In Thudbury (Lippincott, $3.75), Clyde Brion Davis portrays an Old Guard Republican industrialist with the same dead-pan irony that made The Great American Novel the best book ever written about the newspaper business. The narrator of Thudbury, like the hero of the earlier novel, is a goodhearted chump with romantic faith in a system. In this case, the system is unbridled private enterprise and its symbol is Dr. Otis Paul Thudbury.
In the eyes of his biographer, Dr. Thudbury (the title is honorary, bestowed by an alma mater to which Thudbury had been extremely loyal in a sound financial way) is a great man who can do no wrong. Mr. Davis never deviates from this loyal viewpoint. Thudbury’s machinations rise up like lurking dragons through the prose of his old friend and factotum without the narrator being in the least aware of them.
Since the book is deliberate, ruthless satire, Otis Paul nurses every idea and commits every crime ever attributed to a reactionary capitalist. He could easily become an impossible monster, and it is a remarkable feat on the part of Mr. Davis to have kept his hero not only plausible but likable, a man with charm and brains, fighting to preserve the social system in which he believes.
Thudbury first appears at the age of four, when his father, Judge Paul Spencer Thudbury (owner of the Tolland Enterprise, the Tolland and Farnum Valley railroad, and most of the industries of the town of Tolland, N.Y., including the boilerworks and the plow and rake factory), takes him down to the Enterprise office to see the results of the BlaineCleveland election flashed by magic lantern to a canvas screen hung opposite the newspaper building, on the other side of Pulaski Street.
Young Pete Mendenhall, son of the editor-inchief and Otis Paul’s biographer-to-be, takes the little boy around the Enterprise plant while their fathers wait confidently for a Blaine victory. Pete is soon explaining that the old press engineer’s greeting of “How’s your corporosity seem to be sagaciating?” is not to be taken seriously because the man is a Socialist and wants to take everything away from everybody and divide it up. Otis Paul’s response is prompt and practical. “That old man better not take my pony.” Seventy years later, Otis Paul is still battling in defense of his pony.
He learns early in the game to identify the pony with the public welfare. When he wins a 1905 transcontinental race in his new Mercedes, his excuse for unorthodox methods is that his winning will lead to better roads. When he organizes the sub rasa Thudbury Committee with the object of putting big business in control of both government action and public opinion, he argues that anyone not in big business lacks the intelligence to control anything with safety. When he refuses to let Pete Mendenhall, now editor of the Enterprise, warn subscribers of the coming stock market crash, it is on the grounds that a public warning from Thudbury could easily make things worse. He even throws a million dollars of his own into the tumbling market in a gallant attempt to restore public confidence. Since he is simultaneously selling short through an agent, he gets it back two for one.
If Thudbury were a hypocrite, he would be unbearable, but he believes that money makes might and might makes right as sincerely as Charles I believed in the divine authority of kings. He is infuriating. He is also a live wire, interesting, indomitable, and funny from his entrance in kilts and curls to the evening when he keels over on Pete Mendenhall’s living-room rug, in the house that Mendenhall’s daughter paid for because Pete never got enough money as Thudbury’s editor to buy a house himself.
Tending a little toward caricature in themselves, Thudbury and Mendenhall derive three-dimensional reality from the background that Mr. Davis builds up for them. The book is a panorama of life in an industrial city, an epic of early motoring, a catalogue of the minor trials of a newspaper editor, a strikebreaker’s handbook, and a record of sixty years of American taste in clothes, cars, furniture, slang, drinks, and chicanery.
Mr. Davis’s sly humor and perfect control of his material make every page of the book a joy to read.
Like all satire, Thudbury is designed to irritate as much as to amuse, and like all satire it can be charged with exaggeration and cantankerousness. The exact degree of each reader’s pleasure in the book will depend upon how far he accepts the author’s premise that wealth is power and that power inevitably corrupts. Whether one agrees with Mr. Davis wholly, partly, or not at all, there’s no denying that he has written a novel as brilliant as it is malicious.
The affairs of the horse
J. Frank Dobie is a Texan who has loved horses from his ranch boyhood, and in The Mustangs (Little, Brown, $6.00) he has written the sort of history which every horselover probably longs, at heart, to read. The book is a history of the West in which the doings of men are properly subordinated to the affairs of the horse.
Beginning with the part-Arab horses brought over by the Spanish, Mr. Dobie traces the northward spread of the animals to the great days when every Plains Indian owned a string of mounts and herds of horses ran wild and beautiful until white settlers shot them as nuisances or caught them and shipped them to St. Louis to pull milk wagons. Mr. Dobie believes that the western horses developed from stock strayed from Spanish expeditions or colonies in Mexico. He will have no truck with the theory that the ancestors of the mustang escaped from the hands of Coronado, de Soto, or any of the other conquistadors who chased golden mirages over our southwestern landscape.
He is equally certain that the Indians did not depend on wild horses to any great extent. The first sight of mounted men had terrified them, but they soon discovered that the creatures were not supernatural, and that the horse half was edible and far easier to catch than a wild buffalo. Presently they tried riding before dinner, and soon after that were trading stolen horses to their northern neighbors. Mr. Dobie has found it on record that the first horses to appear among the Indians in Canada carried Spanish brands.
Mr. Dobie is almost as fond of horse Indians as he is of horses, and his chapters on the two are full of vitality and rich in detail. Horse stealing became an art, a science, and a business. The Comanches claimed that they allowed the Spaniards to remain in the country only to raise horses for them. In the end, they cleaned out the San Antonio district so thoroughly that there wasn’t a horse left to steal. It is touching to learn that the Comanches, who normally gave no quarter, then agreed to “a kind of peace” and sold the Spaniards back some of their own horses. Farther north, where theft without bloodshed had become a point of honor, a Cheyenne gentleman called Big Foot boasted that he had built up his great reputation as a horse thief without ever killing a man. Mr. Dobie is enchanted with this sportsman, who is indeed a beguiling figure.
