ABSOLUTE ZERO by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1971, The Dial Press, 182pp) ∗∗∗
Blurb: Adam True Blessing’s father was a financial genius; in the words of Bernard Baruch, “thirty-five inches of raw courage the day of the Crash.” Adam’s mother was even shorter. Together they gave their normal-sized son a human maximum of love, moral upbringing, and education, until one day in 1942 when they went out for a walk and a blizzard dropped forty inches of snow before they could return home. That was how Adam found them, so perhaps it was not so surprising that he should make his career in cryogenics – the preservation of human organs and body parts by deep freezing. More difficult to understand was why he should hire such an assortment of physically luckless souls to assist him in his clandestine enterprise – like Mirella Tookins, his 800-pound receptionist, who had to be levered out of a specially rigged Volkswagen bus every morning; or Omsby Drew, a wizard with numbers and a menace on sidewalks or elevators, navigating with his bludgeon of a cane; or Flo Cramby, with her unique affliction, known to medical science as Cramby’s Vertical Minute Hemorrhage, a mini-stroke every few seconds as long as she remained standing. Altogether, Mr. Blessing and his operation – HOPE, INC. (offices in five world capitals and Teterboro, New Jersey) – seem made for suspicion. As Federal authorities, and eventually Federal justice, move in, events veer to a wild and unpredictable confrontation. Along the way, the reader is treated to a marvellously deft play of satirical humour and growing awareness of the significance of the legend of Adam True Blessing and the strange shores of humanity.
Tidyman’s novel demonstrates the writer’s determination not to be tagged in one genre as he looked to find his feet as a novelist following the success of SHAFT. His first novel, FLOWER POWER, had been a trendy story of hippies and this, his third, is a satirical piece of science-fiction. Tidyman’s journalistic instinct leads him to long descriptive passages and deep character insight. The prose is witty and the story veers more toward the absurd rather than the cutting sci-fi satire that was perhaps intended. However, there were many passages that made me smile. Each chapter is opened with a quote from one of the characters involved in the story and the one used for the very first chapter sets the tone nicely:
“The scientific community of this nation owes Mr. Blessing a great debt. On the other hand, he owes the scientific community several hundred thousand dollars.” – Prof. Malcolm Iago, Transcript of Testimony, U.S. vs. Blessing. Tenth District Court of New York.
The characters are all given their own space, but the actual plot shows little development outside of the uncovering of Blessing’s work and the following trial. The book therefore works better as a darkly manic comedy about its assortment of bizarre characters. There’s even a hint of Groucho Marx in the character of attorney, Imre Toth, and the chaos of the closing court scenes.
The book was published the same month the film adaptation of Shaft became a huge success and before he received his Academy Award for the script to The French Connection. Tidyman would move into the world of film scripting and production and largely away from original novels – excepting the continuation of the SHAFT series and novelisations of his own unfilmed screenplays. He would also attempt to adapt ABSOLUTE ZERO for the big screen with Peter Sellers starring, but the project fell through. It’s a shame as Sellers’ anarchic humour would have been perfect for the material.