BY WILLIAM BARRETT
Nobody can accuse NORMAN MAILER of hoarding his very considerable talents. Since his first great success, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, he has diverted his energies from his true calling as a novelist to politics (“running for president,” as he himself put it), launching a newspaper, writing a philosophical column, practicing poetry, and, in general, being a public figure of many moods and moments. In AN AMERICAN DREAM (Dial, $4.95) he returns to the novel after ten years’ absence, but once again he provides us with the painful experience of watching a superior talent wasted on inferior material.
Like Mailer himself, the hero, Steve Rojack, has tried his hand at a good many things. He has been a war hero, member of Congress, is now a psychoanalyst with a new theory of neurosis, a television personality, and, incredibly enough, teaches a course in voodoo at the local university — enough activity, one would think, to keep him busy. But no; Rojack has to kill his estranged wife, a rich society bitch fetchingly named Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly, and for the rest of the novel he is dodging the suspicions of the police while he takes solace in one bed after another.
In his first novel the war provided Mailer with a subject that brought him close to the ultimate matters of life and death. Ever since, he has been a novelist in search of his real material but never finding it. His talents, meanwhile, have become sharper, his skills more flexible; but the indispensable requirement of the novelist — to create human and believable characters — has been forgotten. Rojack does not have any real substance, and at the end he seems about to evaporate completely.
Yet the sparks of talent do blaze plentifully, particularly in some of the taut scenes between Rojack and the police. Quite clearly, Mailer could have turned out a first-rate thriller had he limited his aims. Instead, he has overloaded his narrative with unconvincing forays into the world of high society, high finance, politics, and the Harlem underworld, in none of which he seems to be on the inside. As for the many sexual encounters, Mailer writes of them with solemn naïveté as if the subject had just been discovered.
For the purposes of satire the rapier is supposed to be more effective than the bludgeon. In the hands of RICHARD ROVERE, the small needle, delicately but accurately applied, is even more effective. In
THE GOLDWATER CAPER (Harcourt,
Brace & World, $3.95) Mr. Rovere deals with the puzzling events of the presidential year 1964, and though he never raises his voice, and exhibits a genuine sympathy with the Republican candidate as a man, the net effect of his judicious reporting is the most deadly portrait yet painted of the whole Goldwater movement.
Mr. Rovere’s title suggests that there was some mystery about the political shenanigans of last year. And indeed there was — the mystery of Senator Goldwater himself. Mr. Rovere solves the puzzle by finding that there were at least two Goldwaters: the first, an amiable and charming, if simpleminded, man, deeply in love with his native region and the human virtues he thought it represented: the second, a creature of the ghost-writers, lieutenants, and even sublieutenants in his entourage, capable of making unamiable and brutal statements that seem at odds with Goldwater number one.
The first Goldwater could be more candid about himself than any other politician in American history. In an interview, he admitted, “You know, I haven’t really got a firstclass brain,” and went on to tell a story in which his wife called him a “lame-brain.” Yet the second Goldwater could make such outrageously self-contradictory statements that they looked like the product of guile.
In a chilling summation, written immediately after the November election, Mr. Rovere analyzes, with characteristic brilliance and thoroughness, the divisions of region against region and class against class that would have followed a Goldwater victory. Fortunately, the American people, having seen the brink of the abyss, stepped back.
THE BANAL AND THE BEAUTIFUL
In the course of his many novels (fourteen, to be exact) W RIGHTMORRIS has from time to time wandered into unprofitable terrain, but being one of the most solid talents around, he almost invariably has found his way back to pay dirt. His last novel, Cause forWonder, was a not altogether successful excursion into fantastic happenings in an Austrian castle, but now, in ONE DAY (Atheneum, $5.95), he has come home to the material which is close to him, and he has produced a dramatic and powerful evocation of daily life in a small California town.
The day Mr. Morris has chosen is November 22, 1963. Yet the
ghastly events in Dallas are not at the center but in the background of the narrative — like a bass chord sounding throughout the ordinary and extraordinary local events in the town of Escondido, near San Francisco. It is as if the assassination of the President, a stupefying and incomprehensible crime, had its roots in the incalculable depths of human nature that also spring to the surface here in the comings and goings of people in their own little village.
