Books

Sticking It to the Man

A new anthology explores how the counterculture of the '60s and '70s mixed with the mainstream.

|

I haven't read The Presidential Plot, but I want to. According to the new anthology Sticking It to the Man, Stanley Johnson's 1969 novel features a CIA so fed up with the failure in Vietnam that it orchestrates a coup and installs a black-power leader called Panther Jones as president. The book reportedly presents this deep-state operation as a good thing, not a betrayal. And—oh, yeah—it was written by future U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's dad.

Despite its name, the counterculture of the '60s and '70s didn't always counter the mainstream. It mixed with it, often in unpredictable ways. Sticking It to the Man explores how that played out in the worlds of pulp fiction and mass-market paperbacks. Sometimes it meant embracing the ferment around them. Sometimes it meant half-assed attempts to co-opt the ferment. Sometimes it meant backlash.

And sometimes it meant weird combinations that don't fit any readymade category. In 1973, for example, the experimental science fiction writer Barry Malzberg got a contract to churn out 10 vigilante novels in under a year. Writing as "Mike Barry," he dashed off stories so violent that they passed through Death Wish territory into something more satiric and surreal: The protagonist would kill virtually anybody, with an ethic more like a serial killer than an avenging angel. In time, Malzberg later recalled, the character "was driving cross-country and killing anyone on suspicion of drug-dealing."

But the strangest combination of all—one where it becomes impossible to discern just who was co-opting who—was an Australian outfit called Gold Star Publications. The canny businessmen behind the company put out everything from porn mags to spy thrillers, and they weren't afraid to publish books with politically subversive themes. But then, why wouldn't they? They weren't just entrepreneurs: They were literally Maoists.