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The Ashes of Hollywood I: The Bottom 4 of the Top 10

Shit has its own integrity.” The Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table in the MGM commissary used regularly to affirm this axiom for the benefit of us alien integers from the world of Quality Lit. It was plain to him (if not to the front office) that since we had come to Hollywood only to make money, our pictures would entirely lack the one basic homely ingredient that spells boffo world-wide grosses. The Wise Hack was not far wrong. He knew that the sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves perfect popularity cannot be faked even though, as he was quick to admit, no one ever lost a penny underestimating the intelligence of the American public. He was cynical (so were we); yet he also truly believed that children in jeopardy always hooked an audience, that Lana Turner was convincing when she rejected the advances of Edmund Purdom in The Prodigal “because I’m a priestess of Baal,” and he thought that Irving Thalberg was a genius of Leonardo proportion because he had made such tasteful “products” as The Barretts of Wimpole Street and’ Marie Antoinette.

In my day at the Writers’ Table (mid-Fifties) television had shaken the industry and the shit-dispensers could now…well, flush their products into every home without having to worry about booking a theater. In desperation, the front office started hiring alien integers whose lack of reverence for the industry distressed the Wise Hack who daily lectured us as we sat at our long table eating the specialty of the studio, top-billed as the Louis B. Mayer Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls (yes, invariably, the dumb starlet would ask, what do they do with the rest of the matzoh?). Christopher Isherwood and I sat on one side of the table; John O’Hara on the other. Aldous Huxley worked at home. Dorothy Parker drank at home.

The last time I saw her, Los Angeles had been on fire for three days. As I took a taxi from the studio, I asked the driver, “How’s the fire doing?” “You mean,” said the Hollywoodian, “the holocaust.” The style, you see, must come as easily and naturally as that. I found Dorothy standing in front of her house, gazing at the smoky sky; in one hand she held a drink, in the other a comb which absently she was passing through her short straight hair. As I came toward her, she gave me a secret smile. “I am combing,” she whispered, “Los Angeles out of my hair.” But of course that was not possible. The ashes of Hollywood are still very much in our hair, as the ten bestsellers I have just read demonstrate.

The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century. An entire generation has been brought up to admire the product of that era. Like so many dinosaur droppings, the old Hollywood films have petrified into something rich, strange, numinous-golden. For any survivor of the Writers’ Table (alien or indigenous integer), it is astonishing to find young directors like Bertolucci, Bogdanovich, Truffaut reverently repeating or echoing or paying homage to the sort of kitsch we created first time around with a good deal of “help” from our producers and practically none at all from the directors—if one may quickly set aside the myth of the director as auteur. Golden age movies were the work of producer(s) and writer(s). The director was given a finished shooting script with each shot clearly marked, and woe to him if he changed MED CLOSE SHOT to MED SHOT without permission from the front office, which each evening, in serried ranks, watched the day’s rushes with script in hand (“We’ve got some good pages today,” they would say; never good film). The director, as the Wise Hack liked to observe, is the brother-in-law.

I think it is necessary to make these remarks about the movies of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties as a preface to the ten bestselling novels under review since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels appear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to re-create new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film maker) recall past success and respond accordingly. Certainly none of the ten writers (save the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn and the classicist Mary Renault) is in any way rooted in literature. For the eight, storytelling began with The Birth of a Nation. Came to high noon with, well, High Noon and Mrs. Miniver and Rebecca and A Farewell to Arms. Except for the influence of the dead Ian Fleming (whose own work was a curious amalgam of old movies in the Eric Ambler-Hitchcock style with some sadomasochist games added), these books connect not at all with other books. But with the movies…ah, the movies!

Let us begin with Number Ten on your Hit Parade of Fiction, Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes. Marjorie is also the author of I’ve Got to Talk to Somebody, God and Who Am I, God?. Two from Galilee is subtitled significantly, “A Love Story of Mary and Joseph.” Since the film Love Story really took off: what about a love story starring the Mother and the Stepfather of Our Lord? A super idea. And Marjorie has written it. We open with the thirteen-year-old Mary menstruating (“a bloody hand had smitten her in the night”). ” ‘I am almost fourteen, Father,’ she said, ‘and I have become nubile this day.’ ” She is “mad for” Joseph, a carpenter’s son; he is mad for her.

