Dead men and bonobos: a winning combination

If you purchase only one supermarket paperback global conspiracy murder mystery this spring, make sure it’s Sparkle Hayter’s “The Last Manly Man.”

Packed with action, romance, senseless violence and plenty of chimps, “The Last Manly Man” (2002, Penguin Books, New York, N.Y., $5.99, 260 pages) is a unique exercise in 21st century urban media adventure.

The story begins simply enough with the death of Robin Jean Hudson, an angst-ridden reporter for New York’s less-than-stellar All News Network.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), our heroine isn’t really deceased. Reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated. So have reports of the death of one Robert Huddon, a deputy secretary of state whose obituary tape has been mistakenly broadcast by the network in place of Robin’s prerecorded death notice.

(You’re following all of this, right?)

As readers may have guessed by now, Robin is having one of those lives, and her death is just the tip of the iceberg.

Before she failed to die, Robin was working on a vodka-fueled special report about “The Man of the Future.” She was hoping to put together a series dealing with how far the male has come over the eons, how he might evolve in the future and, most importantly, what it is that makes a man a man.

The project sounds straightforward enough, but it doesn’t take long for things to get complicated, starting with an elderly man in a brown suit who gives Robin his hat and an address moments before he’s swept away by a couple of mystery men in a limousine.

When Robin tries to return the old gent’s hat, her life slowly begins to unravel.

The address leads her to an animal rights organization that’s looking into the bizarre kidnapping of a dozen bonobo chimps. From there, it’s a short trip to a dead, nine-fingered French biochemist, a pistol-packing, blue-haired octogenarian vigilante and an eccentric millionaire whose house talks to him.

Romantic interests include Mike, an Irish cameraman whose personality fluctuates between sweet, sensitive poet and dark, brooding dog killer; and Gus, a guy who insists that he once had a pet salmon named Harry whom he used to take for long walks in a bucket.

To complicate matters, Robin seems to have a double named Miss Trix, who’s just gotten out of jail for selling bad heroin and using deaf-mute orphans from Guatemala to help with marketing.

Meanwhile, Robin’s also being pursued by a gang of thugs who keep asking her what she’s done with “Atom” or “Adam,” depending on which mealy-mouthed thug is asking.

I could tie this all up for you in one neat little package, but that would ruin all the fun of connecting the dots yourself and discovering what bonobo chimps, dead Frenchmen, Mr. Chicken, Miss Trix and Morton Mopwash have to do with a sexist plot to subvert an entire gender.

Is “The Last Manly Man” worth a trip to your favorite supermarket’s paperback aisle?



Originally published March 17, 2002

The sounds of silence? Not likely, amigos…

The hours before dawn are, perhaps, the most uncertain of times. Commonplace objects seem to merge with the gray, pre-dawn light and it’s not always clear what’s real.

There is one thing, however, I can always count on around 3 o’clock on any given morning – if the phone’s ringing, it’s my old ’60s sidekick, Sapper, calling to explain why karma runs sideways through interdimensional gaps of subjective reality.

(Sure, go ahead, read that last paragraph again – can’t hurt…)

Sapper, forever lost in the Age of Aquarius after ingesting some unidentified herbs near Bolinas in 1968, is always ready to share his thoughts with anyone he can reach on the telephone after midnight.

Last Tuesday morning, Sapper directed his telephonic excesses my way, calling from his tastefully deconstructed crash pad in the heart of Oregon and urgently confiding one of his deepest fears.

‘Hey, bro, you ever thought about how many weird people there are just wandering around out there where they could bump right into you an’ stuff?” he asked. “I mean really, really weird – Charlie-Manson-on-the-half-shell weird. You ever wonder about that?”

(Uh-huh – usually when the phone rings before sunrise…)

“It always gets to me when I’m standin’ in line somewhere and I know somebody is standin’ in line behind me and that person could be really, really weird – like a zombified Richard Nixon or somethin’ just breathin’ down my neck…” he continued in an urgent whisper.

Getting a word in edgewise was not yet an option, although I did manage a brief “Whuh…” before Sapper resumed.

“When yer in line somewhere, anybody can just step up behind ya, and chances are they’re crazier than a road lizard. Ya can’t really turn around and see just how weird they might be, because that’s, like, impolite in this society. So ya just gotta stand there and wonder when they’re gonna start swingin’ a dead cat at the back o’ yer head,” Sapper declared.

“An’ then they start makin’ all kindsa weird sounds. Ya ever notice that? Yer standin’ in line at the post office or movie theater or someplace an’ all the sudden the guy behind ya starts making sounds like ‘Glik-glik snnnrrrk’ Oh, man…”

(Glik-glik snnnrrrk?!)

“I mean, ya gotta wonder what’s goin’ on back there but ya don’t wanna look ’cause ya know yer gonna come face-to-face with some guy who looks like Rasputin clutching a quart of vodka in one hand an’ a rabid ferret in the other…” Sapper added.

“Of course, it’s even worse if ya can understand some of the sounds. Then yer hearin’ stuff like ‘Aha! Vengeance…Death…Cottage cheese! Lizard, lizard, lizard! Tanks in the wire!’ hissed at yer back,” Sapper said. “An’ the only thing worse than that, bro, is silence. Then yer sweatin’ it ’cause they’re back there starin’ at the back of yer neck an’ just gettin’ weirder an’ weirder without a sound. There’s no escape…”

Silence? No escape?

