Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ladies of the Valley - Book Review

Sometimes I read a book and feel like I'm getting a snapshot of the writer's state of mind as he wrote. If that's the case for Herbert Kastle, when he was writing Ladies of the Valley, he is one dark guy. If you thought Jacqueline Susann brings the show biz sleaze, you will not be prepared for this. The plot has all the trappings of a Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins romp. But only superficially. Bouncing between characters and their perspectives, Ladies of the Valley tells the tale of a mainstream big-budget Hollywood movie that is to feature hardcore on-screen sex from the stars. Written in 1979, this was actually a fairly common point of discussion around Tinseltown. Coming off of the brief moment in cinematic history called porno chic, when upstanding, regular people and even couples would stand in line to see Deep Throat or The Opening of Misty Beethoven. The success and seemingly respectable nature of the public response to these films had established filmmakers wondering if they could get away with doing such a thing with established actor's outside of the porn world. In fact, there are many people who claim that Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut had originally been intended to the auteur's first pornographic movie when he contemplated filming it in the mid 70s.

But back to the book. The characters that populate this world are all selfish, loathsome, and void of empathy to the point of sociopathic behavior. There's a twelve-year-old boy who is brutally and casually raped by a man in this book and even the kid is annoying and hateful. The sex scenes are either clinical or vicious with no instance of love making anywhere in sight. Sex and violence are simply consumables to these characters. All that said, it is a compelling book. It's not carefully conceived and could (and probably should), at 500+ pages, be at least 150 pages shorter. Herbert Kastle knows how to shock and entertain the reader even if the characters are downright casual in their depravity. You will likely feel dirty while reading this book, which I'm sure is the intention. He writes in such a way that you want to hang on until the end even if you feel like you are craning your neck at a crime scene of vile people and untenable situations and behavior. The only character that has a sliver of likability is the one that I think Kastle might have based on himself. Aside from the parade of depravity that keeps on churning, this is the only character with an interesting perspective. It's a screenwriter whose career in TV and movies has been nothing more than the reason for the writer's current state depression. He drinks and smokes too much. He's being betrayed by his wife and his talents remain underutilized even as he patches together a career. There is no happy ending in sight for this guy. And that's not a spoiler alert. It's clear from the beginning, there are no characters headed for bliss. Herbert Kastle had an interesting writing career that went from science-fiction in the 50s to the over-heated potboilers he sold later in life. He also took a layover in Hollywood as a writer for some TV shows with no great successes. Another aspect shared with the writer in Ladies. Am I making presumptions? Sure. There is not a lot of biographical information that I have found yet on Kastle, but he published around 20 novels over a thirty-year span, with his last only being published overseas in 1982. He died in his early 60s in 1987. 

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