Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen (1991)

An irresistible convergence of violence, mayhem and mortality. (p.280

Frankie ‘the Ferret’ King was a low-level operative for the mob in New York. When he was arrested for supervising the import of a consignment of pornographic videos (which accidentally get shown to junior school children, since they were labeled as kids programmes) he happily turned State’s witness and sang like a canary about fellow racketeers in the mob. After which the State put him in the witness protection program and sent him to South Florida:

prime relocation site for scores of scuzzy federal snitches (on the theory that South Florida was a place where just about any dirtbag would blend in smoothly with the existing riffraff). (p.39)

He takes the name Francis X. Kingsbury (the X is for Xavier, which he invents because he thinks gives him ‘class’) and trains as a real estate salesman. It was the era when unspoilt Florida land was being sold off to developers to quick-build condominiums, resorts, golf courses, endless roads, and Kingsbury quickly got rich as a realtor.

But then he got ambitious and announced his plans to the local chamber of commerce for a South Florida rival to Disney World, to be called The Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, complete with Wet Willy water flume, Magic Mansion, Orky the Killer Whale, Jungle Jerry, the Wild Bill Hiccup show, a petting zoo and much more (pages 32 and 107).

Within a few years the Kingdom of Thrills is a roaring success and has a full-time press and PR section, in which nobby ‘vice president in charge of communications’ Charles Chelsea oversees much cleverer, down-on-his-luck journalist, Joe Winder. Joe was fired from his newspaper for getting into a fistfight with a senior editor about a damning story he (Joe) had written about his (Joe’s) own property developing father (p.133).

Joe’s girlfriend, Nina, makes a living on a sex chatline spinning elaborate erotic fantasies to men who jerk off to her voice at premium rates meaning that, on her one night a week off, the last thing she wants to think about is sex, leaving Joe very frustrated.

Among Kingsbury’s many scams he tumbles to the fact that Federal wildlife agencies will give you money to look after endangered species. So Kingsbury contacts a crooked wildlife dealing woman he met once while they were both waiting outside court during their trials, and between them they cook up the idea of a fictional species, the ‘blue-tongued mango voleMicrotus mango‘ (p.288), and Kingsbury persuades the authorities that he is protecting the last surviving pair of this almost extinct species and gouges $200,000 out of them for their care.

Of course there’s no such thing as the ‘blue-tongued mango vole’, they are just common or garden voles whose tongues Kingsbury and his team paint with indigo dye at regular intervals. In fact the original female vole died and the Amazing Kingdom’s security chief (the vast Pedro Luz, addicted to anabolic steroids) replaced her with a female hamster, with various bits nipped and tucked. Despite this, the male vole is likely to try and mate with the hamster, who replies with fierce violence and so a security guard has to be stationed at the voles’ enclosure to prevent them from murdering each other.

So far, so farcically ludicrous, And the voles are just one of the centrepieces of the Rare Animal Pavilion at this amazingly crooked, corrupt theme park, where fat tourists from the cold North (known to native Florideans as ‘snowbirds’, p.32) queue up to admire the little critters, to buy blue-tongued vole t-shirts, posters, key-rings or make a donation to their preservation. Kingsbury even made up tacky names for the fake couple, Vance and Violet Vole (p.313).

Everywhere he looked there were old people with snowy heads and pale legs and fruit-coloured Bermuda shorts. All the men wore socks with their sandals, and all the women wore golf visors and oversized sunglasses. (p.29)

The plot is set rolling by a sweet but crazy old lady, Molly McNamara, who lives in a nice apartment in a retirement home and runs a little group of like-minded pensioners who are dreadfully concerned about the environment called The Mothers of Wilderness (p.31). Unknown to the other nice old ladies, Molly has hired a couple of small-time crooks, specialists in breaking and entering, the dim Bud Schwarz and even dimmer Danny Pogue, to break into the Amazing Kingdom and liberate the voles.

This they do, one fine night, but when one of the voles escapes through an airhole in the cardboard box they’ve put them in, on the seat of the car they’re driving, Danny playfully throws it into a passing convertible full of a tourist family (causing a near crash and consternation) and a little later, when the other one escapes, they throw it into a passing truck. This is because Molly neglected to tell them how rare and precious the voles are, and the two dim burglars mistake them for common rats.

