Bug Jack Barron

by Norman Spinrad
Reviewed date: 2020 Apr 21
Rating: 4
372 pages
cover art
cover art
cover art

Like all Spinrad books, Bug Jack Barron is vulgar and filled with obscenity. But it's got a compelling story.

Jack Barron has a call-in TV show. Viewers call in, tell Jack what's bugging them, and Jack investigates, live on the air. The action starts when a caller tells Jack that he's bugged about the Foundation for Human Immortality. The Foundation, owned by billionaire Benedict Howard, operates a vast cryogenic freezer depository: for $50,000 a person can be frozen and preserved upon their death, to be resurrected at a later date when the Foundation has solved the problems of death, disease, and immortality. The caller's net worth is over $50,000 but the Foundation refused him a contract. The caller thinks it's because he's black and Benedict Howard is racist.

Race relations
The state of race relations in America in Bug Jack Barron is what you might expect from a book written in the 1960s. Black people have equal rights, but in reality, life and political power is still pretty segregated. In particular, a new political party called the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) has led the charge for civil rights. The Republicans are waning, the SJC is a viable third party, but the Democrats are firmly in charge of the nation. Jack's friend Lukas Greene is the black SJC governor of Mississippi. He'd love to be President, but he knows the score: America is not ready for a black President.

The Foundation for Human Immortality
Jack knows that despite the caller's fear that he was denied a freeze contract due to his race, the Foundation truly only cares about money. They'll take anyone with $50,000 in liquid assets. But Jack's got an audience to entertain, so he runs with it: he makes a few calls, interviews a few folks, and figures that's the end of it. But Jack has unwittingly stumbled into a conspiracy. His show spooks Benedict Howard, the founder and President of the Foundation.

The Freezer Utility Bill
After Jack's show, he gets a call from Benedict Howard. And oh boy, is Howard mad. He wants Jack to stop going after the Foundation. In fact, he'd like Jack to switch gears and use his platform--an audience of 100 million Americans--to promote the Freezer Utility Bill that is currently before Congress. The Freezer Utility Bill would give the Foundation a legal monopoly on freezing, and Howard wants it to pass. Howard offers Jack a free freeze contract if he will use Bug Jack Barron to drum up public support for the Freezer Utility Bill. Jack is suspicious--Howard is the de facto power behind the Democratic party, and he's got all the votes he needs to pass the Freezer Utility Bill. And if he doesn't, he has the money to simply bribe the Congressmen and Senators directly. So why is he trying to buy Jack's support? Jack says he'll think about it.

President of the United States
Next, Jack gets a call from the Republicans. They saw his program and how critical he was of the Foundation. They'd like him to nominate him for President and run him on an anti-Foundation platform. Oh, and they can get him the SJC nomination as well. A unity ticket, Jack Barron as the Republican and SJC nominee, against whoever the Democrats choose. It could work.

Ha. This made me think one thing: President Bill O'Reilly.

Jack has no desire to run for President. He calls his friend Lukas Greene, the SJC Governor of Mississippi, to talk about it, but Greene thinks it's a great idea and that Jack would make a fine President. Jack still says no.

Jack has no desire to run for President, but he doesn't trust Howard and the Foundation either. He further antagonizes Howard on the next episode of Bug Jack Barron, and then later, off the air, he gets Howard to confess that the Foundation has already devised an immortality treatment. But it's expensive--millions of dollars per person. Unlike freezing, immortality will never be available to the masses, it will always be for the super rich. Howard offers Jack immortality in exchange for supporting the Freezer Utility Bill.

The Terrible Secret of Immortality
Jack accepts. He knows that Howard is still hiding something from him, but Jack figures he can take the immortality treatment and then figure out what Howard was up to, and double-cross him. But--in a twist that was obvious to the reader--the secret of immortality is murder. In particular, the murder of children. The immortality treatment involves the transplant of certain glands from young children who have been treated with radiation in a specific manner that kills them. Howard's Foundation has been buying children from poor families (mostly black) and murdering them to make millionaires immortal. And now Jack has received the treatment. If he tries to double-cross Howard, well, Jack will go down for murder. Immortality isn't much good if you're executed or in prison for life. Howard has Jack beat.

Unmasking Benedict Howard
Well, Jack eventually decides to go ahead and unmask Howard anyway. He gets Howard on the show, then exposes him and the Foundation. Howard melts down and confesses everything. All of America knows that the Foundation has been buying and murdering children. Jack confesses to receiving the immortality treatment himself, then begs the public to believe that when he received the treatment, he truly did not know that it involved murder. The public seems to believe him, and as the book ends, Jack is running for President on a Republican/SJC ticket, with Lukas Greene as his running mate.

The Black Shade
One bit I found unbelievable was the lionization of Jack Barron as the savior of black people. Lukas Greene calls Jack "the black shade." A shade is a white person, and so Jack, friend to black people and champion of racial justice and equality, is a black shade. Lukas Greene wants Jack to run for President, presumably to be America's first "black" President, because an actual black man--Lukas Greene--couldn't be elected. So Jack Barron, a white man, is a better champion of the black man than an actual black man. Yeah, this sounds like a book written by a white dude.

Sara Westerfield
A lot of Jack's motivations in the story are tied up in his relationship to his ex-wife Sara Westerfield. Howard tries to bribe Sara with a Freeze contract in order to manipulate Jack, but in the end, Jack and Sara get together, are honest with each other, and take Howard's deal together with open eyes. They both get the immortality treatment. When they realize that immortality is built on the murder of children, Jack is at first willing to keep it a secret for fear that revealing the scheme will get Sara a death sentence once her complicity is revealed. Sara is unwilling to allow Howard to get away with it, so she commits suicide to set Jack free to take down Howard. So, you know, we've got an intriguing female character whose sole purpose is to motivate the main character. Ah well. It's well written and believable at least.

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