Richard M. Levine, ‘Bad Blood’ (11/82)

BadBloodIn 1975, Jim and Naomi Olive, a middle-class couple living in the shopping mall community of Terra Linda, nineteen miles north of San Francisco, were mur­dered. Their sixteen-year-old adopted daugh­ter, Marlene Olive, planned and instigated the crime; Chuck Riley, her twenty-year-old boyfriend, carried it out. They burned the bodies in a public barbecue pit, thus giving the event its hook. If you remember the case, you likely remember it as “the barbecue murders.” Certainly, Chuck Riley has never escaped the stigma; his prison nickname is “Q.”

The matter soon faded from the papers, because for postwar America the crime was not particularly original, nor was it very effective as myth or as sociology. Nineteen-­year-old Charley Starkweather and fourteen­-year-old Caril Fugate had been there first with the most, back in 1958: they killed Caril’s mother, father, baby sister, and seven others. They paid a mythic price: Starkweather got the chair and Caril spent more than a decade locked up. Chuck Riley’s death sentence was commuted to life when the then current death penalty was tossed out in 1977, and Marlene, as a juvenile subject to the California Youth Authority, was on the streets in two years. As a mythic figure, Starkweather clearly learned his role at the movies and thus returned to them with Ter­rence Malick’s Badlands. With his swagger­ingly nihilistic lack of remorse (“i’m not sorry for what i did cause for the first time me and caril had more fun”—a line Bruce Springsteen quotes almost verbatim in his new song about Starkweather, “Nebraska”), Starkweather played off the images of Brando, Dean, and Presley, which were reshaping American iconography. As a sociological figure, Starkweather was everything the statistics on juvenile delinquency implied but couldn’t prove. Adults were appalled by the Starkweather bloodbath; countless teenagers were secretly thrilled by it, and by Charley himself—he was everything Brando, Dean, and Presley implied but wouldn’t do. But Chuck Riley and Marlene Olive were not people anyone cared to identify with. That they, too, attached themselves to pop-cult images—Marlene saw herself as David Bowie’s “Lady Stardust” or Lynyrd Sky­nyrd’s “Freebird,” Chuck Riley saw himself as the dope dealer celebrated in countless songs and films—failed to elevate them beyond their sordid reality.

Chuck Riley was a fat virgin—until he met Marlene—who dealt drugs in order to buy friends. Marlene Olive was a smart girl with an ulcer who felt her personality splitting down the middle, and who often wanted more than anything to be free of that personality. Marlene’s mother, Naomi, was a schizophrenic, abusive, helpless alcoholic. Her father, Jim, was a go-getter whose bottomless optimism left him blind to the disasters taking shape within his own family. After not so long a time, Chuck Riley would do anything Marlene told him to do, and she could be a fearsome mistress: once, she terrified him by masturbating in his presence with his loaded, cocked .22. So booster normal on the surface, Jim Olive had his own reality-defeating kink: a twenty-year obsession with William Walker, the Tennessean who in 1856 conquered Nicaragua as part of an intended Southern-slave empire. Go on, make myth or sociology out of that. You can do it, but what do you gain?

Marlene Olive was no fool, and it’s her attempt to discover her own mind that makes Bad Blood come alive. She was a startlingly good poet, and she recorded her life in notebooks to which Levine had access; every time I saw verse on the page I knew the story would be twisted a little tighter, that it would take on more elegance and more pathos. Marlene’s poems have a clarity that, off the page, she could only sustain for moments at a time; it is horribly ironic that her poems are better than the song lyrics out of which she tried to build an identity she could accept.