When they turn up shamefaced at Molly McNamara’s apartment, the little old lady amazes them, and the reader, by shooting Bud Schulz through the foot and Danny through the hand. She doesn’t mess about. She reminds me of the character Maude, played by the redoubtable Ruth Gordon, in the 1971 movie, Harold and Maude.

Farce

This is enough of a taster for you to see that Native Tongue is another of Hiaasen’s violent and savagely satirical crime farces. Wikipedia defines farce as:

a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable. Farce is also characterised by heavy use of physical humour; the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense; satire, parody, and mockery of real-life situations, people, events, and interactions; unlikely and humorous instances of miscommunication; ludicrous, improbable, and exaggerated characters; and broadly stylised performances.

Well, that’s what we have here. Another aspect of a farce is its absurdly complicated plot and this, also, characterises Hiaasen’s fictions. Rather than try to untangle it, I’ll give some of the more absurd and excessive highpoints. Basically the plot spins out of control as Kingsbury tries to cover up for the disappearance of the blue-tongued voles, threatening and then bumping off the small number of employees who were in on the scam.

Joe Winder emerges as the ‘hero’. After putting up with a series of lies and accidents at the Amazing Kingdom he eventually quits and goes freelance, trying to puzzle out the various shootings, murders and other violent events which have started to take place there.

The most florid of these is the mystery disappearance of the Amazing Kingdom’s vet, Dr Will Koocher. A day or so later one of the Kingdom’s star attractions, Orky the killer whale is found dead. When the state authorities conduct an autopsy they discover Orky choked to death on the body of Koocher! Joe liked Koocher so his suspicious death is one of the triggers to him digging deeper into what is really going on, and eventually quitting/being fired.

There’s an entertaining back story about Orky (original name Samson) who is, in fact, a rogue and bad-tempered animal who rarely performs as he’s meant to, and – we learn – had been rejected and sold on by a number of other reputable theme parks before he comes to rest at Kingsbury’s park, the lowest of the low. Everything about the Amazing Kingdom is like that – all the performing animals are duds, the floats don’t work, ‘Uncle Eli’s friendly elves’ are a bunch of bad-tempered, dope-smoking midgets, and so on.

‘You mean it’s a scam.’
‘Hey, everything’s a scam when you get down to it.’ (Joe and Carrie, p.75)

One of the first things Joe does after he’s been fired, is issue a series of satirical and facetious ‘press releases’ on Amazing Kingdom-headed notepaper, designed to stir up maximum trouble for his old employer. The first one satirically points out that the recent outbreak of hepatitis at the Amazing Kingdom, or the sudden infestation of moccasin snakes, is not that serious, and not that many tourists have been injured or died. He faxes these to every media outlet in the country, driving Kingsbury wild with frustration and ordering Charles Chelsea to write press releases countering them.

Thus the middle of the novel contains an entertaining battle of the press releases which are quoted in their entirety. They reminded me of the medieval genre of flyting, the ritual exchange of insults in medieval literature, or of the pamphlet wars which characterised Elizabethan London or the vituperative Grub Street satirised by Alexander Pope in the 1730s (pages 198 to 262).

During this period Joe has been slowly breaking up with Nina who a) isn’t keen on sex b) has aspirations to write longer, more imaginative erotic scenarios (in the amusing Epilogue, Hiaasen tells us that after the events of the novel are concluded, Nina goes on to write poetry which is promoted by Erica Jong and ends up as a Hollywood scriptwriter).

Instead Joe gets into a relationship with Carrie Lanier who works at the Amazing Kingdom wearing the ‘Petey Possum’ costume. After he gets beaten up by unknown assailants, Carrie takes him back to her trailer in a trailer park, where he eventually moves in, bringing along his collection of classic rock cassettes and his typewriter (on which to write the satirical press releases).

Meanwhile, the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills’s head of security, Pedro Luz, is mildly injured and put on an IV drip at hospital, but is so thick he takes to drinking the drip through his mouth. Since he was already on an unhealthy diet of steroids and body enhancements, this begins to have a drastic effect on his health and appearance. Basically, he turns into a mutant: his cock and balls shrivel up, his face bloats like an old melon and he becomes covered in florid acne.

