This is Joseph Wambaugh’s sixth novel, and it will likely hit the best-seller list as did the others, a fact which says more about one component of the reading public than it does about the worth of the novel. A reader can tell early what is coming; the novel begins: “It was six inches long. He stroked it lightly, but he could not conjure an appropriate response: eroticism, revulsion, fascination, terror.” Of course, “it” is not what the reader is thinking; “it” is his gun that Al Mackey is stroking; but metaphorically, “it” is what the reader is thinking and what Al Mackey is thinking because his “other one” had that evening misfired. Impotence is what this book is all about—the fear of it and the things men do to prevent it or forget it. What men do to guarantee potency is the bottom line. Here sex and violence meet, here vice and drugs and kiddie porn and child abuse and brutality find their common ground, where castration is the ultimate terror.
Al Mackey is forty-three years old, but his cheeks are gray and his face is lined. He has been a policeman for twenty-two years and has nothing to show for it—not even a wife and family. Twice married, he has been twice divorced. Now his comfort comes every two weeks at payday when he visits The Glitter Dome, the cops’ “watering hole,” and gets drunk while the bartender skillfully steals from under Al’s nose change made from the payment of countless drinks. Al is hoping to pick up a “chicken,” but the young ones go to the young cops, macho, entering the bar with a flourish, and all looking like John Travolta, so Al is left with a “chicken-vulture,” who looks better the more Al drinks. At the essential moment, however, he cannot perform, and she angrily tells him: “It takes a stiff rod to catch the big fish boy!” Back in his apartment, which is a mess, Al confronts the alley cat he had picked up five months before. The cat displays his hauteur by shredding up the sofa back, and apparently is not worried about his potency, a fact which angers Al so much that he threatens to kill the animal. Now mirroring the action of the “chicken-vulture” when she tried to bring Al into a state of potency, Al puts his off-duty gun in his own mouth: “Chew on this baby,” he tells himself. He cannot force himself to pull the trigger, and the terror of the imagined act causes him to wet his pants, an ultimate degradation and reversal of his manly goal.
Al’s partner, Martin Welborn, has his own problems. Tall, well-built, handsome, he is as orderly in his personal habits and living arrangements as Al is disorderly, yet Marty has been in such inner agony that it has manifested itself outwardly in back pain, and he has to hang upside down twice a day in a gallows-type arrangement of aluminum stanchions and crossbars and dangling straps. Marty’s wife and children have just left him, and he has been haunted by a memory of a personal failure that he cannot deal with. His hanging upside down seems a subconscious act of penance. A few years younger than Al, Marty acts older and habitually addresses Al as “My son.” Indeed, Marty Welborn plays the role of priest/confessor and, perhaps, even of a Christ who cannot deal with the perversities everywhere apparent. At the end of the novel, just before Marty kills himself in an arranged automobile accident, Wambaugh reveals to the reader the substance of Marty’s horror. He had been unable to save a small boy (or to make him whole again) whose parents had castrated him because he persisted in bed-wetting. Marty waits to die until he has been twenty years a policeman to insure that the wife who has left him will get survivor’s benefits, and he names his two daughters as beneficiaries in a double indemnity clause...
(The entire section is 1550 words.)