Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Penetrator Disturbs My Lily-Livered 21st Century Morality

Political correctness is a funny thing. We all love to say "Hey, I'm not a 'PC' kinda guy, har har hur hurr." And then crack a bad joke to show how we're not all a bunch of quiche-eating, latte-sipping, metrosexual pantywaists who've caved to cultural pressures and now recycle, buy organic foods, and occasionally wonder if turning in the Chevy Avalanche for a Prius would actually be a good thing.

But at the end of the day, we all know that beyond the "stop trying to shove an attitude of over-acceptance down my throat, you liberal commie pinko scumbags" bravado, its actually a good thing to not be a racist, sexist, bigoted ignoramus who still thinks it's perfectly acceptable to swat your secretary on the backside because, hey, you didn't hire her for her ability to file TPS reports, right sweet-cheeks?

Wait, aren't we supposed to be talking about pulp action novels here, bucko?

Oh yes, my apologies.

So yeah, why did someone decide 'The Penetrator' was a good name for a pulp action series? The Executioner, he executes people. The Butcher, he butchers people. The Destroyer, he destroys people. The Death Merchant is a guy who deals in death. The Ninja Master...I think you get my drift. So what does the Penetrator do? He...penetrates...? Really? I won't even go into the character's name; Mark Hardin. Yeah...Hardin. I know other reviewers have beat this to death, but really now...someone needed to have put a stop to that real early on in the series development process.

Of course, the series tries to make sense of the character's moniker; Mark Hardin was a "penetration specialist" in Vietnam, by which we mean, he was an expert at passing through an enemy's defenses, "penetrating" the territory and performing his mission, then getting out again. Yeah, that's fine. Except for the part where he starts getting called The Penetrator.

All right, I'm done with that.

So the plot of Penetrator #4, Hijacking Manhattan, is that a militant black extremist group has teamed up with a Chinese drug / terror syndicate to hold New York City hostage. First they blow up a subway station, then they blow up the relay to the Empire State Building's radio tower, and finally they threaten to release some kind of weaponized super-germ into the water supply in order to wipe out the population of the city. The mastermind behind this enormously complex and shockingly successful criminal enterprise is a former juvenile delinquent named Abdul Daley, a five-foot tall miscreant with a "duck's-ass" haircut. Apparently this dude killed his first cop around the age of fifteen, then later signed up into the Army, learned to become an expert at all things killy and explosive, then got himself dishonorably discharged so he could put all those new skills to use as some kind of paramilitary crime boss.

Anyhow, this pint-sized criminal genius (who is banging a Chinese assassin / liaison / femme fatale named Soo Lin, by the by) first cons NYC out of two million dollars, then another three million, in a couple of exploits that are so contrived as to be laughable. Honestly, if it was that easy to blackmail / hold hostage a city for money, NYC would have gone broke long ago.

Enter The Penetrator, who shows up in NYC to investigate something called "Black Gold" which his sources have only heard rumblings about. Well, he gets there just after Black Gold (Abdul Daley's terror group) blew up a subway station. Hardin then spends the rest of the book just kinda wandering from one place to another, getting into trouble, shooting guys, torturing guys (like pouring lighter fluid into someone's slashed chest wound and setting it on fire), wearing some kind of's a little embarrassing, actually. For a guy who's supposedly a "penetration specialist" his modus operandi seems to involve A) getting a tip from someone to the effect of "check this place out, it might have bad guys", B) going to said place and seeing that - woah - there are bad guys there, C) getting spotted almost immediately as some kind of intruder, and D) killing a few guys and leaving, while saying "Yeah, there were bad guys there".

Hmmm, what else? There's a completely artificial love interest with some private investigator woman who's got a big rack (and he has to mention this multiple times) who falls in love with Hardin for no apparent reason. There's a wise old Chinese man who is - woah - rather inscrutable. There is a gang rape that never gets resolved by the end of the book, which makes no sense whatsoever.

And of course, there's the "black" thing. Every time Hardin faces one of the black (whoops, I mean 'bad') guys, the author HAS TO point out that they are black. Hey, I think we got keyed in on the fact they were a black power militant group in the first chapter, and every chapter after that; I don't think we need to refer to the color of the guys getting shot every time one of them gets wasted. The book is filled with "the bullet punched into the man's black chest" or "...I'll blow your head clean off those black shoulders!".

And I don't even want to bring up the dialogue for all the black characters in the book (but I will); it makes the dialogue in Coffey and Foxy Brown and Shaft and all the other Blaxploitation films sound like something written by P.G. Wodehouse. Every other word out of their mouths is "honkey" or "whitey" or some other kind of "jive". Now, although I wasn't alive in 1974, never mind hanging out on the streets of NYC, it makes my head ache to read that kind of dialogue, because I get the distinct impression that no matter how black urban militants circa 1974 spoke, it wasn't nearly as ridiculous as what I found in the book. This is so obviously a white collar white guy trying and failing to imitate how he thinks the black urban criminal element speaks, it honestly makes me gag a little. I am willing to cut someone like Joseph Rosenberger a little slack for his stereotyped caricatures of other cultures (usually with a derogatory slant) because Rosenberger was quite simply a bit of a whacko, and, like Harry Callahan is described in the original Dirty Harry, he hates everyone equally.

At the end of the day (and this column), I know that a series like The Penetrator is essentially lurid escapist trash, and that a lot of the stereotyping is a product of it's time; the early 70's weren't exactly a Utopian period in American race relations history. It just bothers, or perhaps simply annoys me, because it's one of the negative aspects of the "men's adventure" genre during this time period that keeps dragging these books back into the mire, when I'd actually like to see them receive a little - if not respect - appreciation.

I've got a couple more Penetrators lying around. I will eventually get around to reading another, and they are near the middle of the series' run, but it probably won't be for a while.

Seriously though...The Penetrator???


Hank Brown said...

I picked up one published in the early '80s. I never read another one. Can't remember the title, but the villain was a victim of a black gang who raped and murdered his family. He happens to be a scientist, who then figures out a way to artificially induce a Sickle Cell epidemic. The Penetrator/Hardin then penetrates his island lair and...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz... I really can't remember much else about it. Yeah, this kind of pap is a pox on the whole genre.

Anonymous said...

HAHAHA! I might have to read one of these just for the laughs!