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February 12th 2017 print

Robert Kaplan

A Novel Prophecy Fulfilled

Half a century ago author Stanley Crawford nailed the future with a now all-but-forgotten book's take on what has become mundane: everyone lost in their mobile phones, every freeway feeding into supermarkets, service stations, burger joints. Between guffaws, you might recognise our modern world

gascoyneFifty year on, Stanley Crawford’s 1966 novel GASCOYNE is a forgotten treasure waiting to be rediscovered. The protagonist, GASCOYNE  (always written in upper case, which I will ignore in this instance, as this site’s editor tells me the typography looks terrible) is a wheeler-dealer who owns petrol stations, supermarkets, real estate, housing estates, banks, and a secret zoological warfare research facility. In addition, selling dud vehicles to the government, running hookers and managing the drug trade keeps the meter ticking over.

Gascoyne  eats, sleeps, and does business in his car, leaving it only when he must. Dealing directly with people is avoided as far as possible; instead, he does it all from his car phone. He spends his time zooming along the highways and freeways of a large Southern Californian city bearing a remarkable resemblance to Los Angeles.

Driving, for most people, is the perfect expression of the human-machine interaction and Crawford, as few writers do (James Jones was another), understands the interaction between driver and car, that multi-signal fronto-parieto-occipital synchronicity that connects the eyes, the feet, the hands, the pedals, the wheel and the tires in a perfect concatenation of motion.

The book’s central character drives a 12-year-old Nash on the verge of breaking down but, no worries, he has a whole lot full of used cars he can draw on. Traffic is a constant obsession. Every light is seen as a potential enemy that must be overcome by being in the right lane at the right speed and time. His contempt for other drivers is overweening and utterly inspiring. Clear them out the way is the only thing he knows, for which he has an air horn that can be heard 10 miles away on a windless night: “I’ve got to be careful when I use it because people just sort of shrivel up and die when they hear it and there’s no telling what they’ll do, some slam on their brakes right there and others run right off the road and some try to open the door and jump out, no telling what.”

Reading this, who of us cannot but dream?

Above all, Gascoyne’s profit motive is irrepressible. His motto: if it doesn’t pay, it ought not to exist. He doesn’t miss a trick. Every business he owns is accessible by car, if not drive-in. Each housing development revolves around his 24-hour supermarkets, bottle shops, burger joints and restaurants. Magnets in the floor direct the supermarket trolleys into the expensive aisles; the diners run a flourishing side trade in drugs to keep the kids happy.

His view of humanity is a mirror of the corporate ethos that has come to dominate our times, only expressed with a good deal more honesty: “If you don’t keep people working like dogs they’ll behave like rabbits and monkeys. You’ve got to keep them inside little boxes with their work and throw away the key for eight hours every day and then chase them out of the box as soon as you can after their time is up, give them fringe benefits like pastel toilet paper and maybe a Christmas party to make them feel grateful but otherwise if you give them an inch they’ll start breaking up the place and develop loose morals.”

The éminence grise that runs the city, Gascoyne has a nameplate parking space in every important building. Police, politicians, editors, television and radio stations all answer to him. He bought them, he pays for them and expects them to do his bidding – that is, maintain his vast commercial empire and keep his many enemies at bay.

At least they used to follow his behest, but then something goes wrong. It starts with the murder of crime boss Roughah. Gascoyne  tries to get to the bottom of the defenestration, encountering a range of bizarre characters, including lascivious wife Nadine, a man making love in a tree slough uniform and a baffled war veteran who has an octopus tentacle curling out of his ear that requires regular feeding with peanuts to keep it under control. His whining girlfriend, Marg, is sent on a mission to the mountains to investigate the murder, but instead spends his money and dallies with cowboy types she meets along the way.

His investigations seem to get nowhere. He turns to Police Commissioner O’Mallollolly, supposedly in his pay (the warped spelling of names, as well as the use of upper case is a Crawford feature, suggesting a more than passing interest in semiotics). Stating, “I just want to know who did it.” O’Mallollolly responds “As they say, it doesn’t really matter because it was either you or me.”

Nadine, the unrepentant widow, is hardly coy. Cascoyne  asks: “Now do you know anybody that likes to dress up like a giant tree sloth?” Her response: “No, I’d say everybody I know would like to do that at some time or other.” Later he comes back to her : “You’re lying again, Nadine.” “Yes. I am.” “Well?” “I have my reasons.” “Name one.” “Sometimes I just like to lie, that’s all.”

Away from the figures of power that he controls, Gascoyne  is a mystery, a rumour, a legend, a secretive tyrant. The only public information available is that he is a paper-thin old man driving an old car which, in its day, was just a little too flashy.

Things get worse and a series of chaotic scenes follow. Gascoyne  is trying to find a murderer but his empire is unravelling. Crawford does chaos beautifully but, best of all, it is side-splittingly funny. If the ending is inevitable, Gascoyne is undeterred and soon finds a desert location to set up his new operation.

Go to any metropolis and look at the crowded freeways, jampacked with citizens and their kids, phones rammed on their ears, every turnoff feeding the vehicles to supermarkets, service stations, burger joints and video stores to milk them of their money. I have seen the future and it works, depending on how you look at it. Whatever the virtues of the car, phone and drive-in world that most of us inhabit, half a century ago Stanley Crawford nailed it like no other. And above the petrol, cement, tarmac and rubber nightmare, there is Gascoyne, always cruising, ever connected, never stopping – the perfect 21st century success story.

Track down this book and buy it. Be amazed at its prescience but, mostly, laugh your head off — and then keep laughing. This is a novel without shame and, thanks to the hero’s venal honesty, we forgive him anything and everything.

Robert M Kaplan reviews books when he cannot write on crime, disease, Austrian yodellers and other unfortunate occurrences.