“Anytime but now, Mack. You’re not exactly low profile at the moment.” Bolan wasn’t listening. “Danby was a friend, Hal,” he said. “To me and a lot of other grunts in Nam.” ” You’re hot right now, buddy. They’re going to be looking for you. And if you start messing with Danby’s case his CIA buddies will be all over you. And let’s not forget whoever killed Danby is still out there. Let’s see, that makes it the Mafia, the CIA, the cops and a killer. That doesn’t leave much breathing space.” “I learned to hold my breath a long time ago.” “Yeah,” Brognola said. “Just as long as it’s not a permanent condition.”
So starts Mack Bolan: The Fire Eaters, a pretty great book I found for a dollar several years ago at a Saturday morning market. At the time of purchase I was half drunk but even then I immediately knew I’d made a mistake. The book has since sat on my shelf like a calcified nub on my lower back that I’ve always loathed but have never willed myself to be rid of.
Mack Bolan is, from what I can piece together, a Vietnam veteran turned hit-man and ‘Enemy of Evil’ currently working for (I think) the government and spending a lot of time murdering mafia goons in remarkably unimaginative ways considering the length to which the author (some guy called Don Pendleton) goes to set the scenes up (we’re talking a chapter explaining how complicated Mafia Boss’ security system is, one paragraph of Mack Bolan walking in and shooting Mafia Boss right in the dick).
Welp, in The Fire Eaters, it seems Mack has shot the dick off one too many Mafia Bosses and now has a super-assassin on his tail who, in a huge twist no one cares about, is also a pretty good undergrad student at Berkeley or something. Meanwhile, Mack has to infiltrate a military school where maybe they’re training kids to unknowingly kill their parents (including Mack’s old army buddy). Does it matter?
The Fire Eaters is one of a staggering 90 books in the Mack “The Executioner” Bolan series, written between the ’60s and late ’80s (of which, it’s apparent, twelve days were collectively spent writing). To give you a rough idea of how Don Pendleton approached things, he also wrote a series of seemingly very similar books about an ex-cop named Copp, the first of which was called Copp for Hire.
The Fire Eaters caught my eye because the cover features a black t-shirted and jeaned Steve McQueen type emerging from a pool, holding a big pistol and kind of winking at the viewer. Behind him, the pool is on fire.
Don Pendleton, on the other hand, looks so much like a guy who manages a tourist gift shop that in every photo I’ve found of him he’s even wearing a festive tie. As such, you get that the entire Mack Bolan series is a long, drawn out masturbatory fantasy early enough that you’re surprised the book’s prefacing quote-about how humanity, in the face of evil, requires violent intervention when no other course of action can be taken-isn’t stained with drops of Pendleton’s face-sweat, especially since the quote is fucking attributed to MACK BOLAN. In fact, simply calling The Executioner series a drawn out masturbatory fantasy is kind of like saying the victims of the Hiroshima bomb were simply “having a bad case of the Mondays”. If you hooked up Don Pendleton to The Riddler’s dream projector thing from Batman Forever you’d see thatin his ultimate fantasy he would be Mack Bolan, throwing a baseball to his father, who is also Mack Bolan.
The Fire Eaters is one of those books pleasantly insubstantial enough that upon opening it you find yourself already on page 50. Scenes of the intense violence are punctuating bubbles within large tracts of dry description and emotional musings that correspond to nothing in the actual scene (“When did Mack stop feeling anything? When did his heart turn into the dull flesh of his scars?” etc). In terms of technicality, he writes in a sort of muddled mid-century gruff noir-when bullets are shot into a pool they “plunk water”; an Asian secretary called Ming Soo is referred to as an Oriental (an Oriental! Bless him)-mixed with the fervour of a teenager “upping” every description he writes:
“A digital clock can’t simply be ‘encased’ in crystal,” Don seems to say, most likely to his Sunday writing group, “It’s entombed in it. ENTOMBED. And a crying girl doesn’t just have a runny nose. Her nose is BILLOWING MUCAS.”
The point of the series isn’t, of course, to mount the scales of literary greatness: the point is to provide boundless ultra-violence to who-the-goddamn-hell-ever wants it.
But it’s hard to stay your criticisin’ wand when you’re reading a book that’s preface quote is attributed to the book’s main character.
And no, I never found out what the Fire Eaters were.