Tiring of the war of press releases, Kingsbury sets the increasingly grotesque Pedro Luz to ‘deal with’ Winder, so Luz trails him back to Carrie’s trailer park. When he presses his head against the trailer wall, Luz hears a shower going and blasts a load of bullets through the shower wall. At this very moment Carrie drives up and, seeing Luz doing this, carries right on and knocks him over with the car, parking on his foot.

By this point off his face on steroids and other drugs, Luz chews his own foot off above the ankle, and makes off on his stump, driving himself to hospital. It’s at moments like this that Hiaasen goes way beyond the standard amount of killing and physical mayhem you might find in a crime novel, into a whole new level of the macabre and gruesome. It is his signature manoeuvre, his distinctive strategy.

Property development

Eventually we discover that the real motor for the plot, as so often, is corrupt property development. Having sold property in the first part of his career, and having amassed a few million running the Kingdom, Kingsbury’s next step is to create a huge new complex, the Falcon Trace Golf and Country Club Resort Community (p.228). (Just as the Reverend Charles Weeb’s plans for a vast housing development with fishing lakes was at the centre of this novel’s predecessor, Double Whammy).

Creating the space for this new development has required devastating a large area of untouched Florida forest and lake and it just happens to be an area of lake which, since he was a boy, has been important to Joe Winder as an escape and a refuge from his difficult relationship with his father.

One day Jim turns up with his fishing rod and the entire place has gone. All the trees and underbrush, everything has been scoured flat leaving a wasteland of sand and gravel and some huge diggers ready to start excavating the foundations. Joe expresses what sound like Hiaasen’s own howls of pain at seeing the beautiful landscape of his boyhood state being massacred, flattened, burned and blown up by corrupt, crooked and soulless exploiters.

‘I’m just sick of asshole carpetbaggers coming down here and fucking up the place.’ (p.296)

An extra spin is given to Joe’s grief and anger by the fact that his very own father was one of the original Florida land developers and so he carries a heavy load of Oedipal guilt.

Skink

And Skink the 6-foot-6, hulking environmentalist vigilante, punisher of bad guys and all-round avenger, Skink is back!

For new readers Hiaasen gives a brief recap of Skink’s backstory, namely that he was once Clinton Tyree, dashingly handsome ex-Vietnam vet with a gleaming smile who stood for governor determined to clean up Florida’s corrupt politics. But when he vetoed the latest in a long line of corrupt land development deals, the powers that be (banks, developers, golf course and lake and condominium developers, TV companies and advertising agencies) ganged up to stymie his every policy and law until on one climactic day, when a case he’d brought against demonstrably corrupt developers was thrown out of court and a famous wildlife area began to be bulldozed, Clint snapped. He walked out of the Governor’s mansion, disappeared into the outback, has never been seen since, as Clinton Tyree (chapter 17).

For fifteen years the governor had been living in an expatriation that was deliberately remote and anonymous. (p.149)

Instead, Clint changed his name to Skink, lived wild, ate only roadkill and berries and fish, grew his hair into a long grey ponytail, took to wearing bright orange hazard suits and floral decorated showercaps.

Hiaasen introduces Skink at a dramatic moment about a third of the way into  the story. Joe Wilder had been lured to a meeting at an isolated point on the coast by someone who said they had information about the (at that point still-unsolved) disappearance of Dr Will Koocher. It’s a trap. Two thugs bear down on Joe and then start to beat him up, badly. He is just about passing out when the beating stops, he’s aware of screams, out of one half-closed eye sees one of the attackers running for his life, then passes out.

It’s Skink, come to the rescue at just the right moment – although it’s a while till Joe formally meets the ex-governor. With typical savagery, we later discover that Skink strangled one of the attackers and hanged him by the neck from a nearby bridge and the other one is found dead and folded up in the boot of a wrecked car.

Skink is a hero of sort, and his cause – defending the environment – is just, but he frequently steps way over the boundaries. He is chivalrous to ladies – it turns out he has a long-standing friendship with old Molly McNamara who set the entire plot rolling – but he also blows off his frustration by shooting at planes coming into land at Miami airport or just at random tourist hire cars on the freeway. He is, as Bud Schwartz remarks, ‘Bigfoot without the manners’ (p.191).