The morning of this day, to be sure, begins in a rather odd way: a baby is discovered abandoned in the local animal pound. After much suspense and hysteria, it develops that the child is the illegitimate baby of Miss Alec, daughter of Evelina Cartwright, the very woman who established the pound for stray animals. Evelina is an impossible busybody, with a finger in everyone’s business, but her thrashing about enables Mr. Morris to bring into his net nearly all the people of the town, and through their connection with Evelina their past expands before us. We have here a whole gallery of American grotesques that can stand comparison with those in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: there is Doc Cowie, a lonely and reflective bachelor who prefers the company of animals to men; Boni, the little Italian barber who day after day goes on painting picture postcards of his native Venice; and Wendell Horlick, back from Korea with an understanding of and disposition toward killing, who, if he were not passively lawabiding, could very well take the place of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Mr. Morris’ great gift — and it is marvelous to watch him use it — is his grasp of the stuff of daily life. By the time the curtain rings down on this singular day, we have seen the fog come in over the town, the neon lights shine, known the smells of bars, diners, and bus stops, and shared some of the most intimate secrets of the people of Escondido.
It is one woman’s struggle against the ordinary and banal that provides SYLVIA ASHTON-WARNER with her theme in BELL CALL (Simon and Schuster, $5.00).
Tarl Pracket, a lovely young woman, mother of four children, and a painter of talent, perhaps even genius, is so at war with the conformists around her that she refuses to send her six-year-old son, Bennie, to school when the bell calls for his attendance. The setting is New Zealand; and perhaps some excessive atmosphere of colonial stodginess there may justify the excesses of Tarl’s revolt, which often make her silly and obnoxious. Though she preaches freedom for the individual, she doesn’t observe the freedom of others, and barges in on their time and privacy whenever the whim strikes her.
But is Tarl merely a posturing pest and bore? Here Miss AshtonWarner, with fine artistry and deep insight, surrounds the truth of her characters in a delicate web of ambiguities. Tarl’s story is seen mainly through the eyes of her neighbor Dan Francis, a lonely widower who is also a successful author. Except for her poor husband, Dan is the person Tarl makes most trouble for. Yet Dan is also the person least willing to condemn her, for she has brought life and vitality into his lonely existence. Tarl gives as well as takes. The truth about human beings, Miss Ashton-Warner is reminding us, is always ambiguous.
Miss Ashton-Warner’s two previous books — Spinster and Incense to Idols — have already established her as a novelist of uncommon powers. The present work does not seem to me to be quite up to their level, but it is a sensitive and moving story nonetheless, touched with a sustained and glowing poetry throughout.
THE GERMAN CONSCIENCE
PAUL CARELL’S HITLER MOVES EAST 1941-1943 (Little, Brown, $10.00) will inevitably be compared with Alexander Werth’s Russia at War, published last year. While the latter told the story of the German invasion from the point of view of the Russian people themselves and the way they experienced the war in their daily lives, Mr. Carell gives us the German version of the conflict, mainly as it was experienced by the common soldiers of the Wehrmacht as they stormed across a thousand miles to the gates of Moscow.
Inevitably, also, these different points of view beget different sympathies. Mr. Worth plainly sympathized with the Russian people, and that sympathy is approved by most American readers. The matter is more complicated for Mr. Carell: he has to condemn the invasion as a war of aggression, he is not in sympathy with Hitler and the Nazis, and yet, as a German, he cannot help responding with pride to the tremendous victories of the German Army in the first few months of the war. And his narrative does make it convincingly clear that these victories were great feats of arms. Contrary to one myth, that the Germans were opposed by a ragged and underequipped army, Mr. Carell points out that the Russians had great quantities of armor and airplanes on their western front, and that the Russian soldiers, even in the opening days of the campaign, fought with fierceness and valor. How, then, could the Germans slice through, and capture, whole armies? Mr. Carell asserts that the German victories were due to superior leadership in the field. The purges of Stalin had decimated the officers’ corps, and the Russian troops, at least at the start of the war, had very inferior commanders.
On the matter of his divided loyalties, Mr. Carell’s solution seems to be to blame everything on Hitler. I doubt whether this will be the eventual answer to the question of German guilt during the Nazi period, but perhaps it may be more justifiably applied to some of the strategic blunders that brought about defeat. Why were the Germans, after having driven a thousand miles, unable to take Moscow? This remains the crucial question of that war, perhaps never to be decided by historians. Mr. Carell lays the blame on Hitler, who hesitated for five weeks after the great German victory at Smolensk, and instead of hurling the whole army at Moscow, turned into the Ukraine. There followed a major victory at Kiev, but when the Germans were regrouped to attack Moscow, the rains and mud had set in, and the Russians had had a chance to gather their forces before the city.
But all questions of sympathy and prejudice aside, there can be no doubt that Mr. Carell has produced an immensely readable and exciting account of a campaign that was marked by heroism as well as senseless slaughter. It is one of the saddest and most paradoxical facts about war that however horrible it may be in the happening, in the retelling it can provide some of the most fascinating reading there is.