Shrewdly Marjorie has taken two young Americans of the lower middle class and placed them in old Galilee. I recognize some of the descriptions as being from the last version of Ben Hur to which I made a considerable contribution. “The couches covered with a silken stuff threaded with gold. The glow from a hanging alabaster lamp….” Luckily, I was on the set at the beginning of the shooting and so was able to persuade the art director to remove tomatoes from Mrs. Ben Hur Senior’s kitchen. Otherwise Marjorie might have had Hannah prepare a tomato sandwich for her daughter Mary.

Since Miss Holmes is not an experienced writer, it is difficult to know what, if anything, she had in mind when she decided to tell the Age-Old Story with nothing new to add. True there are some domestic crises and folksy wrinkles like Joseph’s father being a drunk. Incidentally, Joseph and Mary are known by their English names while the other characters keep their Hebrew names. Mary’s mother Hannah is fun: a Jewish mother as observed by a gentile housewife in McLean, Virginia, who has seen some recent movies on the subject and heard all the jokes on television.

Hannah worries for her daughter. Will Joseph get into Mary before the wedding? “Hannah had no idea what it was like to be a man—this waiting. No woman could comprehend physical passion.” Helen Gurley Brown and Germaine Greer will no doubt set Miss Holmes straight on that sexist point. But perhaps the author is reflecting her audience (Who are they, by the way? Where are they? Baptists in Oklahoma? Catholics in Duluth suburbs?) when she writes that Hannah “did not have the faintest concept of the demon-god that entered a youth’s loins at puberty and gave him no peace thereafter.” Yes, I checked the last noun for spelling. Joseph, incidentally, is such a stud that when Mary is with him “the thing that was between them chimed and quivered and lent discomfort to all.”

Suddenly between that chiming, quivering thing and Mary falls the shadow of the Holy Ghost. “Mary’s flesh sang,” as she experienced “the singing silence of God.” Miss Holmes rises to lyricism. “The Holy Spirit came upon her, invaded her body, and her bowels stirred and her loins melted.” Obviously entry was not made through the ear as those Renaissance painters who lacked Miss Holmes’s powerful realism believed. Mary soon starts wondering why “the blood pumps so painfully in my breast and my bowels run so thin?” She finds out in due course. Joseph has a hard time believing her story until the Holy Spirit tells him to get it together and accept his peculiar role as the antlered saint of a new cult.

At census time the young marrieds set out for Bethlehem where the local Holiday Inn is full up or, as a passer-by says, ” ‘The inn? You’ll be lucky to find a corner for the ass at the inn.’ ” As these quotations demonstrate, Miss Holmes’s style is beyond cliché. But when it comes to scene-making, she is sometimes betrayed by the familiarity of her subject matter. If the Story is to be told truly there must be a birth scene, and so she is obliged to write, ” ‘Some hot water if you can get it,’ ” adding, ” ‘Go no further even to fetch a midwife.’ ” To which a helpful stranger replies, ” ‘I’ll send one of them for one.’ ” Reminding us of the Joan Crawford interview some decades ago when the star asked with quiet majesty, “Whom is fooling whom?” Finally, “Each night the great star stood over the stable’s entrance. Joseph had never seen such a star, flaming now purple, now white….”

I am told that religioso fiction has a wide audience around the country, and though these books rarely appear on bestseller lists in sinks of corruption like New York City their over-all sales in the country remind us that the enormous audience which flocked to see Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments is still waiting to have its simple faith renewed and stimulated with, as the sage at the Writers’ Table would say, teats and sand.

Number Nine, The Eiger Sanction, by Trevanian (just one name) is light years distant from Two from Galilee. For one thing it is sometimes well written though hardly, as the blurb tells us, “vintage Huxley.” Actually The Eiger Sanction is an Ian Fleming by-blow and of its too numerous kind pretty good. Fleming once remarked that he wrote his books for warm-blooded heterosexuals. I suspect that Mr. Trevanian (Ms. Trevanian?) is writing for tepid-blooded bisexuals—that is to say, a majority of those who prefer reading kinky thrillers to watching that television set before whose busy screen 90 percent of all Americans spend a third of their waking hours.

Mr. Trevanian’s James Bond is called Dr. Jonathan Hemlock. A professor of art, he “moonlights” as a paid assassin for the Search and Sanction Division of CII, an aspect (presumably invented) of the CIA. Dr. Hemlock is engaged to kill those who kill CII agents. With the proceeds from these murders, he buys paintings to hang in the renovated church where he lives on Long Island. He drinks Pichon-Longueville-Baron, worships his “beloved Impressionists” (his taste in pictures is duller than the author suspects), and as for sex, well, he’s a tough cookie and finds it temporarily satisfying, “like urination” or “a termination of discomfort, not an achievement of pleasure.” This drives women mad.