Ah, there’s where you’re wrong, old buddy. Escape is as easy as, say, dropping the telephone receiver into a handy wastebasket and burying it under a pillow. And a bedspread. And some old shirts. And a couple pairs of boots. And maybe a big ol’ recliner chair…

Originally published July 23, 2000

They don’t make ’em like they used to

I’ve spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business listening to endless diatribes from journalistic crustaceans complaining about how modern newsrooms are just too sissified.

Newsrooms have gotten soft and frilly and user-friendly and, er, clean. And so have their occupants, oldtimers have continually carped since shortly after the end of the Peloponnesian War.

“G’wan, willya lookit that, willya? Bwah!” they’ve groused year after year.

I’ve tried to reason with the old fellows. I’ve tried to ignore them. I’ve even tried to outtalk them (“G’wan, g’wan – shaddup, willya? Bwah!”). All to no avail.

Indoor plumbing is too damned fancy for most of these guys. So’s toothpaste…

Then, last week, something happened – I began to agree with them.

Trouble started with a simple question. While researching a story, I turned to my young newsroom cronies and politely asked the price of a pitcher of beer – nothing fancy, just average beer in an average pitcher at an average tavern.

Alas, I haven’t indulged in the foamy stuff myself ever since my liver threatened to get on the next bus for Reseda a few years back. Prices, I reasoned, must have changed over time.

I felt secure in the fact that I was in a newsroom, though, once recognized as a bastion of precision alcohol consumption. Surely my colleagues would know the cost of a pitcher of beer.

The faces were blank, the silence was deafening.

I might as well have asked for the price of a mail order bride in Ulaanbaatar.

“Uh, guys – Brewskis? Bud? Down the hatch? Pitcher? I’m sure we’re all familiar with the concept – mildly alcoholic beverage in a large container suitable as an offensive weapon under some circumstances?” I asked, my barely concealed sarcasm lost on the well-scrubbed young scribes.

Finally, one by one, they admitted that they either didn’t drink, only indulged in minuscule quantities of designer vodka or had decided to invest their beer money in no-load mutual funds.

“Beer? You mean that German stuff?” asked one goggle-eyed youngster. “My grandpa used to drink that.”

Marvelous. I’m sitting in the middle of a bona fide American newsroom in the greater San Francisco Bay Area – in the heart of S’lano County, fer gawd’s sakes – and nobody knows the price of beer.

Any one of these reporters probably could have told me the price of imported French brie, Italian mineral water or Swiss hair conditioner, but none of them had even a passing acquaintance with a simple pitcher of brew.

Not only was my story stalled, but I finally had to admit what my elders had been telling me for decades – they just don’t make newsrooms like they used to.

Eventually one red-eyed young fellow saved me by staggering through the newsroom and responding “Five or six bucks, depending on happy hour…” before slipping back into the night.

His knowledge and stalwart dedication to a fine old newspaper tradition are, of course, to be commended.

As for the rest of my alleged newspaper colleagues:

“G’wan, willya lookit that, willya? Bwah!”

Originally published May 21, 2000

Don’t bother lookin’ if this tractor’s cookin’….

The folks at the John Deere Research Lab are onto something that may revolutionize agriculture, warfare and, possibly, rural commuting.

According to a recent Associated Press report, the 168-year-old farm machinery concern has joined forces with researchers at Southern Illinois University to build a state-of-the-art stealth tractor.

Constructed from the same high tech composite material that’s used to make lightweight, hard-to-detect stealth warplanes for the armed services, the experimental tractors are being designed as a possible alternative to traditional steel and aluminum models.

Researchers say they’re not trying to develop a new military vehicle. They’re just looking for a lighter, cheaper and more durable piece of equipment to keep America’s lawns and fields under control. And that’s certainly a noble pursuit – noble but doomed. Take it from me, amigos, none of those puppies will ever see an Iowa corn field…

As soon as the Pentagon gets wind of this plucky little agricultural project and sees the military potential for stealth tractors, sinister black helicopters will come swooping down and spirit them off to a remote, top secret compound faster than you can say “Golllll…”

Let’s be realistic about this – stealth tractors might be somewhat useful on Uncle Zeb’s okra plantation, but they’d be superb for sneaking up on the skulking enemies of democracy and striking a resounding blow for freedom.

Even the least knowledgeable of strategists will tell you that military forces invariably go on the alert when they become aware of tanks racing across the border. Naval authorities are equally suspicious of unidentified destroyers prowling the harbor. And most governments are understandably wary of F-16s darting about the imperial palace.

But nobody expects trouble when they see a humble farm tractor or two rolling down the road in a cloud of dust piloted by grinning, gap-toothed guys in straw hats and tattered overalls.

(“Relax, they’re probably just here for the vodka harvest…”)

No matter where you’re from, it’s hard to suspect a red-faced guy in a checkered shirt who gives you a big “Howdy, neighbor!” as he rolls past, blithely spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the wind.

Admittedly, most farmers don’t hunt prairie dogs with light anti-tank weapons and M-16s, but by the time our slow-thinking enemies figure that out, we’ll have them surrounded.

The advent of the stealth tractor will prove, once and for all, that the steadfast military-industrial complex, so derided in the ’60s and ’70s, is still working hard for America.

And, by its very nature, the stealth tractor should be easily adaptable to peacetime applications. Once our citizen-soldier-farmers have defeated the minions of whatever godless dictatorship we’re fighting, they can bond with the common man, tilling the fields, trimming the golf course, planting acres of corn and lima beans for as far as the eye can see.

Succotash for everyone!

Hey, if this isn’t a win-win situation, I don’t know what is…

Originally published April 2, 2000