So-called midstream fictions of international intrigue or of American politics—and of the filiations between them—have become almost as dependent as the movies themselves on certain formulae. There are no test-market audiences or focus groups for fiction (if one exempts Tom Wolfe’s repeated trial runs in the pages of Rolling Stone), but those who compose and confect thrillers often write as if there were. Conventions are, if not iron, at the very least inelastic. And the effect upon style is almost inescapably a flattening and also a sentimentalizing one. When I had put down two out of these three offerings, I found that they hadn’t contained a single adhesive or memorable line or passage. Nor had they exerted the least upward pressure on my sense of outrage or engagement. And the satirical or ironic element was absent altogether. Was this always so? It took gratifyingly little time to recall, and to locate, the following excerpts from those political classics which once aspired—as do the latest ones—to be a cut above the market for mere pulp:
Although you could do no more than “deplore” a number of slaughtered children, there was in existence means of preventing one particular aspect of the principle of expediency from doing too much damage. Most international crimi-nals were beyond the reach of man-made laws; Dimitrios happened to be within reach of one law. He had committed at least two murders and had therefore broken the law as surely as if he had been starving and had stolen a loaf of bread.
(Eric Ambler,A Coffin For Dimitrios)
“He’s ready to sell out,” thought Gorman in surprise. He was not surprised by the duplicity—he had known Camaratta for many years—but by its speed. The candidates had barely had time to declare themselves: it was a record in quick treachery, even for Camaratta. There were other possible interpretations of the clumsily circumspect phrases, but in these matters Gorman trusted absolutely in his instinct, and he had not the slightest doubt of what was happening: Camaratta was about to sell his candidate down the river. Nucatolla’s slight, swarthy, foolishly trusting body was even now on the slab, marked ready for delivery: to himself Gorman thoughtfully said: Enrico, me bucko, out you go. Precisely what had led up to this betrayal, he did not know; he had heard of no discontent in the Nucatolla camp. Still, there needed to be none; Nucatolla at best had no great strength, and the situation was ripe for the well-known Camaratta double cross. The bay was clogged with the bodies of innocents who had at one time or another put their faith in the laughing promises of this squat manipulator.
“When you come right down to it, there are only two points that really count.”
Skeffington held up two fingers. “One,” he said, ticking the first, “’All Ireland must be free.’ Two,” he said, ticking the second, “’Trieste belongs to Italy.’ They count. At the moment the first counts—more than the second, but that’s only because the Italians were a little slow in getting to the boats.”
(Edwin O’Connor,The Last Hurrah)
There is always something. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.
(Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men)
With admonitions and insights—and moments of wit—of that sort, much can be forgiven. Eric Ambler, who died recently aged eighty-nine, revolutionized the English traditional “thriller” by combining a knowledge of the technical and industrial world with a tough-minded attitude to the political one. (He wrote his first half-dozen novels as a conscious anti-Fascist and then, with Judgement on Deltchev in 1948, produced one of the earliest and finest of the anti-Stalinist genre.) There are some infelicities in Ambler’s sentences, and some implausibilities and contrivances in O’Connor’s plot, but the synapses are evidently crackling, and some risks are being taken, and words are made to count, or perhaps I should say tell.
Neil Gordon, author also of Sacrifice of Isaac, falls at the plausibility fence—and also makes the mistake of trying to be too up-to-date (than which, if you will allow the expression, nothing stales more rapidly). Here’s Martha Ohlinger, the more or less standard-issue investigative reporter who features in most such narratives:
Martha had been nearly estranged from her father since she’d told Clinton at a White House dinner that the only person in America fit to be president was Gore Vidal. Clinton, the way Martha told the story, had seemed rather to agree with her….
This is, for a number of reasons, some distance from the bull’s-eye. And even if the President and the author of Lincoln may have fortuitously moved closer together since this book was written, I don’t myself think that Vidal would credit a plot which has Clinton arresting a senior Israeli arms dealer, on the eve of a midterm election, for the crime of trying to smuggle arms to the martyred people of Bosnia. (As Ronald Reagan sweetly said, excusing himself from starring in Bonzo Goes to College—sequel to the finer Bedtime for Bonzo—“A chimp goes to university? Not believable.”)
Other real-life characters, mainly reporters, also feature under their own names, and there is a running presumption that the American press is obsessed with exposing the milieu of the military-industrial complex. (As Joan Didion nearly did say in a more intensely actualized recent fiction, this is the last thing they want.) Such lapses from realism marry well with another, equally ill suited to an idiom which emphasizes the ruthless and the hard-nosed. Nobody acts with any regard for his or her own well-being or self-interest. And for some reason—this occurs in more than one such book—the favorite location for a holiday from self-preservation is Martha’s Vineyard. It is on the Vineyard that Allison Rosenthal, daughter of the above- mentioned Israeli gun runner, decides to have a suicidal fling with the one man who can do her cause most harm, and also to put herself in multiple jeopardy by fooling about with the titles to some near-oceanfront property (the latter described with every evidence of on-the-spot research). In this setting, too, she broods on the sinister Colonel Greg Eastbrook, right-wing thug and military man. Helpfully for us, she reminds herself:
Colonel Eastbrook was running in the November midterm elections for a Senate seat in California. Like most people she knew, she had followed the campaign with interest. Eastbrook had been in the NSC during Iran-contra, and his campaign was modeled closely on North’s in Virginia.
