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“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century.”
I’m always up for a new – in this case, a debut – novel filled with colorful, flawed characters romping around the underbelly ofthe Land of the Free attempting to bring malefactors to justice; especially one that – like a Carl Hiassen gambol through the detritus of the Florida sand spit – mixes in sex, drugs, humor, monumental buffoonery, moronic bad guys getting their just due, a love story and insightful political and ecological commentary… which Orange Rain constantly delivers.
It’s as if John Kennedy Toole was still with us and wrote a sequel and this time around Ignatius J. Reilly somehow wasn’t declared 4-F, got drafted, lost his legs in Vietnam, got doused with Agent Orange and contracted leukemia…and then amidst a crappy VA wheelchair-bound life of constant anger dulled by constant use of alcohol, pot, benzodiazepines, coke, heroin, nicotine…whatever… hooks up with Myrna Minkoff and goes on a revenge mission.
In 1985, this story’s hero, Max Wright, embarks on a revenge journey with his Vietnamese hooker/girlfriend Mai Linh Tranh and good buddy Andre (Fleetwood Black) from California thru Las Vegas, Texas, Reilly’s beloved New Orleans and Florida on to Missouri to take on Monsanto (one of the companies – along with Dow – behind Agent Orange and its domestic cousin Roundup.) Along the way, they have numerous run-ins with racist cops, pornographers, murderous pimps, coke-dealing fratboys, Vegan Black Communitarian allies and two rapists who get what’s coming to them.
The tale begins with Max in his small hovel in LA perusing a slick brochure on mechanical implanted legs for amputees – “robot legs” Max labels them. Soon, fresh disability check in hand, he rolls his chair down Van Nuys Boulevard, dealing pills on his way to visit Mai at the ORIENTAL MASSAGE parlor where she works. They concoct plan to hit the road, raise the funds for Max to procure some robot legs” and then head to Monsanto’s HQ and wreak revenge for what happened to Max (and, as we find out later, for the monumental horror that Agent Orange wrought on Mai, as well.)
Before Max and Mai can even skip town, he gets into a wheelchair joust with some World War Two disabled vets over just who owns a certain panhandling corner – the power chair and walker-wielding Greatest Generation vets win out over the “pussy battle” warrior in his dilapidated hand-powered chair.
Max and Mai steal a couple thousand from her pimp employer Victor and hit the road. First stop is Vegas where Max deals cards to raise funds and gets an offer to be in an amputee porn flick. Victor tracks them down during the filming and rapes Mai. Eventually, they knock out Victor – breaking his penis in the process – and escape. (Victor then chases them across the continent, catches them more than once and plans to kill them and eventually gets his due in the Everglades at the hands of Max and Mai’s Black revolutionary feminist allies.)
Along the way, they encounter many socio-, if not, psycho-paths. They serendipitously hook up with Andre and carry on; driving his VW van to Texas, where they end up stealing thousands of dollars worth of coke from smarmy fratboy dealers, while rescuing the failed-thief Andre from a planned lynching by the dealer and his frat brothers – coupled with yet another rape and yet another rapist getting his just desserts. The sexism, racism and violence of this scene (and others) might seem over-the-top, but rings quite true at base: It’s a fully-abled white man’s world.
They off-load the coke with some vegan Black communitarians Andre knows in San Antonio. These folks, feeling the Panthers biggest mistake was being too public about it, have quietly converted an abandoned warehouse into a commune equipped with new-fangled solar panels and water-conservation/capturing systems. Communitarian Lance gives them a lecture on the Pyramid of Power and precociously brings up Peak Oil and Climate Change as motivating factors for their militant veganism and off-the-grid, no child-bearing lifestyle.
All along, there are explanatory flashback chapters of Max’ 1979 life in the SF Tenderloin and elsewhere. The adventures continue thru Reilly’s beloved New Orleans and then on to Florida where the robot legs clinic resides; then on to Monsanto HQ in St. Louis.
As I noted, the book is quite political and hilarious. Not only do we hear of the Pyramid of Power and Climate Change/eco-devastation, we get the militant communards well thought out reasons behind their Veganism and rejection of breeding (“the single most vile liquid on the planet – human semen”). We get screeds on the foul treatment of vets by the VA, the Imperial clusterfuck of Vietnam, the broken and racist “justice” system in the US and ever-increasing degradation of the Natural world. We have a scene of Driving While Black where even the self-assured Andre has to suck it up and kiss butt given the encounter is on a lonely highway and Andre knows full well what has befallen many other Black men in the same circumstances. We have lots of info on people living with disabilities in the US. And, we have an unconquerable feminine heroine.
I was reading the book while camping and told one of my fellow campers, author and vet Geronimo Tagatac, about it. Geronimo recently went back to Vietnam. He was surprised at how young the population of the 86 million citizens of the country was and he noted the “hardest thing of all” was touring the entire floor dedicated to Agent Orange at the Remnants of the American War Museum in Hanoi. He said, “No one comes out of there dry-eyed.”
(My only quibble with the book is historical accuracy – and it is insignificant to the story and likely will be rectified in the film version I hope follows. I had no problem with Lance bringing up peak oil, Climate Change and overpopulation, though I did not hear of the first two until much later in real time. Nor did I have any problem with the Warehouse’s solar systems and the residents’ Veganism. But other things jolted me: Max chain-smokes or chews on American Spirit cigarettes. But, the brand was only available on the West Coast by mail order back in 1985 and didn’t exist at all in 1979. Max was more apt to have rolled his own from a Bugler pouch. The Flying Spaghetti Monster creed is included in a roster of religions, when Pasatfarianism did not surface until 2005. And Ozzy lapped up Nikki Sixx’ piss in 1984, not 1979. But, then again, none of this has any bearing at all on the twisted tale.)
The aptly-expressed Gaian sentiments; the outrage over war, racism and sexism underlying the book and the love story of Max and Mai make Orange Rain the most entertaining and politically astute/gloriously politically-incorrect/ecological novel I’ve ever read.
MICHAEL DONNELLY was a Conscientious Objector draftee during the Vietnam War and is an environmental activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org