A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, by David Lagercrantz

This is another entertaining thriller from the author who took up the mantle of Stieg Larsson. It is again about Lisbeth Salander, the computer hacker, and Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist committed to social justice. In this case, it is about their tense confrontations with villains who claim they are legitimate scientists. These scientists have been conducting a study of twins, a study intended to prove how differently twins evolve when brought up in different environments. But Lisbeth and Michael learn it is also a study that cares little about the harmful effect of this study on the twins.

Since Lisbeth is a twin herself, and was brought up apart from her twin sister, this study interests her. Especially when she discovers the harm it has done to various twins, and the desperate efforts of the scientists to hide those harmful effects. However, when we encounter her, she is in prison for a fabricated crime that is not made clear. And the initial tension of the novel rises in that prison between a fellow prisoner, Faria Kazi, and another female prisoner, Benito. Faria belongs to an Islam family whose sons are zealously guarding the family “honor,” after their sister Faria falls in love with a boy outside their clan. And Faria, is in jail after her revenge against one brother who tried to preserve the family honor by ordering the death of her fiancé.

In other words, there are various stories going on here. One is about Lisbeth’s prison life and the evil Benito, a woman prisoner who runs the jail because of an ineffective, cowardly administration. Another is about Lisbeth’s former guardian, Holmer Palmgren who visits her with news of the twins study. And still another is about the Islam family and the conflict between their daughter and her brothers. Finally, considerable space is spent with two of the twins in the study, Leo Mannheimer and Dan Brody, both prodigies, one a financier and the other a musician. They live opposite lives, of wealth and poverty, and then discover each other and want to expose what has happened to them. Another is about a dying woman scientist, Rakel Greitz, who does not hesitate at murder in order to conceal the cruelty and illegality of the twins study. While still another story follows police inspector Jan Bublanski, whom Lisbeth and Mikael rely on to help them expose and arrest the villains.

Because she is in prison for much of the novel, Lisbeth does not dominate the action here, not as she has done so in past novels. Her partner in the series, Mikael plays a more significant role. A famous journalist, he is a defender of social justice, and he seeks to expose the study of twins for his magazine, Millennium. It is he and Bublanski who control the final action, but considerable time is spent, in the meantime, with the twins Leo and Dan as they seek to adjust to an incompatible world, then discover one another and maneuver desperately to survive the evil scientist, Grietz, who does not wish the study to be exposed. And who, moreover, enlists Faria’s family to help protect the secret. Which also results in Lisbeth being kidnapped. Thus is built the reader’s concern that Mikael and Bublanski thwart the villains, that Lisbeth be rescued, and that Faria and Dan be saved.

What also increases the suspense of this novel is a narrative technique employed by author Lagercrantz. Through much of the novel he constantly switches the action from one confrontation to another, or from one moment in time to another. The result is that we continually leave a crisis faced by one character and go to one faced by another. Thus he moves back and forth from Lisbeth to Benito to Faria Kazi, or from Dan Brody to Leo to Greitz, or from Mikael to Bubanski to Lisbeth. For some critics, this switching of viewpoints is too much, but for me it does work to heighten the novel’s suspense.

One drawback to this novel that critics have cited is that there is too much going on. There are too many plots: the prison violence, the murders involving the twins study, one in the past and one in the present, the turmoil in the Moslem family, the kidnapping of Lisbeth, and the back story of Leo and Dan, also both in the past and in the present. And that as a result the novel has no textual depth. There is certainly a legitimacy to this complaint. But what these various plots do is keep the narrative moving and intensify the suspense up and .

But my major complaint is that the novel ends too neatly. There is a final dramatic confrontation or two, but the good guys win and the bad guys lose somewhat matter-of-factly. There are no dramatic revelations, no unexpected ironies, no changes in the reader’s understanding of the characters or their motivation. There is no punch at the end.

Another matter I did not grasp was the title. Not that any title in this series could not be exchanged with one of the others. All present Lisbeth as the main protagonist. But the revenge suggested by this title is not evident, and Lisbeth certainly does not play the prominent role that she does in the other novels.

I will be interested in more adventures of Lisbeth and Mikael as they appear in further novels by Lagercrantz. But, in retrospect, I do agree with the critics above, and I would hope this new author concentrates on a more simple line of action, rather then the complexity he offers here. So that he can probe more deeply into either his characters or into those matters of social and political justice that Mikael writes about. And that so fascinated Larsson in his original novels. (September, 2018)

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The Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro

This is, indeed, a remarkable biography. Fully deserving of its reputation, even in this first volume, which establishes Lyndon Johnson’s character. The first element of the book that one notices is the scores, indeed hundreds, of people that author Caro has interviewed, even for a minor quote that helps him build his portrait. The second quality is that Caro does not hesitate to criticize his subject. As a result, we see a Johnson who puts ambition and ego first, who both kowtows to his superiors and demands obedience from his inferiors, and who lies and cheats to achieve his ends. And yet, when whose ends are often for the good of society, one faces the complex issue of measuring ends vs. means.

Still a third quality is the contextual detail that Caro offers that explains the environment and the motivations that prompt the actions of everyone from Johnson to the politicians, staff people, and money people that he deals with. It is this contextual detail that will extend this biography to more than the three planned volumes. The portrait drawn here of Lyndon Johnson is of a youthful, gangling, garrulous, and ambitious man who uses his followers, who takes advantage of them, although largely to achieve benefits for those forgotten by society. He cultivates a team and works them to the bone, but he has such a strong personality and creates such a spirit de corps that the team members willingly do every thing he asks of them. They believe in him. And many will follow him for the rest of his life.

But this work is more than a portrait of Lyndon Johnson. It is a portrait of Texas, of both local and national politics, of the lobbyists and money men he encounters, and of the art of power politics in college, in Texas, and in Washington, D.C. It explains the early political maneuvering behind building both a local dam and a wartime national naval base, as well as the inner workings of political campaigns and the complexities of meeting constituents’ needs. It also offers portraits of the powerful, from Vice-president John Nance Garner to speaker Sam Rayburn, from entrepreneur Herman Brown to newspaper magnate Charles Marsh, from wife Lady Bird to mistress Alice Glass. As well as mini-portraits of Johnson’s staff, whether in school, in Texas, or in Washington.

At this point, I apologize for what follows. For this work tells so much, and tells it so perfectly, that it leaves little for me to critique. That is, if one accepts the detail here, and the interpretation Caro offers of that detail. And I do so, but some critics do not. In any event, I will turn now to summarizing the significant events of Lyndon Johnson’s life, events that reveal the character of a supreme politician as he grows into one of this country’s major leaders of the 20th century. This book truly is about this future president’s early path to power.

The thoroughness of this portrait becomes evident, when Lyndon Johnson himself does not appear until page 66. For starters, we learn about the poverty-stricken area of Texas that he came from. This is The Hill Country, originally an area of lush grassland to which greedy owners led their cattle and sheep. These animals ate the grass down to the scrub, leaving it exposed to draught and floods which swept away the remaining soil, leaving limestone rock that supported no type of farming.

