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Sunday 18 December 2016

The Fan Man

The rent will be high but it’s not so bad if you don’t pay it. – William Kotzwinkle, The Fan Man


You would think that novelizations would be something way down the list of things a film director would be interested in. Surely he’d have people who’d sort out stuff like that. And maybe some do but no one less than Steven Spielberg himself summoned William Kotzwinkle to a top-secret viewing of his new film E.T. the Extra Terrestrial to discuss its novelisation. Kotzwinkle remembers the encounter well:

Steven took me down a hallway, through a door, into an office and then a closet. He pulled out this box that was so wrapped in tape that I had to use my jackknife to open it. Finally, Steven opens the box and I'm looking at this rubber geek and I'm shaking his hands. It was a rare moment. I'm thinking to myself, “One of us is nuts.” – Brenda Eady, ‘From Any Angle, E.T.'s Biographer William Kotzwinkle Is Not An Alien to Success’, People, Vol. 23 No. 21

Why Kotzwinkle? Quite simply because Spielberg was a huge fan of his 1974 novel The Fan Man. At the time Eady’s article was published Kotzwinkle had written twenty-two books, fifteen of which were for children. The Fan Man is an adult novel but it retains a childish quality in that its protagonist, the wonderfully-named, Horse Badorties is a hippy who spends the entire novel either high or anticipating his next high. Jumping forward to the present his Wikipedia entry shows Kotzwinkle to have been a busy boy since then although it’s been 2007 since his last book came out. Not sure where People magazine got the fifteen children’s books because all Wikipedia lists as kids’ books are The World is Big and I’m So Small and five of the Walter the Farting Dog books which sound fun. Looking at his back catalogue though it’s clear he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed. He received the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Doctor Rat in 1977 and in 1988 co-wrote the original story that formed the basis for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the most financially successful film of the franchise apparently. Odds are, however, the book history will see fit to remember above all his others will be The Fan Man. It’s not a masterpiece but it is a wee gem. It is also a book very much of its time so if political correctness is your thing then this one probably isn’t for you.

The novel follows Horse Badorties over several days leading up to a concert he’s been organising. He wanders around handing out sheet music to street musicians and anyone he feels might contribute to the success of the project (but especially fifteen-year-old-girls):

Man, I’ve got groups all over the country, but especially I have got a group rehearsing tonight at St. Nancy’s Church around the corner, man, and you come there at eight o’clock we will smoke oatmeal in the choir loft and sing some fantastically beautiful wonderments, man.

He has a plan. He’s going to get a bus to transport everyone and arrange for the media to be there and all the choristers are going to have a handheld fan each. It’s going to be incredible:

These fans, man, are little gods, man, and they make the sound, man, in which all other sounds are contained–they make the whirring sound of AUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMNNNNNNNN, man, and I am depending on that sound, man, to make the Love Concert the most incredibly perfect musical event in the history of the earth.

The question is: In his current and continuing state how is he going to manage all this when he’s perpetually being distracted by his own thoughts:

But first I must make a telephone call to Alaska.

But first I had better stop in the drugstore, man, and buy an astrology book for this month…

But first, man, I must buy a HOT DOG from this hot dog wagon on the street.

But first, man, I must buy the hot dog seller’s gigantic umbrella.

But first, man, I must sit down on this isolated park bench, man, flung up here in the bushes by some thoughtful juvenile delinquent.

[B]ut first let’s smoke a little of this…

You get the idea. Oooh, a shiny thing. Oooh, another shiny thing. Oooh, look at all them shiny things. It sounds like he’s got ADD and if he wasn’t out of his head that would not be an unreasonable diagnosis. There’s also a case for kleptomania and/or maybe disposophobia (that would be hoarders disorder). The book opens:

I am all alone in my pad, man, my piled-up-to-the-ceiling-with-junk pad. Piled with sheet music, with piles of garbage bags bursting with rubbish and encrusted frying pans piled on the floor, embedded with unnameable flecks of putrefied wretchedness in grease. My pad, man, my own little Lower East Side Horse Badorties pad.

This is Horse Badorties’ Number One Pad. By the end of the book he’s acquired another four and no sooner does he move in than the mess miraculously follows him.

        The door swings open, man, to the Buddhist monk’s previous pad, man, which he kept perfectly neat and tidy. I have made only a few small additions of Horse Badorties homey touches.
         “Sure is a lot of junk in here.”
         “Art materials, baby, serving as camouflage for a secret passageway, which you will see momentarily. Follow me through that pile of trash cans and old rags, step over that mound of dirt and broken dishes crawling with roaches and come over here and help me move this tremendous wardrobe chest stuffed with bottles and rags. That’s it, shove it out from the wall, and what, baby, do you see before you?”
         “A hole in the wall.”
         “That is correct, baby, a hole in the wall, which I took the precaution of chopping out yesterday. If the landlord should by any chance discover that I am living in this number two pad, it won’t matter, because we will now slip through this secret passage–go ahead, baby, through those broken slats and falling plaster–through this hole in the wall to my Horse Badorties number three pad.”
         “Gee, there’s a lot of junk in here too.”

