Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Hijack

I sought out the 1971 novel Hijack on premise alone, described in its tagline: "The Mafia takes to space!"  To me, this was irresistible, a promise of high camp, true pulp fiction.  Edward Wellen's novel did not fall short, and was actually far wittier than expected.  His writing style is quite sardonic, and his story of a Mafia plot to hijack forty rockets at Cape Canaveral to escape Earth, believed to be soon engulfed by an exploding sun ("gone nova"), is completely implausible.  What other writing style would suit such a story?

Wellen sounds like some omniscient wiseacre, clever enough to be sitting at the Algonquin Round Table or just plain cranky enough to hang with those old men in the balcony on The Muppet Show who made smart remarks from their box seats. You can almost hear a gruff voice sitting across the room, telling this darkly comic tale between drags on a cigarette.  His book is fairly rich with detail, maybe even some accurate science here and there, but everything is presented to serve the satirical.  What is Wellen satirizing?  Politics? Of course.  Organized crime?  Yes.  The goombahs who carry it out? Sure.  Highly revered scientists? Definitely.  Science itself? Maybe.

Wellen was better known for short stories, mostly sci-fi, several mysteries. Hijack was his only novel, and a concise one at one hundred and forty pages.  The story has many characters, focusing primarily on Nick, a college educated would-be made man who learns, via an enterprising scientist named Buglewicz, of the coming Apocalypse and organizes an elaborate plan to get the "family" outta dodge and into a new world on a space station.  The story has the familiar elements of gangster melodrama: family infighting, sworn vengeance on dead relatives, a dirty cop, a kingpin who orders business from jail, botched hits, sudden death played for humor, and so on.  There's also attempted matchmaking by Nick's mother, and a mysterious, worldly Mafiosa whose past may have caught up with her.

Wellen gives us some amusing details of each character, down to their smallest tics. Everyone gets a colorful sketch, including a parakeet that never talked before but squawks some fatal information at just the right/wrong time.  A real stool pigeon, haha.  Wellen's writing is sometimes confusing - mainly as he attempts to track so many minor characters - but is wildly visual.  You'll have fun imaging your own little movie with this story.  Somewhat surprising that someone hasn't tried to adapt this.

Hijack has a fair amount of gruesome violence, an expectedly high body count, plenty of un-PC dialogue, and the wryest of outlooks. One of my favorite bits -  Nick and Buglewicz discuss the guest list for the big adventure.  The scientist inquires -

"Have you considered taking a few blacks along?"   
Nick smiled.
"What for?"
"I suppose with mores the way they are, the blacks would have to be females.  What for? To deepen the genetic pool.  If you stick to one stock, the Mediterranean, inbreeding will bring out the worst of your recessive traits."


The author allows his mind to run wild with tangents that become integral to the story in the later chapters - including some treacherous dealings with the black Mafia.  It was at that point that I suspected Hijack was more interested in a patently social commentary than in science fiction, although the genre lends itself to such.  When you reach the punchline, you can't help but smile.   

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