Caro then introduces the Bunton and Johnson families, Lyndon Johnson’s forbears. Bunton males were tall with large ears and noses, and were practical and aggressive. One already sees Lyndon’s image in them, as did family members at the time. And while the Johnson family was more romantic and idealistic, Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, who also had the Bunton characteristics, added a fascination with politics and with it a commitment to the needs of farmers and common people, rather than those of the powerful special interests.

As a baby, Lyndon ran away constantly as a way to seek attention. And as a young boy he had to be in charge of whatever activity he was part of, whether in the family, in the school, or at play. And by twelve or so, he followed his father everywhere at the Texas state legislature, constantly engaging him in conversation and ignoring please for other kids to join them in play. As he was soaking in the political partisanship of his father, he was learning even better how politicians outmaneuver their rivals.

But Lyndon’s attitude at home changed completely when his father lost all his capital and all his properties in a cotton-farming gamble. In which the land failed him, as it had failed many others. Whereupon, Lyndon had no respect for a father who had lost everything, including his reputation, thus condemning the family to poverty. Caro only speculates about the change this brought to Lyndon’s attitude toward his father, whether it was based on embarrassment, resentfulness, self-pity, or insistence on standing on his own. Lyndon also refuses to go to college to improve himself and raise his station in life, as his parents want.

Instead, he runs away to California. And when he is forced to return, and then challenges a farmer at a dance hall and is beaten up, he realizes he is not in control of his own life. So he agrees to attend San Marcos Normal College, a minor school in the Texas system, where he is his old self, ingratiating himself with the faculty and turning off his fellow students with his exaggerations and lies. Still burdened by financial issues, Lyndon takes a year off to lead and teach at a school for Mexican students. He reorganizes it and establishes discipline, and earns the respect of both students and their parents. It is a clear example of meeting the needs of the poor underclass.

Then, returning to San Marcos, he is rebuffed by the student body but displays his political knowhow by taking over the class elections, student council, and student newspaper—using underhand maneuvers, lies, and blackmail. One can see the future politician in each of the two roles. And Caro sums it up himself in this early chapter—that the qualities he revealed at San Marcos were the same he will use as Majority Leader and President: the deception, the secrecy, the aggressiveness, the need to dominate, the overbearingness to underlings and the obsequiousness to superiors, the drive, the viciousness, the cruelty, the lying, the iron will and the ambition. But he would also feel, as he would later, the same loneliness and the same insecurity. Caro: “He came out [of school] formed, shaped—into a shape so hard it would never change….”

Lyndon then gets a job in Houston, teaching public speaking and debating. He is highly successful, as he was at the Mexican school, but he leaves it when he gets an offer to be on a Congressman’s staff in Washington.

Washington and politics—that is what he always wanted.

With his Congressman seldom in the office, Lyndon, as his secretary, takes charge. He ingratiates himself with fellow staff people to learn how to satisfy the tons of letters his office receives from constituents. He then becomes a cruel taskmaster, working alongside his staff eighteen hours a day. It is a major steppingstone in his political career, as he learns how Washington works. When Lyndon reached Washington, the Depression was in full effect, and Caro offers a brief and harrowing summary of its impact on the working class. Banks were closing, and Texas farmers were hurting. Once Roosevelt was in power in 1932, however, funds became available in the form of loans, and Lyndon’s district, because of him, was one of the most effective in getting them. Not least because he came up with a unique idea, that farmers, who were in debt and had no collateral, could use as collateral the proceeds from crops they were about to plant.

Lyndon also built his reputation by taking over the Little Congress, a social organization comprised of the staff people of the Congressmen, particularly its secretaries. He did this by the same method that he used in taking over the student council in San Marcos, by secrecy, subterfuge, and bending the rules. From meetings of 20 people, the group grew into meetings of 200, and with press coverage he found prominent politicians, including Huey Long, to address those meetings. This earned him the respect of people in every Congressional office, plus the likes of Postmaster General James Farley and Vice President John Nance Garner.

But Lyndon never reveals his own political thinking. He agrees with conservatives when talking with them, and with liberals when talking with them. For he wants to be in the good graces of everyone. So he would have friends/supporters when he announced his true goal, that of being a representative himself, not just an aide. Lyndon expands his influence, first by answering to the needs of important and wealthy people who live outside his district, and second by using his contacts to find scores of jobs, minor jobs, throughout Washington and much of Texas. He is building a loyal band of followers whom he knows one day would be willing to help him fulfill his ambitious plans.

By this time, he has met a shy, plain girl nicknamed Lady Bird, and one day, he casually asks her for a breakfast date. And on that date the next morning, he asks her to marry him. It surprises the reader as much as it did her that he would propose with so little courtship. And that she would consider his proposal. But a determined Lyndon is difficult to resist. And when she does succumb and marries him, what is equally surprising is that he orders her around, just as he does his assistants, and she accepts it. Indeed, as Caro says, she becomes a great hostess and enhances his presence in the nation’s capital.

One of the influential men Lyndon invites home is Speaker Sam Rayburn, and Caro draws a brief portrait of him. That he was honest, a straight shooter unlike Lyndon, and yet shy beneath his forbidding attitude. One reason he accepts their invitation is that he is lonely, another is their shared Texas background, but primarily it is that Lady Bird makes him welcome, even cooking the Texas food he misses. Meanwhile, Lyndon has lost control of the Little Congress, and so begins seeking a larger role for himself. So he wangles a job back in Texas, with Rayburn’s help, as the head of the state’s National Youth Administration, a new organization. He draws on his subservient “friends” from other organizations to staff the NYA, again ordering them around, and again producing a highly successful operation—one that offers extensive influential contacts throughout the state.

Lyndon’s big break comes when a Texas congressman dies. He himself wasn’t known in the congressman’s district, but he has the support of Alvin Wirtz a highly influential politician and lawyer. Wirtz wanted a Texas dam approved, and he saw Lyndon as being the aggressive congressman he needed to achieve that in Congress. And Lyndon, true to form, works long hours, and reassembles his dedicated team that will do anything he asks, 24 hours a day. Lyndon wins the election, finishing 3,000 votes ahead of his nearest competitor. Because his rallying cry was a vote for him was a vote for Roosevelt, FDR makes a point of meeting him on a visit to Texas. And is so impressed that he recommends Lyndon to his staff of New Dealers, which becomes the key to Lyndon getting off to a good start in Washington. But another key is Lyndon’s personality, by which he ingratiates himself with the New Dealers and their wives. They describe him as “the life of the party,” with his joking and his stories of life back home.

Caro then tells the fascinating inside story of how Lyndon worked with the New Dealers, such as Tommy Cochran, Abe Fortas, and Harold Ickes, to get both the Administration and Congress to overcome the obstacles and approve the building of that dam back in Texas. All within a month of the congressman’s arrival in Washington. Lyndon’s next move is to win over two older and powerful men, Herman Brown and Charles Marsh, who are behind the dam project. He does so by catering to them and pretending to seek their advice on his every move. Brown, as the leader of Brown and Root, the builder of the dam, pledges to help Lyndon financially if the dam is approved. He does not succumb to flattery, but believes in quid pro quo, and helps Lyndon’ career from then on because Lyndon helps him, by getting the legal clearances for the dam.

