Irving Wallace (1916-1990) – The Fan Club (1974)
SPOILERS AHEAD – I want to discuss the novel in depth, so if you don’t want to know the details, then don’t read the post. If you don’t mind, then read on…
This disturbing book owes a lot to John Fowles’ 1963 novel The Collector, the tale of an obsessed young man holding a young woman captive in an English countryside house. The Fan Club takes that idea one step further by having four men kidnap and rape a famous actress. The main concept revolves around four men of varying ages and backgrounds – aspiring writer Adam Malone (the ringleader), misogynistic mechanic and Vietnam vet Kyle T. Shively (at some point in the novel it is revealed that he killed children in the My Lai massacre), middle-aged insurance salesman Howard Yost and even-more-middle-aged accountant Leo Brunner – who are all obsessed with Sharon Fields, the greatest sex symbol of her day. Adam thinks that he “knows” Sharon simply because he has collected every possible press clipping and taped every radio and TV interview. He does not understand that the star’s persona is not the real person underneath. He and the other three men all want what they can’t have – that is, until the fateful day when they are all sitting at the same bar and Adam claims that he knows a way to meet Sharon.
The basic plan: kidnapping.
The carefully-plotted taking of Sharon Fields from her Hollywood home soon devolves into weeks of gang rape. Kyle is the first to attack her, doing so in the most brutal ways possible. (At a later point in the story he punches Sharon repeatedly during an assault.) His actions are repulsive, but the other men are no better, since they cannot control their lust for Sharon either. The Fan Club believes that their cabin in the woods is not a part of normal civilization but rather a sort of “Más a Tierra,” Robinson Crusoe’s island, where they can make their own rules for acceptable behavior. It’s like Lord of the Flies with adults.
Sharon’s POV is the most interesting part of the novel. She is clearly extremely intelligent, using her cleverness to make the most of what few resources she has in her dangerous situation. The genius of her individual manipulation of each captor in order to find a way back to freedom is matched only by Wallace’s particularly fine-tuned understanding of 70s-era feminism. Sharon becomes a strong woman, rising above her victimhood to assert herself in any way she can.
The novel is extremely violent, describing many criminal acts (including the many instances of rape) in graphic detail. Wallace uses the Fan Club’s repeated rape of Sharon as a physical manifestation of the metaphoric rape she experiences in Hollywood, being forced to play the “sex object,” a thing (rather than a person) designed by/for men and devoid of her own feelings and opinions, blazing across the silver screen for millions of people to ogle. The fact that the Fan Club turns their collective fantasy into reality – something which was obviously more easily done in the 70s than today since nowadays we are far more aware of security systems and the dangers of stalkers – makes their exploits a chilling warning against putting a celebrity on a pedestal.
Up until the last few pages of the novel, I thought it was a truly compelling narrative… but then there’s the ending. To make a long story short: after Sharon convinces the group to send a ransom note to her agent, policemen capture Howard at the money drop-off site and he commits suicide because he can’t deal with the impending shame of his family finding out what he has done; Kyle kills Leo after Leo bolts from the cabin in fear; Kyle returns to the cabin and tries to shoot Sharon but he is stopped by a knife in the back from Adam. Adam cowers in the corner as Sharon retrieves the fallen gun and kills Kyle with a gunshot to the groin (and with hollow point bullets, which is not pretty).
The big mistake in Wallace’s writing is when Sharon, newly empowered, walks out of the cabin. Adam does not stay put; instead, he flees through a cabin window and hides in the forest. The bizarre thing, though, is that while Sharon and the police are searching the area for Leo’s body, they come very close to discovering Adam, who is crouched down behind a tree or maybe some shrubbery, but they do not see him… and then Sharon tells the police that there were only THREE kidnappers/rapists. Why does she protect him? It’s true that his name is the only one of the four that she never figured out, so she couldn’t have revealed his identity, but why exonerate him? Does she feel sorry for him since he professed such a “real” love for her? Is it because there was once instance when she enjoyed having sex with him, despite the fact that she was trying merely to “perform” (she considers it the greatest acting challenge of her career) in order to survive?
In the biggest bit of thievery from The Collector, the last page of the novel shows an excerpt from Adam’s diary. Now that he is free and back in Los Angeles, his new obsession is with another young sex symbol, Joan Dever. He wonders if he should start up another Fan Club for her. That’s basically just like the ending of The Collector since the protagonist spots another victim after he is done with the first.
While reading The Fan Club I asked myself, Could this be made into a screenplay? If it were, the resulting film would be guaranteed an R rating, if not NC-17. I suppose you could place the camera in such a way that the violent/sexual content is not explicitly shown, but you can’t escape the necessity of involving those scenes. The destructive nature of The Fan Club, both in terms of the novel and the group of men, dictates the use of those horrific acts in any cinematic adaptation. One of these days I may try my hand at adapting the novel; at best it would show that the film could be made and at worst it would just be another writing exercise.