Reader's Choice

In keeping with the old saw that “the great art is to hide one’s art,” HAMILTON BASSO is a novelist of unobtrusive and deceptive power. He does not strain for effect; he never screams or roars at the reader; his is the quiet voice of a man of the world speaking calmly of the things and people he has observed dispassionately but sympathetically. The result is that his novels go down so smoothly that many readers miss their exceptional qualities of wit and wisdom, as well as the author’s mature grasp of human character.

A TOUCH OF THE DRAGON (Viking,

$4.95) creates an unforgettable portrait of a high-strung and overbearing woman, and does so with a depth and delicacy hard to match in recent fiction. The lady with more than a touch of the dragon is Edwina Deydier, rich and attractive but always driven by the need for self-assertion, whether it involves tennis tournaments, meddling with politics and art, or merely casting a long shadow over all the people she encounters.

Her story is told with almost casual indirectness. The hero and narrator, Sebastian Venables, is telling us about his own life, which includes varied jobs and two marriages — the first tragic, but the second refreshingly happy as modern novels go. Edwina does not play a large part in his life really; yet he seems always to be running into her, and he is continually glancing her way as he recounts his own past, so that she acquires an imposing and fascinating horror and Sebastian’s own adventures seem like a kind of footnote to her weird destiny.

Mr. Basso is a novelist of manners, like Marquand and O’Hara, but unlike them he does not operate within a definite geographical region. Sebastian tells us that the Venableses have a large kinship system, stretching from lower Missouri east to Virginia, and then south through the Carolinas to the mouth of the Mississippi. That is quite a territory to take in, but his story ranges at an easy and unfaltering pace over most of it, and even goes on to its final climax, a minor disaster for Edwina, amid the sands and palms of the West Indies. Yet, despite its geographical spread there is a unity to Sebastian’s world; and though Mr. Basso’s style may seem impressionistic beside the documentary detail of Marquand or O’Hara, he conveys its atmosphere very subtly. It is a world of the wellborn and well-bred, who are also well-off though not toweringly rich, and whose old families harbor enough skeletons in closets and enough eccentrics on the loose to keep a novelist like Mr. Basso going for years.

ANGRY ENGLISHMAN

KINGSLEY AMIS has had a very hard time living up to the success of his first book, Lucky Jim, which in many ways was the most remarkable comic novel since the early Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Now, at last, ten years and four novels later, he has almost climbed back to the heights, ONE FAT ENGLISHMAN (Harcourt, Brace & World, $3.95) is not so well constructed or so subtly modulated in its mimicry as the first novel, but the violence of its satire and the fantastic buffoonery of its characters just about make up the gap.

Mr. Amis was one of those labeled as Britain’s Angry Young Men, and his comedy has grown more splenetic over the years, ready and willing to take on all comers, even one as big as the whole American scene. His setting here is a bizarre academic institution, Budweiser College in Pennsylvania, within commuting distance of New York. (Mr. Amis was a lecturer at Princeton in 1958-1959, and he may not be writing purely from imagination.) Roger Mitcheldene, a visiting English publisher, is fat and fortyish and addicted to as many of the seven deadly sins as he can make time for. A glutton and woman-chaser, Roger is also a snob with an angry and outspoken tongue who tells his American hosts from time to time exactly what he thinks of them. This may not be good manners, but it provides some very funny dialogue, and Roger is only doing what most of us at moments would like to do if we had the nerve.

He is so absurdly arrogant that he manages to get the upper hand in most situations, but not when he encounters Irving Macher, one of the most appalling creatures in modern fiction. Irving is young, beat, aggressive, and so insensitive that he is impervious to any of Roger’s insults. He is also just brilliant enough to make these unpleasant qualities all the more repulsive. Perhaps only a foreigner, and an Englishman at that, could pin down this native specimen, of whom we seem to have grown tolerant. And Irving is but one of the grotesques who roam the Budweiser zoo.

Mr. Amis should come back for another visit. We have obviously been good for his muse, and he in return has given us a generous assist toward humility, as well as a wildly amusing book to enjoy.

CONFLICT OF GENERATIONS

EDWIN O’CONNOR has almost established old age as his special province in the novel. Certainly, no other contemporary writer has given us such a gallery of elderly characters, who may be complex and devious but are always captivating rogues, since they give back to life as generously as they take from it. In I WAS DANCING {Atlantic-Little, Brown, $4.75) Mr. O’Connor has added a somewhat grimmer dimension to his portrayal of old age. His hero, Waltzing Daniel Considine, an old retired vaudevillian, is a fascinating character, but he is too self-absorbed, too encased in the shell of his own ego, to be really likable.