Bud Schwartz said, ‘You realise we look like total dipshits.’
‘No, you look like tourists.’ (p.105)

Trooper Jim Tile

Special mention must be made of Trooper Jim Tile, one of the few black highway patrolmen in the state of Florida, who Governor Clinton promoted but who lost his job and was kicked back into the boondocks the moment Clinton disappeared. Trooper Jim recurs throughout the novels as Skink’s loyal minder and protector who tries, with uneven results, to keep him and other ‘good guys’ in line with the law. Jim emerges as, quite simply, the most dependable, sound and moral character in the series.

Bad stuff happens

From this point onwards the plot assumes a similar shape to its predecessors, in that around Skink cluster a constellation of good guys –Joe Winder, girlfriend Carrie, at one remove Molly and the two burglars Bud and Danny – against the bad guy, Francis Kingsbury and his very bad henchman, steroid-crazed Pedro Luz, who goes right off the rails and starts beating up or trying to kill everyone he can.

It is Luz, for example, who breaks into Molly McNamara’s apartment and beats her very badly, breaking some ribs and knocking out some teeth, for her part in liberating the blue-tongue voles. Mind you, during the struggle Molly manages to bite off the tip of one of Pedro’s fingers.

See what I mean by ‘savage’, as in savage and brutal farce. When there is violence it is brutal violence: Dr Koocher being stuffed down a killer whale’s throat, Jim’s attacker being strangled and hanged from a bridge, Molly being savagely beaten, Luz getting his finger bitten off. Like Jonathan Swift, you feel Hiaasen’s savage satire goes beyond specific wrong-doings and expands to become mockery of human beings as a species, vulnerable as we are to so many absurd and risible physical catastrophes. It is a multi-angled attack on the very idea of human dignity.

To make Skink even more grotesque than before, Hiaasen now has him trialling a new mosquito repellent for the army (Extended Duration Tropical Insect/Arthropod Repellent, EDTIAR, p.124). He’s also wearing a 150 megahertz radio collar he took off a dead panther. Florida’s environmental agency tags its pitifully small population of panthers. Skink is wearing the collar of number 17, which he found dead on the highway, run over by, naturally, a tourist hire car (pages 102 and 234).

I haven’t made clear that the dimwits Bud Schwarz and Danny Pogue come round to liking and respecting old Molly (despite the fact that she shoots both of them in their extremities). They are genuinely outraged when the (at that point unknown) intruder breaks into her apartment and badly beats her (when the two dimwits are not there). Although twerps, they become enrolled on the side of the ‘goodies’.

Hence another grotesque highlight when Luz and a sidekick, Churrito, ex-Nicaragua military (p.158), lure Bud and Danny to a meeting at a rival theme park attraction, Monkey World where, when they all start fighting, a gun spins into the baboon enclosure and a baboon picks up the shiny object and accidentally shoots Churrito in the face (p.195).

Later on, Kingsbury organises a media event to launch the beginning of his property development and new golf course, by getting a tired old championship golfer, Jake Harp, to playfully tee off a couple of balls from a small patch of astroturf which has been set up on the building site and out over the ocean.

Not one but two snags foul up this plan, which are that a) the golfer turns up so terminally hungover that he can barely focus on the ball let alone hit it and b) remember how Frankie came to Florida under the Witness Protection Scheme? Well, the two small-time burglars inform on him, phoning mob connections in New Jersey (Salvatore ‘the Salamander’ Delicato, p.213) and, in return for a bag of cash, telling them where their stoolpigeon is hiding out.

With the result that the Mafia send a (disappointingly unglamorous) hitman, short fat, farting Lou, who tracks Kingsbury to this grand press launch and shoots an assassin sniper rifle at Kingsbury just as the golfer is teeing off. Except that, at that vital moment, the golfer had asked Kingsbury to adjust the tee, so the ex-racketeer ducks at the vital millisecond and the Mafia hitman ends up shooting the golfer instead (chapter 29). Oops.

Joe Winder hires a former military man and a boat and gets him to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the diggers which are starting on the Falcon Trace development, more precisely at the concrete mixer which explodes and spews wet concrete high into the air before spattering down on all the workmen. These are all wonderfully over-the-top, entertainingly violent and amoral extravaganzas.

