ANGRY YOUNG MAN REVISITED
Richard A. Lupoff
My notes don’t include the date I started work on Sacred Locomotive Flies but I know it was late in 1969. By January of 1970 I had given my then-agent, Henry Morrison, some sample chapters and an outline of the proposed book and he had shown this material to Donald R. Bensen, an editor at Berkley Publishing Corporation.
Bensen was enthusiastic about the proposal and issued a contract. I have it beside me now; it’s dated January 20th, 1970. Berkley would pay a modest advance and would publish the book as a paperback original, but there was an unusual clause in the contract. If they were really excited about the book once I completed it, there would be a small bonus for me and Berkley would publish it in hard covers first, then follow with the paperback.
That’s called motivation.
I finished the book in the spring of 1970 and I really felt good about it. So good that I personally hand-delivered the manuscript to Bensen’s office, then went home and waited for his response.
He loved the book. It was the right book for the right moment: angry, funny, sexy, satirical, and serious. He prepared a marketing plan for the hardcover edition, complete with an all-out advertising and promotion plan. Then he presented the plan to his boss.
His boss’s response was succinct: “Nope.”
“ ‘Nope?’ What do you mean, ‘Nope?’ ” Bensen demanded.
“I mean we’ll publish this as a paperback original. Let it sink or swim, no support.”
In short, the book was cannon fodder.
Bensen was appalled. “Have you read the manuscript?” he asked.
His boss shook his head. “Haven’t read it. Don’t want to. Don’t need to. Don’t intend to. I’ve read the by-line. This guy isn’t an established hardcover novelist. First hardcover novels are risky. Let somebody else buy his next novel and publish it in hardcover. If it flops, it’s their loss. If it flies, we’ll hire him back for his next book.”
Bensen was outraged.
His boss was adamant.
His boss listened as long as he could, then offered a compromise. “You’re fired,” he said.
Don Bensen was a talented and much sought-after editor. He was promptly hired by Ballantine Books, and in short order had worked out a tripartite deal whereby I bought my book back from Berkley and sold it to Ballantine for the same price. Financially it was a wash.
Unfortunately the project was delayed for a year by these machinations. If ever there was a moment to be seized, this was it, and the Berkley-Ballantine glitch had cost us a year. Instead, some other bozo brought out a book called Another Roadside Attraction that grabbed the audience I had hoped to reach.
More bad news: Ballantine had first gone into business doing hardcover-paperback deals and would eventually return to that policy, but at this point they published only paperbacks.
And still more bad news: Ballantine was having distribution problems at the time and decided to start a new line called Ballantine Beagle Boxer Books (I am not making this up!) which would go out through a new, experimental distribution system.
The new system flopped.
There was one advertisement for Sacred Locomotive Flies. It appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine. The book was ignored by critics (if they ever even saw copies), sales were dismal, and that seemingly was the end of that.
Even so, about a year later I was sitting home one night when the phone rang and a voice asked if I was really Richard Lupoff, which I was, the same Richard Lupoff who had written Sacred Locomotive Flies, and indeed I was.
“Oh, I was just wondering,” the caller explained.
“Well, why did you call me?” I asked.
“A group of us here at the University of California are big fans of Sacred Locomotive Flies, and somebody said you lived in Berkeley, so we looked in the phone book and there you were.”
And indeed, there I was.
I put the experience behind me, as I think one needs to do with such painful events if one is to avoid becoming totally embittered, and went on with my career. And with the rest of my life.
Now, three decades after Sacred Locomotive Flies was first published, Sean Wallace of Cosmos Books is bringing out a new edition. He sent me an electronic file of the text and I cleaned it up a little, mostly correcting typographical errors and other such matters, but making no essential changes to the book.
What I meant as an absurdist, comic satire, reads very differently than it did in 1971. Some of the calculatedly ridiculous projections turn out to be blood-freezingly accurate. Other elements in the book, intended as satire, don’t read that way any more. They come across as pretty nasty stuff. I apologize to anyone whom I unintentionally offended or hurt.
Certainly Sacred Locomotive Flies isn’t the book that I would write today. The world has changed in the decades that have passed since I wrote this book.
And of course I’m no longer the person who wrote this book. I’ve changed since 1970; we achieve at least a degree of enlightenment by living, I hope, and some of the issues addressed and attitudes expressed in this book are not the issues I would address or the attitudes I would express today.
When I look in the mirror today the man who looks back is not the fire-breathing, in-your-face radical of 1970. He’s something of a contented grandpa, more interested in taking his son and his grandson to the ball game (or being taken by them) than in making revolution.
But that doesn’t mean that there is less need for revolution than there was thirty years ago. If anything, there is more need for it. But mine are no longer the hands to make it. I cede that task to younger men and women, and urge them on.
Maybe Sacred Locomotive Flies will help them to avoid some of the mistakes that we made thirty years ago, and encourage them to go out and do better than we did.
ANGRY YOUNG MAN REVISITED, REVISITED
When my friend Fender Tucker, grand guru of this quirky publishing company called Ramble House and great-grand guru of its subsidiary, Surinam Turtle Press, suggested that it was time for a new edition of Sacred Locomotive Flies I was first surprised, then flattered, then intrigued. I sat down and read the book and I was struck by the changes in the world it attempted to satirize when I wrote it more than forty years ago.
Cold War references seem quaint. Hippy-era psychedelia and sexuality are as alien to us today as life on the lost continent of Lemuria or the ice-spouting volcanic moons of the Outer Planets. We’ve gone to the Moon and then lost interest in exploring the universe—a moral crime against humanity. We’ve decided that tax breaks for billionaires are more important than paying the salaries of elementary school teachers or providing food and decent housing for the poorest among us.
We’ve decided that the way to bring humane enlightenment to Third World countries ruled by monsters is to bomb their cities into rubble, murder their citizens by the hundreds of thousands, and send armies of our sons and daughters to kill and to die for—for—for—
I’m sorry, my mental record is still a relic of the old groove-and-needle variety and at this point I have just hit a crack and keep repeating.
We are sending armies of our sons and daughters to kill and to die for—for—for—
Nope. I’ll have to drop that thread. But I note that we’ve corrected some of the gender inequality of past decades. We’re sending our daughters as well as our sons to kill and to die for—
Oh, wait a minute, I’ve got it. We’re sending our armies to kill and to die for freedom and democracy. And now—get this, will you!—you can even go out to kill and to die for freedom and democracy if you’re gay!
That is real progress!
Think about something like that long enough, and eventually the answer will come to you.
So here I sit at the keyboard hammering out words again. I feel a lot like the old firehorse who hears the bell clattering and pricks up his ears and snorts and heads for the barn door, ready to go fight another fire.
In 2003 I said, “When I look in the mirror today the man who looks back is not the fire-breathing, in-your-face radical of 1970. He’s something of a contented grandpa, more interested in taking his son and his grandson to the ball game (or being taken by them) than in making revolution.”
Yeah, stow that one. The old firehorse is pricking up his ears and snorting and heading for the barn door. Baseball is fun but it’s time I got my priorities straight. Show me that revolution. I can still stand and march. I can still raise my voice. I can still raise my fist!