Mr. Trevanian has a nice gift for bizarre characters. The chief of Search and Sanction is an albino who lives in darkness; he must also undergo periodic changes of blood because he is “one of nature’s rarest genealogical phenomena,” presumably related to a cadet branch of the Plantagenet family. It seems only yesterday that Sidney Greenstreet was growing orchids in a most sinister greenhouse and chuckling mirthlessly. Actually, that was thirty years ago and writers are now having a difficult time thinking up unlikely traits…not to mention names. Unhappily the mind that created Pussy Galore cloned before it went to ashes, and Mr. Trevanian brightly offers us Felicity Arce, Jean-Paul Bidet, Randie Nickers, and a host of other cute names.

But he is also capable of writing most engagingly. “His line of thought was severed by the paternal and the plebeian voice of the pilot assuring him that he knew where they were going.” Or, “he intended to give [the book] a handsome review in obedience to his theory that the surest way to maintain position at the top of the field was to advance and support men of clearly inferior capacities.” More of this and Mr. Trevanian will write himself out of the genre and into Quality Lit, Satire Division. But he must refrain from writing beautifully. However, I suspect he is young and will outgrow “mountain stars still crisp and cold despite the threat of dawn to mute their brilliance” not to mention “organic viscosity of the dark around him”: an inapplicable description of a night in the high alps worthy of Nathalie Sarraute, as is “Time had been viscous for Ben, too.”

It is sad to report that Mr. Trevanian cannot resist presenting in thin disguise Mr. and Mrs. Burton and Mr. and Mrs. Onassis. There is nothing wrong with this if you have a point to make about them. But he has nothing to say; he simply mentions them in order to express disdain. No doubt they deserve his Olympian disgust, but he should leave to Suzy the record of their doings and to the really bad writers the exploitation of their famous legends. It is interesting, incidentally, to observe the curiously incestuous feedback of the media. About a dozen people are known to nearly everyone capable of reading a simply written book. Therefore the golden dozen keep cropping up in popular books with the same insistence that their doings dominate the media, and the most successful exploiters of these legends are the very primitive writers like Harold Robbins who not only do not know the golden dozen at first or even second hand but, inexcusably, lack the imagination to think up anything exciting to add to what the reader has already learned from gossip columns and magazine interviews. At times while reading these bestsellers I had the odd sensation that I was actually reading Leonard Lyons or a copy of Photoplay or anything except a book. But then it is a characteristic of today’s writers (serious as well as commercial) to want their books to resemble “facts” rather than fiction. The Odessa File, August 1914, The Eiger Sanction are non-fiction titles.

Mr. Trevanian has recourse to that staple of recent fiction the Fag Villain. Since kikes and niggers can no longer be shown as bad people, only commies (pre-Nixon) and fags are certain to arouse the loathing of all decent fiction addicts. I will say for Mr. Trevanian that his Fag Villain is pretty funny—an exquisite killer named Miles Mellough with a poodle named Faggot. In fact, Mr. Trevanian in his comic mood is almost always beguiling, and this bright scenario ought to put new life into the Bond product. I think even the Wise Hack would have applauded the screenplay I automatically started preparing in my head. LONG SHOT the Eiger mountain. DAY. As titles begin, CUT TO….

On the Night of the Seventh Moon belongs to a genre I know very little about: the Gothic novel for ladies. But I do recall the films made from the novels of Daphne du Maurier, the queen of this sort of writing. In fact, I once wrote the screenplay for one of her most powerful works, The Scapegoat, in which the dogged (and in this case hounded) Alec Guinness played two people. Although Miss du Maurier had written an up-to-date variation on The Prisoner of Zenda, she had somehow got the notion that she had written the passion of St. Theresa. She used to send me helpful memos; and though she could not spell the simplest words or adhere to any agreed upon grammar, her prose surged with vulgar invention and powerful feeling of the sort that cannot be faked.

