Friday, October 08, 2010

46. First Blood by David Morrell

Looking back through the last month or so of books I've read, I realize that I have just read 3 books in a row from the early 70s (Syzygy from '73, The Porkchoppers from '72 and now First Blood from '73) and I just tore through all three of them. I'm starting to wonder if this isn't my wheelhouse of genre fiction. The Parker series by Richard Stark (who just crushed the crime genre landscape) comes to its brilliant conclusion in 1974 and I'm sure if I go through my past reads, I'll find some more. It's interesting, because I otherwise generally consider the popular culture in that period to be pretty frickin' terrible. The music sucked for the most part (it was the heigh of AOR FM radio rock), Hollywood was at its nadir (and I'm no fan of the supposed "auteur" cinema of that period either) and of course fashion, architecture and interior design were about as terrible as it will ever get (famous last words right there). So I wonder why the writing is so good for me?

When I first saw this paperback, the cover really grabbed me (how cool is that drawing of Rambo so small in the upper right hand corner above the stark letters of the title; great layout). But I assumed it was a novelization of the movie (which I actually only saw this year for the first time and really enjoyed). When it turned out to be an original novel, I decided to pick it up. Another solid move. My instincts have really been strong this year! (Not to give myself too much credit, as a teeny bit of internet research will show you that this book is quite well respected.)

What I enjoyed about the movie (and what I hadn't expected due to my impressions of the later Rambo character) was its counter-culture attitude. Rambo is basically a hippie in the first part of the movie, a drifter who wants to do his own thing but gets harrassed by the petty authority of a small town sheriff. It's very lefty for the first two-thirds until the bizarre deus ex machina pro-military ending (which presaged the next two jingoistic films).

The film coloured my reading of First Blood and though the basic set-up is the same, thematically it is very, very different, much subtler and much more nuanced. Rambo is a sympathetic character at the beginning, but so is the sheriff. Rambo is also kind of a cypher and you don't really understand (nor do you sympathize with him entirely) why he pushes back so hard against the sheriff, who is actually kind of doing him a favour when he drives him across town. He also does it in a fairly decent way at first. But Rambo keeps on pushing.

The other major difference is that Rambo really does kick some serious ass. He kills tons of people (and dogs and a fucking innocent owl for christ's sake!) in the book and does so coldly and brutally. By the end, he goes totally hogwild, making the movie look like Terms of Endearment. The novel is about a human trained for war who is let loose in a civiilian society that is not prepared to handle him. It is clearly a reaction to the returning vets from Vietnam and touches upon that theme in a much darker and more complex way than the movie (you could also make an argument that Rambo is a metaphor for American imperialism). It's so dark that at times it was almost unpleasant for me to read. But it is also an intense and exciting manhunt story with all kinds of cool techniques as well as great use of the landscape. I suspect that the famous mud wall scene from Rambo: First Blood II was taken from a scene in this book.

I found this awesome snippet from the wikipedia page on David Morell: "Morrell is a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School for wilderness survival as well as the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security". How do you get into that school?


Crumbolst said...

Wow, this one is for me! Great review!

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

First Blood is a cracker, for sure. I've read a couple other of Morrell's books too, although I'm buggered if I can remember which ones; possibly The Fifth Profession and maybe the Brotherhood of the Rose trilogy. Was a long time ago now... but whichever ones they were, I remember them as effective thrillers.