Daniel had not seen his son Tom for twenty years when he appeared on his son’s doorstep just, so he said, to stay “overnight.” But the one night has lengthened into months, and Daniel threatens to become a permanent fixture, subjecting the whole household to his rule. His son and daughter-in-law cannot lead their own lives under the same roof with this subtly tyrannical oldster. There is nothing to do but get Daniel into a rest home. I But the old man is a crafty adversary, and the struggle between him and his son comes to a climax in a scene of dramatic tension toward which the rest of the story carefully builds.

Though he is surrounded with a number of colorful old cronies, it is Daniel himself, the old performer, who holds our attention at stage center. Whenever he wants to be, Mr. O’Connor is a very amusing writer, and there are very funny touches here and there throughout the present book: but his tone, beneath the occasional laughter, is almost harsh in its truthfulness. In this pathetic but impossible old man caught in the toils of his own egotism, he casts a cold and glaring light on one perennial problem of old age that neither geriatrics nor social measures can ever hope to cure.

PROBLEMS OF POWER

Politics has come back into fashion as a literary subject; but its return, otherwise welcome, seems to have launched a new stereotype of plot in which good guys and bad guys are as clearly set against each other as in a Grade B Western. The dramatic conflict always turns around the question of Integrity, of which the good guy has too much, so that he has a problem in getting elected or confirmed in office.

Usually, there is an old President around, varying from benign to malign, but always touched by the worldly corruption of compromise. He tends to support the good guy, but his allegiance, shaky at best, can switch to the other side. The other side is the rival candidate, the bad guy, who is-yes, you guessed it — the machine politician. Throw in a few accessory characters stage managers, reporters, and wives — and place them all in smokefilled hotel rooms; then turn the crank, and you have your story, which can come out either upbeat or downbeat. In Gore Vidal’s The Best Man the hero gave up his pretensions to power; in CONVENTION, a novel by FLETCHER KNEBEL and CHARLES W. BAILEY II (Harper & Row, $4.95), integrity just manages to squeak through, and the herocandidate wins the presidential nomination of the Republican Party.

Seven Days in May, by the same authors, had a freshness and suspense of melodrama to recommend it and was a great popular success; their attempt to repeat, however, is corny and mechanical, and at times it seems an echo of Mr. Vidal’s play.

The had guys also include the missile manufacturers (shades of Krupp), who work hand in hand with some unscrupulous labor leaders to squelch the candidate who has spoken out against the need for more armaments. To these stock villains the authors have added another that is bound to become a staple of the new political thriller: a computing machine used to store data of the most personal kind on the delegates so that they can be shamelessly pressured into voting the way the big bosses, big business, and big labor, miraculously banded together, want them to. In their serenade to political virtue, Messrs. Knebel and Bailey have pulled out all the stops, but the notes are sour.

POWER IN WASHINGTON by DOUGLASS CATER (Random House, $4.95), a sober and careful study of our governmental machinery, arrives at a diametrically opposite judgment about the American political process: namely, that the sources of power in government are so diffuse and interlocking that the issues, as well as the persons and parties involved, are never purely good or purely evil but always a thoroughly human mixture of both.

A close student of political science, Mr. Cater has had long experience as a reporter in Washington, and he knows intimately and at firsthand the subtle conflicts of power that operate within government. Writing with a becoming simplicity and modesty, he does not allow himself to be carried away in sweeping generalizations. The intricacies of government are too complex for that. He is concerned, rather, with tracking the paths of power through its various circuits — the presidency, Congress, pressure groups, the press, and powerful subgovernment agencies such as the Department of Defense, which would seem to bring together a strong alignment of military and industrial forces. Contrary to some political analysts, Mr. Cater sees no central “power elite” emerging in this country. Our more serious problem is the fragmentation of power that sometimes does not permit swift and adequate action to meet the nation’s most pressing needs. In view of the challenges that he ahead of us in the coming decade, he feels that our governmental system may he on trial as it has not yet been throughout its history.

On the whole, though, Mr. Cater is optimistic about the system. Clumsy and sluggish it may be in getting the many separate wheels of government to turn together, but it has also been protected by what he calls a “constitutional morality that has set limits to the power struggle.” We have had strong and weak, great and mediocre Presidents, but never a really evil one. The system of checks and balances embedded in the Constitution must be preserved, but new means must be found to make it more responsive to the will and the needs of the people.

