When Henry Sutton's THE EXHIBITIONIST shot toward the top of the New-York Times best-seller list in the fall of 1967 Jacqueline Susann took it very hard. VALLEY OF THE DOLLS had just come off the top ten after 65 weeks, and she felt totally betrayed that the same publishers would make her book compete with another show-business novel. It led her to cut ties with them and go ahead with the folks at Simon and Schuster for the release of her second novel THE LOVE MACHINE in 1969. Naturally, getting to know all that, I had to read THE EXHIBITIONIST STAT. Problem was I couldn’t locate a copy anywhere in the late ‘80s. Until one day after forgetting all about it I found myself at a local used book store with a beat up paperback copy in my hand and a relieved smile on my face. I’d love to tell you that I plunged right in the novel that faithful day but no, instead it took me many summers and winters to gather up the courage to read this thing. Why courage? Simple: I felt that if the queen of trash was having none of it then perhaps so should I. Crazy, I know. Yet it felt right. Besides, I already had taken a glimpse of the first few paragraphs and they were all about the Far West during the late 1800s. Clearly I really had other fishes to fry.
Fast forward to this year and what do you know? I just turned the last page of the controversial novel in question, and, surprise, surprise, I really enjoyed it. Not so much as a wicked page-turner à la VALLEY OF THE DOLLS but as a character study of a lost soul yearning to find herself out of the shadows of her star dad. Of course she makes one thousand mistakes before getting eventually there but as the novel progresses you find yourself rooting for her success.
To say that I heart the novel more than Susann’s classic would be unethical of me. So I won’t say that. What I would say however is that despite having the same theme THE EXHIBITONIST is completely in a different league. You get the literary treatment with this one (no wonder since Sutton is the pseudonym for acclaimed writer David R. Slavitt), not so much as getting all tangled up in fancy narratives but as being more than meets the eye. Sutton really goes out of his way to make a trashy book literate, and it works, most of the time, as a few parts take some minor adjustment to finally be assimilated. But as a whole the experience is very worthwhile. Those who may still be fearful of it not giving the campy goods, don’t. There are plenty of sexual situations and over-the-top moments to fill a scrapbook, and the heroine is a likable one so you’ll get plenty of no, no, don’t do that bits to get you turning the pages even faster.
As it turns out, Jackie Susann had very good reasons to worry since THE EXHIBITIONIST is much more rewarding and, dare I say it, better written than anything she had ever released (gods of the trashy books strike me now). Still I wouldn’t kick her to the curb because she’ll forever be my girl. Indeed, whereas she is still the reigning queen of mindless fiction, Henry Sutton is now the new king of serious trash. In hindsight, I’m really glad I waited all this time to read this gem. I probably would have not appreciated it as much had I dove right in once bought. Now, if I succeeded in any way, shape, or form in getting you interested in THE EXHIBITIONIST I really hope your journey to reading it will end up being as fulfilling as it was to little moi.
Until next post—Martin