Saturday, November 14, 2015

1168 - "Interstate 10"

I cannot believe I am finally holding this book!

I was expecting a package from Amazon yesterday.   Instead, I found a package sent to me by my Uncle Thad.  Breaking open the seal, I found some old used books he'd thought to send me.   Most of them were art reference books, the kind of volumes I like to collect for my personal research.  A couple were novels, cheap, pulpy, yet well-read. 

Then, I had to sit down.  I was holding a copy of Interstate 10 by E.J. Enalerty.  I've been searching for this book for I have no idea how long anymore.  It's been out of print since the 1970's, and it can't be found online or in bookstores.  I mostly believed it was a figment of my imagination. 

Nobody has heard of this book.  From what little I recall about it, it isn't supposed to be very good.   The only reason that people want a copy is that E.J. Enalerty was the alter-ego of Steve Kaiser, who penned a few pulp action novels before he turned to writing horror and became an international celebrity for it.  Interstate 10 is a collectible book for Kaiser completists.   I will place it on my bookshelf in a place of honour. 

"I know you like that Kaiser fellow.  What you don't know was that Phil Dick was the direct inspiration for I-10.  This was Kaiser's first full-length novel.  I thought you'd like it since you love all that scary stuff.   It's not scary, though.  Maybe you'll like it enough to read some PKD for once."

The yellow note fell from hiding under the paper cover of the book.  Way back when, Philip K. Dick wrote a bunch of long-hair science fiction fables that Uncle Thad appreciated.   A lot of drugs, hallucinations, and the fog of San Francisco Bay at night.  A pointed, repeated question turned over and over in all of his books on what it was that made human beings really human.  That was what I took away from my talks with Uncle Thad on the subject. 

I read Interstate 10 in one sitting.  it wasn't a complicated story, but it was a lot different from what I was expecting.  It's one of a hundred thousand novels that were published in the 70's that prove the law where you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

Everything in the lurid, exploitative cover illustration does happen in the book.  There's urban cowboys, kung-fu fighters, a supercharged Volkswagen Beetle, a deadly ninja lady warrior, and yes, even a silverback gorilla wielding an AK-47 assault rifle plated in gold.  But all of that happens within the context of maybe five pages out of the entire novel.

Most of Interstate 10 is just a long road trip across (you guessed it) Interstate 10, the southernmost transcontinental highway in the United States.  The full and proper title of the book is Interstate 10: A Jake California Novel.  Jake California is the urban cowboy on the front cover.  His real name is Johnny Culliford, but everybody calls him Jake California.  He's set up as a Hollywood stunt man who specializes in fast cars. 

That's where most of the action comes into play on the front cover.  The introduction of the book is a big, provocative fight scene where Jake performs stunts in a massive movie set piece featuring - wait for it - kung-fu fighters, a deadly ninja lady warrior, and yes, even a silverback gorilla wielding an AK-47 assault rifle plated in gold.  After Jake gets paid out for his work on the film, he's set loose on Los Angeles in the late 1970's.

Interestingly, it's quite far from our own 1970's, as Interstate 10 takes place in a fictional alternate universe.  America won the Viet Nam war.  A younger Jake was a conscript who saw action overseas and then was discharged back into civilian life.  However, victory in Viet Nam has not translated into prosperity for the United States.  The government has become increasingly reclusive and dictatorial.  Massive funding is required for an eventual assault on Communist Russia, so Americans are working harder than ever yet seeing less of their pay coming home.  Congress repealed the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, removing term limits for Presidency.  Richard Nixon was assassinated by John Hinkley III at Berkeley.  Nixon was replaced by Mallett M. Milton, who is serving his third term and is campaigning to be re-elected for a fourth.

Science in Jake's world is well in advance of ours.  The space shuttle is common enough that citizens can book a flight to an orbital space hotel.  The Americans have a military base on the Moon, and are pushing for a flight to Mars.  Computers are similar to what we enjoy after the year 2000, but their miniaturization has not been improved. The people are actively wiretapped through their comlinc phones and interactive televisions.  It's speculated that Mallett M. Milton may even be a clone, that the original may have died in a helicopter crash some years ago. 