“Modeled” how “closely”? Though this plainly isn’t the author’s intention, it doesn’t sound as if Colonel Eastbrook has much concept of self-preservation, either. People often don’t quite notice what they are saying (I recall James Hoffa, Jr., declaring that his ambition was “to follow in my father’s footsteps”), but they should take more care when they write. This would also have saved Gordon from letting Martha Ohlinger announce: “I got an example for every decade since the war of an administration abrogating [sic] to itself the tools of the Justice Department, Alley girl.”
There’s a very slight adolescent reminiscence—it’s Allison who’s being addressed—of Holden Caulfield’s habit of ending his remarks by saying “Ackley, kid,” and the trick is repeated almost as often. By accident—or so I think—Martha becomes a Miss Malaprop to whose appearances I began to look forward:
“I tell you what, though. I’m not leaving you for a second till this house of yours is closed and you’re back in the city. Something changes, you’ll need Governor Weld to get the national guard to protect you from the press out here. In New York, you can hide. Know who taught me that? Kathy Boudin. So let’s hop to it, doll. This fucking island’s starting to feel like Auschwitz to me, and we got arbeit that’ll macht us the fuck frei.”
And so the girls say farewell to Martha’s Vineyard. Once back in the big city, however, Allison perhaps wisely does not hide in the manner popularized by Kathy Boudin. She hangs out her shingle above a downtown bar, thus inviting potential assassins who must be fended off by her personal bodyguard of humorous and resourceful Meir Kahane supporters from not-very-nearby Brooklyn. She also lures to her side full-time the one prosecutor who has the most to lose by being seen, however fleetingly, in her company. (“And then he saw that she was removing, one by one, her jacket, then her sweater; then her bra; her sneakers, then her pants, then her underwear.” The old one-by-one trick, eh? Lucky for him she didn’t try to discard them all at once.) By this wile, she inflicts a reversal of fortune on the forces of evil which she secretly thinks are good, and confounds the forces of good which she privately thinks are evil. (The latter, by the way, are her surviving male family members. There was an adored and brilliant gay brother, who ended badly, in an apparent suicide, which oddly, in view of the nature of his father’s business, nobody thought to investigate.)
I note in passing that Hutu are confused with Tutsi, which may help to explain the bizarre realization, given to Allison Rosenthal in the closing sequence, that “only the innocent, she knew, wake unafraid.” I should have thought it was rather to the contrary, especially in a world where the ruthless always win. But this illustrates the way in which sentimentality has come to dominate even the gritty narratives of the supposed tough guys.
The same difficulty, as well as some other ones, afflicts Richard North Patterson’s effort to produce melodrama on the stage of the American “campaign trail.” International arms dealers and mysterious electronic money transfers have indeed been known to play their part in this otherwise rather colorless process, but those activities belong to another genre and, again, there are those darned conventions, in the novelistic sense, to be observed. You need, in no special order, an idealistic candidate with a nerve-racking secret in his past (“There is always something”); a confrontation between high purposes and low, compromising pragmatism; a broth-of-a-boy Irish professional pol with a heart of gold; and the threat of a stalking assassin.
Don’t worry—none of these has been left out. Patterson even makes the charismatic candidate and the Irish boy into the same person, which requires no excess of imagination in view of the fact that the boy challenger is Senator Kerry Kilcannon, a feller haunted—as who would not be?—by the eerie fact that his adored brother (adored older brother, to be precise) was cut down by an assassin’s bullet while running for the presidency. The scene of both Kilcannons’ boyhood, which before you ask was close-knit, full of drunken cops and long-suffering wives, unswervingly Catholic and staunchly Democratic, strong on neighborhood values but yielding a bit to black and brown encroachment, is New Jersey. This must have taken some authorial daring: more daring, at any rate, than the suggestion that the book’s statutory incumbent suffers from “recurring allegations of adulterous affairs, one involving the President’s principal economic advisor and the break-up of her marriage.”This last might seem like bad news for Erik Tarloff, the screenwriter husband of Laura D’Andrea Tyson, until recently the chair of Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. But Tarloff has drawn the sting in his own forthcoming novel Face Time, wherein a Washington couple survives an adultery in which the—Imean a—President is the named third party. Do Idigress?