Review – Ryan, “The Dynamite Freaks”

Donald Ryan, “The Dynamite Freaks” (1972) – I picked up this little pulp cheapie at a pretty great used bookstore in upstate New York. They had a lot of titles like these, what I think of as “exploitation paperbacks” – lurid titles and covers, stories ground out by the dozen by pseudonymous hacks. Now, people who collected those sort of books are dying or going to retirement homes, and their books — and the scifi and romance heads, and the collectors of dozens of cheap paperback editions of what were at the time deemed classics — are dumped on the used book market, to get scooped up by the likes of me. You see it more outside of higher-end used book markets like those in New York and Boston- upstate, Cincinnati, other places I’ve been.

Anyway! This exploitation novel exploits the New Left and the counterculture, especially the wave of bombing undertaken by groups like the Weather Underground. If you were expecting a sensitive sociological portrait of what would drive people to blow up banks, well, you’re not gonna get it here. You’re also not going to get much in the way of moralizing or a cop/right-wing protagonist bringing those dirty hippies to rough justice, either. Remember, these were contemporary exploitation novels, published by entrepreneurs trying to stay with a shifting audience and keep them buying.

There’s a lot more sex in “The Dynamite Freaks” than there is violence, though there’s a good amount of both. The main character, recent college graduate Carol Waring, and most other women in the book are described primarily via talking about their breasts (weirdly enough, this skeezy book very seldom talks about other sexualized parts of the body). Carol winds up in the clutches of a hippie communist terrorist gang basically because she was a grind in college and the first guy who paid attention to her (despite the author taking pains to convey that she is, in fact, very hot) was a hippie communist, so there you go. The closest thing to a “good guy” protagonist is a dude from her college who goes looking for Carol on behalf of her parents, and who muses that if only he had slept with her, she might be ok now. It’s that kind of book.

Selection pressures have drawn forth the best pulps of earlier eras, especially the thirties and forties, so when we think of pulp from that time, we think of tightly-crafted crime novels by the likes of Hammett and Chandler. To the best of my knowledge, no one’s done that for this era. The main blog dedicated to this stuff is “ain’t it cool” level criticism (run by a Trump chud to boot). So when you dip into this stuff like I do occasionally, you never know what you’re going to get, craft-wise. I do get the impression that latter-era pulp often disregarded plotting in favor of what could be called “sensation” (thanks, Spillane, thanks, Fleming), but that could be bias based on the aforementioned selection pressures.

In any event, there’s not much plot to “The Dynamite Freaks.” Carol starts out pretty in deep with dirty hippie Kurt and his band of miscreants, plotting to blow up a statue at her university graduation (and show off her body in a bikini under her robes- it is that kind of book), and only gets deeper until she meets a gruesome end borrowed from what happened to the Weatherman around the time they thought they were going to bomb a GI dance. The dude tracking her sucks at tracking and fighting (despite supposedly being a Green Beret?). The juice is all in the author (Donald Ryan is a pseudonym… or perhaps a “house name”) trying to twist the knife of transgression. For someone who grew up with the Internet, it’s quaint, almost touching, and at times disturbing by turns, what midcentury straight guy types do in art to shock. They seem to think that depictions of smoking doobies, of many different levels of violence, and of both consensual sex and of rape are more or less in the same category and will yield similar responses- shock and titillation. “Ryan” makes sure to throw in as many exacerbating details as possible- race stuff, family stuff. Violins for the poor little rich girl given everything by (a rather sexualized) daddy (with a heavy overtone of “watch this rich bitch get what she REALLY wants” as a sort of carnival barker come-on), etc.

I could appreciate the craft, such as it was. It also made me think about what “square” society thought was going on with the whole new left/counterculture thing. A lot changed, quickly- and even more seemed to be changing, superficially, while remaining fundamentally the same (different haircuts, same capitalism). There is a certain reciprocity between the sensationalism of the book and the motivations of the hippies in it. Spoilers- Kurt is taking money from a right-wing politician to do bombings that the politician can then use for political gain. In the end, Kurt declares he’ll take money from anyone to keep doing his thing- he’s only in it for power, more or less for its own sake.

A lot of people did a lot of shit in the sixties for a lot of reasons, and we look at them in various ways for various reasons of our own. We way overstate the importance of collegiate radicals like SDS/Weather Underground, for instance, and almost completely ignore waves of working class radicalism at the same time. Weather Underground might be the militant group in the world with the highest books-written-about (or by! lots of memoirs) to effective actions ratio… and hell, here they are, more or less, in pulp novel form. Maybe we keep thinking about the white collegiate radicals because they’re hard to figure- they could have been anything, they became… that, not just revolutionaries, but mostly shitty, vain revolutionaries who then all got book deals (the ones who actually seemed to mean it didn’t get rich and often wound up in prison for decades). Maybe they thought like Kurt did, that they could somehow ride their youthful bravado and a changing society to ultimate power, severely misunderstood the situation, and used their privilege to come back in… or maybe I’m just reading into a cheap, sleazy, diverting airplane read. ***

Review – Ryan, “The Dynamite Freaks”

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