Critical reappraisal is an essential feature of our culture, as the passage of time allows us to better analyze an artist’s or genre’s merit without the fog of hype or trends. Once scorned, impressionism eventually gained recognition as one of painting’s greatest movements; jazz went from dangerous irritant to dynamic American art form. The list of creators and creations that go from disdained to celebrated — from Moby-Dick to Chuck Close to hip-hop — seems to have no end. And to that list, one more cries out to be added: the paperback masterwork Knight Rider #2: Trust Doesn’t Rust.
Ignored in its day as a piece of spinner-rack schlock, the 1984 book, by Glen A. Larson and Roger Hill, has aged magnificently. Trust Doesn’t Rust was a novelized episode of Knight Rider, the hourlong NBC action drama that made David Hasselhoff a household name from Leipzig to Berlin. The 1980s were a golden age of such novels, from Dallas: This Cherished Land to Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Most were dubious attempts to cash in on a property’s popularity. But Trust Doesn’t Rust — much like the indomitable Hasselhoff — transcended its medium.
For those who have somehow forgotten, Knight Rider told the story of ex-military spy Michael Knight (portrayed by Hasselhoff) and the artificially intelligent KITT (portrayed by, in Wikipedia’s words, “1982 Pontiac Trans Am”). While most of the show’s episodes focused on freeway chases and orgiastic fireballs, Trust Doesn’t Rust had more on its mind: it was a prescient cautionary tale about the dangers of technology.
Trust Doesn’t Rust’s tragic villain is KARR, a Trans Am that was, like KITT, built by Knight Industries. Unlike KITT, however, KARR suffers from a programming error that makes him unstable, dangerous, and vulnerable to exploitation. When a pair of hoods activate KARR for use in a crime spree, it is up to — who else? — Knight and KITT to stop them. The divergent paths of KITT and KARR is the poignant story of East of Eden’s Cal and Aron, retold with muscle cars.
If this sounds ludicrous, I ask: isn’t anything ludicrous when you sit down to explain it? Isn’t The Odyssey just a story about a king who escapes from an island, and there’s all these gods and things, and he’s like, “I’m gonna go do some stuff?” Isn’t The Great Gatsby essentially about a guy who meets another guy, who seems pretty cool, and the guy — the first guy, not the pretty cool one — wants to hang with him? Isn’t Fifty Shades Darker, when you get down to brass tacks, about boners and whatnot?
It’s all in how the material is handled. And in Trust Doesn’t Rust, it’s handled with the effortless grace of Michael Knight taking a hairpin turn at 110. In Larson and Hill’s gifted hands, the story is elevated from stuck-on-the-toilet pastime to something crackling with vitality. Consider the introduction of the two thieves: Tony — a “streetwise young tough” and Rev — a “Skid Row winehead” — as they creep into a darkened warehouse:
Two shadows drifted across the face of the sign affixed to the building wall. The sign was comparatively new: red letters on white metal. Red letters usually meant authoritative, intimidating warnings to keep out. Neither of the shadow figures were concerned with the niceties of trespassing. The first shadow flowed across the sign and was gone; the second stopped, blacking out the message.
Not only do Larson and Hill establish the pair’s cravenness — unlike most criminals who break into off-hours industrial sites, they aren’t “concerned with the niceties of trespassing” — they educate by reminding us of the meaning of red letters, a lesson that can never be reinforced enough. And is the blacking-out of that message a metaphor for Rev’s utter disregard for authority? Is it a harbinger of doom? Was it just something they wrote to meet the word count demanded by MCA Publishing? Master’s theses have been written on less.
And what of our hero, the “relaxed and jocular” Michael Knight, who was “arrogantly handsome in a rough-hewn, rip-cord way”? While the televised Knight was the Platonic ideal of an autonomous crimefighting sportscar’s driver, Trust Doesn’t Rust allows the character to breathe, adding yet more nuance to Hasselhoff’s characterization:
Michael woke up inside an ambulance. A pert, blond paramedic was applying a bandage to his forehead. There were dots of blood on her tunic.
Michael tried to sit up and was slammed down by pain. It felt like someone had driven a cement nail into his skull just above the left eye.
“How’s Scott? He said. “The guard?”
“Guarded condition,” said the paramedic… “Hold still for a few more seconds and give the Elmer’s glue a chance to set.”
“I’ve always admired women in uniform,” he mumbled.
In one brief, magical passage, we come to understand Knight deeply, fundamentally; like Richard Price, Larson and Hill allow pitch-perfect dialogue and pinpoint description to carry the day. We learn that Knight is tough — he copes with the dreaded “cement nail” sensation –compassionate — he asks after the guarded-condition guard — and, like Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man, always able to deliver a rakish quip, no matter his predicament. He is, quite simply, a mop-topped God of Fuck.
Needless to say, Trust Doesn’t Rust’s action sequences are superb. For the climactic scene — KARR plunging headlong into the Pacific — the televised version of Trust Doesn’t Rust used footage from the film The Car, which Gene Siskel declared “The Cinematic Turkey of 1977.” Fortunately, the novel relies on Larson and Hill’s Chabonesque narrative skills:
KARR smashed into the cliffside and went end over end against the craggy rocks, its armored alloy keeping it ridiculously intact. Not even the windshield broke. Then it smacked the blue surface of the water upside down, and sank like a hammer.
A hammer — an object used to build, to construct, to create — is invoked to describe the evil auto’s demise. It is the sort of brilliant, low-key irony that Larson and Hill have threaded throughout their opus. And it is what makes Trust Doesn’t Rust an unjustly forgotten classic. So do yourself a favor: the next time you see a moldering pile of paperbacks in a Dumpster or crack-den rumpus room, dig through in search of Trust Doesn’t Rust. Immersing yourself in Larsen and Hill’s airtight prose and rousing storytelling will make you feel like one of the thieves, upon his realization that KARR could be used for ill purposes:
A limitless vista of opportunity opened up inside of Tony’s head. It was composed mostly of visions of solid food, potent booze, and — as he had said — wild, wild women. It seemed terrific.
No, Tony. It is terrific.