CAN FREDDIE FONG FINE SAVE THE WORLD? IF SO, SHOULD HE?
These are the questions that may or may not be the core of this extremely odd novel of the world of 1985. What the Israeli hyponuclear submarine Traif, Mavis Montreal the groupie, the giant cavern under the earth, Upchuck the Barbarian, and the Sacred Locomotive have to do with it all is hard to figure out. But entertaining―so who needs to figure?
It’s funny how these things work out. Last week I reviewed a novel that was so incredibly nineties that I could barely stand it, and now I’m reading another book that’s so very much a part of its time that it stands out like a sore thumb.
I’ve probably said this before, but I enjoy reading things that are deeply linked to the time in which they were written. I enjoy having a window into the past. It’s what makes the written word such an amazing thing. It might be the main reason I read almost anything.
This isn’t my first go around with Mr. Lupoff. Some time ago I read Space War Blues and found it intriguing but hard to wrap my head around. It was a heck of a book. I decided to dive into Lupoff again for two reasons:
- I wanted to see how much of that book was his style and how much of it was inherent to that specific book.
- I had it sitting around.
Boy howdy, it turns out that Lupoff can write. After two books I think I’m close to nailing down what makes up his individual style, but to be fair I’ve only read books from the early seventies so I don’t know how much he may have evolved over the years. From what I can tell he’s still writing both fiction and nonfiction, so I’ll have to dig up something a little more recent sometime.
Yeah, Space War Blues came out in 1978, but it was a fix-up of some shorter works, the first of which was written in ’72, just a year after Sacred Locomotive Flies was published. Oddly, the phrase “Bentfin Boomers” makes an appearance in this earlier novel, which just makes me wonder what the hell is going on.
A lot of this book made me wonder just what the hell was going on.
In a good way?
It reminded me strongly of The Illuminatus! Trilogy in some ways, mostly in regards to nonlinear narrative, conspiracy stuff, and the counterculture. Wilson and Shea’s magnum opus came out four years after Sacred Locomotive Flies, so I don’t know if there was any direct influence or if it was just something in the zeitgeist. I assume it’s the latter, if not both.
Good lord, I don’t even know where to start with this narrative.
For one, we’ve got at least two stories going around at the same time. They both revolve around a guy named Freddie Fong Fine. One is set in the future year of 1985, while the other is roughly in the present day. The first story is a topsy-turvy tale of conspiracy, suborbital aircraft, music, sex, drugs, submarines, secret organizations, and the destruction of the Earth. The latter story is about Freddie’s increasing dissatisfaction with middle-class American values and aspirations. The two stories tie together here and there, but more than anything they complement each other. The backstory sections don’t really provide any substance to the other narrative other than contrasting with it and criticizing the squares.
Lupoff writes narrators so well. I can understand why some people might disagree, but I love it when a narrator is a character him- or herself. Not a character in the story, but a character telling you the story with asides and comments and editorials and so forth. There are lots of ways that kind of thing can go wrong, but when it works, I love it love it love it. It’s something that I aspire to be good at.
The book kicks off with Freddie hijacking a suborbital space plane. He shoos everybody off except the captain, a naked stewardess, and the Sacred Locomotive, a band that he really likes. There’s no indication given about why he’s doing this. Instead, he just gets the band to play songs because he likes them so much. At some point, it turns out there’s another person on the plane. She’s a groupie named Mavis Montreal, who disarms Freddie as the plane makes a landing in the Indian Ocean.
The passengers are picked up by a passing hyponuclear submarine. It never says what “hyponuclear” means. The sub is of Israeli origin, named the Traif. One of the odder moments is an aside where it’s revealed that there’s really no conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. They get along great. It’s just that as long as they present to the world that they’re in perpetual conflict, they get all sorts of foreign aid.
They make their way to Cuba (where a similar story is revealed: the soldiers at Gitmo get along very well with the native Cubans and trade stuff all the time). Mavis escapes, and Freddie sets off after her.
Somewhere along the way he reveals what he’s actually doing. He’s a secret agent for a WAIT SOME, which stands for World Anti-Imperialist Trotskyite Stalinist Orthodox Maoists in Exile. Freddie has been informed that somebody in the Sacred Locomotive has been smuggling secret information around, and he’s investigating it. It turns out that this person is Mavis, who has stolen a file from one of Freddie’s associates in Cuba.
This information shows that there is a giant cavern beneath the surface of the Earth, stretching roughly from Florida to Cuba. On each end of the cavern, in Canaveral and Cuba, are giant rockets. They’re to be the first manned (actually womanned―the crew is entirely female) flights to Mars. When these rockets lift off at the same time, they will collapse the cavern, causing untold chaos across the Caribbean and Southeastern United States.
