Harold Robbins Essay - Critical Essays

Robbins, Harold

Robbins, Harold 1912–

Robbins is a best-selling American novelist who specializes in sex-and-violence and exposé of modern industry. His books include The Carpetbaggers and The Betsy.

The Inheritors, set in New York and Hollywood, is a glossy, beautifully-wrapped package deal in which everything is king-size and ostentatious. The men are hard-drinking, ruthless and dedicated to the fast buck. Sharper even than C P Snow's careerists, they never miss a trick. The girls are California-tanned, exquisitely clothed and still more exquisite unclothed. The men live for success, the girls for the men who have made it big. Copulation thrives but business always comes first. Nice guys finish last….

Nobody can accuse Harold Robbins of not telling a story. He knows how to handle narrative and keep the novel on the move. As for style, it's crisp and throwaway. You won't need a dictionary to help you read this book. He drops in the occasional Hippie word ('uptight'), a few Yiddish ones ('schmuck') and comes up with a good deal of Americanese ('He sold like crazy').

There are hardly any births, an incredible number of fast copulations and only one death…. (p. 42)

This … is the story of the growth of American TV and the late flowering of the Dream City. It goes a long way to explain the revolt of the American young against the gods worshipped by their parents. (p. 43)

Robert Greacen, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Robert Greacen 1971), April, 1971.

It is difficult for me to say how disgusting I find [The Betsy]. Not because of the sex which afflicts almost everyone in it to an alarming degree, but because of its tone. The Betsy is the name of a brand new motor car—the car everyone will buy and which will sweep the market. It is the dream of 91-year-old Loren Hardeman, Number One of Bethlehem Motors, the family firm he started…. As the complications, board-room chicanery and industrial espionage get underway, we are given a full-length history of Loren in flashback form. This book is described hopefully as 'a devastating look at modern business', but is about as realistic and pungent as Batman. When in doubt unzip your flies seems to be the motto of everyone involved, and when cornered take off your belt and lay about you.

The superficiality of the characters is beyond belief; the mechanical setting-up of the sexual bouts is crude and the fact that everyone in the saga seems either vicious or bats or both doesn't help at all. (p. 67)

Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Roger Baker 1971), April, 1971.

Yes, junk fans, it's a mano a mano for novelists who are all thumbs. Two of the greatest schlockmeisters in the history of solid waste have just published novels about the auto industry. Arthur Hailey's Wheels appeared at the beginning of the fall season…. Now comes Harold Robbins to gun down Hailey with—The Carburetors? No, with The Betsy….

Despite the literary failings of Hailey's and Robbins' competing car novels, the awards committee will announce its selections:

Worst title: basically a standoff with a slight edge for Robbins.

Number of pages: Robbins, 502 to Hailey's 374.

Most sensitive writing: Robbins' "giant shaft of white-hot steel" and "searing sheet of flame" far outclass Hailey's modest "her heart beat faster."…

Neatest reach for historical verisimilitude: Robbins, who in a flashback has Hardeman telephone Walter Reuther in 1937 to warn him that the Battle of the Overpass (in which auto company goons beat up unsuspecting union organizers) is about to occur.

John Skow, "Internal Combustion," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 13, 1971, p. E7.

A Stone for Danny Fisher, published during the year that Dwight D. Eisenhower won office as President of the United States on the campaign formula K1 C2 (Korea, Communism, and Corruption), captured the agony of urban dwellers hungering to transmit their hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares to their offspring. To some readers the book provided an escape from their problems; to others it was a nostalgic yet realistic journey into the recent past; finally, for many ethnic workers it was a mirror of their self-identity.

Harold Robbins, the bestselling American novelist, has been spurned and overlooked by literary critics because of the alleged mediocrity of his work. Nevertheless, he has won public affection by portraying identifiable life-situations in a realistic and titillating manner. His characters resemble the common man even as their bizarre exploits, fascinating sex lives and heroic struggles exude an air of Walter Mitty. A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952), one of Robbins's earliest and most ambitious works … became one of the most popular and revealing urban handbooks of its era. Set in New York during the depression and war years, the novel dealt with the generational and environmental conflicts of a proud but sensitive Jewish youth. The protagonist was in a sense an urban Everyman as he encountered prejudice, poverty, corruption, and mobsters in treacherous settings. (pp. 295-96)

A Stone for Danny Fisher contained elements common to the most dominant and contrasting strains of urban literature: the sentimental, anti-urban, success-oriented Horatio Alger genre of the nineteenth century and the realistic, pessimistic works of social protest that reached their apotheosis with the proletarian novels of the 1930s. Robbins's characters shared the optimistic hope that with luck and hard work the world could be theirs, even as they suffered through tribulations that shattered their dreams. In its candor and raw mood A Stone for Danny Fisher resembled Nelson Algren's portrait of a tragic Skid Row gambler, The Man With the Golden Arm (1950). It would be too much to call Danny Fisher an existential man. Rather he was the prototype second- or third-generation American who dreamed the myth of opportunity and, like Algren's antihero, finally jettisoned his illusions one after another. Lacking the sustained force of Algren, Robbins was a master of the vignette, and some of the individual scenes in the book are quite compelling…. The book as a whole, however, resembled a carefully constructed mannequin, pleasant and enticing but bereft of a soul….

In some respects A Stone for Danny Fisher was the male counterpart to the most famous urban novel of the previous decade, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943). (p. 296)

Smith appealed to the upwardly mobile, whereas Robbins had a special attraction for the ethnic urbanite still looking for his passport to success. (p. 297)

In a somewhat melodramatic fashion, A Stone for Danny Fisher recorded the epic battle of ethnic groups against inconsequentialness, and the disintegration of their rigid moral, ethical, and cultural standards under the stress and strain of survival. (p. 298)

Reviewers treated A Stone for Danny Fisher seriously and had words of praise for its author. Although they pointed out flaws in its structure and held reservations about its ample dosages of sex and violence, they recognized that it was the forerunner of a bright new genre of realistic urban novels. (p. 301)

Never again did Robbins win the respect of critics. He sold his considerable talents to the gods of wealth and fame, said some, even to the devil, said a few…. Robbins summed up his writing [to Thomas Thompson in a Life magazine interview] in this manner: "All my stories have this moral choice: the protagonist reaches the point where he has to choose his morality and live with it." Thompson, on the other hand, found the source of his appeal contained in his readable, anti-intellectual, sex-filled style. "His characters seldom think; they act." he wrote. (pp. 301-02)

James B. Lane, in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1973 by Ray B. Browne), Fall, 1974.

As Harold Robbins likes to point out, there is often more in a Harold Robbins novel than mere venery and violence. He shrewdly blends in topical interest to create a sort of nonfiction fiction. The Carpetbaggers (1961) offered thinly disguised views of Howard Hughes in his prime. The Adventurers (1966) traced jet-set life with the likes of the late Aly Khan. [The Pirate, a] timely extravaganza, is a picaresque about a financial wizard who might just be modeled on Abdlatif Al Hamad, the oil sheikdom of Kuwait's money manager.

But with a twist. Robbins' hero, Baydr Al Fay, is really a Jew—a changeling, by Allah! At 40, he is one of the world's richest men, traveling constantly between banking centers to invest Arab oil revenues. Like other Robbins figments, Baydr is also an international satyr whose feats are topped only by those of his insatiable California-born wife. (Yes, Hollywood is at work on the movie.)

There are some insights into the oil cartel's doings; the author leaves no doubt at all that the Arabs are going to buy up the world if they can. Robbins' fans may find that prospect less galvanizing than the usual steamy prose…. (p. E5)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 11, 1974.