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Sunday, February 07, 2010

DRUM (1962) by Kyle Onstott

Dust jacket for the original 1962 first edition.

Some five years passed between the publication of Kyle Onstott's anti-GONE WITH THE WIND slavery epic, MANDINGO, and during that time two significant things took place in the author's career:
  1. Presumably following actually taking the time to read the sprawlingly over-long MANDINGO, someone at Onstott's publisher had the infinite mercy to not inflict such a pointlessly dense doorstop of a book upon readers a second time, and consequently hired an editor who was not asleep at the wheel when the inevitable sequel was in the pipeline.
  2. With the first of MANDINGO's sequels, 1962's DRUM, Onstott acknowledges the contributions of his "good friend and collaborator, Lance Horner, to whom I am profpundly obligated for the assistance he has given me and without whose insistence, aid, and persistent encouragement this book would never have been finished." There appears to be little information as to the full nature of the collaborative relationship between Onstott and Horner, but if you ask me, especially since I've bead the majority of the subsequent books, Horner probably acted to trim the fat from Onstott's narrative, something MANDINGO certainly needed (it was re-issued several times after its original edition in "expurgated" versions that trimmed superfluous padding while retaining all of the sex and violence). From DRUM onward, Horner was present for what remained of Onstott's output and beyond, but I'll get to that in a bit.
DRUM tells the story of three generations of characters, unfolding its narrative over some five-hundred pages and managing to hold the reader's attention without ever lapsing into the lengthy and agonizing bits of useless business that went nowhere and occasionally brought its predecessor's 659 pages to a gear-grinding halt. One might think that an epic covering approximately forty-some-odd years and three protagonists would be ponderous going, but the narrative is wisely divided into three books, so the leaps from era to era happen with no wasted words and bring readers to exactly where they need to be in the showcased hero's development.

Book One opens in Africa sometime around or just before 1800 and introduces us to Tamboura, a member of Hausa royalty who eagerly awaits the culmination of his manhood trials and his subsequent right to get his hump on with the nubile girls of his village, a right guaranteed once he is ritually circumcised. Well, poor Tamboura is shit outta luck because some of his jealous family members plot against him in an effort to usurp his right of tribal leadership succession and successfully drug and kidnap him, selling him into slavery to an Arab flesh-trader (rather than kill him outright, which would have offended the spirits). With nothing to his name but a totemic necklace he believes affords him mystical protection, Tamboura endures the long journey from Africa to the slave markets of Cuba, where his fierce physical beauty catches the eye of an aging, monied plantation owner, don Cesar, who buys him with a mind to use Tamboura as a prime stud for breeding. The don is a man with vision enough to foresee the encroaching end of legally importing slaves from Africa and he intends to use his plantation as the first self-sufficient slave-generating compound in Cuba, a move that would earn him the wealth of a king. Tamboura, as is par for the course in this kind of novel, of course comes to virtually worship don Cesar and does everything in his power to please him. Then Tamboura meets the don's hot, blonde and French mistress, Alix (allegedly the Comtesse de Vaux, a title she embellished herself with upon fleeing the horrors of the French Revolution), and the two enter into a clandestine relationship of torrid, passionate sex, unhindered by any hint of actual communication or getting to know each other as human beings. In her earlier days, Alix had loved a devoted slave named Bonaventure, who gave his life during her aforementioned escape, so she developed a taste for strapping black men, an interest definitely not approved of by her slave and almost-constant companion, the haughty Rachel (who doesn't like men for some reason that no one can figure out...).

Tamboura and Alix's affair goes on rampantly and undiscovered, which practically drives Rachel insane with jealousy and frustration, causing her to resort to an escalating and utterly futile barrage of voodoo charms before coming up with one of the most brilliant relationship-destroying schemes I've ever read about (and I won't spoil it for you; sorry). Needless to say, the lovers are discovered en flagrante and Tamboura is put to hideous death by a reluctant don Cesar, who knows that Tamboura did not rape Alix (despite what she claims in order to save her own worthless ass) but must execute him to reinforce to the whole town the lesson of what happens when a black man gets it on with a white woman. Alix and Rachel are given twenty-four hours to vacate the premises with nothing but the clothes on their backs (which in no way stops them from stealing anything of value that they can carry), their passage guaranteed on ships bound for Mexico or New Orleans. They set off for the latter, and a distraught Alix realizes that she had actually come to love Tamboura, retaining only his totem necklace to remember him by. That, and the unwanted son that she discovers she's knocked up with.

