These days, time certainly feels to be an uncertain entity. In this post, essayist, frequent contributor to EQMM and AHMM, and prolific reader Kevin Mims—who has written about popular fiction many times before on this site—takes a look at popular bestsellers of the 1960s and 70s from a unique viewpoint.—Janet Hutchings
Last year, Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle released his fourteenth film, Yesterday, in which a young musician wakes up after being hit by a bus and discovers himself in a world where no one has ever heard of The Beatles, leaving him free to pass off all those great Lennon/McCartney songs as his own compositions. It’s a dream come true (until, of course, it turns into kind of a nightmare). For years, I’ve had a similar dream. As soon as I can complete the time machine I’ve been constructing in my garage for decades now, I plan to travel back to the late 1950s and make myself a pop-fiction icon by penning a handful of the best-selling books of the 1960s and 70s before their actual authors have a chance to do so. It won’t be easy, however, and so I have had to do a lot of planning.
Like the time-traveler in Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, I expect to arrive back in 1958 (the year of my birth, by the way) buck naked (which is how I arrived there the first time around). Nothing that isn’t a part of my body can travel with me (that just seems to be the rule in time travel). Thus, I won’t be able to carry with me a bunch of classic novels that haven’t been published yet and pass them off as my own. I suppose that, before traveling back in time, I could have some very short and successful pop fiction–Love Story, say, or Jonathan Livingston Seagull–tattooed in minuscule print across my chest or back. That way I wouldn’t have to recreate the whole thing from memory. But that would be incredibly painful, and I don’t handle pain well. And so I simply plan to reproduce a small handful of popular novels that I know well because I have read them several times and/or because I have watched their film incarnations many, many times.
My plan is to begin with Walter Tevis’s 1959 novel The Hustler. I’m a huge Tevis fan. His novels are generally slim and tight with no wasted words. The Man Who Fell To Earth, for example, runs to only 144 pages in paperback (it was never released in hardback). The Hustler is slightly longer, but I’ve read it three or four times and seen the film version many times. I don’t have the whole novel memorized, but I do have the entire plot memorized. All I have to do before taking off in my time machine for 1958 is memorize a few of Tevis’s most evocative passages, such as this one, which begins chapter 17:
He could feel the tension, the excitement of the place, even before he opened the door, could hear the heavy undercurrent of voices, the clickings of many balls, the soft cursing and dry laughter, the banging of cue sticks on the floor. And when he went in he could almost smell the action and the money. He could even feel them, down to his shoes. It was like a whorehouse Saturday night and payday in the mines; the day the war was over and Christmas. He could feel his palms sweating for the weight of his cue.
Of course, I’ll feel bad about stealing Tevis’s debut novel, but he should be okay. He was mentored by the great A.B. Guthrie, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Big Sky and The Way West. Even without The Hustler, Tevis should have a successful career as a writer. Besides, there’s a certain poetic justice in using a time machine to legally deprive the author of The Hustler of his material. It’s the ultimate hustle.
With the money I make from The Hustler, I’ll buy myself a peaceful cabin somewhere and spend a year or so writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ken Kesey published that novel in early 1962, which means I’m probably going to have to get my version copyrighted no later than 1960 if I want to beat Kesey to the punch. I’ve read the book a couple of times. I’ve seen the movie many times. I feel fairly confident I can reproduce it with a fair amount of accuracy, although my version isn’t likely to be as gonzo as Kesey’s. Again there is a bit of poetic justice in depriving Kesey of his first novel. The novel, after all, is about madness. And seeing his book in print with my name on it is likely to drive Kesey a bit mad, which may help him write future books on madness. Anyway, that’s my rationalization and I’m sticking to it.
After publishing Cuckoo’s Nest to rave reviews, I can relax and take my time typing up a copy of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby from memory. Again we’re talking about a short novel that I’ve read several times and a film that I’ve probably watched half a dozen times. The book wasn’t published until 1967. So if my version of Cuckoo’s Nest comes out in, say, 1962, I’ll have plenty of time to get my Rosemary’s Baby into print by, say, 1965. Levin has written about cloning (The Boys From Brazil) and replacing originals with cheap substitutes (The Stepford Wives), so he should be sympathetic to my project. Besides, he made most of his money from the long-running Broadway play Deathtrap (about one writer stealing another’s work), so he won’t go hungry without Rosemary.
