I mentioned picking books up on whim in my last review and I guess I just must be in a whimsical mood because “Monster, 1959” by David Maine is another book I read despite knowing nothing about it beforehand. The basic plot of the book is very well worn monster movie fair. It starts out with a monster called K living relatively peacefully away from civilization until a group of Americans come to the island and K takes the book’s token “damsel in distress,” Betty. Her gallant husband, Johnny, along with a group of big game hunters, try to save her leading to plenty of action, the capture of K, and the decision to bring the K to the U.S. (you don’t have to a connoisseur of campy monster movies to know that this move only leads to more disaster).
Fortunately this flimsy plot doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead works as a vehicle for a few other themes. In one sense “Monster, 1959” is a tribute to mid twentieth century monster movies. There’s a bit of tongue and cheek humor, several very unsubtle allusions to movies of the era, and, my personal favorite, the fleshing out of the stereotypical movie characters. Brave Johnny is addicted to peril to a fault, beautiful and danger prone Betty is actually rather resourceful (though not resourceful enough to save herself), and even the comical 7 foot tall circus clown has his demons. Maine’s effort to show the other side of these typically one-dimensional characters is interesting but in the end adding one more trait to a very tired character archetype still doesn’t make them any more interesting. Even the examination of K’s psyche, which seems to have some promise, turns out to be dull and repetitive.
There are also, surprisingly enough, some very political messages at play within the book. These messages flit in and out of the narrative both abruptly and infrequently and only occasionally does the author openly mix the story and portrait of the United States he’s painting. When Maine does this, however, it results in some of the best passages of the book. (WARNING: Spoiler in quote. Granted, the story is so predictable it wouldn’t be hard to guess something like this would take place)
“The statue [of Liberty], severely foreshortened, looms above them like a Calder mobile. Like a graven idol: something to worship, to pray to, to die or kill for. In which case K.’s unexpected figure, squatting atop it, is—a blasphemy? An intrusion? A joke? A logical endpoint?”
Maine’s story is one really of injustice, which covers everything from the treatment of K to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to commentary on Hydrogen bomb testing. When he takes a break from the narrative and concentrates on these issues you can see a hint of genius shining through.
The problem is the rare hint of genius is the best the book has to offer. Neither the message nor the humor nor the fleshed out characters can overcome the clunky story. The cliché narrative is both part of the joke and the central meaning of the book but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to read. Many books have covered the same territory far more adeptly and engagingly making there little reason to read “Monster, 1959.”