The Mustangs is full of beguiling figures who appear in a curiously foreshortened way because the author has little time to waste on a man unless he is connected with a horse. Explorers, cow hands, honest travelers, and rogues pop up in his pages to offer their testimony on the endurance of mustangs, or their cleverness, or their numbers, or their habit of stealing domestic horses, or the best methods of catching them, or to repeat the myths about the great white pacing stallion. Then these people vanish as if they had stepped into Limbo.
The book arbitrarily telescopes time and space, and as arbitrarily extends them. Fact and rumor run into each other like figures in a kaleidoscope. Only the horses remain always clearly in focus. Mr. Dobie, in fact, has poetical feelings about mustangs and has rightly allowed himself a number of poetical liberties in constructing his memorial to a world already faded into legend.
At war with Texas
The state of Texas is hero, heroine, villain, and supporting cast in Edna Ferber’s new novel, Giant (Doubleday, $3.95), and at that, Miss Ferber doesn’t pretend to deal with the whole state. She has settled for that portion of Texas with more than ten millions, plus its Mexican retainers. That adds up to a large number of people, but Texas overshadows all of them.
Although Miss Ferber writes to entertain, and never fails to do it with an expert mixture of action, sentiment, humor, and melodrama, two themes not usually classed as entertainment have appeared in most of her novels. One is the corrosive effect of money, and the other is the evil of group prejudices. Texas, rich and frankly anti-Mexican, was made to order as a showcase for these topics, and at times Miss Ferber seems on the verge of forgetting her plot altogether in order to pursue them. She never quite does it, though.
The plot in question has to do with Leslie Lynnton, more or less of Virginia, who marries Jordan Benedict, very decidedly of Reata Ranch, and begins a war with Texas that will last as long as she lives, to say nothing of the length of a novel. She dislikes the cooking, the lack of intellectual activity, the preoccupation with money, and the virtual disenfranchisement of citizens with Mexican ancestry. “When the hell are you going to settle down and behave like everybody else?” roars her exasperated husband, who is quite satisfied with Texas as it stands. “Never,” says Leslie.
The Benedict family fracas rolls through the book, never losing the reader’s interest because of the variety and picturesqueness of the life that inspires it. Although Leslie and Jordan refuse to change, Texas changes around them at astonishing speed. It seems to get bigger and more ornate with every paragraph. A vote by the assembled Benedict clansmen compels Jordan to permit oil wells on Reata, and the oil wells reduce cattle ranching, the love of his life, to the status of a rich man’s toy. The children get disconcerting ideas. The feudal devotion of the Mexican ranch hands dies with the old men whose sons, back from Iwo Jima or the Coral Sea, display an unaccountable resentment of the status of second-class citizens. Cattle millionaires, once scorned by cotton millionaires, now scorn oil millionaires. Practically everybody is a millionaire, though, with more money, brighter jewels, stronger liquor, bigger airplanes, colder air-conditioning plants, and duller conversation than anyone else on earth.
Miss Ferber makes no predictions about the future of Texas. She records her view of the state’s present tartly, deftly, with a relish for bizarre detail. Uncle Bawley (a charming but tearful old gentleman who discovers after fifty years of ranching that he is allergic to cattle) draining bacon on a cow chip is a figure not easily forgotten.
Colonel Oreste Pinto, a Hollander who worked for the British during the Second World War as a counterespionage expert, tells his experiences in Spy-catcher (Harper, $2.75). He begins with a warning against putting one’s faith in the movie version of this business which, he insists, is a dull job devoid of auto chases, champagne, and traditional excitements in general. He then unrolls a tale quite as absorbing in its champagneless way as Hitchcock’s gaudiest thriller.
Most of Colonel Pinto’s adventures illustrate his claim that a good counterespionage man needs all the equipment of a good spy, only more of it and infinite patience besides. He admires the courage and intelligence of spies and in many cases admits to considerable sympathy for the men he trapped. Some of them deserved it. It is impossible not to like the German agent who made himself invisible in a small space full of British, and nearly got away with it.
The book is full of useful information for any reader with an ambition to be a secret agent, including how to get a code message inside a hardboiled egg; but it also makes spying seem a profession with a very short future. Colonel Pinto and his staff are as meticulous as they are stubborn, asking interminable questions, plowing through piles of luggage, shaking dust out of pockets, and examining dictionaries leaf by leaf. The mechanics by which spies were sorted out of the flood of refugees that invaded England during the war are amazing. The Colonel doesn’t claim that his department caught them all. Indeed, he is apprehensive that sooner or later a book will come out of Germany titled “My Wartime Work in London,” or something equally disillusioning. On the evidence, the chances look slight.
While many of Colonel Pinto’s stories are short and hinge on odd bits of information like the dinner hour in Spain or odd episodes like the fifthcolumn scare, the last one in the book has considerable importance and strange ramifications. Operating in Holland after the Allied invasion, Colonel Pinto fell in with a Dutch Resistance leader who grated on his nerves. One of the Colonel’s standing rules is to pay no attention to impressions, since a competent spy will devote effort and intelligence to creating a good one. He abandoned the rule to the extent of wondering about the Resistance leader, a gigantic man with the endearing nickname of King Kong.
The upshot was an investigation which revealed a horrible story of theft and treachery. Kong was trapped with difficulty, too late to avoid a last and disastrous leak to the Germans, and ultimately escaped execution through the timidity of the authorities. This enthralling but discreditable case proves, incidentally, that the Colonel forgot one thing in his list of requirements for counterespionage work, and that is a strongminded government in the background.