The Last Buffoon by Len Levinson (2016, Destroyer Books)
The Last Buffoon by Len Levinson chronicles the life of a paperback writer in the late 1970’s. The writer is Levinson’s alter ego, Alexander Frapkin, a middle-aged Jewish man who is in the process of losing his sanity as he fights book publishers who won’t pay him, landlords who won’t fix his apartment, drug dealers whom he owes money, and a lawyer who has a very definite interest in the author’s love life. As one who makes their living writing pseudonymous novels, I can identify with Frapkin and his state of mind. However, I saw sleaze New York City at the end of the era where Frapkin lived. I’m glad I never had to be part of it.
We never do find out how Frapkin ended up in his current situation. All the reader ever finds out is that Frapkin was a high-power publicity agent at one time, but gave it all up in hopes of becoming a great novelist. At one point, he runs into an old coworker in a strip club who kids him about how successful he used to be in the good old days.
“I rest my glass on the bar and try to marshal my thoughts. “Do you know what it’s like when you’re running a stunt and it’s going great and you’ve got the Times, the News, and the Post there, and all the TV network cameras, and all the wires, and you know that you’ll probably get a raise out of it, and some cute broad from an obscure French news syndicate is sending out signals that she wants to make it with you. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Sure I do.”
“Well writing books, even my crappy ones, is better than that.”
“It really is?”
“Then go to it, baby.”
We also know that Frapkin had a strained relationship with his father. He was married at least once before recruited into the green card marriage fraud business. The only books he’s been able to sell to his bargain basement publishers are adult novels and men’s action books. This is interesting because the author of his novel wrote over eighty novels under various false names. Many of the chapters begin with Frapkin’s action hero, The Triggerman, taking out various mob bosses. They are stand-ins for the people who cause so much trouble in his real life.
Here’s a sample of his successful Triggerman series:
“Ripelli was halfway through the alley when he saw ten of them coming from the other end, moonlight glinting in their eyes and on the baseball bats they carried. He turned but another bunch also armed with baseball bats was behind him. Placing his back against a filthy brick wall, he waited for them, his heart beating wildly, his mouth dry with the taste of Death. They grinned as they crowded around and raised their bats in the air.”
The novel begins with Frapkin receiving an offer from his lawyer to be the bridegroom in a green card marriage for an Argentine woman. He negotiates a price of two thousand dollars, all paid for by the woman’s affluent boyfriend. Frapkin’s life begins to tailspin when he discovers that the woman must live in his apartment until immigration is convinced the marriage is a genuine. You see, he’s pulled this swindle before and the federals are on to the ruse.
As crazy as this may seem, things are only about to get worse.
Frapkin’s one bright star is that an adult novel he’s written is required reading at an obscure college in Canada. He’s so certain this will give him the fame he needs to thrive that he busts in on a film producer and tries to sell the man on a movie from his book. The book has sold very well for an adult novel, especially since you can only buy it at shady adult bookstores. Near the midpoint of the Buffoon, Frapkin’s publisher calls and tells him he’s received a fan letter from a young lady who wants to meet with him. Frapkin heads off for the rendezvous with his heart full of love and lust, but he’s in for a surprise he will never forget.
This book captures the feel of sleaze New York in the seventies. It was originally published in 1980, but written a few years earlier. The town is infested with crime, vice and rodents. Frapkin never knows if he’ll survive another day. However, he’s sure his big break is about to come: the novel that will launch him into Harold Robbins land.
I don’t think this book could be written today. Frapkin constantly makes comments about the world around him. Few are politically correct, although most are hilarious. How can you not laugh at a 42 year-old-man who celebrates his marriage scam money by going to a disco and dancing alone? Even the names of the characters are hysterical. Who the heck is named Frapkin? It fits as the author is desperate to connect with women, but he never scores.
“…Like Warren Beatty I stroll over, smile suavely, and say, “So I’ve found you at last.”
Her long eyelashes paint the air. “I beg your pardon.”
“I said I’ve found you at last.”
“I think you’ve got me mixed up with somebody else.” She looks away.
I sidestep into her line of vision. “Let’s have a drink together in that quiet little place around the corner.”
She levels a withering stare at me. “Mister, I don’t know what your problem is, but if you don’t leave me alone I’m going to call a policeman.”
I tip my hat, turn, and move away fast. The Nos don’t count — only the Yesses do. A great cocksmith from Brooklyn told me that once, it’s been my credo ever since. Besides, I really don’t know any quiet little place around the corner.”
Although the mood of the book is dark, it does end on an upbeat. It seems the author wanted the reader to laugh at the human condition, not feel disgusted by it. No matter how many scenes Frapkin creates, the reader hopes he’ll pull through each time. I read the book non-stop. Highly recommended, but not for those who can’t stand Frank and The Opinions.
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Great review. This book is going on my to-read list. It’s too damn compelling not to.