The climax

As I’ve noted the plot is complex because complicated plots is one of the hallmarks of farce. Complex and coincidence-riddled plots in a way satirise the entire idea of a ‘plot’, of a ‘story’, and mock the notion of fictional ‘realism’ i.e. that any story can be sensible and moral and meaningful in such a screwed-up, violent and immoral world.

Hiaasen’s novels characteristically build up to a big climax, a big cheesy event of the kind celebrated by straight-faced, media-dominated, consumerist American culture and which Hiaasen the savage satirist loves pulling to pieces, like the beauty pageant in Tourist Season or the live TV fishing competition in Double Whammy.

In this novel the grand climax comes when, in a bid to counter the bad publicity generated by Joe Winder’s malicious press releases, Kingsbury has the bright idea of celebrating the alleged 5 millionth visitor to the Kingdom with a big prize for the visitor and a gala pageant celebrating the Kingdom, complete with music, floats of all the animals and costume characters etc.

Not least among the pageant’s objectionable features is the way it utterly bowdlerises the history of Florida, glossing over the religious persecution, the Indian extermination and the slavery in order to create a series of floats celebrating how the Indians welcomed the white man and how happy the slaves were on those plantations (p.182). Outraged satire.

Inevitably, the whole thing goes madly awry. Trooper Jim Tile has, by this time, been recruited to the cause, and organises a police roadblock which stops the cars of the Amazing Kingdom’s entire security force as they drive over the bridge into north Key West. When some of the stopped security guards call on Tile’s white colleagues to sort out this ‘n……’, it seals their doom and they are all arrested (p.279).

So, with no security personnel to police the parade, it is left to the by-now deranged Pedro Luz to try and stop the mayhem planned for the parade by Joe Winder, Carrie the Petey Possum character and Skink. He fails, although there is a lot of violence along the way. The upshot is:

  1. The Mafia assassin who shot the golfer by mistake, makes a return visit, ironically posing as the 5 millionth visitor and thus winning a prize car, before he shoots Kingsbury dead in his control room.
  2. After capturing and badly beating Joe Winder, Luz (by now ‘percolated in hormones’, p.194) is pushing him across the back lots of the Kingdom (empty because all the tourists are attending the parade) when they encounter Skink and, after a struggle, Luz ends up being pushed into the dolphin aquarium where he is shagged to death by the dolphin who is in a very horny mood, has a very long schlong, and strong flippers (pages 302 to 305).
  3. Luz had interrupted Skink in the process of ferrying cans of gasoline around the Kingdom which, with Luz out of the way, he proceeds to light up, setting off explosions all over the site.

Joe Winder and Carrie make it to safety through the swamps and out to the clear ocean while the entire Amazing Kingdom of Thrills goes up in explosions like the climax of a James Bond movie. Jim Tile turns up in a state police car and whisks Skink, who has also escaped the premises, off to safety.

In the comic Epilogue, which have become part of the Hiaasen formula, we are told that Bud Schwartz goes on to set up a private security firm. Danny Pogue, who had been converted by Molly McNamara to the cause of nature and the environment, goes off to Tanzania to train as a wildlife warden. Nina, Joes phone sex girlfriend, goes on to publish poetry then ascends to the giddy heights of writing Hollywood screenplays. Uncle Ely’s dope-smoking Elves never work again. Charles Chelsea retires from the PR business and sets about writing a novel.

Florida

A culture in terminal moral hemorrhage. (p.280)

Hiaasen’s novels take it for granted that Florida is the outstanding state in the USA for violence, universal corruption, and the utter amorality of a citizenry drenched in mindless consumerism.

  • Key West – where many of the judges were linked by conspiracy or simple inbreeding to the crookedest politicians. (p.31)
  • Like so many new Floridians, Kingsbury was a felon on the run. (p.38)
  • The Security Department at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills was staffed exclusively by corrupt ex-policemen, of which there was a steady supply in South Florida. (p.48)
  • ‘New Yorkers’, said Jim Tile, ‘they think they’ve cornered the market on psychopaths. They don’t know Florida.’ (p.266)
  • The man said, ‘I got a confession to make. I cheated a little this morning… I cut in line so we could be the first ones through the gate. That’s how I won the car.’ It figures, thought Kingsbury. Your basic South Florida clientele. (p.314)

Miami Vice

Hiaasen is aware that his fictional turf overlaps with the territory covered by the phenomenally successful TV series Miami Vice, which began to be popular just as he began publishing his novels. Miama Vice ran for five seasons on NBC, from September 1984 to January 1990, and popularised the image of Miami and South Florida as full of slick criminals and cool detectives wearing designer threads having high speed car and boat chases.

