An Unkempt Jeremiad
By Rob LathamMay 6, 2017
The People’s Police by Norman Spinrad
If I wanted to completely tank a novel, I couldn’t have done it better. No one could have because it was a perfect job. And if I wanted to tank a writer’s commercial viability and kick his ass down the cellar stairs into the Death Spiral, I couldn’t do it any better than having the top publisher in New York publish a novel and guarantee its commercial failure. Because no lesser house […] would believe that they could make a writer viable again after Knopf had failed.
Spinrad’s next novel, Mexica, a chronicle of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, was spurned by American publishers (it came out in the United Kingdom in 2005), and the author didn’t help his prospects by going on to write a controversial near-future thriller, Oussama, which offered such a seemingly empathetic take on jihadi terrorism that it couldn’t even be published in English (a translated version was released by the French press Fayard in 2010, with a US edition finally appearing, as Osama the Gun, in 2016).
Understandably paranoid by this point, the always irascible Spinrad publicly speculated that he was being politically blackballed by US publishers. Much more likely, though no less deplorable, is that the author’s sheer unconventionality, his stubborn resistance to producing work fitting any settled mold, has made it difficult for him to negotiate a risk-averse marketplace driven by concerns for predictable, safely “branded” output. While other science fiction writers have taken to generating multivolume series, allowing them to cultivate a reliable readership from book to book, the ever-restless Spinrad has, in a five-decade career, authored only one sequel to a previous title; his two-dozen other novels are all singletons with no direct relation to one another. He has written novels about the links between space opera and fascism (The Iron Dream, 1972); about the sinister power of cult religions (The Mind Game, 1980); the commercial coopting of rock ’n’ roll (Little Heroes, 1987); the seductive allure of addiction (Vampire Junkies, 1994); and the dangers of runaway climate change (Greenhouse Summer, 1999) — all of which give powerful evidence of his fecund imagination and barbed, satiric intelligence, but which also add up to an offbeat array, especially when so many of his peers have been content to craft monotonous (albeit profitable) work. Like his equally gifted contemporary, the late Thomas M. Disch, Spinrad has been hamstrung, perversely, by the prodigal nature of his own creative talent.
Spinrad’s battles with editors and publishers have a long history. His most famous novel, Bug Jack Barron (1969), a sprawling counterculture epic about the duplicitous surreality of television, was commissioned by the senior SF editor at Doubleday, only to be rejected as unpublishable due to its frank eroticism and freaky hipster lingo. When it was picked up for serialization in Michael Moorcock’s norm-busting magazine New Worlds, its sexual candor led British booksellers to ban the offensive issues from their shelves and a Tory parliamentarian to denounce the story as “filth” (perhaps the only time an SF novel has been debated in a legislative session). When the book was finally published, it was seen as a major volley in the decade’s New Wave wars, and although it was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula, it was also denounced, by partisans of old-school SF, as “depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive and thoroughly degenerate and decadent” (in the words of SF editor Donald A. Wollheim). One imagines that the puckish Spinrad would have cheerfully embraced this peevish verdict to describe not only Bug Jack Barron, but also his oeuvre as a whole.
Certainly that characterization captures, quite nicely, the overall effect of his newest effort, The People’s Police, which embraces cynicism and decadence with admirable gusto. Set in a near-future New Orleans in the aftermath of disasters both natural and financial, the plot follows three main characters whose stories gradually intertwine: Jean-Baptiste Lafitte, a loquacious proprietor of taverns and whorehouses whose livelihood is abruptly endangered by the advent of the “Superdollar,” a deflationary spiral that has made fixed mortgages impossible to pay; Martin Luther (“Luke”) Martin, a young cop from the “Alligator Swamp” who becomes a popular hero by spearheading a police strike against home foreclosures; and MaryLou Boudreau (a.k.a. Mama Legba), a street performer who enters into a partnership with voodoo gods that she parlays into a popular cable program, Mama Legba and Her Supernatural Krewe, and eventually — by means too bizarre and improbable to recount — into the governorship of Louisiana. For the first 100 pages, these three stories meander along, never really intersecting; indeed, the novel is highly discursive, with long passages of exposition rehearsing local and national history that tend to overwhelm the occasional dramatized sequences. Eventually, however, the main characters come into contact, whereupon the tale starts zooming along like one of those flat-bottomed airboats that New Orleans cops use to patrol the swamps. Lafitte becomes a kind of political mentor to Mama Legba, who emerges as the figurehead for a popular rebellion against the “Loan Lizards,” a cabal of moneyed interests that controls the state government and hates the political autonomy and moral decadence of the “Big Sleazy.” Eventually, the National Guard is summoned to enforce the home foreclosures the “People’s Police” have refused to perform, which leads to all manner of connivance and chicanery that I will not attempt to summarize.
