Saturday, 8 March 2014

I devoured the last of Richard Rohmer's Balls! in one sitting last night.  And with that fresh in my mind -- and the horror of the image fresh in yours -- here are my thoughts:

Sir Michael Wilson and Qasim Khan (the man with hooded eyes; The Cobra)

On page 12 of Balls! we are introduced to Michael Wilson, ship broker, and Qasim Khan, ship haver.  Qasim has heard a rumor that pretty soon someone's going to be needing tankers in the worst way, and Qasim wants to make sure Wilson brokers his first.  Qasim threatens to blackmail Wilson if he doesn't get the message and do what he's told when the time comes.

This never comes up again.

Does Qasim know Buffalo's about to get a President-killing snowstorm that will turn America from a nation of many needs, abilities, gifts, dreams etc., into a entity only interested in buying tankers?

If so, how does he know?  Does he own a weather machine? Would a weather machine be more valuable than a boat? If you owned a weather machine, would you use it to attack Buffalo, in order to sell more boats?

Sam Harris, Oil Man

Vanishes, with a golden parachute, on page 175, never to be seen again.

I think the disappearance of Qasim Khan is just one of those things that makes Rohmer Rohmer.  It's like Glenn Gould's grunting.  Abandoned plot threads are part of the fun.  Like getting the same information a half dozen times, or the inevitable appearance of the Mackenzie Delta. (Page 226)

I think the disappearance of Sam Harris -- oil genius/sex machine -- and the appearance of George Stratton -- oil genius/sex machine -- is something else entirely.  It's evidence of a heavy (and hacky) rewrite.

I think the whole book is about Sam Harris, president of TransWhathamacallit,  and "George Stratton", Vice President of the United States, is his Tyler Durden.  Same guy, different name.  And the result of a really late-in-the-game overhaul.

Here's a story that kinda makes sense:  Sam Harris runs an oil company.  They fuck up (or get attacked with a weather machine) and kill almost everyone in Buffalo, NY.  Sam Harris decides that will never happen again, and sets out to buy thousands of oil tankers and convert them to LNG tankers.  He does, the end.  (Yes, that's a lame ending.  But all Rohmer business deals have the same lame ending.  This guy flies around asking people to sell him things. They do. Tah-da!)

Here's a story that's a mess:  Sam Harris runs an oil company.  It screws up, and everyone in Buffalo drives their car into the snow.  Sam Harris feels so bad about it, his bosses fire him, because, oh yeah, they also just found out his mother was Jewish.  Sam Harris is never seen again. Meanwhile, the President dies, the new President picks s a completely different natural gas-obsessive, Senator George Stratton, to be Vice President.  The President has a mission for George: America (the country) is going to start buying natural gas by the trillions of cubic feet and America (the country) is going to buy thousands of ships to move it.  So George does just that.  Because he and the President are both Republicans (and so is the Senate and so's Congress, we're told) and they love free enterprise.  A hasty note, very late in the game -- "Oh, yeah, and we'll get the oil companies involved."

It's not just bad storytelling.  It's nonsense.

I think Rohmer wrote another businessman's day dream -- "A guy should buy all those oil tankers and turn them into LNG tankers" and someone (Editor X) told Rohmer thrillers need Presidents.

And maybe some kind of conspiracy?  Or at least a double cross?  Or even a setback?  Anything?  So it's not just:

Hi, will you sell me those tankers?
Yes, I will.
Thank you.
Thank you.

How about a really ugly/beautiful PLO assassin?  Or the most careless hit man in Calgary?  Maybe Balls II?

As Dudley Moore says to Peter Cook, "The main trouble with your story is that it lacks everything."

Air Force One

It was nice to see that Rohmer had improved on Ultimatum by having the President travel by Marine One (which actually exists) rather than his personal Navy helicopter that doesn't.  Also, putting Air Force One at Andrews AFB -- where it is -- rather than Dulles -- where it isn't.  But Rohmer has over-corrected (Glenn Gould: "Hguhnah-uh--uh-uh") and now all airplanes are more or less "Air Force Ones" and he goes out of his way for various cyphers to tell each other the Vice President will be taking the 707 Air Force One -- with its markings painted over! -- and not the 747 Air Force One, or any of the other Air Force Ones that are lying around.

When the President is on a plane, it's designated Air Force One.  When the President isn't on it, it's designated something else.  He also has a plane called Air Force One.  All the other planes aren't Air Force Ones.  They're just planes.  Unless the President gets on them.  Who cares, of course?  But it sounds dopey when Rohmer goes to crazy lengths to get it wrong.

I'll be driving my private car.  It's the 3:15 Greyhound from Amarillo to Dallas.
You'd better have it painted over.
No need.  It's not a bus.  I just call it that.
But not in this case?
Right.  Today it's just my car.

During the last 100 pages of Balls! -- when it became clear that there weren't any twists to the business deal coming, and when it looked like we were setting up to do Ultimatum again, with Canada holding out on the juice, and when he complained about environmentalists again -- for the first time, and I know I'm being childish, I really sort of hated Richard Rohmer.


  1. Sam Harris disappears? Rohmer has balls. Not many writers would let such a captivating character go. Maybe he'll be back in Red Periscope.

    Since it's the reason for his dismissal, I may as well bring up the whole matter of what Rohmer calls his "Jewishness". Harris is an intelligent and inquisitive guy, but I wonder about his dad, "the famous Chicago heart surgeon, Augustus Harris." Augustus marries Elizabeth Mark in 1941, two years after she arrives in Chicago from her German home. It's only after son Sam is born, in 1942, that he learns that his wife is Jewish.

    Rohmer's explanation:

    "At no time had he [Augustus] asked her about her religion or ethnic background and, for fear of losing him, she had not volunteered the information that she was Jewish."

    So, nothing. No interest at all in her life and family. No concern for his bride's parents back in Germany; there is a war, after all.

    Hey, you never mention your folks. They okay?

    Nope, best not mention it.

  2. Yep. Never came up. Ever for a guy, that's a pretty hands-off attitude about wedding planning.

    Red Periscope next, right? I'll give you and Stan time to catch up ya' slowpokes. I have other stuff to read.

    But as you make your way though the Stratton section of Balls, ask yourself: "Wouldn't this make more sense if an oil company executive was doing it, rather than the Vice President of the United States?" There's a romantic restaurant meal in London during Stratton's secret mission that makes you think, "I'll bet if Dick Cheney was eating oysters with some babe, word would get out."

    1. Slowpokes? Hey, I've got a several 19th-century Presbyterian Canadian novels to read for my next CNQ column - and I actually get paid for that.

      I'll say this, the pace of life was much slower back then.

      Yes, let's do Red Periscope next. But when will we get to Rohmer's non-fiction works? Or is the question really whether we should read them at all?

      Don't hate me. I know how much we're all looking forward to Practice and Procedure Before the Ontario Highway Transport Board.