Plotter and Plodder

MILE HIGH, by Richard Condon. Dial, $6.95
Richard Condon’s best known novel is The Manchurian Candidate, which Time, with its hopelessly perverse sense of the clever and the possible, labeled as black humor; its author was compared with Joseph Heller. That analysis and that comparison were, of course, the only black humor connected with that book.
The Manchurian Candidate was an ambitious thriller and converted nicely into film. You all remember Laurence Harvey, brainwashed, preparing to assassinate a presidential candidate. Condon has more recently moved toward the “straight" novel, but the characters who march behind him still seem to be suffering from advanced Pavlovian conditioning. Perhaps Condon is like Vonnegut’s typical scientist: people aren’t his specialty. He is a plotter and a plodder, and we may say kindly that he is indeed a craftsman, an artificer; his novel is an impressive ballet mécanique. Like a clockwork mouse, its life is solely in its style. No matted hairs cling.
Not that this style is particularly admirable, merely curious. Condon’s sentences are sturdy rather than flashy, and rarely eery lively. But his paragraphs are strange constructions, for Condon starts with a statement about his story, offering a reasonable bit of plot or character, and then forces that small item until it fits into place on top of his paragraph like a handle on a lunch bucket. The lunch bucket however, large, black, rusty, and unfortunately empty, is Condon’s main concern: listing irrelevant, trivial facts, his characteristic paragraph grinds until it produces a footnote.
Clearly, examples are called for. Let us consider Condon’s description of Naples:
West’s carriage rolled past medieval monuments and chirragesque buildings, across the city through the hot sunshine, up the slope
higher and higher until he could see out across the pavonine harbor and feel the ancient sleepiness of the crumbling city [so far, not bad; but Condon can’t resist his facts:] that had been founded by the Phoenicians, occupied by the Romans in 254 B.C., conquered by the Byzantines in 525 A.D., taken by the Saracen Arabs in 830. overrun by the Normans, sacked by the Spanish, absorbed by Italy in 1860 and was presently owned by the Mafia.
Had he stopped earlier, we would have been left with the attractive question, Why is the Bay of Naples like a peacock? Instead, we are left dully wondering why Condon supplied the dates of the Roman, Ryzantine, and Arab conquests, but not those of the Norman, Spanish, and particularly the Mafioso ones. Is his encyclopedia eccentric?
From narrative statement to blatantly irrelevant fact, this paragraph is even more fun:
He was a flannel-mouthed, burly fairy godfather to all who were loyal. He got the boys out of jail. He saved them from hanging until January 1, 1889, when he began to save them from the electric chair.
Condon’s conscious attempt at humor is extremely heavy-handed; the first sentence should have left it “godmother,” not that either reference is especially appropriate. Once that dubious metaphorical proximate paternity is established, however. the unconscious humor of that poshlut reference to gangsters as “the boys” becomes clear. What is fascinating is that Condon wrote the whole paragraph to tell us about what really interested him, the date the electric chair was first available for executions in New York.
And if you have the spirit of Condon’s compulsion in you now, surely you will appreciate the paragraph that starts Chapter Fourteen, Book One:
Daniel West was born on May 15, 1914, on die same day as his father’s favorite mistress’s favorite dachshund, missing by six days the first Mother’s Day-by-law in the nation’s history, which had been thunderingly sponsored by Senator Heflin of Alabama.
Here, while the dachshund reference seems a deliberate self-parody, the Mother’s Day afterthought is the real thing, irresistible to Condon as an itchy ankle.
Facts are neither ideas nor things. When in Hard Times Mr. Gradgrind taught his students facts exclusively, Charles Dickens was careful to point out that Gradgrind’s model pupil was stiff and bloodless, a an educated zombie. Condon is so proud of having learned Facts that the title of his novel is a statistic, and after the title page comes a bibliography, an almost insurmountable feat of kitsch. If, as Dwight MacDonald pointed out, Americans are “fact-fetishists,” Condon must be an ultimate American.
There are kinds of limited fiction where the facts, ma’am, are more important than the characters. The whodunit is the prime example: once we feed enough facts into the machine, all the characters come up lemons. Eventually, the whodunit becomes the howdunit, plotting replaces personality, the audience comes to respect only the technique of the planning, and it begins to seem unjust for the plotter to be caught.
Richard Condon is undoubtedly a master of such planning. In this novel, the Plan makes E. C. West one of the world’s richest men. Start1 ing with his father’s share of Tammany Hall power, West singlehandedly invents Prohibition so he can accumulate the lion’s share of the profits from bootlegging and the other organized crimes that come with it. Condon is actually able to make this grandiose (and highly impersonal) scheme seem convincing. Alas, it takes up only half the novel, and the second half features West as an older, lunatic millionaire, hiding in the Adirondack Mountains in an exact replica of an enormous Swiss hotel, trying to destroy his son’s wife. The novel ends with West’s last words, which, together with his reason for uttering them and other incidental scenery, constitute a gross, vulgar plagiarism of Citizen Kane.
Mr. Condon is that unique kind of writer who can make a list of automobile replacement parts exciting. Unfortunately, in Mile High he has tried a more ambitious project.