Book Two shifts the timeline forward by about eighteen years, by which time Alix has once more reinvented herself, this time as the madame at New Orleans' most high-end whorehouse, the de Vaux Academie de Musique. Having found herself pregnant with the unexpected and unwanted fruit of her time with Tamboura, Alix passes off her black son, Drum, as Rachel's baby and promptly distances herself from her child. Between the time of Drum's birth (sometime in the early 1800's) and his eighteenth birthday, Alix has become quite rich thanks to her bordello attracting wealthy and powerful regulars, and once he's of age, Drum is sent off to apprentice as a blacksmith. Unlike many of the slaves in books of this genre, Drum is more educated than most and comes off as rather sophisticated when compared to his fellow human chattel, an aspect of his demeanor that, along with his oft-mentioned overwhelming physical beauty, makes him ideal as a bartender and live sex show performer in the "melees" Alix stages for her jaded clientele. Growing up unaware that Rachel is not his real mother, Drum hates Alix as a foul epitome of all that he perceives as wrong and unattractive about white women, but he enjoys his status as a featured fixture at her establishment and eventually receives training as a fighter after kicking the living shit out of another slave who did not show him proper deference. Once trained, Drum goes on to win match after match, a towering nude black Hercules who can mete out and take extreme punishment, but as his winning streak breeds jealousy and frustration among some of the owners of slaves he defeats, so an escalating slate of horrifying and vicious opponents takes up much of his time. Much 0f Book Two is taken up with Drum's pugilistic efforts, but there is also a fair amount of time spent on his "pleasuring" with an assortment of all-too-willing female slaves and, in one memorably tasteless sequence, a spoiled-rotten, uber-rich, homicidal bi-sexual French duelist (he does not rebuff the guy because the man bought him a prize wench and resisting him would mean financial suicide for Alix's whorehouse). A plague of yellow fever — colloquially referred to as "Bronze John" — hits New Orleans and kills people by the thousands, eventually claiming Rachel, who, with her dying breath, informs Drum that Alix is his real mother. Alix briefly steps out of her role as stern whorehouse manager and relates the details of his origin to her son, giving him the Number One position of power among the house's slaves if he never reveals that Alix gave birth to a black man's bastard. From there the story deals with what an entitled asshole Drum becomes, treating the other slaves like shit and emotionally torturing his main woman, Calinda, by withholding sex — a tactic she tried initially, but it backfired when he adopted it — and lording it over Blaise, a younger, even more strapping buck who harbors feelings for Drum's woman. One night while Drum is out servicing two "fancy" girls at some rich lady's house, Drum's woman takes Blaise to her bed and is inevitably caught by Drum. Overcome with rage, Drum attacks Blaise with the intent to kill him in cold blood. Their fight spills out into the whorehouse's courtyard and Blaise (who does not want to fight his best friend) defends himself with a carpenter's saw, embedding the blade in Drum's jugular. As Drum bleeds out on the cobblestones, Alix forces Blaise and Calinda, under penalty of severe punishment, to tell anyone who asks that Drum was killed in a street fight. Alix keeps the necklace that Drum inherited from Tamboura and holds it to give to her as yet unborn grandson, who is gestating within Calinda.

Book Three opens sometime in the 1840's and introduces us to Drumson (it's all in the name, folks), who is raised at Alix's brothel and serves as a house slave. Stunningly handsome and possessed of his father's physique, Drumson is also trained to fight by his Uncle Blaise. Alix keeps the boy on a short leash, never letting him know that she's his grandmother (all the secrets of Alix's jungle fever died with Drum) and as a result Drumson doesn't much care for her. Things get interesting and finally turn the novel into a proper sequel to MANDINGO when Hammond Maxwell, the conflicted slave-breeding/black chick-lovin'/white-chick-despisin' star of that book, shows up at Alix's establishment with an unusual offer. Following the events so scorchingly chronicled in MANDINGO, Hammond has returned from "the Texies" and assumed control of Falconhurst plantation when his father finally has the decency to croak, seeing its cash crop of prime slaves raise his wealth to that of an antebellum Rockefeller. Now all he needs to have all his ducks in a row is to get a woman to run Falconhurt's main house, but he no longer wants a wife, thanks to what his first spouse, the infamous drunken interracial sex-offender adulteress Blanche, got up to with his most prized slave, the famed full-blooded Mandingo, Mede. Alix provides him with Augusta, a hairdresser to the local whores who has a mildly checkered past but is a very proper "lady" in every way nonethless, and so the pair set off to Falconhurst with Drumson taken on as Hammond's personal body slave (a high position), and Regine, Hammond's new and ultra-hot bed wench (much to Augusta's annoyance). During their initial time together, a falling-down-drunk Hammond confuses Drumson with Mede and the readers are treated to Hammond baring his soul to what he believes is the ghost of the slave he so sadistically punished (read "murdered by pitchforking him and boiling his body for three days in a gigantic kettle until he was soup"), and in doing so Hammond reveals his crushing guilt over his foul deeds, finally making peace with that foul event. Upon arriving at Falconhurst, we meet Sophie, the spoiled- brat twelve-year-old daughter Hammond believes is his via Blanche (she's actually the child of Blanche's brother, Charles, and bears his crossed eyes as a marker of her true parentage) and Sophie is soon revealed to be a budding and dangerous nymphomaniac with a heavy duty interest in the slave boys, people over whom she wields the power of life and death, and woe to any who might cross her...

