By Junius Podrug (Forge, 2007)
Harold Robbins' name is still selling books. Unfortunately, he died in 1997 and his name is all he has left to offer. With the blessing of the Robbins estate, the novelist's friend Junius Podrug has now written four Robbins novels. On the shiny covers of these poor substitutes, Podrug's name is dwarfed by Robbins's. The idea of continuing a successful franchise isn't deplorable (some of those Flowers in the Attic sequels are pretty good), but Podrug's complete lack of understanding about what made Robbins's novels great is a true literary crime.
In The Betsy and its sequel The Stallion, or Memories of Another Day or The Raiders or any of a dozen other titles from what I consider his most fertile period--in the 1970s and 1980s, after he'd moved on from his derivative-of-John O'Hara melodramatic page-turners--Robbins created a new class of upper-class hero. His characters were conflicted and engaged in savage confrontations for their entire lives, however cushily they were raised. Their sex drives were as strong as their lusts for power and money. They were always on the verge of being blackmailed or unmasked for closeted sins that ranged from homosexuality to impotence to, in several different novels, closeted Jewish upbringings. (Robbins himself was the Brooklyn-born son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, though he disguised that heritage--he put out that he was a Jew who'd lost his parents and had been raised in a Catholic boy's school. This and many other self-made myths were debunked by Andrew Wilson in his respectful, well-researched, and culturally contextualized biography, Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex, published last fall.)
Robbins was able to pin the needles on all possible megalomaniac meters and make his characters both shameful and pitiable: "Joni sucked on John's penis and wept at the same time. 'We'll never -- why couldn't you have just gone to Harvard?'" (In that passage, from Tycoon, it's worth noting that Joni and John are brother and sister.) Podrug, on the other hand, writes quaint adventure tales grounded in nothing approaching reality. The Looters involves a museum curator searching for the death mask of a legendary Babylonian queen. Worse, he jettisons Robbins' essential omniscient-narrator style for a clunky first-person: "We finally reached the larger boat and I went aboard to meet the band of pirates, smugglers and thieves."
There are many who wrongly considered Harold Robbins, despite his being one of the five biggest-selling novelists in history, to be the dregs of popular fiction. All those naysayers have to do to be proved outrageously wrong is to read his chosen successor.