Marsh, on the other hand, a millionaire who controlled many Texas newspapers, was subject to flattery. He is also betrayed by Lyndon, who conducts a passionate, secret affair with Marsh’s mistress, Alice Glass, an intelligent, six-foot beauty. Caro leaves open whether or not Lady Bird knew of this affair, but suggests that she did, as she did many of her husband’s infidelities.

The dam becomes the key to providing electricity to the poor Hill Country of Texas, but also to farmers nationwide. And Caro offers a fruitful aside to explain the importance of electricity to the nation’s farmers. It eased the physical labor of the men, the women, and the children. Water buckets no longer had to be carried from the well. The stove no longer had to be burning throughout the day, even hot summer days, with wood that had to be cut and brought into the house. And the washing of clothes by machine didn’t need water to be carried, wood to be cut, and garments to be scrubbed by hand. Plus, evenings could now be filled with entertainment, both in the home, such as listening to the radio or reading, or even studying, and in the small towns at the movies.

And so when Lyndon took the lead in the entire Congress to get single lines of electricity to sparse farm country, he changed everyone’s life style, and had no trouble, in fact no opposition, in his next election. However, his greater ambition, to be elected senator, was stalled. By the seniority he lacked to make a name for himself as a Congressman. By his reluctance, as usual, to propose or favor legislation that might one day backfire on him. And by his dominant personality that turned off his fellow legislators, as well as influential members of Roosevelt’s administration. But the congressman soon recovers. As the 1940 presidential campaign approaches, Vice President Garner opposes a third term for Roosevelt on principle, but also because he is a fiscal conservative and Roosevelt’ New Deal programs are not.

Meanwhile, Lyndon has jumped in on the president’s side, and volunteers to lead an effort to win control of the Texas delegation. Garner’s campaign falters, however, when the Germans invade Denmark and Norway, and, as the country realizes that as war is near, it decides it wants Roosevelt to lead it, not Garner. Garner, however, still wants to lead the Texas delegation at the Democratic convention, and his friend Sam Rayburn supports him. However, Lyndon fabricates statements that lead Roosevelt to believe that Rayburn is a leading the Stop Roosevelt movement. As a result, Rayburn, who will shortly become House Speaker, his life’s dream, loses all influence with FDR. And Lyndon, as a result, becomes FDR’s new friend in Texas and is able to regain his influence at the White House, and will be the contact to bring new defense contracts back home, particularly for Brown and Root.

Lyndon uses this new influence to maneuver himself into a key position in the 1940 election. Because of his contacts with wealthy men like Brown and various oil men, he persuades Roosevelt to name him the liaison for supporting Congressional candidates across the country. This is with only three weeks to go before the election. And he is so fast and efficient in providing support—lending not only financial help but also speakers and urgent information—that the Democrats pick up seats in the House, after expecting a loss. And so he earns not only considerable respect but also power. It is a major steppingstone in his career, as he becomes the man to see if you need money for your next race.

Then Texas senator Morris Sheppard suddenly dies, and Lyndon decides to run for this seat. Caro provides a detailed account of that race. Lyndon has by far the most extensive operation and the most money, and at the end of election day the most votes. But this is Texas, where new votes are “discovered” in the days after an election, and one of his opponents is the Texas governor, Lee O’Daniel, who has many friends and many opponents. And the opponents of the governor’s policies in Texas decided they want to send him off to Washington, where he will be comparatively harmless to them. So they “find” additional ballots that put O’Daniel over the top by 1,300 votes.

The IRS later investigates Bown and Root for illegal contributions to Lyndon’s campaign. And it appears their concern is legitimate. But Lyndon keeps appealing to his friends in Washington to quell the investigation, and Roosevelt himself finally orders it. Caro ends this volume with an explanation of Lyndon’s relationship with Sam Rayburn. That Rayburn recognized Lyndon’s ambition, and while they became the deepest of friends, Rayburn always recognized why Lyndon acted as he did. That, in fact, Lyndon was not the liberal he pretended to be, or the New Dealer he pretended to be. That posture was to serve his larger ambition, and his posture changed as the political situation changed. Thus are we prepared for the next volume in the series. (August, 2018)

The portrait drawn here of Lyndon Johnson is of a youthful, gangling, garrulous, and ambitious man who uses his followers, who takes advantage of them, although largely to achieve benefits for those forgotten by society. He cultivates a team and works them to the bone, but he has such a strong personality and creates such a spirit de corps that the team members willingly do every thing he asks of them. They believe in him. And many will follow him for the rest of his life.

But this work is more than a portrait of Lyndon Johnson. It is a portrait of Texas, of both local and national politics, of the lobbyists and money men he encounters, and of the art of power politics in college, in Texas, and in Washington, D.C. It explains the early political maneuvering behind building both a local dam and a wartime national naval base, as well as the inner workings of political campaigns and the complexities of meeting constituents’ needs. It also offers portraits of the powerful, from Vice-president John Nance Garner to speaker Sam Rayburn, from entrepreneur Herman Brown to newspaper magnate Charles Marsh, from wife Lady Bird to mistress Alice Glass. As well as mini-portraits of Johnson’s staff, whether in school, in Texas, or in Washington.

At this point, I apologize for what follows. For this work tells so much, and tells it so perfectly, that it leaves little for me to critique. That is, if one accepts the detail here, and the interpretation Caro offers of that detail. And I do so, but some critics do not. In any event, I will turn now to summarizing the significant events of Lyndon Johnson’s life, events that reveal the character of a supreme politician as he grows into one of this country’s major leaders of the 20th century. This book truly is about this future president’s early path to power.

The thoroughness of this portrait becomes evident, when Lyndon Johnson himself does not appear until page 66. For starters, we learn about the poverty-stricken area of Texas that he came from. This is The Hill Country, originally an area of lush grassland to which greedy owners led their cattle and sheep. These animals ate the grass down to the scrub, leaving it exposed to draught and floods which swept away the remaining soil, leaving limestone rock that supported no type of farming.

Caro then introduces the Bunton and Johnson families, Lyndon Johnson’s forbears. Bunton males were tall with large ears and noses, and were practical and aggressive. One already sees Lyndon’s image in them, as did family members at the time. And while the Johnson family was more romantic and idealistic, Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, who also had the Bunton characteristics, added a fascination with politics and with it a commitment to the needs of farmers and common people, rather than those of the powerful special interests.

As a baby, Lyndon ran away constantly as a way to seek attention. And as a young boy he had to be in charge of whatever activity he was part of, whether in the family, in the school, or at play. And by twelve or so, he followed his father everywhere at the Texas state legislature, constantly engaging him in conversation and ignoring please for other kids to join them in play. As he was soaking in the political partisanship of his father, he was learning even better how politicians outmaneuver their rivals.

