The Carpetbaggers - Harold Robbins

Written in 1961, The Carpetbaggers is really a tale like "The Aviator" - about a manly rich airplane flyer and maker who gets involved with Hollywood. The references to real life people are so thinly veiled that you sometimes forget that he is pretending to have made up the situations. But then you're jarred back into the fiction, because part of how Harold keeps you hooked is by throwing in gratuitous sex scenes ... constantly.

One of the very first references is when Jonas Cord is landing his plane - the landing field is apparently like a female naked body. In a short period of time, Jonas' father dies, and he is immediately raping his step-mom, Rina. He then sleeps his way across the US. He's got a naked daughter upstairs while he negotiates business with the father downstairs. You learn that Rina had slept with her adopted brother for many years as a teen, even becoming pregnant. Rina then made advances on her adopted father, which he rejects in horror. She becomes a bi-sexual for a while, living with her lesbian female teacher in France while also being mistress to an older man.

While most of these things might seem ho-hum in modern times, to the 1961 audience, it was incredibly shocking. It would have been enough to put in one such item in the book and to give it meaning - but the situations were just piled one on top of the other in order to keep further shocking the reader. Jennie is drugged and raped! Then she goes to work for an abortionist! Then she has an affair with him, even though he was married! Then she becomes a high-paid whore! There's little chance to develop the character in here, except as the repeated victim of horror after horror.

I'm not saying the book is not engrossing. It's 679 pages, and I read it in a single night. But it's more like watching a train wreck, rather than enjoying a good story. I don't mind reading about sex, but the situations were very contrived. The story was focussed on those sex details vs the other things that went on in peoples lives that helped to define them.

I was bothered by the many stereotypes in the story. It's about sexy, handsome white rich people. There are a few jewish people - and they are not portrayed very well at all. I believe there's one black person - the butler who is the 'wise dutiful loyal silent type'. The American Indian woman is dutiful and quiet (and of course goes through an explicitly sexual rite before marriage, described in bloody detail).

I also disliked the ending of the story. After everything else that went on, it was way too contrived and neat. POOF, characters that really didn't have that much in common suddenly decide to live happily ever after. There are a number of huge plot holes, but I won't give away story details by revealing those. There are occasional sentence structure errors that make it unclear who is speaking, which means you have to re-read a page twice to get the gist of how the discussion progresses.

But that all being said, it is interesting how the book is broken up into sections, each about a certain person, and how you go back in time to learn why they became the way they were. It's interesting to hear what people in the 60s thought about culture. There are all sorts of "laugh with me!" references, as people back in the "old days" (the story begins in the 20s) think talking movies won't catch on, that plastics is a strange new item, and that World War II will never begin.

This is a book to read to understand what the 60s was all about, as people moved from the staid, quiet days of the 50s into the more free-wheeling times of the 60s. It's also a book to read just because it's one of the top selling books of all time, to be able to discuss the ideas in it if someone else brings the topic up. Just don't expect anything very enlightening!

Other Notes:
Harold Robbins was in fact a young prodigy at a movie studio who wrote his first story on a bet. He became a millionaire and lived the high life, boasting that he'd actually done everything he'd written about in his books. I can't find anywhere that lists an actual sales count for this book, but it is definitely over 10 million.

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