In this dystopian world where the American government tries to rule the world with an iron fist, Jake is the farthest he can be from the cold, echoing marble corridors of power in Washington.  He's happy as long as he can drive cars fast.   Out of work from the movies, he answers a want-ad in the paper for a test driver needed in Daytona Beach.   This requires a road trip across the United States, the route being Interstate 10. 

Not far into the trip, Jake runs into a girlfriend of his with whom he had lost touch some years ago.  Named only Dolby, she's sullen and mysterious company for Jake; she comes along for the ride to Daytona Beach.  In fact, most of the chapters in the book go into the uneasy relationship between Jake and Dolby, turning the story from a simple adventure into something else.  It's the picture of blue Dolby that dominates the front cover of the paperback novel.

Dolby is attracted to Jake, but not in any way that could be described as  romantic.  Likewise, Jake comes to realize he needs Dolby, but she's too detached and emotionally broken to be his partner.  The efforts of the government to win world domination have left the American people disenfranchised and suspicious of each other.  As a result, the dialogue between Jake and Dolby is either evasive or abrasive as they relive their previous break-up. 

Still, and this I find interesting, there's an undercurrent of deeply-felt empathy in the relationship between Jake and Dolby.  Not only between the characters themselves, but also empathy coming from the author E.J. Enalerty.  I got the sense that Jake was hiding from the horrors of wartime by living high and fast.  Dolby was attracted to Jake's intensity, but was also easily burnt by it.  She's too sensitive to survive in post-Viet Nam America.  However, she does possess a profound bough of strength within her that keeps them both from becoming as feral as the rest of the nation.  E.J. Enalerty probes into this relationship very deliberately and carefully as the road trip progresses.

Eventually, Jake and Dolby reach Daytona Beach where they fall in with the enigmatic quasi-military operation known as FIST.  The nature of FIST is left as a mystery, but it seems like at the end of Interstate 10, E.J. Enalerty simply ran out of ideas to explore with Jake and Dolby, and decided to write his finale as an espionage military thriller.  It's powerfully campy.  It is kind of fun, though.  Jake, as test driver,  takes possession of the OS-CAR, which is the first automobile to be fitted with a fully-functioning artificial intelligence, and it can talk!  A strange choice in make and model, the car is a supercharged shiny black Volkswagen Beetle, just as promised on the front cover of the book.  

Dolby is outed by OS-CAR as a FIST operative hired to make sure that Jake makes the trip to Daytona.  Jake holds no grudge against Dolby, but she is unhappy with herself and her duplicitous deal with FIST, which she believes is a secret military go-squad working directly for President Mallett M. Milton. 

Jake and OS-CAR become fast friends.  The book promises that they will have some incredible adventures together.  However, this never really happens in Interstate 10, which just sets up the sequel Runway Man written by E.J. Enalerty a few years later. That's the one that got made into the movie by Schwarzenegger.  That book is nothing like the movie, and Runway Man has little to do with Interstate 10.  I've heard that editorial arguments with the publisher were the source of problems with Runway Man, which in turn caused E.J. Enalerty to abandon his nom-de-plume and adopt his true name, Steve Kaiser.

Runway Man was a cheesy action film that skirted the bleak, dystopian outlook of that book.  Interstate 10 would be very difficult to film along the same lines.  The long relationship-based passages in Interstate 10 just don't lend themselves well to film narrative.  I thought it was a good albeit irregular attempt by E.J. Enalerty to explore what could happen to a man and a woman cooped together in a stressful situation.  The resolution is far from the typical sentimental ending.  Nonetheless, both Jake and Dolby discover within themselves the measure of what it is to be fully realized individuals in a world where your worth is measured only by what you earn in government-issued banknotes. 

The author's notes at the very end of the book are short and not very enlightening.  E.J. Enalerty does mention spending time on the West Coast gathering research for his book, of purchasing and listening to a complete collection of Linda Ronstadt record albums which he used as a "soundtrack" for his writing (and I have to admit: Ms. Ronstadt has a phenomenal  singing voice!) ,and very briefly of spending an afternoon with PKD.  I would have loved to find out more about that meeting, but Lorrence Soutin, Steve Kaiser's biographer and likely the leading expert on all things Kaiser, says nothing at all about E.J. Enalerty getting together with Phil Dick.  A  true shame.  Now that I've read Interstate 10, I think I'll try e-mailing Mr. Soutin to see what he has to say.