Irving Wallace’s novel The Fan Club was quite successful when it was published in 1974, spending nearly six months on the NYT best seller list and serving as the basis for a movie project that never got to the shooting stage. Like most popular novels of its period, it has since fallen into obscurity. It is a “thriller” about the abduction, rape, ransom, and rescue of a sex-symbol movie star. I read a portion of it in the 1980s and I came back to read the whole thing more than thirty years later.
Rather than a single psychopathic villain (cf. Straub’s Hellfire Club), the story offers a misfit team of perpetrators. This feature seems to be an indictment of masculine pack dynamics: the group is morally less than the sum of its parts, while operationally greater than them. This notion is bolstered by fact that the most practically capable and ethically depraved of the four culprits has a military background, having participated in atrocities as an American soldier in Viet Nam.
The four “fan club” malefactors are repeatedly identified by their roles, rather than proper names–first for purposes of concealment in the journal kept by their organizer, and then in the mental indexing performed by their captive victim. These roles–the Club President i.e. “Dreamer,” Accountant i.e. “Milquetoast,” Insurance Person i.e. “Salesman,” and Mechanic i.e. “Evil One”–seem to suggest an allegorical reading, where the diverse character types of the four could represent larger social functions, or even psychological components (e.g. self, super-ego, ego, and id).
Except for some passages from the notebooks of the Dreamer-instigator, the novel is told in an omniscient third-person voice, but using an assortment of characters for perspective orientation. For the most part, focus alternates between the fan club members on the one hand and their captive on the other, with all of the post-abduction rapes and assaults emphasizing her perspective. She does survive the ordeal, and it seems clear that she would not have done so without her own resourcefulness and personal agency.
By making his President/Dreamer character a writer, Wallace invites suspicion of an element of self-portraiture in this eventually declared anti-hero. This protagonist treats the predatory fan club as an “experiment” in the real-world manifestation of fantasy. Are we supposed to congratulate Wallace on having chosen to write a fiction rather than carrying out the sort of criminal acts about which he wrote? The decision here to leave the Dreamer at large and unrehabilitated may have been intended as a horror-style coda to signal the persistence of evil. But given the extent to which the entire novel might be construed as rape-as-entertainment, it does come off disturbingly as “no comeuppance!”–especially in today’s interpretive climate. While I do not myself insist on moral justice in fictional narrative, Emma Bovary this fellow is not.
In any case, I do think the book was more interesting than the only other Wallace novel I’ve read, the later Celestial Bed, which shares some of its preoccupations–even signaling them in the title, which featured as an invocation (with the same historical referent) in The Fan Club.