At this point, it would be nice to try to beat Mario Puzo to The Godfather, but it’s a massive novel with a complex plot and I just don’t think I can memorize enough of it to do it justice. Besides, it’s never a good idea to mess with the mafia. My favorite novel of the late 1960s is Charles Portis’s True Grit. I’ve read it countless times and could probably type it up from memory. Alas, all that rereading has made Marshall Rooster Cogburn, the legendary lawman at the heart of the novel, a living presence in my brain. Portis describes him as “a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” If I were to kidnap him from his true creator, I’m not sure I’d ever stop looking over my shoulder. I could steal Michael Crichton’s slim 1969 bestseller The Andromeda Strain, but my complete ignorance of all things scientific could make it difficult for me to bluff my way through all the expository material (and probably also explains why my time machine is still inoperable). Erich Segal’s Love Story was the top-selling novel of 1970. It’s short and would be easy to memorize. But I have no great fondness for it, so I’d just as soon give it a pass. No, I think it would make more sense to follow up a religious-themed horror novel like Rosemary’s Baby with another religious-themed horror novel, 1971’s The Exorcist. Of course, The Exorcist isn’t a short novel, but I’ve read it several times and seen the film. Also, William Peter Blatty’s prose is nothing special, so I don’t have to worry about doing much damage to it by simply substituting my own. I have no desire to write screenplays, so when selling the novel to Hollywood I’ll insist that Blatty be hired to write the screenplay. He will already have written several produced films by this time, so it won’t be an unreasonable stipulation and it will help balm my conscience a bit. After all, Tevis, Kesey, and Levin all went on to write other successful books. The Exorcist is pretty much all that Blatty is remembered for these days. I owe him the screenplay, and the Oscar he won for it.
The bestselling novel of both 1972 and 1973 was Richard Bach’s short Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but I don’t want that book anywhere near my stolen bibliography. I may be a thief but I have my preferences. Instead, I think I shall use the years immediately following the publication of The Exorcist creating my own version of Jaws. It’s a fairly short and simple novel. Plus, I’ve seen the Spielberg film more than a dozen times. I should have no trouble getting it into print by 1973, thus beating poor Peter Benchley by a full year. Benchley came from a wealthy and distinguished family. He was educated at Harvard and spent many of his formative years on Martha’s Vineyard, a playground for the rich and privileged. He should have no trouble surviving the loss of Jaws.
Next, I would love to steal Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Percent Solution. It’s short, clever, and was a big bestseller. Alas, it was published in the same year as Jaws. I don’t think I’ll have the time or the energy to steal both Jaws and The Seven-Percent Solution. But since I am determined to add a Victorian crime novel to my oeuvre, my plan is to steal Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, which was the eighth bestselling novel of 1975. It’s my favorite Crichton novel and also his least typical book. He made his name writing futuristic thrillers. The Great Train Robbery, a historical novel, is so anomalous that I almost feel as if it deserves to be stolen from Crichton. Plus, he owes me a book, since I allowed him to keep The Andromeda Strain.
Some of the most successful pop-fictions of the era–Shogun, The Thorn Birds, Trinity, anything by Herman Wouk–are just too big to be stolen. Those authors are protected from my rapacity by the magnitude of their ambitions. Young Stephen King, however, is not. Before he produced massive tomes like It and Under The Domeand 11/22/63 he produced his swift little debut novel Carrie in 1974. I’d like to steal it from him, but I’ll be busy in the early 70s stealing from Peter Benchley and Michael Crichton. The first King novel I can reasonably be expected to publish before King has a chance to publish it himself is 1977’s Rage. This book was published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, which suggests that even Stephen King doesn’t consider it a Stephen King novel. The book was not a big seller for King, so I won’t be depriving him of much money. But when it is published by the author of such classics as The Hustler, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Exorcist, and Jaws, I imagine Rage will sell a lot more copies than it did in its original incarnation as a Richard Bachman book. Just to demonstrate my panache, I may even seek a blurb from King for it.
At this point, I will be the author of seven classic novels of American popular fiction (six, if my name isn’t enough to propel Rage to classic status). I am not greedy. I don’t plan to steal any more books after that. Besides, most of the bestsellers of the 1980s are just too fat for me: It, Red Storm Rising, Whirlwind, The Little Drummer Girl, Gorky Park, Space, The Hotel New Hampshire, etc. And the ones that are short enough for me to memorize are movie novelizations: ET: The Extra-Terrestrial Storybook and Return of the Jedi Storybook. I may be a thief, but I certainly would never stoop to writing movie tie-ins.