Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Forgotten Books: Cross Country by Herbert Kastle


Herbert D. Kastle wrote a number of science fiction stories in magazines of the 1950s. That's where I first read him. Later in the 1960s he was writing those fat sexy bestseller-type novels that owed more to marketing and Harold Robbins than his presumed muse. Then in 1974 he wrote CROSS COUNTRY. Here's a quote from one of the reviews: "This novel seems to occupy the same dark and twisted territory as the works of Jim Thompson. Characters interact in a dance of barely suppressed psychopathological urges and desires that is as grotesquely fascinating as a multi-car pileup on the freeway. It may leave you feeling unclean afterwards, but chances are you will not forget it."

Damn straight. It really is a sewer of sex and terror and blood-soaked suspense. I read it in one long sitting. If it's trash, as some called it at the time, it is spellbinding trash.

IMDB sums up the story line succintly: "After a woman is found butchered in her New York apartment, suspicion falls on her estranged husband, an ad executive who has suddenly left town on a cross-country road trip. He takes along a beautiful girl he met in a bar and a drifter he picked up along the way. A cop sets out after the husband, but he's more interested in shaking him down than bringing him back."

Kastle masterfully controls his long nightmare journey and you buy into his paranoia. He shows you an American wasteland of truck stops, motels, convenience stores connected by interstate highway and darkness. By book's end everyone will betray everyone else. This is survival of the fittest enacted by a Yuppie businessman, sociopathic hippies and a crooked cop. The sheer nastiness of Kastle's existential vision make this book impossible to forget. Thirty-some years after I first read it I still think of it from time to time when hundreds of other novels have fled from memory.

It's a vision of hell that fascinates you as it troubles your conscience.


Mathew Paust said...
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Mathew Paust said...

Probly getting soft in my old age, as most old farts do, which might explain why I'm almost afraid anymore of noir. I'm finding even synopses and reviews of noir novels threaten to depress me. I know my ship is approaching the dark shore. I'm not in denial of this, but I don't feel like entertaining reminders of how many ways things can yet go wrong. I'd like the damned ship to slide into port without undue trauma. My antidote to ward off envisioning the alternative? Humor. Satire, farce, parody -- almost anything that makes me laugh as if I'm jabbing a symbolic middle finger at the fates, fickle tho they may be.

I carry a load of regrets and guilts that I can't do a damned thing about. One of my favorite Southern cracker blues lines has lived as an earworm with me ever since I first heard Gregg Allman's plaintive wail from Jackson Browne's These Days: "Please don't confront me with my failures; I'm aware of them."