HEINRICH BöLL is not one of those Germans who seem to think that the sheer damning invocation of the name Hitler is sufficient to dissolve the guilt of the past. He and his fellow novelist Gunter Grass— the two most gifted and famous writers of contemporary Germany — have become the gadflies of their country’s conscience. Both were children during the Nazi years, but alert youngsters who kept eyes and ears open to the complicities and fanaticisms of their elders, which they are not letting Germans forget amid the present sleek prosperity of the Federal Republic.
In THE CLOWN (McGraw-Hill, $5.00) Böll’s target is the phony religiosity that circulates among some people who only a few years ago were seeking to protect their “sacred German soil” from the Jewish Yankees. His hero, Hans Schnier, mime and clown, is a wryly enchantingperson — sorrowful, self-ironic, but also, unlike most of the people he has to deal with, bluntly honest. His girl, Marie, with whom he has lived for years, has left him in order to join the Catholic Church. Schnier, in his despondency, takes to drink, and his bookings are canceled. One by one he appeals to former friends for help, and each in turn finds some smug and self-righteous reason for avoiding him. In the end, Schnier in his clown makeup sits down at the railroad station and sings a ballad about the Pope, waiting for the pennies to drop into his hat.
Most of the narrative has to do with the clown’s own flowing monologue, but it is so remarkably well done that it sets the man’s complex character before us in a vivid and appealing light. Böll’s is a fine talent indeed, and it is backed by an honesty and a hatred of sham that make him one of the more serious writers on the Continent today.
What can be done with the impulse to gamble, which seems to be so deeply lodged in human nature? Because people will gamble in any case, some authorities have argued, it is better to legalize gambling and have it out in the open rather than let it be controlled by hoodlums and gangsters. Unfortunately, this is no solution, as WALLACE TURNER proves in GAMBLERS’ MONEY (Houghton Mifflin, $3.95), a vigorous, hard-hitting, and frightening exposé of “The Strip” at Las Vegas and the various channels by which its tainted money is poured back into the American economy.
The trouble with legalized gambling joints is that most of them are legal in name only. The gangsters have already bought or muscled their way into Las Vegas. Large sums of money are skimmed off the take and really become a kind of floating capital for evil. The money is carried by secret courier to foreign banks. From there the problem is to get it back into the United States, where it can be used for anynumber of operations, from fraudulent manipulations on Wall Street, as in the notorious Guterma case, to tampering with the Teamsters’ Pension Fund, which sent Dave Beck to prison. The money is not only bad at its source, but its influence — and the morals and manners of those who use it — spreads far beyond professional gambling.
Mr. Turner cites a typical case of a businessman who, having a taste for gambling, piles up a large debt at Las Vegas. He receives a telephone call that the debt has been canceled, and he is now obligated to the apparently generous gambler. The latter may want to use his influence in order to get into the businessman’s firm or corporation, which will then be exposed to all the possibilities of corruption. The money begins to spread its taint everywhere.
The only conclusion to be drawn from this courageous piece of reporting is that Las Vegas should be closed. But abolition of “The Strip" is unlikely in view of the influence through bribery that the gamblers have already obtained. Perhaps the solution to the immense social problem posed by gambling will come when people confine their impulse to private bets or games with friends, without any professional intermediary — whether the frankly illegal bookie or the owners of casinos.
SPOOKS AND KOOKS
Those gaunt Victorian houses along the New England coasts that figure so much in NATHANIEL BENCHLEY’S novels have always been haunted by their past. But in THE VISITORS (McGraw-Hill, $4.95) he has gone the limit by installing real and very lively ghosts who hurl crockery, frighten cats, and even manage to sink two yachts in the nearby cove. Mr. Benchley plays it all very cool, and the result is one of the funniest tales by this very diverting writer.
Stephen Powell, a retired magazine editor, and his wife and son go to spend their summer at the old Twitchell house overlooking the Atlantic. There have been rumors that the house is haunted, but the Powells as skeptical outsiders remain undaunted. The ghosts, however, lose no time in getting in their licks. When rich Uncle George, bloated and overbearing, arrives in his yacht, the boat sinks mysteriously. He promptly orders another one, which meets the same fate. But even ghosts can have their good points; amid all the ensuing confusion, Powell and Uncle George clash, and the rich relative is told off for the first time. With this newfound freedom and courage, Powell exorcises the ghosts by digging up the remains of the two women, wife and mistress, that Ebenezer Twitchell had murdered and buried in the cellar. On their way back to Boston, with the tang of autumn in the air, the Powells cannot complain that they have not had a lively summer, thanks to the supernatural.
The delightful quality of Mr. Benchley’s humor is its unpretentiousness. His comedy aspires to no metaphysical or social profundities; and these days it is a pure pleasure to encounter a humorist who takes neither himself nor his material too solemnly.