But Lyndon’s attitude at home changed completely when his father lost all his capital and all his properties in a cotton-farming gamble. In which the land failed him, as it had failed many others. Whereupon, Lyndon had no respect for a father who had lost everything, including his reputation, thus condemning the family to poverty. Caro only speculates about the change this brought to Lyndon’s attitude toward his father, whether it was based on embarrassment, resentfulness, self-pity, or insistence on standing on his own.

Lyndon also refuses to go to college to improve himself and raise his station in life, as his parents want. Instead, he runs away to California. And when he is forced to return, and then challenges a farmer at a dance hall and is beaten up, he realizes he is not in control of his own life. So he agrees to attend San Marcos Normal College, a minor school in the Texas system, where he is his old self, ingratiating himself with the faculty and turning off his fellow students with his exaggerations and lies.

Still burdened by financial issues, Lyndon takes a year off to lead and teach at a school for Mexican students. He reorganizes it and establishes discipline, and earns the respect of both students and their parents. It is a clear example of meeting the needs of the poor underclass. Then, returning to San Marcos, he is rebuffed by the student body but displays his political knowhow by taking over the class elections, student council, and student newspaper—using underhand maneuvers, lies, and blackmail. One can see the future politician in each of the two roles.

And Caro sums it up himself in this early chapter—that the qualities he revealed at San Marcos were the same he will use as Majority Leader and President: the deception, the secrecy, the aggressiveness, the need to dominate, the overbearingness to underlings and the obsequiousness to superiors, the drive, the viciousness, the cruelty, the lying, the iron will and the ambition. But he would also feel, as he would later, the same loneliness and the same insecurity. Caro: “He came out [of school] formed, shaped—into a shape so hard it would never change….”

Lyndon then gets a job in Houston, teaching public speaking and debating. He is highly successful, as he was at the Mexican school, but he leaves it when he gets an offer to be on a Congressman’s staff in Washington.

Washington and politics—that is what he always wanted.

With his Congressman seldom in the office, Lyndon, as his secretary, takes charge. He ingratiates himself with fellow staff people to learn how to satisfy the tons of letters his office receives from constituents. He then becomes a cruel taskmaster, working alongside his staff eighteen hours a day. It is a major steppingstone in his political career, as he learns how Washington works.

When Lyndon reached Washington, the Depression was in full effect, and Caro offers a brief and harrowing summary of its impact on the working class. Banks were closing, and Texas farmers were hurting. Once Roosevelt was in power in 1932, however, funds became available in the form of loans, and Lyndon’s district, because of him, was one of the most effective in getting them. Not least because he came up with a unique idea, that farmers, who were in debt and had no collateral, could use as collateral the proceeds from crops they were about to plant.

Lyndon also built his reputation by taking over the Little Congress, a social organization comprised of the staff people of the Congressmen, particularly its secretaries. He did this by the same method that he used in taking over the student council in San Marcos, by secrecy, subterfuge, and bending the rules. From meetings of 20 people, the group grew into meetings of 200, and with press coverage he found prominent politicians, including Huey Long, to address those meetings. This earned him the respect of people in every Congressional office, plus the likes of Postmaster General James Farley and Vice President John Nance Garner.

But Lyndon never reveals his own political thinking. He agrees with conservatives when talking with them, and with liberals when talking with them. For he wants to be in the good graces of everyone. So he would have friends/supporters when he announced his true goal, that of being a representative himself, not just an aide.

Lyndon expands his influence, first by answering to the needs of important and wealthy people who live outside his district, and second by using his contacts to find scores of jobs, minor jobs, throughout Washington and much of Texas. He is building a loyal band of followers whom he knows one day would be willing to help him fulfill his ambitious plans.

By this time, he has met a shy, plain girl nicknamed Lady Bird, and one day, he casually asks her for a breakfast date. And on that date the next morning, he asks her to marry him. It surprises the reader as much as it did her that he would propose with so little courtship. And that she would consider his proposal. But a determined Lyndon is difficult to resist. And when she does succumb and marries him, what is equally surprising is that he orders her around, just as he does his assistants, and she accepts it. Indeed, as Caro says, she becomes a great hostess and enhances his presence in the nation’s capital.

One of the influential men Lyndon invites home is Speaker Sam Rayburn, and Caro draws a brief portrait of him. That he was honest, a straight shooter unlike Lyndon, and yet shy beneath his forbidding attitude. One reason he accepts their invitation is that he is lonely, another is their shared Texas background, but primarily it is that Lady Bird makes him welcome, even cooking the Texas food he misses.

Meanwhile, Lyndon has lost control of the Little Congress, and so begins seeking a larger role for himself. So he wangles a job back in Texas, with Rayburn’s help, as the head of the state’s National Youth Administration, a new organization. He draws on his subservient “friends” from other organizations to staff the NYA, again ordering them around, and again producing a highly successful operation—one that offers extensive influential contacts throughout the state.

Lyndon’s big break comes when a Texas congressman dies. He himself wasn’t known in the congressman’s district, but he has the support of Alvin Wirtz a highly influential politician and lawyer. Wirtz wanted a Texas dam approved, and he saw Lyndon as being the aggressive congressman he needed to achieve that in Congress. And Lyndon, true to form, works long hours, and reassembles his dedicated team that will do anything he asks, 24 hours a day.

Lyndon wins the election, finishing 3,000 votes ahead of his nearest competitor. Because his rallying cry was a vote for him was a vote for Roosevelt, FDR makes a point of meeting him on a visit to Texas. And is so impressed that he recommends Lyndon to his staff of New Dealers, which becomes the key to Lyndon getting off to a good start in Washington. But another key is Lyndon’s personality, by which he ingratiates himself with the New Dealers and their wives. They describe him as “the life of the party,” with his joking and his stories of life back home.

Caro then tells the fascinating inside story of how Lyndon worked with the New Dealers, such as Tommy Cochran, Abe Fortas, and Harold Ickes, to get both the Administration and Congress to overcome the obstacles and approve the building of that dam back in Texas. All within a month of the congressman’s arrival in Washington.

Lyndon’s next move is to win over two older and powerful men, Herman Brown and Charles Marsh, who are behind the dam project. He does so by catering to them and pretending to seek their advice on his every move. Brown, as the leader of Brown and Root, the builder of the dam, pledges to help Lyndon financially if the dam is approved. He does not succumb to flattery, but believes in quid pro quo, and helps Lyndon’ career from then on because Lyndon helps him, by getting the legal clearances for the dam.

Marsh, on the other hand, a millionaire who controlled many Texas newspapers, was subject to flattery. He is also betrayed by Lyndon, who conducts a passionate, secret affair with Marsh’s mistress, Alice Glass, an intelligent, six-foot beauty. Caro leaves open whether or not Lady Bird knew of this affair, but suggests that she did, as she did many of her husband’s infidelities.

