I like boxing stories. I like Plantation Gothics. As such, I was excited to read “Mantee” by Robert J. Hensler from 1969. Based on the cover blurb, it’s about a black slave who becomes a boxing champion. Mandingo meets Rocky! What’s not too like?
Then I saw this posting on the Internet from the author’s son, Eric:
“My father wrote this book. He’s not proud of it or the other pulp he cranked out in the sixties but it kept food on the table for our little family. Before you judge too harshly, remember that somebody had to demean themselves to write this in the first place. Just a quick note to give a glimpse behind the curtain...”
At first this review/apology made me re-shelve the book. I read for entertainment and escapism, not to open the old wounds of a nice family’s shame. Upon further reflection, I needed to know if this book was something truly worth causing inter-generational embarrassment. Curiosity clawed at me every time I walked by my library. To be sure, plantation fiction was a salacious and tawdry sub-genre that leveraged America’s discomfort with topics like racism, inter-racial sex, and the repugnant stain of slavery on our nation’s past. However, I don’t think these books are racist. The slaves are almost always drawn in a sympathetic light, and their evil masters generally get their comeuppance in slave uprisings forming the novel’s climax.
I couldn’t find much info about the author, and my initial attempts to contact his son failed. I know Hensler wrote an innocuous-sounding book about Washington, D.C. during his career, but I was unable to identify any other pulp fiction bearing his name. None of the vintage fiction experts I consulted knew of the guy. If he wanted this chapter in his life to be forgotten, he’s done a fine job staying under the radar for the past 50 years.
Anyway, onto the plantation book:
“Mantee” takes place on Alabama’s 250 acre Rosebriar Plantation in 1859 - four long years before emancipation- where the slaves pick cotton and take whippings from the dysfunctional Darby family. The cast of characters is an array of stereotypes. Benson is the patriarch who rules his land with an iron fist. Evangeline is his compassionate abolitionist wife. Lance is the cruel heir who loves to order up whippings. Marlena is the horny daughter - physically excited watching the muscular black bodies suffer abuse.
On the slave side of the plantation, Mantee is the biggest, strongest, and most handsome of the indentured blacks on the property. The comely Marlena is hot-to-trot and fascinated by the idea that Mantee likely has an enormous dong. You can see where this is headed. There’s a whole mess of slaves who fill every archetype required by the genre, and Hessler wastes no words detailing the rape and torture of slaves in graphic detail. After awhile, these scenes became rather stomach-turning and I can only imagine that they served to pad the page count and thicken the paperback to a market-friendly length. The consensual and non-consensual sex scenes were extra pornographic and extra long - even compared to other plantation novels.
Accused of rape, Mantee becomes a runaway slave leaving his torturers behind. It is during his flight that he encounters a series of white saviors and eventually the sport of boxing. The fight scenes are absolutely fantastic and resemble early MMA in their brutality rather than the gloved Queensbury Rules we know today. Once the boxing story kicked in, the author really brings his A-game.
To be sure, “Mantee” is an imperfect novel. The author’s choice to write the dialog in a phonetic southern dialect wore thin pretty quickly. I would have also preferred more punches thrown and fewer girls deflowered along the way as the sex scenes became tiresome and repetitive. Nevertheless, the paperback never failed to hold my attention, and I mostly found myself enjoying Mantee’s adventures - vertical and horizontal. Plantation novels were written to be salacious, but these fictional dramatizations will inevitably bring readers greater empathy for the people forced to suffer through this shameful chapter of American history.
And that’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
After I completed the “Mantee” review above, I finally heard back from the author’s son, Eric Hensler. He reports that his dad is still around at age 86.
“Our family grew up everywhere. New York, California, Texas, New Mexico, Connecticut, and Florida,” Eric said. “Within those states, we lived in more cities than can be counted without aid from him which is, unfortunately, not to be had at this point.
The reason for all the moving around? “His primary career was in radio,” Eric explained . “He was, I suppose you might say, an itinerant DJ. Rarely staying at any one station for more than six months, full of a wanderlust insatiable. Or such was the case until the early 1970s. At that point, he attached himself to WSST in Largo, Florida and stayed for nearly 20 years. He rose through the ranks and for his second decade there, he was the general manager.”
“My father never held particular political positions or otherwise,” Eric said. “He was an experimental man and a pragmatic one at the same time. He wrote hippie-porn, plantation fiction, poetry, non-fiction and on and on it went. He has published well over 50 books but the difficulty lies in that he used many different pen names. So many, in fact, that I have done much hand-wringing in trying to compile a bibliography. He is still alive, but unfortunately, he has advanced dementia and is of little help in this regard.”
Eric pointed me in the direction of a 1977 Pocket Books novel titled “Washington, D.C.,” a title so generic that it’s hard to find much information about it. Eric explained that it was the only other work of fiction released using his real name. I did find a single online review of the book that described the novel as being about power, sex, and sixties-style revolutionaries who want to blow everything up but are too inept.
Eric explained that a lot of his dad’s books were published under pseudonyms, including “Robert Scott, R.J. Scott, Arjay Scott and so on.”
Bingo! This explains a lot.
There were a bunch of Bee-Line erotic novels written under the pen name of Arjay Scott that are clearly the work of Robert Hensler. They had lurid titles like “Circus of Flesh” and “Fornacation, Inc.” His novel “Diabolical Chain” features the tagline: “Hollywood Voluptuaries in an Orgy of Lust...and Blood!” Most of his Bee-Line porno books have non-descript covers with no art. However, his paperback “The Swapping Game” features an attractive photo cover with some decent graphic design.
My personal favorite of Hessler’s titles was “The 27-Foot Long Love Machine.” However, my enthusiasm was dampened when I learned that the Love Machine in question was a camper van. His erotic fiction work for Bee-Line explains the author’s comfort in writing long, graphic sex scenes in “Mantee.”
“All of the pulp of any ilk that he did publish was through his agent, a man who went by the name Jay Garon,” Eric said. “We heard his name and saw the checks all the time when I was a boy.” I learned that Garon, who died in 1995, represented several working authors of pulp fiction around that era, including Michael Avallone, author of the Ed Noon mystery series.
Eric has heard rumors that his mother may have a box of dusty old books from dad’s writing career. “I need simply to convince my mother to direct me to it. She, you see, is a devout Christian and wants nothing to do with them, but as he fades, she softens to anything to do with his life and history,” he said.
Like many senior citizens in his condition, Hensler has good days and bad days. Eric told his father about the upcoming Paperback Warrior feature, “I explained what was going on to my father and he smiled and said he would like to read it. He was clearly amused, at least for a few moments until slipping back into his unfortunate fog.”
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