Why do I own this? is a new column exploring the weirder pop-culture flotsam and jetsam that washes up in the lives of A.V. Club writers, the impulses that drive us to acquire such things, and the motives for clinging to them long after their ephemeral eras pass.
What is it? A large cardboard box filled with approximately 60 different entries from the Destroyer series of “men’s adventure” novels created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir.
How did I get it? Many, many years ago, around my sophomore year of high school, I became obsessed with the Destroyer novels, which starred Remo Williams, an ex-cop whose death was faked so he could become an international assassin for CURE, a top-secret government organization dedicated to righting wrongs outside the purview of Constitutional authority. I spent the better part of a year haunting used bookstores, thrift shops, and the Waldenbooks at Valley West Mall, buying all of them that I could. At some point, I boxed them all up to prepare for my move to Chicago, but I accidentally left them at my mom’s house. My mom, who is even more of a packrat than I am, kept the box for 15 years. It was rediscovered earlier this year when she was going through old junk for a church rummage sale.
What’s its cultural significance? For those who wisely gave it a miss, the “men’s adventure” genre—highly popular in the 1960s and 1970s—consisted of the fictional adventures of some lantern-jawed dingbat who wandered from one semi-colorful locale to the next, making the world a better place by massacring everyone who stood in his path. The genre was typified by the Executioner series, starring mob-smasher Mack Bolan; he would find some hotbed of Mafia activity, and—pausing only to have meaningless sex with some secondary female character, usually communicated through nautical metaphors—he would annihilate the mobsters in any number of creatively gory ways. They were basically text versions of 1980s action movies, only with fewer puns.
Though the Executioner series was the best-known, there were dozens of others: the Killmaster series (starring a character with the not-yet-ironic name of Nick Carter), The Death Merchant, The Butcher, The Exterminator, and yes, even The Penetrator, which I’m sure you won’t want to hear anything more about for the rest of your life. But the best of these James-Bond-for-morons series was The Executioner. While Sapir and Murphy shared with their fellow hacks the ability to crank out a 200-page novel every month and a half, their series was distinguished from their competitors’ grim-faced death porn by an actual sense of humor. Their hero, Remo, didn’t really like his job; his boss, Dr. Smith, was a cranky, addled old creep; and Remo’s trainer, Chiun—master of the invincible martial art of Sinanju—was an unrepentantly racist, sexist Korean who held everyone in contempt except his odd pop-culture idols, like Barbra Streisand.
While the Destroyer books shared a lot of characteristics with their peers, such as the notion that everything in the world could be put right by murdering the proper people, they leavened the stone-faced seriousness with a decent sense of humor and timely political satire. Chiun was always the most absurdly funny element, but there was more to it than that: The series’ villains were often more delusional than evil, and political causes from one end of the spectrum to the other are portrayed as little more than jokes. (Of course, how funny those jokes are depend on where you stand on that spectrum. Some of the series, particularly the infamous #30—Mugger Blood—are so politically incorrect, they’d make Matt Stone shuffle his feet awkwardly and repeatedly check his wristwatch.) Even the obsession with sex in men’s adventure gets lampooned: For Remo, who has mastered an ancient art of seduction, sex is a joyless, mechanical activity that he only employs to get women to leave him alone. Finally, these are the only books I own that often come with cigarette ads bound into the middle, which I find delightful and awful at the same time.
Why would I get rid of it? Well, for one thing, it’s enormous. It’s a box filled with more than 50 paperback books, and it’s occupying space in my tiny apartment that I could probably use for laundry, or some more recent pop-culture obsession. The fear that a woman will someday come into my home and find a bunch of men’s adventure novels in my bathroom closet haunts me like the fear of death. Frankly, the way I accumulate books that don’t mildly embarrass me is shameful enough; the last thing I need is 10,000 pages of a high-school fascination where my towels should be.
And to be honest, the odds of my returning to these novels is fairly slim. When I got the box back earlier this year, I had this idea of starting a blog where I’d read every one of them and review them—sort of like <a href= http://www.avclub.com/features/box-of-paperbacks-book-club/ target="_new">Keith’s “Big Box of Paperbacks” project</a>, only lamer. The problem is, for as much as these books stand out among their peers, they’re still pretty bad. The bits and bobs with Chiun are always funny, but that’s about 20 pages of a 200- to 300-page book, and the nature of the satire, especially later in the series (after the more liberal Sapir died, and the conservative Murphy took over the writing chores completely), is pretty reactionary. I kept looking over my shoulder the whole time I was reading Mugger Blood to see if I was being fingered for a hate crime. The plots are no different from one book to the next, and reading all the way through to see how many people get snuffed in each book gets old fast.
How much could I get for it? If I could get my shit together enough to list it on eBay, I could probably get a hundred bucks or so from someone even more pathetic than I am. But then again, if I could get my shit together enough to list things on eBay, I wouldn’t be writing this column.
What are the chances that I’ll keep it? Pretty good. The fact that the box still exists is sort of miraculous—it may literally be the only thing I own from before my freshman year of college—and that alone may be a sign that I was meant to keep it, though I can’t imagine what for. I don’t plan on dying until I’m at least 130 years old, and judging from the way they smell (a combination of wet dog and several brands of cigarettes no longer manufactured in the United States), these could be just the books to keep me entertained during the five or six decades I’ll spend in some horrible state-run nursing home.