A tiny condenser in a communications system burns out, and a squadron of American planes, carrying atomic bombs, is mistakenly on its way to wipe out Moscow. The world teeters on the edge of nuclear destruction. The big brass in the Pentagon, anxiously watching the blips on a radar screen, have become helpless spectators before the real protagonists of war — the machines.
This reversal of roles, machines over men, is a staple of science fiction. What is different, and most disturbing, about the thriller FAIL-SAFE by EUGENE BURDICK and HARVEY WHEELER (McGraw-Hill, $4.95) is that the setting is no Buck Rogers world in the next millennium but the contemporary international scene with the recognizable figures of Messrs. Kennedy and Khrushchev, as well as a number of other thinly disguised lesser lights. What happens in their tale, the authors make clear, could take place next year or next month, or for that matter, tomorrow. Science fiction has already become a political reality.
“Fail-safe” is the code word for a system designed to prevent the outbreak of a shooting war through the recklessness of any military hothead. The bombers patrolling our outer defenses orbit at a certain point beyond which they cannot go except at the direct command of the President himself. A small Fail-safe box, carried by the squadron commander, can be activated only from the White House, and even then not by the President’s voice, which could be imitated, but by electronic signals that are changed every day. The system is considered so infallible that, as one character remarks. even if it fails, it is safe.
However, this system designed to rule out human aberration is at the mercy of mechanical failure. A villainous little condenser can set the world trembling. Russian radar has spotted the bombers, and the whole Soviet nuclear arsenal is mounted for retaliation. The atomic holocaust is about to be ignited. Can it be prevented at the last moment?
The President of the United States, not named but clearly modeled after Mr. Kennedy, has to reach Khrushchev on the telephone and convince him that the raid is an accident. These final conversations between the two leaders are agonizing in suspense and poignancy: on the brink of destruction, the two men, across the barriers of different social systems, reach a human understanding that, had it happened earlier, would have saved millions of lives.
Compelling as this thriller is, it has few pretensions to literature. Burdick and Wheeler do not consider themselves professional writers — though Mr. Burdick co-authored a previous best seller, The Ugly American — but teachers of political science who choose to dramatize their ideas in fiction rather than expound them in a tract. Characters are introduced to illustrate the chief attitudes in the present debate on atomic war; for the most part, they are vividly drawn, but at no greater depth than the journalism of a Time magazine cover story. No matter. In fictionalizing credibly a situation so fantastic and yet so near and menacing, the authors have produced a book that most readers will find very hard to put down. Because of its theme, what would otherwise be only a cleverly contrived melodrama becomes a somber warning.
“A journalist is an easy man,” sang W. B. Yeats in one of his more haughty moods. “He tells his lies by rote.” If ILYA EHRENBURG has slanted the truth at various times, it has not been by rote but out of a supreme talent for adaptation, which enabled him to flourish undisturbed through the worst years of the Stalin dictatorship and leaves him now equally at home in the Khrushchev thaw. Besides being a clever journalist, Mr. Ehrenburg happens also to be a greatly gifted writer, and his gifts arc abundantly evident in the first half of an autobiography, PEOPLE AND LIFE (Knopf, $5.95), a fascinating account of the revolutionary and artistic atmospheres in Moscow and Paris during the first years of this century.
Born of a bourgeois Jewish family, Mr. Ehrenburg was an early rebel, joining the Bolsheviks at the age of fifteen. After doing time in a czarist prison, in 1908 he went into exile in Paris, where he spent the next ten years, until his return to Russia after the October Revolution. In Paris he frequented the Rotonde, then the haunt of artists and writers, and seems to have known everyone, but was particularly close to the painters — Picasso, Léger, Modigliani, Rivera. He also took to writing poetry in imitation of the then fashionable symbolists, a school that was later condemned by Stalinist censors as “decadent” and “formalist.”
