Greetings, readers. It’s not often I sit down with a book that grips me tightly enough for me to finish in a single sitting. Even rarer that I find one that has such an effect on me during a week where I’m putting in ten-hour shifts at the ol’ factory. David Maine’s 2008 novel Monster, 1959 had that effect on me this week. While not perfect, it was certainly something out of the ordinary and worth writing up here.
1955, the South Pacific. Y’know, where America was testing Hydrogen bombs? Yeahhhh…meet K. K. is a 40-foot mutant monster, a blending of not just species, not just genera, but of phyla. Ape-like overall, K. has extra-long, scaly forearms, a puff of bright-red feathers on his chest, seven-toed feet (why seven?), vestigial butterfly wings on his back, a wide lipless mouth, glassy fish-eyes, and wobbly antennae rising from his temples.
The island K. lives on is an experiment in the effects of long-term exposure to radiation; K.’s only rival in size is a dragon/eagle/serpent; other inhabitants are a race of eight-eyed mole people, venomous butterflies, strangler vines, and schools of carnivorous fish that make piranha look like sluggish carp.
Into this stumble characters intimately familiar to anyone who has seen a 1950s-era giant monster movie. Betty, caucasian, blonde, and large-bosomed; her stalwart safari guide husband Johnny; and Billy Quinn, entrepreneur extraordinaire. Betty is sacrificed to K. by the unmutated natives, and of course K. takes a liking to her. In short order, Johnny and Billy have K. knocked out and strapped to a raft dragged behind a boat bound for America. K. is made into America’s top circus attraction, carted cross-country until he reaches Manhattan where, on New Year’s Eve, 1958, he breaks free in Madison Square Gardens…
While on it’s face, Monster, 1959 is a playful, affectionate pastiche of KING KONG and any number of 1950s-era “Atomic Monsters Run Amok” flicks, albeit from the barely-mental perspective of its titular character, it’s actually something of a monster itself. A Frankensteinian wordsmith, author David Maine has cobbled together several elements into a creation that is, to be perfectly honest, not all that natural.
We have the monster-pastiche. All well and good. But then Maine hooks a strong political element to the monster-pastiche, which is where the novel goes a little screwy for me. Maine seems to have very strong anti-Israel sentiments, comparing the removal of K. from his native environment to Israeli actions against the Palestinians during the same time-frame in which the novel is set, supported by quotes from Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion, and Winston Churchill. Also explored is the Tuskegee Experiment, a footnote in America’s medical history in which a large number of black men with syphilis were told they were being treated for the disease, while in fact they were not, and were instead being observed to track the course of the disease.
On the up side of things (for me at least, since the anti-Zionism isn’t really my thing), when the book focuses on the monster pastiche, it’s so spot-on it hurts. The characters fit the stereotypes to a tee, though Maine really outdoes himself bringing them to life as believable human beings. The blonde bomber Betty does her best to be a devoted wife as her husband Johnny struggles to maintain a healthy libido in the wake of their experiences on the island — he can’t get off without an element of danger any more, and his needs alienate Betty more and more as the novel progresses. Billy presents the crassest display of “love of money” ever written, and even the minor supporting characters — I’m particularly fond of Doug, an acromegalic giant with a miserable upbringing, just seeking love in this crazy, mixed-up world we’re all living in — are fully-fleshed and believable.
Of course, the star of the show is K., and a significant chunk of the novel is written from his perspective, which is interesting as he has roughly the mental capacity of a guppy. He can respond to stimuli, but has only the vaguest sense of memory and no capacity for abstract reasoning. Maine’s exploration of K.’s mental processes is one of the real highlights of the book.
In short, while the Anti-Zionist elements are clunky and distracting from the elegance and wit of the monster-pastiche, I think this novel is a must-check-out for the kaiju crowd. Yeah, it’s King Kong with goofy little butterfly wings, and a Fay Wray stand-in exasperated by her husband’s need for exhibitionist sex. And if that one-sentence summary didn’t turn you off the entire concept, go give it a read.