The dam becomes the key to providing electricity to the poor Hill Country of Texas, but also to farmers nationwide. And Caro offers a fruitful aside to explain the importance of electricity to the nation’s farmers. It eased the physical labor of the men, the women, and the children. Water buckets no longer had to be carried from the well. The stove no longer had to be burning throughout the day, even hot summer days, with wood that had to be cut and brought into the house. And the washing of clothes by machine didn’t need water to be carried, wood to be cut, and garments to be scrubbed by hand. Plus, evenings could now be filled with entertainment, both in the home, such as listening to the radio or reading, or even studying, and in the small towns at the movies.

And so when Lyndon took the lead in the entire Congress to get single lines of electricity to sparse farm country, he changed everyone’s life style, and had no trouble, in fact no opposition, in his next election. However, his greater ambition, to be elected senator, was stalled. By the seniority he lacked to make a name for himself as a Congressman. By his reluctance, as usual, to propose or favor legislation that might one day backfire on him. And by his dominant personality that turned off his fellow legislators, as well as influential members of Roosevelt’s administration.

But the congressman soon recovers. As the 1940 presidential campaign approaches, Vice President Garner opposes a third term for Roosevelt on principle, but also because he is a fiscal conservative and Roosevelt’ New Deal programs are not. Meanwhile, Lyndon has jumped in on the president’s side, and volunteers to lead an effort to win control of the Texas delegation. Garner’s campaign falters, however, when the Germans invade Denmark and Norway, and, as the country realizes that as war is near, it decides it wants Roosevelt to lead it, not Garner.

Garner, however, still wants to lead the Texas delegation at the Democratic convention, and his friend Sam Rayburn supports him. However, Lyndon fabricates statements that lead Roosevelt to believe that Rayburn is a leading the Stop Roosevelt movement. As a result, Rayburn, who will shortly become House Speaker, his life’s dream, loses all influence with FDR. And Lyndon, as a result, becomes FDR’s new friend in Texas and is able to regain his influence at the White House, and will be the contact to bring new defense contracts back home, particularly for Brown and Root.

Lyndon uses this new influence to maneuver himself into a key position in the 1940 election. Because of his contacts with wealthy men like Brown and various oil men, he persuades Roosevelt to name him the liaison for supporting Congressional candidates across the country. This is with only three weeks to go before the election. And he is so fast and efficient in providing support—lending not only financial help but also speakers and urgent information—that the Democrats pick up seats in the House, after expecting a loss. And so he earns not only considerable respect but also power. It is a major steppingstone in his career, as he becomes the man to see if you need money for your next race.

Then Texas senator Morris Sheppard suddenly dies, and Lyndon decides to run for this seat. Caro provides a detailed account of that race. Lyndon has by far the most extensive operation and the most money, and at the end of election day the most votes. But this is Texas, where new votes are “discovered” in the days after an election, and one of his opponents is the Texas governor, Lee O’Daniel, who has many friends and many opponents. And the opponents of the governor’s policies in Texas decided they want to send him off to Washington, where he will be comparatively harmless to them. So they “find” additional ballots that put O’Daniel over the top by 1,300 votes.

The IRS later investigates Bown and Root for illegal contributions to Lyndon’s campaign. And it appears their concern is legitimate. But Lyndon keeps appealing to his friends in Washington to quell the investigation, and Roosevelt himself finally orders it.

Caro ends this volume with an explanation of Lyndon’s relationship with Sam Rayburn. That Rayburn recognized Lyndon’s ambition, and while they became the deepest of friends, Rayburn always recognized why Lyndon acted as he did. That, in fact, Lyndon was not the liberal he pretended to be, or the New Dealer he pretended to be. That posture was to serve his larger ambition, and his posture changed as the political situation changed.

Thus are we prepared for the next volume in the series. (August, 2018)

The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee

This is a magnificent novel, a 2010 work that ranges across more than thirty-five years, from Korea to New York City to the hills of Italy, with a dip into the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. It also ranges from the desperation of youth to the resignation of old age, from the pain of loneliness to the vitality of sex to the absence of love and the return of pain, and then from the pursuit of dreams to the encounter with reality, a reality ranging from the threat of death to its inevitability. Finally, it is about Korean children and American adults, with the reader identifying with each individual we meet, individuals who represents humanity, not their given nationality.

At its heart, this is a story about June Han and Hector Brennan. They are introduced as a Korean girl of 11 and an American handyman who was a failure as a soldier. They are thrust together at the end of a powerful first chapter in which she tries desperately to save her mother and three brothers and sisters in the confusion of advancing and retreating Korean armies in 1950. The reader anticipates a letdown when the author quickly switches to New York City thirty-five years later, where June is dying of stomach cancer. But interest quickly renews when figures of the past return, and she hangs on to life in order to reunite with her grown son who has fled to Europe.

What happened at the orphanage to which June and Hector were assigned a generation earlier is the key to these later events. Back there, we meet Ames and Sylvie Tanner, he a missionary in charge of the orphanage, and she, a beautiful wife but unmoored by her own wartime experiences as the daughter of a missionary in the China of the 1930s. For at the orphanage an emotional triangle builds that will determine the fate of these characters. This means that June courts a relationship with Sylvie, wishing to persuade Mrs. Tanner to take her back with her to the States when she and her husband leave Korea, while Hector begins a passionate affair with Sylvie to make an emotional connection in a world that has long consigned him to failure.

Lee builds reader interest by revealing these developments quite slowly, much of it indirectly as he rebuilds the intervening years lived by June and Hector, while also focusing on the running of the orphanage and the relationships among the orphans and the administrators. Indeed, Lee’s skills as a novelist shine brilliantly here, as he switches back and forth in time, evoking both the psychology of his characters and the unique Korean landscape, as well as the personal rivalries and the emotional tensions that pervade the orphanage. The emphasis is on the humanity of life rather than on the integration of one culture with another, as in previous Lee novels. And it leaves a reader like me envious of his probing, introspective skills.

There is much wartime violence in this novel, but much is also left, to the reader to interpret. As is the sex, whose description is often circumspect even if the act is obvious. Thus, Lee often describes the preliminaries of torture or seduction but then leaves the actual violence to the reader’s imagination. This applies to the fate of Sylvie’s family and to a child’s vengeance, one concealed completely and the other held back until near the very end. The very last paragraph, in fact, describes another death in the terms of a metaphor, a desperate running for a train which repeats that character’s equally frantic effort to catch a real train in an early chapter.

The meaning of the title is also elusive. It presumably refers to an acceptance of fate and a surrendering to one another. June to her son and the cancer that foreshadows her destiny in the New York and Italian scenes. Hector to June and the alcoholism and despair that has colored all his life. And Sylvie to Hector and the desperation that colors the emotional poverty she lives with. Except, none of this is obvious, for these characters take on life with a stubborn hope. And the novel reminds us of a similar hope within the human struggle for survival.