Indeed, to give away more of the story would be unwise since there is, frankly, very little to the plot as such; in terms of its actual incidents (as opposed to its lengthy reveries and ruminations), The People’s Police could easily have been condensed into a short story. But the novel’s charm lies precisely in its discursiveness, in the elaborate texture of daydream and polemic, gossip and speculation the author avidly weaves. The plot itself is so preposterous it hardly bears scrutiny: the voodoo loas that “ride” Mama Legba, for example — which are compared, in the text’s only really science-fictional moment, to the “dark matter” that undergirds the universe — are so powerful they can control the weather, but they can’t compel the state legislature to accede to the demonic governor’s demands. But such logical cavils are quite overwhelmed by the maniacal profusion of ideas and images Spinrad disgorges, especially the many scenes of Mardi Gras, genuine bacchanals replete with public nudism and casual sex, all under the doting eye of the People’s Police. Still an unregenerate hippie at age 77, Spinrad revels in the eruption of popular license:
[A] fog of pot smoke […] did nothing to hide what was going on from the eyeballs. Half of the crowd was in half-naked costume, and half of those who weren’t were doing the full Monty. Couples, threesomes, even the occasional foursome, were screwing up against walls in full view at any given time, and the crowd itself danced up the street like an endless Chinese New Year’s dragon made out of flesh and feathers, glitter and bling, twisting and twirling to the crazy music, twitching and jerking like snake-handling speakers in tongues.
Spinrad also excels at capturing the flux of introspection of his oddball characters, especially the cynical Lafitte, whose saucy barbs spare no one, including himself; at one point, he sneers at the local hipsters for their snooty contempt toward lurid popular acts like Mama Legba, lambasting them as a pack of “ingrates and ignoramuses and Creole romantics” who “complain about how New Orleans is peddling her previously jazzy derriere to less than the genteel bohemian trade of their absinthe fantasies.” Equally effective are the echo-chamber sequences inside Mama Legba’s skull, as the various voodoo deities duke it out for supremacy.
I would affirm that The People’s Police is a continuous pleasure to read were it not for the poor production values that persistently hobble the story. While the physical book is well designed, including an arresting dust-jacket by Michael Graziolo, the text itself is littered with distracting typos, oddly repeated words (e.g., “his vehicle had come around again to where where Luke was standing”), and passages still showing the raw compositional process (e.g., “what the upstate Holy Rollers were calling called the People’s Police”). A better job of editing would have caught these various solecisms, as well as the embarrassing fact that some anecdotes — e.g., that Huey Long built “a half-assed half-scale replica of the White House” as his governor’s mansion — are recounted twice, thus compromising their effectiveness. Every time I began to fall under the spell of Spinrad’s kooky grandiloquence, some glaring error like this would throw me out of the story. This is particularly unfortunate given that, as noted above, The People’s Police marks the author’s dogged attempt to break back into the US market after a decade of frustrations.
All in all, though, I think the novel should be well received, as it manifests most of the strengths of Spinrad’s long career. In particular, it shows his undiminished fondness for social outcasts, especially those whose psychological quirks or sexual peccadillos set them against prevailing moral authority. Spinrad’s sympathies, throughout the story, are clearly with the marginal denizens of the “Big Sleazy” who just want to get high and screw, undisturbed by the uptight, born-again “peckerwoods,” those “champion[s] of Jesus, Virtue, and Law and Order with a Broomstick Up Its Ass” for whom unbridled Mardi Gras “went over […] like a fuck film festival in Oral Roberts University.” The People’s Police is a savagely satirical, often uproariously funny work of truly unconventional speculative fiction, a kind of demented voodoo sequel to All the King’s Men, an unkempt jeremiad. It is a worthy addition to perhaps the most idiosyncratic body of work that contemporary science fiction has produced.
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