I suspect Victoria Holt is also serious about her work. The publishers tell us she is very popular; certainly she has written many books with magical titles. This one starts rather like Rebecca: “Now that I have reached the mature age of twenty-seven I look back on the fantastic adventure of my youth and can almost convince myself that it did not happen…” A sense of warm security begins to engulf the reader at this point. Even the heroine’s name inspires confidence: Helena Trant…so reminiscent of Helen Trent, whose vicissitudes on radio kept my generation enthralled, not to mention the ever so slight similarity to the name Trapp and all that that truly box-office name suggests; we are almost in the same neck of the woods, too, the Black Forest, 1860. And here is Helen, I mean Helena, asking herself a series of fascinating questions. “Did I suffer some mental aberration? Was it really true—as they tried to convince me—that I, a romantic and rather feckless girl, had been betrayed as so many had before?…”

Helena’s mother was German (noble); her father English (donnish). Mother dies; girl goes to school in Germany. On a misty day she gets lost in the Black Forest. She is nubile, as Marjorie Holmes would say. Suddenly, riding toward her, “like a hero of the forest on his big white horse,” was a godlike young man. He was “tall, broad, and immediately I was aware of what I could only describe then as authority.” (How right she was! Though Maximilian is incognito he is really the heir to the local Grand Duchy and—but we are ahead of our story.)

He offers to take her to his hunting lodge. She sits in front of him on his horse (“He held me tightly against him which aroused in me a strange emotion which I had never felt before and which should, of course, have been a warning”). A nice old woman retainer gets her into dry things (“my hair fell about my shoulders; it was thick, dark and straight”). She wants to go back to school but “the mist is too thick.” Supper. ” ‘Allow me to serve you some of this meat,’ ” says the randy prince. “He did so and I took a piece of rye bread which was hot and crusty and delicious. There was a mixture of spicy pickle and a kind of sauerkraut such as I had never tasted before.” Miss Holt knows her readers like a good din from time to time along with romance, and terror. As it turns out, Max doesn’t lay Helena despite the demon-god in his loins. A virgin, Helena departs not knowing whom it was she met.

Back to England. Father dead, she lives with two aunts. A couple arrive from Germany; they say that they are cousins of her late mother. She goes back to Germany with them. Festival in a small town: THE NIGHT OF THE SEVENTH MOON. He appears; takes her away with him into the forest. He sends for the couple who witness his marriage to Helena. She is in a state of ecstasy. For one thing, she is well-groomed. “My best dress; it was of a green silky material with a monk’s collar of velvet of a slightly darker shade of green.” Remember Joan Fontaine at Manderley? The new clothes? And, ah, the mystery? But Helena has done better than Joan’s Max de Winter. She is now Countess Lokenburg. She gloats: “I wondered what the aunts would say when they heard that I had become the wife of a count.”

But almost as good as social climbing, there is lust. Max’s kiss “made me feel exalted and expectant all at once. It was cruel and yet tender; it was passionate and caressing.” Can such happiness last? Certainly not. A mysterious illness; she is out of her head. Comes to herself and is told that on the night of the seventh moon she was taken into the forest and…”there criminally assaulted.” Those blissful days with Max were all a dream, brought on by a doctor’s drug. Meanwhile, she is knocked up. She has the baby; goes back to England. A clergyman falls in love with her and wants to marry her but Helena feels that her past will ruin his career. He is noble: ” ‘I’d rather have a wife than a bishopric.’ ”

The plot becomes very complex. Hired to be governess to children of what turns out to be a princely cousin of Max who is married to Wilhelmina because he thinks Helena dead because Wilhelmina’s colleagues the supposed cousins of Helena were in a plot to…. Enough! All turns out well though it is touch-and-go for a while when her child, the heir to the principality, is kidnapped by the wicked cousin (Raymond Massey in The Prisoner of Zenda) who then attacks her. ” ‘You are mad,’ I said.” He cackles: ” ‘You will not live to see me rule Rochenstein, but before you die I am going to show you what kind of lover you turned your back on.’ ” (American Dream?) Helena takes her place at Maximilian’s side as consort. Annually, they celebrate the night of the seventh moon, and in the year Cousin Victoria Regina dies, “What a beautiful night! With the full moon high in the sky paling the stars to insignificance….” Those stars keep cropping up in these books, but then as Bette Davis said to Paul Henreid in the last but one frame of Now Voyager, “Don’t ask for the moon when we have” (a beat) “the stars!” FADE OUT on night sky filled with stars.

I have never before read a book by Herman Wouk on the sensible ground that I could imagine what it must be like: solid, uninspired, and filled with rabbinical lore. After all, one knows of his deep and abiding religious sense, his hatred of sex outside marriage, his love for the American ruling class. I did see the film of The Caine Mutiny (from Queequeg to Queeg, or the decline of American narrative); and I found the morality disturbing. Mr. Wouk has an embarrassing passion for the American goyim, particularly the West Point-Annapolis crowd who stand, he believes, between him and the Cossacks. In his lowbrow way he reflects what one has come to think of as the Commentary syndrome or: all’s right with America if you’re not in a gas chamber, and making money.