VANISHING PRIVACY

We are horrified to hear reports of how citizens of Communist countries are under constant surveillance and even engage in spying on each other; but according to VANCE PACKARD in THE NAKED SOCIETY

(David McKay, $5.95), we have been sitting by impassively while the same thing has begun to happen here. If the tide continues unchecked. we shall no longer have any private linen that has not already been “aired” in public by millions of hidden television cameras. microphones, wiretaps, and by the armies of investigators employed by the various credit corporations.

Mr. Packard, a blend of amateur sociologist and crusading journalist. has had his knuckles rapped by the professors of sociology; but his real value has been not as a scientist but as a publicist alerting the public conscience to some of our worst social habits. In the present work he does not attempt any analysis in depth or any generalization by way of theory; he is writing almost entirely as a journalist, and that is all to the good, since Mr. Packard is at his best in vivid documentation, and several of his anecdotes here about the war against privacy are enough to give one goose pimples.

Some corporations now use lie detectors in hiring applicants for jobs. Mr. Packard, hidden in the next room and looking through a one-way mirror, was permitted to witness one such test administered to a young man who wanted a job as a salesman. The investigator put the applicant through a refined form of Chinese torture. We arc not told whether the young man got the job. If hired, it is hard to think he could do anything but hate the firm after the personal ordeal and humiliation it had put him through.

The number of private investigators has swelled enormously. Though their principal task is supposedly to investigate credit reliability, they break into many more private areas. Some corporations even employ agents to sit in as spies on the meetings of their junior executives.

Every advance in electronic science has brought a new assault upon our privacy. Microphones can now be made so small that almost any room can be successfully bugged. As for hidden television cameras, they are becoming so common that the advice has been offered, “Smile — you’re on somebody’s camera.”

One fact more disturbing than any other that Mr. Packard mentions, and which indeed would make all his complaints pointless, is that we seem to be producing a new breed of people who do not care at all about their privacy and are rather delighted when it is invaded. On those appalling commercials where a woman goes droning on about the virtues of some detergent, an announcer cuts in with, “Mrs. X,

I you’re on television!” and the lady simpers with delight as if she had just won on a sweepstakes ticket. An obnoxious program. Candid Camera, photographs people in some of their more embarrassing moments, but there have been no complaints. Nobody seems to mind being photographed in some ridiculous posture so long as he can be swept for one trembling and ecstatic moment into the glare of the public eye.

TALL TALES

ROMAIN GARY’S talent is so exuberant and facile that at times he seems like a literary magpie decking himself out in feathers of any color. HISSING TALES (Harper & Row, $4.95) is a good illustration of his copious and lively imagination; and though his facility does not always serve him equally well, since the stories are quite uneven, the collection as a whole is remarkably provocative and enjoyable.

Most of the stories provide us with I some melodramatic villain to hiss at. M. Gary revives successfully the old-fashioned story — like those of O. Henry, Frank Stockton, or some of Robert Louis Stevenson — that has a definite anecdotal point, perhaps even some twist at the end, rather than merely presenting a slice of life in the style of flat realism.

In “A Graving for Innocence” a Frenchman, aspiring to escape the sordid materialism of civilization, goes to Tahiti. But when he discovers some unknown paintings of Gauguin, all his commercial lusts return, and he can think only of getting back to France to make a killing. On the way home he finds out that the paintings are fakes. Corruption has spread even into the South Seas, and he, the idealist in search of innocence, has been betrayed once again. Of course, he is both corrupt and preposterous; and most of M. Gary’s characters combine these two qualities.

Elsewhere it is M. Gary himself who seems to be hissing at the world and its monstrosities. “The Oldest Story Ever Told” is the fictional elaboration of a Jewish joke, with its typical gallows humor. Gluckman, a refugee from a concentration camp, has escaped to South America. Though the war is over and the Nazis defeated, he is obsessed with the idea that sometime or other the old persecutions will begin again. His partner in their tailor shop, noticing that Gluckman disappears with food every night, follows him. He is feeding a Nazi in hiding who was the brutal S.S. commander of their concentration camp. Asked why he is doing this, Gluckman answers with demented cunning: “He’s promised to treat me better the next time.”

In the grimmest of M. Gary’s jokes, “The New Frontier,” a crowd of people are awaiting the president’s arrival for a speech. Slowly, bit by bit, we become aware that there is something different about these people. Survivors of an atomic war, they are undergoing mutations that are turning them into varieties of sea creatures with flippers and fins for arms and legs, and scales for skin. After the president’s stirring speech, they migrate into the water, from which life once arose, there to continue the resolute struggle against the Communists. Artistically, the story is not altogether successful, but no reader will be able to forget its point.