Sunday, February 26, 2012

Flesh (1990)

Written by: Gus Weill

For those of you who didn't catch the B-Fest 2012 recap, I'll kick this off with an explanation of why I'm reviewing another book. During a shopping excursion on the B-Fest 2011 trip, we hit a Half Price Books, and I was explaining to Tim Telstarman how when I go to a used bookstore I usually go through the horror section and just buy everything with a monster on the cover. He found this book with a picture of a lady uncovering a platter bearing a human hand and suggested it looked stupid enough to be entertaining. It certainly looked stupid, but as I pointed out, it was not a monster on the cover, and I also had a huge stack of things I was getting already. Never mind that half the things I was buying were things he had recommended anyway, Tim does not take no for an answer.

So throughout the following year, he bought every cheap copy he could find on the internet and plotted ways to slip them to me throughout the B-Fest 2012 trip. In fact, the perceived run on this “collector's item” prompted the few remaining sellers holding copies to jack their prices up in the hopes that whatever was causing these things to fly off the shelves would net them a hefty profit. At last check, you can't get a copy of this particular edition (somehow this book sold through four printings, and only this final one had the particular artwork that makes the whole joke funny) on for less than $90. I would dearly love to talk to that seller and explain to him why he's not going to get $90 for a shitty pulp horror novel.

I got one checking into and out of the hotel, found one in my menu at Giordano's, one he just handed to me while I was helping him get some stuff out of his car, slipped one into my coat pocket, had one given to me by the funeral director at Alghrim's Funeral Home and Mini Golf, one was delivered by the waitress at the Hala Kahiki tiki bar, and rigged the B-Fest raffle so that I would win one (although this one didn't work out quite as planned because the method of slipping me the “winning” ticket made it seem like I was legitimately screwing another friend out of a prize and so a thoroughly sick Kentuckian had to stumble halfway across the auditorium stepping over people and luggage just to hand me copy #7). I wound up with eight copies altogether, and promised I'd do a review when I got around to reading one (if you're wondering, no, I am not planning on reading every individual copy).

The plot revolves around middle-class music student Marion Anderson, who by the merit of his lyric writing abilities gets into a prestigious music school. He has the plot and most of the songs written for his Broadway masterpiece, but can't seem to write a melody that isn't a derivative piece of garbage. Following a hauntingly beautiful piece of music floating down the hall, he meets Justin Caeser, pianist extraordinaire. The two become fast friends, and Justin suggests they retire to his family's private island to write their show in seclusion. The small town that services the island's needs, which they pass through on the way, is a foreboding place where everyone seems depressed and afraid. A bartender warns Marion not to go, but he ignores the warning and winds up meeting the rest of Justin's family. Mr. Caeser is an imposing, bellowing giant of a man (and one of the few good things I have to say about the book is that it gave me the opportunity to mentally cast Brian Blessed in a role), his wife a mildly creepy lady with a possible lech for Marion (and everyone else in the house), but she's nothing compared to Justin's predatorially sexual sister Eleanor.

Poor, alcoholic Timothy, Eleanor's fiance, tries to warn Marion as well, but he disappears before he can spill the family secrets. One of those secrets, Eleanor's albino twin sister, starts showing up in Marion's room at night and giving him secret blowjobs, but even the, or would that be white?...sheep of the family may not be safe to confide in once Marion learns that the Caeser's ravenous appetite for chops and roasts isn't being fed by pork or beef...

What we have here is a serious case of the author's talents being stretched far past the breaking point by his concept. The attempt to turn the story of the Sawney Bean family into an “eat the poor” class warfare struggle, with a Rockefeller-wealthy family being cannibals operating outside the law, is a great idea. There's an enormous amount of material to be mined from that idea, and in the hands of a better author this could have been a really fantastic book. As it is, Gus Weill just bit off more than he could chew. That joke make you groan, did it? Try reading 214 pages of that. Because that's just about all Weill does with the material, but dripping from every page like brown gravy is the feeling that Weill is really, really pleased with his own cleverness. You can practically feel his elbow in your ribs every couple of paragraphs, and hear his voice whispering, “Eh? See what I did there? Eh? Pretty good, huh? Did you like it? Wait til you see the one in chapter ten!”

That's not to say there are no decent moments. The bit where the bartender is trying to warn Marion to turn back in the bar's restroom, only to have them turn and see Justin standing in the door, generates a bit of suspense. And after every meal when the family devours their human dish like a pack of starving wild dogs, they all fall into this strange coma for a couple of minutes. The idea in itself is creepy enough to add some atmosphere to the scenes where it takes place, but I wish that Weill would have played with it a little more, maybe explained why it happened or made it part of the story. It seems like a really obvious setup for the way Marion will defeat them at the end, and then it just winds up being completely ignored.

In the end, it's not a great novel, which would have been almost a better end to this joke than if it had been an utter piece of loony shit. It's got glimmers of the former, and hints of the latter, but it never swings enough in either direction to be a real classic or a real anti-classic. It certainly swings a little closer to the delightful garbage end of the spectrum once Marion and Justin reach the island, though. Weill clearly has no ear for dialog or character development, as everyone is either shouting in anger, weeping with joy, or eyeballing each other with suspicion.  There is no middle ground to anyone's emotional state at any time - whatever it is they're feeling, it's constantly cranked up to 11. Marion repeatedly comes to conclusions that he can't possibly work in this insane family and must get off the island, only to completely forget everything he has found out about them and give in to yet another blowjob from Annabel Lee. Granted she's a vegetarian for health reasons because of her condition, but I wouldn't trust anyone from a family of cannibals to put my dick in their mouth.

The really bizarre thing about how this book missed practically every single mark it shot for, is Gus Weill is an extremely prolific writer and politician. He is the owner and CEO of Louisiana's biggest PR firm, and has managed four of the last six Louisiana governors' campaigns. James Carville is one of his many proteges in the political world. On the entertainment side, he spent two years working for Otto Preminger, and has hosted TV and radio shows, written plays, and books of poetry, fiction, and biography over a career spanning many decades.  You'd think with that much experience with both the slimy world of politicians, who are a perfect metaphor for above-the-law cannibals, and that much writing under his belt, he would have been able to do more with this concept.  I think this quote from him may put things in perspective as to how he came to have so much success with relatively little ability (at least where drama is concerned, he may be a great poet).

“Over the years I’ve just trained myself to do it. Discipline’s the most important part of the writing process. I absolutely put talent second.”
  • Gus Weill

I guess perseverance really does pay off. His book may not be very good, but of the two of us, he's the only one who has written one and gotten it published.

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