Undercover: Take out the papers and the trash (11/01/79)

Maxene Fabe is fondly remembered by connoisseurs of the trash novel for Death Rock, which includes the tale of one Ruby, an early-Seventies groupie who sleeps her way to the very top of pop superstardom. Near the end of her odyssey, she journeys to Woodstock in search of her last mark: “a poet with a harsh hushed voice that rambled through never-ending songs that told, that had all the answers…” He agrees to make it with her—for $1000.

“Gee,” says Ruby. “I could give you fifty maybe. But not a thousand. And besides, who knows if you’re still worth that?”
“What do you mean ‘still’?”
“Well, your stock’s pretty shaky, man, since that double album.”
“Okay, then,” he says, “I’ll take the fifty.”

Fabe’s new TV Game Shows! (Doubleday/Dolphin, 332 pp., $8.95 paperback, illustrated) has the same gleefulness, if not the perverse wit: it’s giddy proof that the word “fan” indeed derives from “fanatic.” Fabe has put so much information into this book—history, best-show profiles, how-to-become-a-contestant facts, and sample quizzes—that surely no one could tell us what she’s left out. You can hear Fabe’s teachers crying: “Imagine what that girl could have made of herself if she’d applied her mind to something worthwhile!”

Fabe has a good argument that game shows are the ultimate form of nonpassive television (they make you talk to your set), and media-arts departments will likely take her book to heart, but you don’t have to be a student of mass culture or even watch much TV to have fun with TV Game Shows! The book’s appeal is in its obsessiveness: Fabe makes a whole world out of junk prizes, brutal sentimentality, consumer hysteria, useless knowledge, kitschy sex, absurd brainstorms (Comeback Story, which Fabe cites as the worst game show of all, was a “talent contest whose do-gooder aim was to give a humiliating second chance to celebrities whose careers were on the skids”), and the willingness of people to make fools of themselves for the chance to have something to talk about for the rest of their lives. Halfway through TV Game Shows!, the fact that the “American Dream” can he reduced to a toaster seems like a wonderful thing.lets-make-a-deal-doorsFabe makes only occasional use of the knife (David Susskind’s pronouncement that quiz shows should be “driven off the air” is followed by “For remarks on Susskind’s own game show, see…”). She ignores the sadism of such shows as The New Treasure Hunt (I once saw a woman tricked into thinking she’d won a Rolls-Royce;  when she found out that she’d really won ‘rolls and rice,’ she very nearly died), and she’s barely adequate on Let’s Make a Deal, the true Faustian drama of our time. But that can he left to those who’ll produce Ph.D. theses on, say, Charles Van Doren and the Tragic Flaw. Fabe’s done the homework.


A DOG ATE MY NOTES

White Kids, by Michael Wolff (Summit, 320 pp., $10.95). Sixties New Journalism made the “How I didn’t get the story” story respectable; the Seventies apparently justify a whole book of them. Wolff relates how he didn’t get the story why Angela Atwood (a hometown classmate) joined the SLA, how he didn’t discover why a celebrity’s son killed his sister, how he couldn’t figure out why a charismatic young man of his acquaintance never amounted to anything. All of this is somehow supposed to come together as a portrait of a lost generation in a lost decade—I kept looking for the chapter about the blurry fate of Mark Frechette, though perhaps another reporter had already not gotten that story—but, you know what?

Serpentine, by Thomas Thompson (Doubleday, 576 pp., $12.95, illustrated). Nonfiction crime books that begin, “This is, in essence, a true story,” and then proceed to ascribe motives and relate conversations that no reporter could ever ferret out do not engender confidence. This is especially true when the writer drops six similes into his first two paragraphs (“The nuisance of East Pakistan would no longer squat like a malignant tumor on the shoulder of the subcontinent” is a killer) and insists on pegging every twist of the plot to some fateful portent, sign, or plain old nightmare (“He almost shuddered, as if receiving a mystical foretaste of the prisoner’s future… ‘I cannot explain it. But I feel it.'”). Still, as with Thompson’s best-selling Blood and Money, the Sidney Sheldon aesthetics finally pale before the pure horror of the material. When, after endless pages of background, we get down to action—an Eastern fiend and his zombie lover scattering the corpses of naive tourists from Thailand to India—the chills come full force. When Thompson digs into the details of his most interesting theme—how intelligent vacationers can surrender their lives to a polite, helpful madman rather than go screaming to the cops, which might be rude—even his prose seems to clean itself up. Do not take this book on a long trip, unless you plan to turn right around and come home.


Rolling Stone, November 1, 1979


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