It was along towards the end though that Grand achieved, in terms of public outrage, his succes d’estime, as some chose to call it, when he put out to sea in his big ship, the S.S. Magic Christian…the ship sometimes later referred to as “The Terrible Trick Ship of Captain Klaus.”

One of my favourite movies is the Peter Sellers/Ringo Starr spectacular The Magic Christian. It’s just as ridiculous as that sounds. Here’s Roman Polanski getting seduced by Yul Brynner in drag.

So I am delighted to finally have the opportunity to read something by Mr Terry Southern, even though it turns out the book itself is quite different.

Firstly of course the story is set in the United States and not the Pythonesque Britain of the Sellers film version. Secondly there is no ‘son’, role, played by Starr in the film (a Beatles connection that also unleashed Paul McCartney’s unremitting soundtrack). Finally Guy Grand in Southern’s novel is a large overweight, red-faced man, with a convincingly sincere smile and not the rakish eccentric played by Sellers.

In other respects, however, the book is quite similar. For one, there is no plot to speak of. Instead Southern introduces a series of anecdotes revolving around Guy Grand and his love ofmaking it hot for [people]. He enjoys pricking pomposity and taking advantage of the gullibility of mobs, mainly through bribing officials and hiring actors to create scenes of mass hysteria, or confusion.

In one adventure he offers a man several thousand dollars to eat a parking ticket. In another he bribes two prize fighters to act in an exaggeratedly effeminate manner when in the ring. His idea of safari is dragging bloodthirsty Westerners into the African veldt and then scaring off any animals in the area by randomly firing off a high-powered howitzer.

Guy Grand’s wealth is apparently limitless and his curious sense of humour allows him to amuse himself by exploiting the greed of his fellow man. Bigots, ignoramuses and the nouveau riche are his preferred targets. Southern introduces each chapter with an ongoing dialogue between Grand, his two elderly aunts and a shrieking socialite named Miss Ginger Horton. Unbeknownst to the fourth party, Grand and his aunts are engaged in an absurdist series of exchanges based on a very private sense of humour. Miss Horton, and her wailing dog, are much like everyone else Grand encounters victims of a unintelligible joke.

In a very real sense, Guy Grand has chosen to be living proof that everyone has their price and as the last of the ‘big spenders’, he is fully entitled to buy and sell people as he sees fit.

Southern’s satirical tone is both incisive and completely surreal. The degree of humiliation endured by the people Grand encounters is worryingly believable, even if his limitless wealth stretches credibility at times. Most chapters end with a variation on the same line – ‘it did cost him a good bit to keep his own name clear‘. The refrain becomes as casually absurdist as Kurt Vonnegut‘s ‘so it goes‘.

I imagine this book is not for everyone. For one it does read like a series of short sketches that happen to revolve around one figure. Still I personally found it very amusing, with the climax of the maiden voyage of his luxury liner the S.S. Magic Christian a fitting cap to his adventures investigating the extent of man’s inhumanity to man.

Satirical, humourous and very wicked, I look forward to reading more of Terry Southern’s work.

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