Hiaasen mentions Miami Vice several times, but his jaded cynicism comes from a very different place. Nobody is slick, nothing is ‘cool’ in Hiaasen-land; anyone who has any money must be a crook, a crooked lawyer, a crooked politician, a crooked land developer or a drug baron. The word ‘Miami’ doesn’t imply slick and stylish but degraded and corrupt.

The asshole probably did have a gun; it was Miami, after all. (p.138)


Credit

Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

Levin was a professional writer who produced half a dozen novels, nine plays – including the fifth longest-running play on Broadway (Deathtrap) – as well as ten or so film scripts and adaptations, in a career which lasted from the early 1950s to the early 2000s.

It is a real achievement for a writer to create one archetype of imaginative power, one avatar, one story or figure which is a permanent addition to the cultural store. One obvious measure of their success is the number of times they’re reworked into movies by the fiercely competitive and money-driven film industry.

On this criterion – movie success – Levin’s novels score high: Rosemary’s Baby (1 classic movie and several spin-offs), The Stepford Wives (2 movies and several spin-offs), The Boys From Brazil (1 movie), A Kiss Before Dying (2 movie versions), Sliver (1), with his hit play Deathtrap also made into a 1982 movie starring Michael Caine. This is success, big success, in the popular realm.

Of all of them Rosemary’s Baby, his second novel, is probably best known and most influential, often credited with begetting the contemporary horror story. The Devil isn’t depicted as a character in historical fiction, in Biblical epic or in some foreign land – He is here, now, in a Manhattan apartment block, among people like you or me.

According to his Wikipedia article, Levin later regretted how RB opened the way for a wave of horror stories and movies – namely, The Exorcist (novel 1971, movie 1973) and The Omen (movie 1976) – which gave a new realism and cultural presence to Satanism and which, he speculates, provided ammunition for the rise of US evangelists and the Christian Right. Maybe.

Short plot summary

A group of satanists in New York select a fertile young bride and arrange for her to be drugged and raped by the Devil, and then groomed and cared for while she brings the baby to term. The text is artfully constructed so that it starts in the humdrum world of tenancy agreements and bad plumbing and only slowly, through hints and glimpses, allows you to realise the true nature of what’s going on.

Before the movie came out, the novel had already sold two and a half million copies and, after the terrifying film (1968), directed by Roman Polanski and starring John Cassavetes as the creepy husband and Mia Farrow as a wide-eyed Rosemary, sales soared to over 5 million.

So what accounted for it success? How does it work?

Rosemary’s Baby

1. Commonplace setting

A young married couple, Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are looking for an apartment in New York so he can pursue his budding career as an actor and she can fulfil her dream of being a successful actor’s wife. Aged just 24, Rosemary has left her Catholic family back in Omaha to come to the big bad city and marry a non-Catholic, and oh how she longs for a baby.

Apparently by chance, they get the opportunity to rent an apartment in an old Gothic building, the Bramford, where an old lady has (conveniently) passed away. Again by chance, they get chatting to the old couple across the hall – Minnie and Roman Castevet – and, to Rosemary’s surprise, her husband becomes firm friends with them, until he is regularly popping round for chats with the old man who knew a lot of the old Broadway greats.

So far so innocent. Levin’s technique is to intersperse the text with odd moments, inexplicable events, ominous anecdotes – slowly at first. Rosemary meets the young woman, Terry, who the Castavets have taken in, in the laundry room in the dingy basement. She shows Rosemary an odd necklace the Castavets have given her, containing a foul-smelling substance. Days later the Woodhouses are walking home to find the sidewalk cordoned off where Terry has leapt to her death. A few days later, after the customary commiserations, Rosemary finds Minnie Castevet forcing the same necklace on her as a gift…

The apartment walls are thin, allowing Guy and Rosemary to overhear the old couple next door in their bedroom. Initially they hear comic old person nags – ‘Roman, will ya bring my cocoa!’ But in a repeated device, Levin shows us Rosemary’s thoughts as she falls asleep and dreams, mixing up genuine dream elements (meeting the Kennedys) with things heard through the wall – Roman and Minnie arguing about using such a useless young girl (the suicide), they must find a fresh, fit young woman for… what?

