I mostly get the question at parties. The answer is something of an icebreaker. Someone will ask me about the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read — “the books that made you want to pull your eyes out” — and I relate the following:
I have a thing for bad books. Not just books that are poorly written, incompetently edited, and morally irredeemable, but books that make you question man’s place above the animals. Books that, under most circumstances, would not be missed if they were burned.
Yeah, those books.
My slide into this literary gutter didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t go from reading Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud straight to Paul Ross’s Chopper Cop No. 3: Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert.* I was a good kid, a good student. I studied Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme, wrote dense essays on Derrida and deconstructionism. But like the anonymous teen protag of any confessional young-adult memoir, I met a few shadowy people who took advantage of my weakness for pulpy science fiction and European trash cinema. One vice led to another, and before I knew it my bookshelves were filled with titles like Frank Colter’s Death Squad and Phillip Atlee’s Joe Gall, The Nullifier.
I first stumbled across the dreaded “men’s adventure” pulp through a review of the Mack Bolan novels in the back pages of a now forgotten zine. This was the late nineties, and I was looking for anything shocking. Anything outrageous. The Sharpshooter series by Bruno Rossi fit the bill perfectly. Marketed in the mid- to late seventies as men’s crime novels, they were cheap, and most used-book stores had entire shelves bowing under the weight of their gaudy, bloody covers.
Rossi’s Sharpshooter series (after his adoring family is gunned down by mafia goons, Johnny Rock becomes a mobster-eating machine fueled by bullets, pasta, and cheap gasoline)** and its identical twin The Marksman series*** were the gateway drugs. And these Don Pendleton rip-offs soon led to better, more-deranged fare like Marc Olden’s Black Samurai (“The Black Samurai tangles with a human Satan in a hellish den of torrid sex and deadly violence!”),**** Wade Barker’s Ninja Master (“Japan taught him the world’s deadliest art — now . . . vengeance is his!”), William Crawford’s Stryker (“She was a beautiful coed model . . . until she was forced into heroin addiction, pornographic exhibitionism and a gruesome death!”), and Nelson DeMille’s early, outrageous Ryker/Keller series (“The terrorists splashed the streets with innocent blood. It was Sgt. Ryker’s job to seek and destroy them — one by one!”).*****
Two years into my craze, red-eyed and twitching, I found the non plus ultra of trashy crime novels, the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read: Dean Ballenger’s Gannon series.******