Freddie chases Mavis, getting into some wacky adventures along the way, and finds that she has fled to the nation of New Africa, located somewhere in New York State. We don’t get much information on how that secession happened, but apparently it was violent, because at times we get mention of the Empire State Crater.
Mavis is working for a secret organization called DEAD HONK (Develop Ecology And Deploy Honesty Of Negro Kids) who wants the cataclysm to happen so that they can take over what remains of the United States amidst all the chaos. Mavis, who up to this point was described as pasty white, fat, and ugly, is a higher-up in that organization. She’s been taking anti-melanin pills as a disguise.
Freddie gets away (Mavis helps him for some reason that I don’t actually remember, sorry) and tries to stop the rockets before they can take off. We meet another band, Curtis Newton and the Futuremen, who helps Freddie out by using some kind of psychic technology they developed for musical purposes. They round up most of the other people we’ve met in this book to this point and set out to stop the destruction of a large portion of the world.
They all fail and the rockets take off. Freddie and crew manage to find another sub-orbital airplane and blast off themselves, just in time to watch the cavern open up and start swallowing the ocean. Eventually the land starts falling in, too, and before long, the entire Earth collapses, utterly destroyed.
Mavis takes the antidote for her anti-melanin pills and turns out to be a beautiful black woman.
Everybody figures that the only available option is to head for Mars, which, after all, has two rockets full of women on the way. And that’s the book.
I left out a lot of details here and there because I probably forgot about them and, besides, they’d take up too much space here. All I can really do is suggest you read this book yourself to get the full experience. Take it from me, you won’t regret it.
There were some sexual and racial politics going on in this book that were pretty squicky by modern standards, but were yet another one of those things that made the book so very much of its time. I don’t think that Lupoff is a racist or a sexist, I think it’s just another one of those zeitgeist things. Plus he spent a lot of the book making fun of the world of 1971 anyway.
The bulk of the backstory sections, which headed off every chapter, dealt with Freddie’s former life working at a computer factory. He’s just trying to hold down a good job so that his girlfriend, Ali, will marry him. Ali is working for an upper-class family as a nanny, and Freddie manages to ingratiate himself to the head of that household, a guy named Pindar Parker. Parker gets Freddie that job at the computer factory. He’s also representative of the very worst of WASPy middle-class America: repressed, unhappy, and silent about it until he gets roaring drunk on Friday nights at the bar.
Pindar also had another outlet that I hesitate to describe. It’s only brought up once, and then over the course of one paragraph, but it sure as hell stuck with me, and it’s thoroughly disgusting. It cast a major pall on my enjoyment of the rest of the book, not only because it was so disgusting, but because it was dealt with so lightly. It does serve to show that Pindar is a disgusting monster of a person when he’s in private, but it does so at the cost of other people without ever commenting on the effect it has on those other people.
I think I’ll leave it at that. I’m not dancing around this to be funny. I just really don’t want to talk about it. I think there were better ways for Lupoff to have written this particular scene, but he opted for “shocking and disgusting,” and I don’t appreciate it.
So yeah, the book’s problematic in places, so it actually makes me not want to recommend it to people. It did have its upsides, though. It was easier to follow than the other Lupoff novel I’ve read, and it had one hell of an ending.
Ali, incidentally, ends up being the commander of the Mars mission.
The back of the book mentions “Upchuck the Barbarian” in a way that makes it seem like he’d be a major character or something, but really he was just a thing that was mentioned once. Not sure what’s up with that. The rest of the back cover matter was accurate, though, so there you go. Color me surprised.
It’s funny how everybody I showed this book to had a different interpretation of the title. I, for one, initially read it as The Sacred Locomotive Files. Even after I figured out that “files” was “flies” I kept insisting that there was a “the” in the title. My roommate read Scared Locomotive Flies. Personally, I think that this confusion pretty well encapsulates the tone of the book, and for that I have to praise the decision.
The cover is great, too. The ISFDB credits the art to Victor Valla, someone I’m not at all familiar with. It seems he didn’t do much more cover art, so that’s a shame. I’ll have to look him up later.
The thing that stands out most in this book is how Lupoff’s interpretation of 1985 is basically just 1971 taken to the max. This is a common enough occurrence in writing about the future, and it’s totally fine. Lupoff’s 1985 is filled with crazy tech that people mostly use to satisfy their base desires. Things are crazy and incomprehensible. The skies and the oceans are filled with trash. Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket.
Lupoff doesn’t mention a president at any point in this book, at least not in a way that I can remember, but I assume he wasn’t thinking of Reagan’s 80s.
So there you go. The book wasn’t anything particularly deep and if there was a message to take away I’m not sure if I saw it, but it was fairly well written and entertaining, save that one bit that I suggest you skip if you see it coming.