For all of this cosmopolitan experience, Mr. Ehrenburg became useful to the regime as a cultural emissary to the West, and in 1921 he was one of the first Russians to come back to Paris on a Soviet passport. Throughout the years he has probably done more traveling between Russia and the West than any other Soviet writer. Now that Stalin has gone, Mr. Ehrenburg feels free to air his Bohemian and avant-garde past, even defending the art of Picasso by reminding his fellow Russians that though Picasso’s cows may not look like real cows, Pablo does, after all, carry a Party card. Elsewhere, however, he moves very scrupulously within the limits of Party taste, as when he carefully repeats the official condemnation of Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago. His portrait of Pasternak is skillfully drawn but is not overly sympathetic, for the two men were alien personalities. One senses that Pasternak, an introvert with no talent for adaptation, was particularly suspicious of the clever and facile Ehrenburg. He had good reason too, for during many of the Stalin years, as Mr. Ehrenburg does not here divulge, the once Bohemian and avant-garde poet was a powerful literary commissar.
THREE OF A SCHOOL
When a writer has entertained us so well for so many years as JAMES THURBER did, it is difficult to pick up his latest book and believe it will be the last, as the posthumous CREDOS AND CURIOS (Harper & Row, $3.95) may very well be, unless, please God, there is more uncollected Thurber lying around. The loss is all the more painful when we notice that the most recent pieces here collected show that the incomparable humorist retained every bit of brilliance and verve to the very end.
Most of these pieces, I suppose, might be labeled “casuals,” though in the literal sense of the word Thurber never wrote anything casual in his life. His style was a product of intense concentration, and few writers of our time could pack more into a single page or paragraph. Much of his comic effect depended upon the ability to bring his entire point of view — really a weird kind of common sense — to bear upon the apparently trivial points his terrier mind could root out of the human confusion around us.
In his last years he turned more and more frequently to pieces of personal reminiscence, like his wonderful memorial to Harold Ross, where the humor became more affectionate than biting. The present volume includes a number of fine personal portraits and tributes: to Robert Benchley, Scott Fitzgerald, E. B. White, and others. The most moving of these — and, fittingly enough, it is placed at the end of the book — is a salute to his dear departed friend John McNulty, which maintains so wonderfully the tone of hail and farewell that one finds oneself wishing Thurber were around to say the last words about himself.
E. B. WHITE tells us, in THE POINTS OF MY COMPASS (Harper & Row, $4.00), that he had always envied foreign correspondents and would have liked to write dispatches from far-off places, but there was the single obstacle that he never went anywhere or did anything. At last he hit upon the ingenious strategy of writing letters from the points of his own private compass — his farm in Maine, Forty-eighth Street in New York, or Sixth Avenue, one block from his office, where he writes a Letter from the West. This device has resulted in a most felicitous book, for the letter form is particularly adapted to Mr. White’s personal tone, and every reader is likely to feel that the author is corresponding directly with him.
Nowadays, there is such demand for the fast-paced and jazzy journalistic article that it requires real grit from the writer to step aside from the mad rush and walk slowly along in the style of the old-fashioned leisurely essay. Mr. White is one of the rarest and best of our essayists. He has a good deal to say about a great number of subjects — disarmament, the United Nations, the state of the railroads and of television, life on a Maine farm — and he says it in such a reasonable, modest, and civil tone that almost single-handedly he has restored new life to that old phrase “humane letters.”
One letter is an especially fine appreciation of Thoreau, who has obviously served Mr. White as a model in his own escape from urban civilization. E. B. White may not have gone as far as Bangkok, like some of the foreign correspondents, but in striking a balance between the country and the city man in himself, in keeping a foot in Maine and on Forty-eighth Street, he seems to me to have had the stride of a colossus.
As the dyer’s hand takes on the color of the dye, the imagination of ST. CLAIR MCKELWAY, best known for his fine studies in the New Yorker’s “Annals of Crime” series, began to fancy all manner of criminal doings around the Scottish Highlands, where he was vacationing. It was the summer when President Eisenhower was rumored to be planning a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Scotland. Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were also expected to visit the Highlands. Mr. McKelway thought he saw signs of a Russian plot to kidnap all three heads of state and promptly went into action as a self-appointed counteragent. THE EDINBURGH CAPER (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $4.00) is his first and highly entertaining contribution to the annals of imaginary crime.
Much of the book’s charm lies in Mr. McKelway’s good-humored observation of his own madness. He, or part of him, knew the plot was sheer fantasy, but its grip was so strong that lie had to act on it, even going to great trouble to stir up army and CIA officials. The reader may find himself gradually infected with the same schizophrenia. Was there really such a plot? We shall probably never know, for Mr. McKelway’s resolute action forestalled its execution; and, of course, you can never expect the Russians to talk about their failures.