2. Precision and economy

The writing is crisp and precise. The use of dialogue is particularly telling, making quick cool leaps, just the telling phrase or snappy gag which gives you a flavour of the young couple’s irreverent humour.

Only as much detail and description and dialogue is given in each scene as is required to move the story along. All superfluous matter is cut. This makes the opening stretches a little colourless, as the mundane atmosphere is created by describing genuinely inconsequential things, quite a lot of Rosemary’s plans to redecorate the flat and what she’s cooking for Guy etc.

However, after about 50 pages and the reader starts to suspect something is wrong, the slow drip-drip of suspicion and coincidence begins to give every little incident a sinister dimension. And following chapter 8, the Sex-With-The-Devil scene, when we realise something is very very wrong, then every event, every remark from the husband, every look, every knock at the door or ring of the neighbour’s bell, becomes part of a closing trap, creating a genuine sense of claustrophobic fear.

3. The key

Rosemary has a friend named Hutch, an older man, a long-time New Yorker. He acts as a chorus, implicitly commenting on the action and providing the key to the dénouement.

Early on he outlines to Guy and Rosemary the Bramfield’s bad reputation: a history of suicides, murders, and association with one Adrian Marcato, who was accused of Devil worship and lynched in the lobby of the building. Later Hutch offers Rosemary use of his cottage in the country when she is feeling disoriented after the Sex-With-The-Devil chapter, barely accepting the cover story that her husband and she were both drunk and he took her violently while she was unconscious.

Guy learns that Rosemary has planned to meet Hutch when she is well on into her pregnancy, suffering constant pain, losing weight and looking awful. He tips off the Castavets and, when Hutch doesn’t keep his appointment, Rosemary is distraught to learn he has suffered a stroke and is in a coma.

At the very end of his life he regains consciousness long enough to get his nurse to promise to hand Rosemary a package. It is a book about witchcraft which is the key to opening her understanding about the conspiracy. Structurally, Hutch is vital to the plot, revealing the backstory, exposing secrets and unlocking understanding and meaning for both Rosemary and the reader.

4. American prose

After reading scores of English novels from the 1950s, 60s and 70s it is an enormous relief to read some American prose. It is free. It is unconstrained. It is unburdened by the wretched class system ie the grovelling belief of English writers that to be classy they must write stiff Augustan prose – the guests with whom we arrived, whilst I opened the window – all the markers of ghastly good taste.

Levin’s prose is simple and unadorned and just gets on with it. At a party:

Mike wig-wagged over heads and mouthed Congratulations. She smiled and mouthed Thanks. (p.141)

No fussing about style and elaborate periphrasis. The language is always inflected towards Rosemary’s point of view and (initially at least) fresh, happy, simple tone of voice.

She went to upper Broadway for swordfish steaks and across town to Lexington Avenue for cheeses; not because she couldn’t get swordfish steaks and cheeses right there in the neighbourhood but simply because on that snappy brightblue morning she wanted to be all over the city, walking briskly with her coat flying, drawing second glances for her prettiness, impressing tough clerks with the precision and know-how of her orders. (p.71)

When Levin wants us to hear her thoughts, he just puts them in italics.

Rosemary hung up and then lifted  the receiver again, but kep a hidden finger on the hook. She held the receiver to her ear as if listening, so that no-one should come along and ask her to give up the phone. The baby kicked and twisted in her. She was sweating. Quickly, please, Dr Hill. Call me. Rescue me. (p.189)

And to convey Rosemary coming round from a drugged sleep after she had given birth, he uses not Joycean stream of consciousness or a wordy attempt at a lush description. Keep it simple, really simple.

Light.

The ceiling.

And pain between her legs.

And Guy. Sitting beside the bed, watching her with an anxious, uncertain smile.

‘Hi,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ she said back. (p.205)

If it works, do it.