How can he afford all of this? Well, he has a little cash but the bigger items he buys with rubber cheques:

        Barney’s Men’s Shop, man, here I am, looking through the suits. I’d better find one that’s marked down, man, as I used my last rubber cheque on that motherfucking school bus. Here is a beautiful suit, man, for $185. It’s my size, too, man. The only thing that is necessary now, man, is to remove from my satchel my special four-pointed, four-colour ball-point pen and select the ink which matches this price tag. Then, man, by simply moving the decimal point over one place, and adding a zero to the end of the figure, I have found a suit that is marked down to


         “Yes sir, may I help you?”
         “I’ll take this suit, man.”
         “Yes sir, cash or charge?”
         “Cash, man, I only came in for a pair of socks, but I couldn’t resist the cut of this suit. It will fit perfectly, man, and I am going to wear it out of the store.”

His satchel deserves a paragraph to itself. An incredible item this proves to be. Positively bottomless. During the course of the novel it provides him with the aforementioned four-colour pen; endless sheet music; numerous fans; two tape recorders; his Commander Schmuck Korean (or possible Red Chinese) earflap cap; his “special Montgomery Ward mail-order glass-enclosed water-filled wire-screened rubber-hosed lung-preserving mother-fucking hookah”; two containers of rice; some chopsticks; “a handy ball-peen hammer”; antiseptic gargle; “Doctor Badorties’ huge Ann Page Blue Cheese Dressing bottle, which is filled with clear spring water”; a tuning fork; a stethoscope; a piece of chalk; a battery-powered back-scratcher; a moon-lute; a pair of walkie-talkies; a can opener; a broken clock; an unforgettable pimento jar; a music box and a pair of sunglasses. Magic satchels are too numerous to mention in comics and manga. Similarly, they’re widespread in fantasy and science fiction novels and stories. Suffice to say Mary Poppins would’ve been jealous.

Over the course of the novel we follow him through the Village, the Lower East Side, The Bowery and Chinatown; he travels to New Jersey to buy—I use the term loosely—his bus (the dog, air-raid siren, minesweeper and the braking mechanism from an old subway car are unexpected bonuses) and spends time in Tompkins Square Park, Central Park and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Sometimes he heads off with intent. Other times he’s blown hither and thither by events seemingly beyond his control. All that’s important is the plan. If he can just keep his hunger, his curiosity and his libido under control.

I’m sure Kotzwinkle would struggle to get this book published in today’s be-careful-who-you-might-offend world. There’s a rape mentioned in the book, for example, that’s just shrugged off and Horse’s ephebophilia (sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents) would also be frowned on. This is assuming that the fifteen-year-old girls in the book are even fifteen. I doubt they are. I think in Horse’s head all girls are fifteen and homeless and just desperate to sing in his Love Chorus and make out with him after. Horse doesn’t take anything seriously. He’s a caricature of the archetypal hippy and the world he inhabits is there to meet his needs at the time and if he needs to resort to a little light criminality to further his purpose then so be it.

In Horses’s head the Love Concert is going to be “the most incredibly perfect musical event in the history of the earth” but why he’s as invested as he is in it and why it all seems to be coming together despite the state he’s perpetually in is another thing entirely. We don’t get much of Horse’s backstory and what little we do we probably shouldn’t trust.

As I said the book’s not perfect—compare it to, say, Withnail and I, and you can start to see where it falls down—the plot is thin and the characters lack depth but never stops being fun and I did like the ending. Usually I root for the little guy but from the very start of the book, once I realised what he was up to, I was convinced he was going to fail big time. Don’t go assuming he succeeds though. He just doesn’t fail big time. There a bit of Spike Milligan here and some Brautigan too but Brautigan’s better; Brautigan can be fun and silly and there’s still a depth to his writing which this book could’ve done with; Milligan was not big on depth either. It would’ve been nice if Life had grabbed ol’ Horse by the lapels and given him a good shake even all Horse did was shake the shaking off.

I’ve only read the one book by him. Maybe one day I’ll read another. Nothing will ever be like Horse though. Irrespective of what you think of his treatment at the hands of his creator the one thing you cannot deny is that Horse Badorties is a fantastic creation and it puzzles the hell out of me that no one’s ever thought to turn the book into a film. A younger Robin Williams could’ve had a whale of a time playing him.

If you want to know a bit more about Kotzwinkle I suggest you read Stephen Romano’s article ‘William Kotzwinkle: Mastery in Disguise’.

Let me leave you with not an excerpt exactly but rather a couple of short pieces of fiction from Kotzwinkle’s blog from 2013:

The Fan Man Smoothie

On the Rooftop With Horse Badorties – from Return Of The Fan Man

Is he coming back? I can think of worse books that’ve spawned sequels.

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