The rest of the story relates Drumson's day-to-day interactions with the Falconhurst slaves, his devoted friendship with Miss Augusta (who turns out to be one of the most genuine and sweet white folks in the entire series), and the growing resentment of Drumson by slaves Clees and Clytie. Also figuring into this are Alph and Meg, twin former slaves of Hammond's who he sold a decade earlier, only to discover later that they had blackmailed his dead wife into allowing them to fuck her whenever they demanded it, lest they tell massa about her dalliances with Mede. Ever since becoming aware of their crime, Hammond had searched for them in vain, but when he finds them again he buys them from their current owner and brings them home with him, intending to imprison them away from the other slaves to heighten the suspense of what is sure to be some inevitable payback punishment, a reprisal that turns out to be imminent castration for both. The news of that development and the impending sale of the "uppity" Clees spurs an ultra-violent slave revolt that results in many gory deaths, including that of Drumson, who sacrifices himself to save Hammond's life, only to end up fatally shot and beheaded with a scythe. When the revolt is quelled, a heartbroken Augusta makes sure that Drumson's courage and more-than-slavelike humanity are never forgotten, affording him the rare honor of being buried among Falconhurst's honored white dead. But before Drumson's body is committed to the earth, Augusta retrieves Tamboura's legacy totem necklace and keeps it safe, eventually to be passed on to the first of the inevitable sons Drumson sired.

DRUM is a brisk and very entertaining read and an improvement upon MANDINGO in several respects. It is never boring, the characters are much more fleshed-out than before, and the three protagonists are each interesting in completely differing ways. Tamboura personifies the untamed beauty and majesty of Africa itself, an aspect noted by all who encounter him once he's transported into slavery, even inspiring an aging slave dealer to paint his portrait in tribute. Drum is an egocentric prick who's so full of himself that he's rather unlikable, quite happy in his role as what is essentially a human fighting cock (pun intended), with little concern or respect for his own value as a human being and not a commodity. Drumson is by far the most relatable of the three, displaying great intelligence and self-awareness despite being in a situation that seeks to quash such traits. His relationship with Augusta is both surprising and touching, illustrating one of the most interesting symbiotic relationships in all of the slave literature genre. Only three things unite these very different men: shared genetics, names that all sort of relate to a percussion instrument, and a disturbingly worshipful attitude toward white women. Before ending up as Alix's boy-toy, Tamboura, who bitterly despises whites, encounters a statue of the Blessed Virgin during his indoctrination into Western religion and from then on he is mesmerized by the sacred beauty of female whiteness. Drum lusts after white women (an attitude he very wisely keeps to himself), but never gets with one, settling instead for the light-skinned beauties in his mother's employ. Drumson also reveres white women and would be curious to try one out, but he knows that is just not in the cards and is fatal to any black man who achieves that goal (the fate of Mede is constantly brought up, so he's got constant reminders to keep it in his pants). Instead, Drumson transfers his worship of the white female to Miss Augusta, and that reverence is rewarded with a mutually beneficial friendship that unexpectedly extends to all the plantation's slaves.

Well worth reading, even if you have not read its ponderous predecessor, DRUM is definitely recommended to the interested. The 1976 film version seriously fucks with the book's content and ends up being rather a mess, but it's one hell of an unintentionally hilarious disaster that features the great Warren Oates (as Hammond), Pam Grier, Isela Vega (shockingly miscast as Alix), Paula Kelly, John Colicos (as an over-the-top interpretation of the bi-sexual duelist who must be seen to be believed) and Yaphet Kotto, all of whom chew the scenery like their lives depended on it. Definitely recommended for camp film enthusiasts and nowhere near as offensive as the movie of MANDINGO, but if you choose experience the book or film of DRUM, make the smart choice and stick with the novel. Followed two years later by MASTER OF FALCONHURST (the review of which is coming soon).

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