June thus seeks to re-establish her relationship with her son abroad. Hector seeks a kind of redemption by helping June as her death approaches. And Sylvie seeks the emotional fulfillment that life has deprived her of. Each is a survivor of the violence of war, as each seeks in acceptance a hope that will justify the life they have endured. And behind their desire to survive is also a hope for mercy, a mercy that can release one from one’s misery. As Sylvie’s mother told her: “There is a surplus of mercy in the world. We need only to learn how to give it.”

The jacket describes this as a novel “exploring the themes of identity and belonging, war and memory, love and mercy…a story about how love and war can echo through a lifetime.” This, indeed, is what appealed to me, the broad scope of this novel that has nothing to do with Americans in Korea or a Korean surviving in America. It is about the weaknesses in people and their hidden strengths, about the pursuit of love and the flight from death, and about how the trials and memories of youth influence our decisions as adults.

This novel apparently took five years to write. One can understand why. From the emotional and psychological reverberations from one era to the next, the moving back and forth between those eras, and the depths that are explored within each era, all this required a deep probing of this complex subject matter in which past and present exist together but are told separately.

The complexity also brought differing opinions from critics. One thought June, with her early stubbornness, was the most interesting character. Another thought Sylvie was “the most touching” because of how she has accommodated to life. While still another thought the adult Sylvie “congeals into a cliché” from a romance novel. My own reservation concerns the relationship between June and Hector. He is gradually reveled as having fathered June’s son, but a scene in which she apparently seduces him is more abstract than clear, nor is it clear why she sees him as a rival for Sylvie’s affection, since the emotional tie she seeks is of a different kind. And, finally, an apparently brief marriage and return together to the States is only implied.

This novel does make me interested in seeking out Lee’s subsequent works. He is no longer interested in simply identity and belonging. He is interested in the more universal qualities of humanity: the different avenues of love and the search for mercy and fulfillment. (July, 2018)

The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, by Peter Ackroyd

The author likes to blend fiction and history, and he does it in this 1994 novel quite effectively. Such as when Karl Marx and George Gissing sit alongside his fictional characters in the British Museum. But he also blends other factors, such as the sexes, with females playing males, and such as the contrast between the reality of violent death and the illusion of the theatre.

This novel opens with an execution. Of the Elizabeth Cree of the title. For the murder of her husband. We then backtrack to her early life and her trial in the London of 1881. In her struggle to move out of poverty, she initially found bit roles in the theatre. In fact, the artifice of the theatre becomes a major theme of this novel. An artifice that will be exemplified by her dressing up as a man in order to explore the city of London.

Alternating with Elizabeth’s life are excerpts from a diary kept by a serial killer, a kind of Jack the Ripper but apparently based on a real, historic figure. In the novel, this diary writer is John Cree, Elizabeth’s husband. For whose death she is being tried and executed, although we do not know if she truly killed him and what might have brought her to do so. In his diary, however, Cree goes about viciously murdering innocent victims. These murders are described in brutal detail—indeed, too great a detail for me—which is apparently to convey to the reader the true horror of the crimes.

Also alternating with Elizabeth’s life are the lives of historic figures who, like John Cree, gather regularly in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Karl Marx and George Gissing have in common their interest in the poor people of both London and England, and soon become intellectual friends. But even as they become effective characters, and even suspects in the murders, one wonders why they are present in this novel. The eventual answer seems to be the historic verisimilitude that they offer. Although Gissing’s response when suspected by the police is especially moving.

Meanwhile, further chapters introduce John Cree as a reporter with a minor publication, but who has never fulfilled his ambition to write successful plays. He and to Elizabeth take to each other, but when they marry, she informs him that because of her violent upbringing she cannot allow him to make love to her. This is not further explored, but the reader does recall her theatrical past when she used to like to dress as a man.

A secondary theme of the novel is the golem. This monster-like creature of Jewish legend that can be created by people under emotional stress is rumored to be the true serial killer. And prompts considerable fear in the populace. While none of the characters in charge take such a monster seriously, the reader definitely knows that the golem is not the perpetrator of these murders—although its imagined presence extends the novel’s theme of the tension between artifice and reality.

For a while, it is unclear what this novel is all about. Is it about the cruel serial murders? Is it about the historic figures, and how they react to a poor and violent society? Is it about illusion, which begins in the theatre? Or is it simply a murder tale in which Elizabeth and John Cree will play major roles? These questions are continually raised in the first half of the novel, as the reader is exposed to various incidents and varying viewpoints.

But as the second half of the novel begins to concentrate on the Crees, it becomes clear that this is their story, including their increasingly contentious marriage. Whereupon, near the end, the author offers a grand surprise. Some critics apparently think that he has earlier provided clues to that surprise. But I cannot find a valid connection between such clues and the author’s final revelation. And so, I do not buy it. It comes across to me as an arbitrary decision by the author. Not as a sudden revelation of character.

And then he compounds this miscalculation on the final pages with a death that is apparently meant to be a cruel irony. But for me, it is simply stale frosting on a half-baked cake.

Despite these qualms, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The blend of history and illusion, of historic figures and fictional figures, of actual events and fictional events, of a series of murders and detective work, and of insights into the minds of different characters, including the killer—all these factors drew me into this volume. Even when I was not sure where the author was headed.

What also drew me into the novel was the enhanced reality of Ackroyd’s London. Valerie Martin describes it in the New York Times: “all its awful, teeming, endless variety, with the dark alleyways peopled by criminals, beggars, and children, its unbreatheable air, its pea-soup fog, its carriages rattling along streets lined with prostitutes…its warm smoked-filled theaters, its cool, airy, quiet museum library, its actors, its murderers, its writers, its intellectuals.”

On the other hand, the author probes too deeply for me into the idea of illusion. I found the least interesting part of the novel to be the moments early on that capture life in the theatre, both on stage and behind the curtain—especially the emphasis on Dan Leno as a great comedian. At the end, I could see the reason for those scenes, but the detail did not work for me. It seemed to be there for its humor in an otherwise serious novel.

Perhaps this is in part due to my lack of knowledge about the historic world of English entertainment. That, for example, Dan Leno was a major figure in that world in 1880—so much so that he figures in the title of the English version of this novel, along with the Golem. (What a juxtaposition!) Whereas, I related to Karl Marx and George Gissing, both because I know of them and because they are treated here more seriously.

By itself, this novel does not turn me onto other novels by Ackroyd. But if I found an intriguing premise in a novel of his, a unique blend of known fact and unknown fiction, I would be tempted to explore it. For I do like to read the flights of an author’s imagination. Of which the best example for me is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, about an attempt to block the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (July, 2018)

The Embezzler, by Louis Auchincloss

This 1966 work is an old-fashioned novel, but is still effective. At least for me. Auchincloss wrote many novels, serious novels, about wealthy Manhattan society, but they were never considered literature on a high level. He was even called a poor man’s Edith Wharton, because they both wrote of the same people. And his era was often hers as well. This author, however, did not claim to be on her level, and was, in fact, more often ranked with John P. Marquand.