I did see the film Youngblood Hawke four times, finding something new to delight in at each visit. When James Franciscus, playing a raw provincial genius like Thomas Wolfe, meets Suzanne Pleshette in a publisher’s office, he is told, “She will be your editor and stylist.” Well, she pushes these heavy glasses up on her forehead and, my God, she’s pretty as well as brilliant and witty, which she proves by saying, “Shall I call you Youngy or Bloody?” The Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table always maintained that when boy meets girl they’ve got to meet cute.

The Winds of War: 885 pages of small type in which Herman Wouk describes the family of a naval captain just before America enters the Second World War (there is to be a sequel). As I picked up the heavy book, I knew terror, for I am that rarest of reviewers who actually reads every word, and rather slowly. What I saw on the first page was disquieting. The protagonist’s name Victor Henry put me off. It sounded as if he had changed it from something longer, more exotic, more, shall we say, Eastern. But then Henry was the family name of the hero of A Farewell to Arms so perhaps Mr. Wouk is just having a little fun with us. Mrs. Henry is called Rhoda; the sort of name someone in New York would think one of them would be called out there west of the Hudson. “At forty-five, Rhoda Henry remained a singularly attractive woman, but she was rather a crab.” This means that she is destined for extramarital high jinks. “In casual talk [Rhoda] used the swooping high notes of smart Washington women.” I grew up in Washington at exactly the same period Mr. Wouk is writing about and I must demur: smart Washington ladies sounded no different from smart New York ladies (no swooping in either city).

Captain Henry is stationed at the War Department. He is “a squat Navy fullback from California, of no means or family.” Mr. Wouk quotes from the letter he wrote his congressman asking for an appointment to the Naval Academy. “My life aim is to serve as an officer in the US Navy.” We are told he speaks Russian learned from “Czarist settlers in Fort Ross, California.” Anyway he got appointed; has risen; is gung ho and wants to command a battleship. The marriage? “Rhoda returned an arch glance redolent of married sex.” We learn that the Nazis are on the march.

There are three children. Son Warren was involved in “an escapade involving an older woman and a midnight car crash. The parents had never raised the topic of women, partly from bashfulness—they were both prudish churchgoers, ill at ease with such a topic….” Son Byron is in Siena carrying on with one Nathalie, niece of a famed American Jewish writer, author of A Jew’s Jesus. Byron has recently turned against his Renaissance studies because “I don’t believe David looked like Apollo, or Moses like Jupiter.” Further, “The poor idealistic Jewish preacher from the back hills. That’s the Lord I grew up with. My father’s a religious man; we had to read a chapter of the Bible every morning at home.”

At this point my worst fears about Mr. Wouk seemed justified. The Russian-speaking Victor Henry who reads a chapter of the Bible every morning to his family and is prudish about sexual matters is, Mr. Wouk wants us to believe, a typical gallant pre-war goyisher American naval officer. If I may speak from some small knowledge (I was born at West Point, son of an instructor and graduate), I find Mr. Wouk’s naval officer incredible—or “incredulous” as they say in bestseller land. There may have been a few religious nuts here and there in the fleet but certainly a naval officer who is about to be posted as an attaché to the American Embassy in Berlin would not be one of them. In those days Annapolis was notoriously snobbish and no matter how simple and fundamentalist the background of its graduates, they tended toward worldliness; a surprising number married rich women. West Pointers were more square but also rowdier. Mr. Wouk’s failure to come to terms with the American gentile is not unusual. Few American Jewish writers in our time have been able to put themselves into gentile skins (much less foreskins: son Byron who marries a Jewish girl, Mr. Wouk tells us with ecumenical relish, is circumcised).

With an obviously bogus protagonist, Mr. Wouk must now depend upon the cunning of his narrative gift to propel these characters through great events: Berlin under Hitler, Poland during the Nazi invasion, London in the Blitz, Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; and not only must he describe the sweep of military and political action but also give us close-ups of Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini. It is Upton Sinclair all over again and, to my astonishment, it is splendid stuff. The detail is painstaking and generally authentic. The naïve portraits of the great men convince rather more than subtler work might have done.

