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Friday, October 21, 2016

The Carpetbaggers

Back in the '60s, if you walked into a house with only a few books, chances are they might be the Bible, Dr. Spock's Baby Care, and The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins' 1961 potboiler that added a bit of sex to the staid lives of Americans. It has sold over 8 million copies, and was estimated at one time to be the fourth-most read book in history, but I doubt that's true anymore, as I am probably the only person who has read it recently.

I read The Carpetbaggers because this year is Robbins' centenary, and this was his most successful book, but he's really not much of a writer. The story is a roman a clef about Howard Hughes, called Jonas Cord in the book. He is a dashing rogue who inherits his father's company, is obsessed with aviation, and gets into the movie business. There are other thinly veiled characters, especially Rina Marlowe, an actress that is clearly modeled, right down to the diphthongs in her name, to Jean Harlow.

The book is a doorstop, and I dutifully took two and a half months to read it. It's really several books in one, as if Robbins had several ideas and decided to do it all at once. The basic story is Cord taking over a movie studio and also making airplanes. Robbins denied the book was about Hughes, but come on--the last part is about him building the largest airplane ever built, which Hughes did.

But beyond that, Robbins pumps the book full of flashbacks about other characters. Nevada Smith, probably a composite of several silent cowboy actors, is given a long story about getting revenge in the Old West on the killers of his parents. David Woolf, who may or may not have modeled on Irving Thalberg, grows up in New York and moves up the ladder in the film business, working for his uncle. Rina Marlowe is given a backstory that sees her being adopted and having sex with her adopted brother, and then getting married to a closeted gay man who kills himself, and then she dies young (all was true of Harlow except the adoption part). Jennie Denton's story is mostly original, although she may have been modeled after Jane Russell, whom Hughes tried to make a star in The Outlaw, but Denton is a high-priced call girl who ends up a nun, while Russell went on to do bra commercials.

The book, for 1961, was racy, and one critic said it should have written on a lavatory wall. It has references to fellatio, perhaps the first mainstream book to do so (it was published the year after the Lady Chatterley's Lover case, which made way for books with salacious content not to be banned). The problem is that The Carpetbaggers has comically written sex scenes. I have written thousands of words of erotica, and I would have never been caught dead writing something like, "Her flesh was cool and soft as the summer desert breeze and her thrusting nipples rasped across the palms of my rising hands." Robbins seems to believe that nipples are capable of independent movement, because later he writes, "She felt his hands inside her robe, his fingers on her back unfastening her brassière, her breasts rising from their restraint, the nipples leaping joyfully into his hands." I have never come across leaping nipples. Still talking about breasts, we get: "She was still slim and strong and her breasts jutted like rocks at the canyon edge and I knew they would be just as hard to the touch." Who wants to touch breasts that are as hard as rocks?

There's a lot more of this, and the nonsex stuff isn't much better. I don't think there's a genuinely authentic line in the whole book. Robbins sure sold a lot of books, which is kind of depressing. I guess the current example of this is the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Americans seem willing to read very bad books if they will give them a little titillation.

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