Marlene thought too much, knew too much. In 1973, two years before the murders, the Olives were living in Ecuador, where Marlene had spent almost all of her life; Jim Olive’s job with the Gulf Oil company had fallen through, and he had made plans to move back to the United States. Based on what she had learned about America from magazines and television, Marlene desperately tried to stop the change: “I told my dad that I was going to get sucked into the drug scene,” she said to Levine years later. “I told him that I didn’t want to and I cried and cried.” There’s a similar self-knowledge in her poems—“Maybe, just maybe, I would be/Better off not knowing,” she wrote shortly before the murders, “Certain things about me.” Richard Levine’s use of Marlene’s after-the-fact statement about her fear of the American drug scene doesn’t make Jim Olive’s death Jim Olive’s fault, but it does intensify the drama of the entire situation. It does attach weight to every incident. Marlene was convinced that in order to defend herself mentally, she had to kill her parents: at first, only her mother, who constantly tormented Marlene with lurid, made-up stories about Marlene’s natural mother; later, because he came with the package, her father as well. “They never should have been married,” Marlene said over the bodies of her parents. “And now they’re not.” She had talked constantly about killing her parents, to others of her friends as well as to Chuck Riley; almost everyone involved—Marlene, Chuck, their friends, Naomi Olive, social workers (but never Jim Olive)—believed that, sooner or later, somehow, Marlene would do it.

Levine’s Bad Blood is not a “nonfiction novel,” as Truman Capote called his In Cold Blood, and it is not a novel, as the New York Times Book Review classified Norman Mai­ler’s The Executioner’s Song. That is, it does not call attention to itself, and Levine does not call attention to himself. Rather, Levine seems possessed by Marlene and Chuck’s crime to the point of being entirely caught up by it. He couldn’t care less about how he feels about it. Getting the contours of the narrative right is more than enough, because those contours are twisted, broken, and cracked.

As Levine reconstructs the story—working from many interviews with Marlene, Chuck, and other surviving principals—the actual event trashes the fantasies that surround it. The event is present, in all of its gore: the hammer that stuck in Naomi Olive’s skull, and that Chuck Riley could pull out only by pressing his hand on her bleeding head as she gasped for breath, was not part of anyone’s reverie of teenage freedom. Yet the fantasy was so strong, and so strongly supported by the facts of Marlene’s life—a young woman who wanted to know who she was, with a mother who denied that she was anybody—that once the event takes place the fantasy reforms and almost screens out the brutal facts of the crime. On the page, Jim and Naomi Olive do not survive themselves.

Chuck Riley and Marlene Olive lived in a culture of drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, a culture that erased moral reference points and reduced all values to self-celebration and self-pity. As Levine describes it—we might be reading Elizabeth Kaye’s story in the April issue of this magazine about the teenage milieu in Milpitas—this was a listless, passive culture, so empty as to be almost self-canceling. Drugs and music had, by the mid-1970s, mostly lost the 1960s baggage of idealism and search for self; when Chuck Riley first saw Marlene Olive, she was sitting on the front lawn of Terra Linda High School, braving her first acid trip as her friends tormented her with catcalls—“You’re a kite and you’ll never come down.” Chuck Riley committed the murders on acid and other drugs, but he also took drives and made love to Marlene and ripped off clothing stores on acid and other drugs, just as Dan White took naps and argued with his wife on Twinkies. Why did Marlene, so scared of drugs, take them?

Marlene Olive’s embrace of music that told her that she was not merely permitted to act out her deepest desires but compelled to act them out had nothing to do with “punk rock”—the form had yet to appear. The music Marlene and her friends most cared about was a fantasy machine in which actions had no consequences—the infantile bombast of performers like Yes and Robin Trower, post-flower child balladeers who promised mystically sanctioned selfhood in gardens curling with dew. It is utterly appropriate that the most powerful moment of Bad Blood takes place at a Yes concert, days after Jim and Naomi Olive were murdered—because there Marlene, who would later place the blame on Chuck Riley, tried to break through and connect her acts to the real world. But she did it in a place of fantasy; the game was fixed.

High on acid, Marlene was having trouble controlling the almost subliminal flashbacks to the murder scene that seemed to pulsate through her mind to the beat of the music… She couldn’t understand the general hilarity among her friends. Didn’t they know? [Several did, in every detail.]… Could the band even know? As a kind of dare or test of fate, or maybe just seeking confessional relief from her anxiety, she began chanting, first under her breath and then louder and louder: “I killed my parents! I killed my parents! I killed my parents!“… But no one heard her in the general cacophony.

Here, for the only time in Bad Blood, the true enormity of the crime—its primeval, oedipal curse, its desperation, its completeness—comes home. But what is particularly awful is the way in which this overwhelmingly classical moment dissolves.