The Nobel Prize is the highest award in international letters, but it has not always boosted its recipients onto the best-seller lists. HALLDÓR LAXNESS, the Icelandic novelist who won the prize in 1955, never acquired the audience in the United States that his unusual and fine talentdeserved. The life in Iceland that he portrayed may have been too stark and remote for American tastes. Now that in PARADISE RECLAIMED (Crowell, $4.50) his story moves from Iceland to Utah, he ought to be able to capture a few more readers.
Mist-shrouded Iceland and the desert flats of Utah seem to be spots as unrelated as any two you could pick on this globe; Mr. Laxness ties them together by the common dream of a real earthly paradise that circulated among Icelanders and Mormons in the nineteenth century. His hero, a small farmer named Steinar Sieinsson, is persuaded by a Mormon missionary in Iceland to make the long pilgrimage to the land of the Latter-Day Saints. In the pattern of many American immigrants, he changes his name, to Stone P. Stanford, and eventually brings the rest of his family to settle here. At the end we see him revisiting Iceland, gazing at the ruins of his farm and wondering whether paradise might not be found in Iceland as much, or as little, as in Utah the eternal query of the returning immigrant.
In a jesting moment Mr. Laxness speaks of his beloved Icelanders as “men who lie in bed reading the Sagas while waiting for good fishing weather.” The qualities of the sagas pervade his own writing, and particularly a kind of humor — oblique, stylized, and childlike — that can be found in no other contemporary writer. Steinar himself, the unpredictable dreamer, is a very beguiling figure, a humble man who nevertheless carries the unquenchable spark of the old Vikings.
Twenty years ago FREDERIC PROKOSCH burst across the literary firmament as a promising, if uneven, talent whose dedication to exotic and romantic subjects was a welcome change in those days. Now, after long silence, in THE SEVEN SISTERS (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $4.95) Mr. Prokosch has added a greater human depth to his romanticism, but unfortunately the final effect is disappointing and uneven as before. Yet, diffuse and formless as it is, this book is more interesting than scores of novels that smugly achieve just what they set out to do.
Peter Kosowski, a poor Polish boy growing up in Maryland, dreams of the big house of the Nightingale family beside the Chesapeake and of the seven daughters who live there. Eventually, he becomes the involved spectator of the strange and varied fortunes of all seven. The Nightingales are a family of high-strung individuals, and no sister resembles another. Consequently, Mr. Prokosch has seven different stories to interweave, and that is a few too many, despite many haunting and evocative moments. The author himself seems not to have known what meaning he wanted to extract from his own labyrinthine tale.
New talent is always a cause to celebrate, and ROBERT GOVER’S ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING (Grove, S3.95) is so exuberantly different from the common run of first novels that the celebration should be loud and long — except that it might bring the censor running. True, Mr. Gover has written a very bawdy book, but it is not pornography, and we hope the censor will be able to observe this distinction.
A college sophomore identified by the initials J. C. has flunked three subjects and is facing a weekend of compulsory study alone in the empty frat house. He has also just received a hundred dollars as a birthday present from his grandmother, and the money is beginning to burn a hole in his pocket. He decides to visit a local brothel — not out of lust, mind you, but as an “experience” he owes to his own education — and there he encounters Kitten, a fourteenyear-old Negro prostitute, who spots his bankroll, thinks him rich, and invites him to her apartment. The boy imagines he is being invited because he has scored a hit. Their relationship begins and ends in a misunderstanding that is fundamental and unbridgeable.
Mr. Gover dramatizes this failure in communication by telling his story in a series of alternating contrapuntal monologues. The two talk at cross-purposes without either one understanding a word that the other says. The sophomore is a dreadful Babbitt, precociously stuffy and pompous; Kitten is a child of nature with the commercial brain of a Becky Sharp. Mr. Gover lets his characters talk and establish their identities through the rhythms of their own speech. His ear never falters, and the girl’s monologue, in particular, is sensational; there has been nothing quite like it since Joyce put Molly Bloom down on paper.