Age of the 60s, but he soon finds out otherwise:
“Gimme a break, willya, they told me 1969 when they conned me into the time machine, they told me Woodstock, not the Borscht Belt, my agent promised me a quarter million baby boomers on LSD would laugh at the old rubber crutch act, not twelve dead bodies an’ Vlad the Impaler!”
Jimmy ends up taking Ralf on as a client and flies him back to L.A., where through various plot machinations, he finds a science fiction writer and a new age guru-in-training to groom Ralf into something almost ready for prime time.
Spinrad’s descriptions of science fiction conventions as well as new-age communities is simply a tour de force of deep feelings on both science and spirit.
Ralf ends up a media star on cable TV and through even more plot machinations, his show is transformed into a media phenomenon that Dexter Lampkin, sci-fi writer, and Amanda Robin, the guru-in-training find themselves creating in a bizarre interdependent stew — comedian from the devolved future, hack agent, Los Angeles cable executives, a TV audience comprised of sci-fi convention fans, scientists, spiritualists, a semi-manufactured cult forming and flashes from this wild extended consciousness that something new was being born.
Spinrad weaves hundreds of different spiritual systems, philosophies, emotions, sexuality, into a rich atmosphere, creating a synergy for the reader that penetrates the mind almost as subtly as his villain, a mechanical horror who would thrive on the planet becoming a garbage heap, makes NYC street girl Foxy Loxy aware of its presence while she roams the underground rat infested subways escaping from the law:
“Stay the fuck away from me!” Loxy screamed, whipping out the Big Ripper, and waving the knife at arm’s length in their fuckin’ rat faces.
The rat things didn’t give no ground. A hundred cold blue eyes starin’ her down from every direction. And the noise they was making was gettin’ louder, an’ louder, an’ …
No, not louder, not exactly …
Was like all the worst fuckin’ electric guitar players there ever was had shot themselves up with smack and was jammin’ together an’ somehow these rat things take all that an’ turn it into an ice pick, into the motherfucker of all dentist drills, and —
An ‘jam it right through her ears and into the meat of her brain!
In the character of Foxy Loxy, Spinrad reaches the heights (or depths!) of gross imagery. The mechanical rat creatures don’t understand the niceties of meat creatures, so Loxy’s “meals” are … exotic:
Long about what folks with kitchens or money might think of as a dinnertime, she’s walkin’ up Canal Street west of Mott, Chinatown for chrissakes, where th’ locals are not exactly famous for their hospitality to junkies an’ winos and street people, where all these Chinese food stores are chockablock with open stands onna street durin’ the day, chop your fuckin’ hand off you try an’ so much as cop a string bean. This is also when the street stands are closing up, an’ they’re cleaning up the sidewalk and shutting down the stores–
— and they’re dumpin’ bags and pails of vegetable scraps, bits n’pieces a’take-out duck, eggshells, fish scraps, all kindsa stuff, inna big dirty green Dumpster in a little side street right around the corner–
— proteins, carbohydrates, trace elements, scree, scree, scree —
— and before Loxy knows what she’s fuckin’ doin’, not that she can fuckin’ do much about it either, she’s scrambling over to the Dumpster, grabbing the top of it with both hands, pulling herself up off her fuckin’ feet, and ‘kinda chinning herself up to where she can balance on the lip with her gut.
“Ow, ow, what the fuck are we doin’?” she yells for about the thousandth time, only this time real loud, ’cause it fuckin’ hurt!
But she doesn’t yell for long, ’cause Rat Thing is screamin’ “Protein! Carbohydrates! Lipids! Trace elements!” in her brain, and she’s rummaging through the Dumpster with both hands, and she’s got her fuckin’ head right down there in th’ top layer of garbage, an’ crammin’ fish guts and green stuff an’ pork scraps an’ a fuckin’ duck head into her yawp as quick as the fuckin’ Rat Thing can make her gulp it all down.
While this bizarro-world Cinderella story is taking place on the East Coast, the West Coast is coping with the rise of Ralf, as Jimmy, Dexter and Amanda find themselves becoming transformed even as they rise to unimagined heights in their various professions, Ralf’s presence in their world, using network tv media to reach the masses with the message, various mind altering substances being used at various times as well as wonderful retreats in cleverly designed sanctuaries nestled in the few wild spaces left in the great Northwest.
The mechanical rat-things find beautiful the vision of a garbage heap Earth, shining on the trash can lid like a good meal presented by the headwaiter.
The meat people do not find this beautiful, yet Ralf claims to be evidence from the future that this is the path we are taking by our present choices.
Spinrad has written a masterpiece, managing to synthesize vast areas of the human consciousness in all its splendid, rotten, powerful, terrifying reality. His ultimate philosophy, as voiced by Amanda is:
What is, is real.
That phrase alone can evoke among thinking creatures endless speculations and theories, and that is what makes Spinrad great. He truly exemplifies the best of what science fiction has always been, the power to creatively ask “What if?”