But this has to be one of Auchincloss’ better novels. It is about three people: Guy Prime, a handsome, gregarious figure trying to make it in the financial world of New York; Rex Geer, an ambitious young man whom Guy sees has the business skills to complement his own personal skills; and Anglica, who loves them both, sees them objectively, and reveals their weaknesses. Each of them will portray their version of their lives from the turn of the 20th century into the 1960s. Each will also look back with a certain self-justification, and with a conscientious evaluation of one another.

But this novel is more than three character portraits, even as it offers three different ways of evaluating the same people and the same events. Because the three characters do not understand one another as well as they believe they do. And because the author is also interested in what lies beneath the surface of Manhattan’s upper classes: the uncertainties, the self-deceptions, the social climbing, the pretension, the frequent search for money, the self-righteousness and self-deception, an even the back-biting.

The novel begins in 1936 as Guy is caught as an embezzler. He has kept securities that do not rightfully belong to him as collateral for a loan he has received, and he believes the Feds, seeking to expose corruption on Wall Street, have chosen him to put on trial. We see him first through his own eyes, embittered by his trial and sentencing, proud of his business reputation, and unrepentant about his act of embezzlement. The opening section represents this once golden boy of Wall Street writing his memoirs in an attempt to justify himself to the grandchildren he will never see.

But once we are caught up in his dramatic situation, the novel backtracks to how Guy, Rex, and Angelica met, became involved in each other’s lives, and were impacted by Guy’s act of embezlement. It begins with the honest portraits that Guy tries to draw of the three major characters. Which reveals, instead, Guy’s own character, how he assumes he is in good graces with everyone he meets and ends up taking for granted the prestige he feels he has earned. But his success, he realizes, has been aided by the business advice and business contacts that Rex has provided. Which, in turn, prompts a certain resentment of this friend whom he once so identified with.

Rex’s narrative helps us to get to know him better, first with his abortive affair with Alix, who cannot bring herself to marry him. And then with his childhood sweetheart Lucy, who understands him and their situation much better than he does. But the most pertinent observation by Rex is noting that Guy’s biography leaves out what happened between his marriage to Angelica and their divorce 25 years later. This is the period when Guy’s idealism succumbs to frustration at home and at work, then to disillusion, and then to despair, leaving him only his surface reputation.

But even Rex skips the intervening years until the 1930s. This is when he begins horse-riding for exercise; and it comes under Angelica’s tutelage and leads to their affair. His narrative is primarily a story of his three loves, with casual references to his relationship with Guy. Only his final analysis of Guy seems wrong, as he concludes that he has been Guy’s tool, from Harvard to banking to Alix, that Guy used people for his own advancement, and that he used his embezzlement to destroy his world of finance “because he could not dominate it.” And Rex hates him for that, even as he admits it may be childish to do so.

Angelica, on the other hand, reveals other aspects of Guy. That, for example, he worshipped Rex, which is why he wanted him as part of all his endeavors. She also reveals Guy tries to win everyone to his vision, because he realizes he has to overcome his family’s “shabby” reputation. Finally, she says that she loved Guy for only their first ten years together. Then he began affairs geared to advance his career, and he lost her—which left her open to her affair with the man her husband so admired. A final bit of intrigue, she says, is that he used the betrayal of Angelica’s affair with Rex to justify his own embezzlement.

There are aspects of an unreliable narrator here. But the emphasis is on the different interpretations, and what they reveal about each person. It is not on the surprise of the new interpretation. With the result being deeper characterizations for both the observer and the observed. The different viewpoints work because each person seems sincere, both in evaluating their own actions and in their re-interpretation of events that others have described. And most still like and respect the persons they are commenting upon.

And, yes, their different interpretations of how Guy finds himself in each situation, both his business career and his marriage, and how the others view his actions—these lend substance to this tale. But I was more intrigued by the situations themselves, by how each developed, how the emotional relationship among the three principals provided the growing impetus, and how each responded, given the position each had achieved and their personal relationships. Guy has his worldly reputation, Rex his business success, and Angelica emotional commitments followed by betrayal.

This work fulfills my final interest in Auchincloss. Its greatest achievement is the subtle differences with which the three characters see their own reactions to Guy’s personal and financial history. (July, 2018)

Arrival and Departure, by Arthur Koestler

One seldom reads of Koestler today, especially as part of Europe’s literary history. And yet he proves himself a worthy novelist here in this early 1943 work. As well as a probing explorer of human psychology. Perhaps it is his subject and theme that seems less pertinent today. His subject is the flight of his hero Peter Slavek from a central European dictatorship in the 1940s. And he says his theme is “the conflict between morality and expediency,” which “I have tried to transpose…into terms of individual psychology.”

From the moment Slavek drops into the sea, from the bowels of a ship in which he has been hiding, and swims ashore to freedom, Koestler has captured the reader’s interest. And it continues as his hero adjusts to a strange city and a set of new, curious faces. He tries to join the military forces of an unknown country, but since its official is Mr. Wilson, one assumes it is the England to which the author himself did flee. But Slavak is told that since the unnamed country he fled is now occupied by the enemy, such permission is not easy to obtain. The official suggests he try the American consulate as a back-up. America is neutral in the war, and may more readily accept him.

The identity of most countries has to be inferred, however. Which leaves one easily confused, as I was, about people’s loyalties. Thus, the country Slovak has fled to is Portugal, but is called Neutralia—a label which should have been too obvious in Koestler’s wartime era, much less today.

Meanwhile, Slavek is taken in by a Dr. Sonia Bolgar, an imposing women, a psychologist, who has turned her home into a meeting place for refugees. One of these refuges is Odette, with whom Slavek soon has an affair. But Odette is independent-minded, one who says, for example, “after all, love-making is rape by mutual consent.” And one day Odette vanishes because her American visa has come through, leaving Slavek distraught.

To complicate his thinking, he knows he also faces many decisions about his own future. Should he continue fighting the forces occupying his own country? Should he flee to England to do so, since it has now said it would give him a visa? Or should he escape to neutral America and Odette? He cannot make a decision, and soon develops a weakness in one leg that incapacitates him.

We are one-third into the novel, and are about to follow the author into probing the psychology of his hero. Dr. Bolgar uses logic to help Slavek face the critical question of the novel, which is how much the torture he endured under his country’s dictatorial regime he brought on himself—as the result of a guilt he feels about a small incident from his childhood.

It is a harrowing session she puts Slavek through in order to reveal this, but it makes sense. Slavek first recalls dreaming how the enemy back home put its dissidents on mysterious death trains. And then tells of the terrible mental and physical torture he himself endured. The explanation, she says, is that he wished to be punished for a childhood sin. And that he still holds within him that sense of guilt. And yet…one senses that this complex realization by Slavek has been programmed somewhat by the author. Do its explanations of his past and its impact on his future fall too neatly into place? This is not to fault its dramatic effectiveness, but rather to raise doubts in retrospect. Do these developments stand the test of being an outcome of the novel’s theme, morality vs. expediency, rather than chosen to illustrate it?