5. Faust and feminism

What emerges is that Guy has sold his soul and made a bargain with the Devil. The Castavets have offered him success in his career if he gives the Satanists his wife’s womb. The day after his long chat with Roman the actor who was Guy’s rival to get a plum new theatre role inexplicably goes blind and the role is offered to Guy. Further ‘accidents’ smooth his path to parts in high-profile TV ads and then a Hollywood studio comes calling. Earthly success beckons.

Two thoughts immediately arise:

  • Faust The novel is a version of the Faust myth, but with a spin; instead of his own soul, Guy has sold his wife’s womb. What’s interesting is what’s missing from this version of the myth – the theology. There is remarkably little theological paraphernalia, no priests or angels, no weighty discussions of God and right and wrong and the afterlife; let alone the more superficial layer of horror effects, like things going bump in the night. It is all kept within the world of a happy young couple and their eccentric neighbours. The Faust myth always ends with Justice being done, the protagonist realising the full implications of his deed, before being dragged down to hell screaming. None of that here. Guy remains a two-dimensional character, ready to sell his wife to the devil to get a good part in a play. –There is quite a lot of satire here on contemporary American values.
  • Feminism Lots of feminist tropes meet here, the one that strikes me being the way a man has sold his wife’s body for his gain. Without any effort Rosemary’s body becomes a metaphor for the Patriarchy or Capitalism’s use and abuse of the natural functions of the female body. It’s nowhere mentioned, but it’s just one of the issues which naturally arises from a novel dedicated to one woman’s pregnancy.

6. Pregnancy

Is there a human condition more fraught with meanings and anxieties and mystery and concern than that of a pregnant woman? The mechanism of existence, the way we all came into the world, the fragile slender means of our survival. The novel is cleverly contrived, expertly paced, written as if half way to a screenplay and works as a gripping read. But its theme also taps into archetypal fears –

  • taking the reader inside the mind of a panic-stricken woman who thinks she has been possessed by a demon and is carrying an alien body inside herself
  • tapping every reasonable person’s concern for the frailty and vulnerability of the pregnant woman ie the story has an added layer of terror because its main figure is a universal symbol of helplessness

The tale of the exploitation and hunting down of a particularly frail, vulnerable, naive pregnant woman brings into sweaty focus a world of conscious and unconscious anxieties which all contribute to its tense finale.

7. The Jewish view

Levin was a Jewish man. Rosemary is a (lapsed) Catholic woman. There are a number of ways you could take issue with his depiction of her gender and religion. For the purposes of the fiction I was persuaded by both – though she didn’t seem to carry the full burden of Catholic guilt experienced by many of the women I’ve known who’ve abandoned their faith. More interesting, I think, is the possibility that the whole thing is an elaborate Jewish joke about the stupidity and vulgarity of Christians. I don’t think it is, but at moments, especially towards the end, it certainly could be.

The final pages tread a very fine line between horror and the ridiculous – the Satanists crowd round the cradle with the little baby Satan in it, chanting ‘Hail Adrian! Hail Adrian!’ You could burst out laughing. This and some other details of the Satanism border on the risible; what holds the book together and gives it its hurtling, breathless tension in the final chapters is the immediacy of the portrayal of a vulnerable pregnant woman driven to a state of complete panic.

I didn’t necessarily buy the horror. But I was completely convinced by the terror.

The movie

Roman Polanski’s taut and terrifying film of the novel, made in 1968, and starring Mia Farrow, was shot in the Dakota Building in New York using a cast of venerable American character actors, and it is these – Sidney Blackmer and the terrific Ruth Gordon as the Castevets, Maurice Evans as Hutch, Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Sapirstein, Elisha Cook – as much as Cassavetes and Farrow, who root the outrageous story in an all-too-believable everyday reality.

Having just watched it, I’m struck by how very faithful the script (written by Polanski) is to the novel. Or how readily adaptable the novel was into a screenplay. The post-birth scene quoted above is shot exactly as per the novel, starting with the white ceiling and panning down to reveal Guy looking anxious and he and Rosemary both saying a blank ‘Hi’. The movie confirms your sense of the slick efficiency of the book.

Related links

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary's Baby

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary’s Baby

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife who is desperate to have a baby to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then try to keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the conspiracy.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972)
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)
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