(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box of more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number three.)
The extremely late '60s and early '70s are filled with pop-culture products dealing with the failure of '60s idealism. You can practically bookend the period with Easy Rider in 1969 and Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks in 1975. You can add John Boyd's The Gorgon Festival to the list. Released in 1972, it's set in a California of the not-so-distant future as someone from that year might have imagined it. Its protagonist is Alexander Ward, a middle-aged Stanford professor of molecular biology who "retreated to the innermost cloister of scholarship, pure research" after something casually referred to as "the Student Rebellion" reached campus. Under pressure for not publishing, Ward feels confident that his newfound ability to "reconstitute a fragmented DNA molecule from the ribosome of a muscle" cell will be his ticket out of academic purgatory. But when he shows his results to a 70-year-old mentor named Ruth Gordon, she tells him to keep it under wraps, since applying his findings to the "theory of random error" might produce Nobel-worthy results. (I'm no scientist, so this all may be cutting-edge lingo circa 1972. Or Boyd might just be making stuff up.)
Then things take a turn. It might be sheer coincidence that Ward's professor shares a name with the veteran character actress who starred in Hal Ashby's counterculture May-December romance Harold And Maude, but after Gordon and Ward convert their findings into an age-reversing formula–dubbed "youth juice"–and she applies just enough to undo her arthritis, they quickly hit the sheets. Then, after he's visited by a strangely familiar young woman whose "beauty, modesty, and poise diffused an aura of a more gracious era," Gordon disappears, forcing Ward to go on the lam when his wife Ester's cop boyfriend pegs him for her murder. Putting two and two together to figure out the connection between youth juice, his mysterious visitor, and Gordon's disappearance, he decides to look for a young woman rather than an old one.
But let's back up a second to talk about Ester: She has remarkable breasts. This is no mere passing detail, either. When she wears a dress made of mesh-like material, Ward notes, "Her breasts reminded him of the heads of two jewfish trying to batter out of a seine." That may be the least erotic description of breasts ever written, but it captures the character's overwhelming fixation, a condition that plays no small part in what's to come. In fact, it plays a part in Gordon's dastardly master plan to make a lot of money while simultaneously capping the population explosion. How? By turning a lot of old ladies into "nubile but infertile" lures, busty, sophisticated sexual partners who will prove so irresistible to potent men that less-experienced (and presumably less busty) women of childbearing age will be left in the dust.
Of course, she must be stopped. And doing so requires Ward to become something of a breast-obsessed Candide as he goes undercover in an L.A. hippie underground filled with characters flat and cartoonish enough to have stepped out of one of Dave Berg's "Lighter Side" cartoons from Mad. There, he runs afoul of the ultra-right-wing, super-patriotic bike gang the Orange Country Patriots after putting the move on the gang leader's ultra-curvy girlfriend, Little Mama. (Presumably no relation to the rapper.) He then has no choice but to sleep in a park with hippies, disguise himself as a black man, and get rich reworking Gerard Manley Hopkins poems into lyrics for thinly disguised versions of Donovan (Glamorgan) and Simon & Garfunkel (Gollenberger & Stein) under the name "Jest Al, The Mop Handle Poet." Eventually, he tracks down Gordon and insinuates himself with her in order to thwart her evil plan, due to reach its fruition at an all-day music-festival-turned-orgy.
Apart from the bio in the back of this book and the scant information I could glean from the Internet, I don't know much about Boyd. His real name is Boyd Bradfield Upchurch, and he was born in Atlanta in 1919. He attended USC and made his way selling engravings. He published 12 books between 1968 and 1978 and is apparently still alive. (If anyone knows more, speak up, since we'll be hitting his best-known book, Last Starship From Earth, later.) Like his protagonist here, he's a product of the World War II generation, which may explain why The Gorgon Festival treats the fading of '60s ideals more as a laughable inevitability than as a dream that died.
Everyone acts on their basest instincts at all times. Even Ward's determination to squelch Gordon's plan has as much to do with revenge as heroism. The bikers—hired to work security for the concert, in an echo of Altamont—meet an even grimmer fate. Ward walks away from their burning bodies thinking, "his dialogue with this segment of the young was complete. They had learned by example always to do unto others before it was done to them." Later, as the orgy reaches its climax, Ward orchestrates a reversal of the anti-aging process, leaving a bunch of young counterculture types embracing a bunch of naked old ladies. "He had another contribution to his dialogue with the young," Boyd writes, "that would teach these boys that sex was a hormone-based LSD that hallucinated today's Waldorf salad from tomorrow's cold potatoes."
I have no idea how to pick that last metaphor apart. Boyd isn't the most graceful prose stylist, to say the least, and passages like that reflect the book's more general confusion. The Gorgon Festival wants to send up the peace-and-love generation without giving that generation any credit for having ideals to corrupt, or really taking any time to understand it. It cuts straight to the cynicism, which isn't the worst thing for a satire to do, but it's not a particularly adept or well-informed satire. It's probably too easy for me, as someone who wasn't alive during the '60s, to say that Boyd doesn't get his own era, but his trip through the counterculture underworld seems pretty… the polite word would be "singular." It doesn't surprise that the book has faded from print. Proper elegies have a way of lasting longer than Bronx cheers.
Coming up in the Box Of Paperbacks Book Club:
Next week: The Ballad Of Beta 2, by Samuel R. Delany
In two weeks: The Napoleons Of Eridanus, by Pierre Barbet