And so Slavek stops being the idealist, like Don Quixote, and becomes the more realistic Sancho. He decides to be practical, and pursue Odette in neutral America. But does he? He endures a lecture on political theory by a representative of his occupied homeland. Or is it the author? And then the decision he reaches is prompted by a dream, just as other dreams have influenced earlier decisions. But his time he wills not focus on reasons for one’s actions, for “reasons do not matter so much. They are the shell around the core; and the core remains untouchable, beyond the reach of cause and effect.” What matters, it seems, are feelings, not reasons. If this “does not provide a logical answer to its central problem,” Koestler has written, “I felt that it provided me with a sort of answer nevertheless, [although] in a novel it could only be hinted at in an indirect way.” Which is the one reservation I have about this novel: its sound reality caters to its message.

The Departure of the title consists of a final chapter in which Slavek acts out, and justifies, his final decision. We do not know his future, but we know that he will be comfortable with it, with the feelings it gives him. And that, even as the ending grows more abstract, the author is comfortable with having explored and illustrated the inner psychology of his hero.

Saul Bellow in The New York Times summed up my reaction to this novel. “Mr. Koestler has given Arrival and Departure the full benefit of his marvelous ability to create a contemporary atmosphere and to make his characters represent the whole of the civilization to which they belong.” That is, he has met the terms of novel writing. He has created characters, scenes, and human psychology that makes a somewhat abstract concept come alive.

But while Bolgar was right to emphasize logic, Bellow says that “faith has its own requirements, despite logic. And quotes Koestler that ‘in these spheres the right thing [has] always to be done for the wrong reasons.’” He adds: “There is no science of moral convictions; that, in effect, is what Koestler is saying. [That] by themselves, our ideals of reason mean very little; they have brought us few benefits and done us great damage.” Bellow then cites Koestler contrasting the abandoned problem of ethical belief in the past with today’s problem of experimental science. And leaves the reader with the hope that “all mankind may join in answering the questions of moral choice which individual men today attack with inadequate means.”

To sum up, Koestler has written a highly effective novel in literary terms, but he has grafted onto it an exploration of a human psychology in which scientific thinking has replaced ethical thinking. Which makes more sense for a European intellectual who has fled his era’s dictators than it does for an author who assumes here the mantle of a novelist. (July, 2018)

Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

This 2017 work ends as a terrific thriller, but it begins as a daughter’s search for her father. It is really two stories about an insecure girl who does not know who she is, and is desperately seeking an identity. Rachel Childs was raised by a controlling mother, who wouldn’t tell her who her father was. The novel begins as she commences that search, is foiled, and begins again. It is a technique the author will use throughout the book: throwing up surprise developments that she must hurdle in a search for the answer to who she is.

She thinks the answer may be in the love she has never experienced. And she believes she finds it in Brian, who enters her life, leaves it, and then casually re-enters it and marries her. Except, we already know from the prologue that she is going to shoot dead a husband that she still deeply loves. Is this Brian? Such a prologue is a tool that thriller writers use to interest us in their story. And it surely works here.

For we have persevered through the first third of the book and her search for her father, a third which is well told and contains its own effective surprises. But it is not the heart of the book, and it reveals little about Rachel, except the needs she has. Is that to be the subject of this novel? For if it is, I found an elusiveness at the center of Rachel. And was not persuaded when, as a television reporter in Haiti after its earthquake, she has an on-air breakdown as a result of the horrors she has experienced. And when this breakdown follows her home, I still did not feel it. While it is intended as an extension of her mother’s coldness, all I felt in her subsequent denial of human contact was a hollowness. I did not feel the torment within her.

And so I never felt that constant withdrawal that keeps her off the street and confines her to her own house. It is a withdrawal that Brian will say he can cure. Because he loves her. But never having felt that breakdown, I could not relate to her desperation, to her search for who she truly is.

But then, one day, years later, when Brian is supposed to be on a plane to London, she sees him on a street in downtown Boston. And all her uncertainties return. Was it Brian? If so, who is this man she has married? Has he been lying to her? What is he concealing? Has he just pretended to love her? And so, the thriller begins. And it is marvelous thriller.

It begins with the tale of a rich mine in New Guinea, with seventy million dollars, and continues with two murderous gangsters, a mysterious corporation that hires them, the Providence and Boston police, a pregnant woman, a Japanese whore, and the dead Brian that Rachel has shot.

But is Brian really dead? What was his plan, and was Rachel a part of that plan? Or just a tool? And whom should she trust? In fact, has she the inner strength, the fortitude, to survive? Her flight from the police, and from gangsters, will take her to Maine, to Brian’s origins, then to an abandoned factory outside Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and then to a bank safe deposit box with money, passports, and tickets to Amsterdam. And the questions arise for the reader as well: Will Rachel escape? Can she survive on her own? And what has Brian planned for her?

There is no issue of morality here. The only issue is: what will work? With the reader pulling, as in all thrillers, for the hero(ine) to survive and to succeed. No, there is one other issue: what will be the cost of success? In human lives.  Lehane forces Rachel to face this issue, when he confronts her with death. “You have to bear witness to your dead,” she thinks. “You simply have to. You have to step into the energy field of whatever remains of their spirit, their soul, their essence, and let it pass through your body.”

And as she goes to confront a dead friend on the last page:

“But there might be some light upstairs and there would certainly be light when she want back outside.

“And if by some twist of fate there wasn’t, if all that remained of the world was night and no way to climb out of it?

“Then she’d make a friend of the night.”

Rachel, above all things, is a survivor. And she discovers she can not only turn the tables on Brian, for a change, she could also produce better ideas, as she does on at least two occasions. There is no hint of redemption, however, which one might expect from an author raised amid the Catholic culture of Boston. There is only survival, and the strength to survive.

Lehane, however, calls this a novel about identity, and I agree it is a strong aspect. Raised by a controlling mother, and deceived by two husbands, Rachel does not know who she is. “The book very much becomes a question of how much of any of us is a con,” the author says. “How much of any of us is a performance. When do you understand the moment? Do you ever understand the moment where that line has been crossed and you can’t come back from it?” But he has submerged that issue in a thriller that challenges her uncertainty, her insecurity, on a physical level. And that is what the reader is concerned about. Rachel’s fate. Not her psychology.

Rachel is also Lehane’s first heroine, after writing exclusively about the experiences of men. And it terms of her subservient role, her internal strength, her new maturity, she is a successful creation. However, she is not in terms of a character of richness and depth. Her growth is on the surface. Her maturity is geared to survival in the world. There is little recognition of the moral road she has travelled, of what she has learned about integrity, or about the responsibility of love.

I would note that the two reviews I read in The New York Times spend more time on the psychological insecurity of the Rachel we meet early on in this novel. It is there that they seem to find the human being worth discussing, rather than in the woman facing the thriller predicament she is soon confronting. But I wonder if this is not for a practical reason: they do not want to spoil the plot’s many surprises. And so they emphasize the distraught character that Rachel once was instead of the distraught woman she finds herself to be when her former world collapses.

I do look forward to reading more of Lehane. But I hope he focuses more on the inner lives of his characters, and less on their exterior. (June, 2018)