If Marlene Olive, at a Yes show in 1975, found herself in the middle of a Greek tragedy, then six years later—when, with Levine, she visited Chuck Riley for the first and last time since his arrest—she had completed an escape into a commonplace, ordinary reality. By 1981 she had become a junkie and a prostitute—not just a high-priced call girl, a long-time fantasy, but also a streetwalker handling commuters in their cars while they waited in traffic. Chuck and Marlene spent five hours together at the California Men’s Colony near San Luis Obispo; at the end of that time, Chuck asked a photographer, present for a wedding, to take his and Marlene’s picture. Levine witnessed this dialogue:

“I would have sent you [a picture], but I didn’t know where your head was at [Marlene said]. I always felt bad I got off so easy.”
“I used to feel really cheated, but it wasn’t your fault.”
“You were over eighteen.”
“It wasn’t the sentence as much as the character assassination,” Chuck explained. “People don’t know I’m not the same person who was involved in an atrocity.”
“You’re much more intelligent. You’ve come a long way.”
“Not as far as I’d like. But in terms of being self-destructive, I know I’ve pushed ahead.”
“I’m still self-destructive. If anything, I’ve slipped.”
“Maybe we could help one another out.”
“I could send you drugs,” Marlene said, misunderstanding Chuck. “I was thinking Dysoxens, Preludins, and a half-gram of crystal mixed up in a syringe and ready for takeoff.”

Read it and weep—but not for anyone but those who died and those who killed. Richard Levine’s book has elements of sociology and elements of myth—those are the basic building blocks of the American crime story, after all. Our national literature is rooted in the Gothic; today we demand the comforts of the Gothic from sources both older and more modern. Myth is solace—if certain crimes can be presented as in the nature of things, perhaps they both illuminate our condition and allow us to transcend it. Sociology, at least in crime writing, is dispensation: anyone in similar circumstances might have done it (odd that sociology is never used to prove the opposite). But Bad Blood does not take myth or sociology very far. Levine, it seems, is convinced that neither myth nor sociology can tell us much about what happened in Terra Linda, at least not without obscuring more than is revealed: the reality of the victims and executioners, for instance. From the beginning of this tale through to its aftermath, the people caught up in its momentum are thrown back on themselves. That is what makes the story Bad Blood has to tell so terrible, and so compelling.


good-evil

Unscientific Americans, by Roz Chast (Dial, $7.95, paperback). In The New Yorker, Chast’s cartoons often fall flat because they seem to try too hard not to make sense; collected in one place, with the quietly mad denizens of “The Overly Polite Society” merging into the TV soap opera of “Milk Products Go Bad” or the disquietude of “How to Be Your Own Casual Acquaintance” (“Remind yourself to get together for lunch sometime”), they create a whole world of ordinary, down-to-earth, unassuming, absolute weirdness.

When the Wind Blows, by Raymond Briggs (Schocken, $10.95). This long, upscale British comic book presents itself as a commentary on the all-accepting public attitudes that permit the nuclear arms race and supposedly make nuclear war inevitable; it carries far more weight as a smugly vicious satire of the presumptuous imbecility of the middle-aged and the petite bourgeoisie.

American Anthem, by J.C. Suares and E.L. Doctorow (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $55). This enormous and very heavy book collects 151 color photographs by 81 photographers, prints them on the thickest, glossiest, most coated stock—I mean, you could pick locks with this paper—arranges them according to the seasons (beginning with “Autumn,” not “Fall”—this is a class act), and adds what novelist Doctorow calls “antiphonal responses to the pictures that moved me.” (Later for the garbage, huh?) The result, which looks like the annual report of the nation’s richest corporation, combines fatuous commentary and morbidly conventional composition to a degree perhaps unsurpassed in the long history of fatuously morbid Christmas gift books.

Street Murals, by Volker Barthelmeh (Knopf, 120 pages, $11.95). The more than 110 works of public art documented in this highly pleasurable book, all reproduced in full color, glow with life. Examples range across the United States and through Europe, with 38 from California, including Los An­geles, Santa Monica, Berkeley, and Torrance. Still, the social-history approach of the American art pales next to the everyday surrealism of the work from France and Belgium—most notably Les Droits de L’homme from Brussels. Highly recommended.


California, November 1982


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