Henry’s reports from Berlin attract Roosevelt’s attention. Mr. Wouk’s portrait of FDR is by no means as sycophantish as one might expect. No doubt the recent revelations of the late President’s sexual irregularities have forced the puritan Mr. Wouk to revise his estimate of a man I am sure he regarded at the time as a god, not to mention shield against the Cossacks. With hindsight he now writes, “Behind the jolly aristocratic surface, there loomed a grim ill-defined personality of distant visions and hard purpose, a tough son of a bitch to whom nobody meant very much, except perhaps his family; and maybe not they either.” This is not at all bad, except as prose. Unfortunately Mr. Wouk has no ear for “jolly aristocratic” speech patterns. I doubt if FDR would have called Pug “old top” (“though when my father was in the administration the President used to address him, for some obscure reason, as “brother Vidal”).

Also, Mr. Wouk makes strange assumptions. For instance, FDR “wore pince-nez glasses in imitation of his great relative, President Teddy Roosevelt, and he also imitated his booming manly manner; but a prissy Harvard accent made this heartiness somewhat ridiculous.” The pince-nez was worn by a good many people in those days, but if FDR was consciously imitating anyone it would have been his mentor the pince-nezed Woodrow Wilson. T. Roosevelt’s voice was not booming but thin and shrill. FDR’s accent was neither prissy nor Harvard but Dutchess County and can still be heard among the American nobles now, thank God, out of higher politics.

With extraordinary ease, Mr. Wouk moves from husband to wife to sons to daughter, and the narrative never falters. His reconstruction of history is painless and I should think most useful to readers curious about the Second War. There is a good deal of pop-writing silliness. We get the Mirror Scene (used by all pop-writers to tell us what the characters look like): “the mirror told her a different story, but even it seemed friendly to her that night: it showed….” We get the Fag Villain. In this case an American consul at Florence who will not give the good Jew Jastrow a passport because “people don’t see departmental circulars about consuls who’ve been recalled and whose careers have gone poof!” Sumner Welles is briefly glimpsed as a villain (and those who recall the gossip of the period will know why).

Then, of course, there is the problem of Mr. Wouk and sex. Daughter Madeline rooms with two girls and “both were having affairs—one with a joke writer, the other with an actor working as a bellhop. Madeline had found herself being asked to skulk around, stay out late, or remain in her room while one or another pair copulated…. She was disgusted. Both girls had good jobs, both dressed with taste, both were college graduates. Yet they behaved like sluts….” But then to Madeline, “sex was a delightful matter of playing with fire, but enjoying the blaze from a safe distance, until she could leap into the hallowed white conflagration of a bridal night. She was a middle class good girl, and not in the least ashamed of it.”

Incidentally, Mr. Wouk perpetuates the myth that the SS were all fags. This is now an article of faith with many uneducated Americans on the ground that to be a fag is the worst thing that could befall anyone next to falling into the hands of a fag sadist, particularly the SS guards who were as “alike as chorus boys…with blond waved hair, white teeth, bronzed skin, and blue eyes.” Actually the SS guards in 1939 were not particularly pretty; they were also not fags. Hitler had eliminated that element.

Mr. Wouk’s prose is generally correct if uninspired. The use of the ugly verb “shrill” crops up in at least half the bestsellers under review and is plainly here to stay. Also, I suppose we must stop making any distinction between “nauseous” and “nauseated.” The book ends with Pearl Harbor in flames and…yes, you’ve guessed it. The stars! “Overhead a clear starry black sky arched” (at least the sky was overhead and not underfoot), “with Orion setting in the west, and Venus sparkling in the east…. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief.”

The films Since You Went Away and The Best Years of Our Life come to mind; not to mention all those March of Times in the Translux theaters of the old republic as it girded itself for war. But for all Mr. Wouk’s idiocies and idiosyncrasies, his competence is most impressive and his professionalism awe-inspiring in a world of lazy writers and TV-stunned readers. I did not in the least regret reading every word of his book, though I suspect he is a writer best read swiftly by the page in order to get the sweep of his narrative while overlooking the infelicities of style and the shallowness of mind. I realize my sort of slow reading does a disservice to this kind of a book. But then I hope the author will be pleased to know that at least one person has actually read his very long bestseller. Few people will. There is evidence that a recent bestseller by a well-known writer was never read by its publisher or by the book club that took it or by the film company that optioned it. Certainly writers of book chat for newspapers never read long books and seldom do more than glance at short ones.

(Part two, on the top six of the top ten, will appear in the next issue.)

Letters

The Fever Breaks September 20, 1973

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