Compass Rose, by John Casey

This 2010 work is a beautiful novel, and just my kind of novel. It became so on the very first page, as the key women of the novel attend a boy’s baseball game. Casey was perhaps comfortable with these women because he was so familiar with them, since they are characters we first met in his novel Spartina, which I so enjoyed and which won the National Book Award in 1989.

And I, too, was comfortable, for I encountered here a family group and their neighbors in a small Rhode Island town who regarded the world and each other with the same generosity and sensitivity with which I regard the world myself. Whether or not Casey was raised a Catholic, and even though there is no element of religion here, there is a sense of values that fully matches my own.

A compass rose is a marking on a compass that helps one orient oneself by showing the cardinal (north, south, etc.) and intermediate bearings of the compass. This novel is called Compass Rose, because the fulcrum of the story is a girl named Rose, as she grows from an infant to a woman heading off to college. This Rose is the illegitimate daughter of Dick, the main character of Spartina who is married to May, and Elsie, with whom he had a tempestuous affair in the first novel.

The title is doubly appropriate, because Dick earns his life at sea, where a compass is so necessary, and his daughter Rose is the character who brings together, who helps orient, the lives of everyone in this book.

While this is a continuation of Spartina, one does not need to have read that work to understand or enjoy this novel. It is entirely self-contained. And because it takes place across 18 years, it develops its own reality, its own frame of reference. Indeed, the events here read not like the plot of a novel but like actual life in this small community. It is primarily the story of Elsie and her daughter; of Elsie’s friend Mary who lives with them and sees the importance of Rose getting close to her father; and of May, Dick’s wife, whose acceptance is needed to bring Rose close to her father.

But there are also other important characters, many of whom are involved in a conflict between the long-time residents of South County and a luxury development at Sawtooth Point that wishes to expand by taking over the home of Dick and May, as well as other local property. The developer, Jack Aldrich, is married to Sally, who is Mary’s sister. Jack is the closest to being the villain of this novel, but he is so intent on doing good in his own terms that everyone finds it difficult to dislike him. The fisherman Dick is not a prominent character, since he is often at sea, nor are his sons Charles and Tom. This is the story of the women, and it is told from their point of view.

If the sea was prominent in Spartina, it is the woods, marshes and salt ponds that provide the natural element in this novel, a setting that stands in for the natural evolution of life, growth, decay, and death. These ponds and woods are beautifully described, and are a haven for Elsie who is a local nature warden.

Elsie has been introduced to this natural world by the elderly Miss Perry, her former teacher and another prominent character. Indeed, in her final days, Miss Perry commissions Elsie to become the conscience of the region, much as she herself was, in face of the proposed takeover by the encroaching Sawtooth Point.

There are many developments in this novel. The first is the bringing together of Rose, Elsie, Mary, May, and Dick. The second is the fate of Miss Perry. The third is the departure of Mary from Elsie’s house and her discovery of love. There are also minor dramatic elements, such as when Charles is injured at sea, when Dick ‘s boat sinks and he needs to be rescued, and when Rose earns the role of lead singer in her high school musical. But overall, from early on, hangs the shadow of the Sawtooth takeover of the property of these longtime residents.

Jack Aldridge, who runs Sawtooth, is an interesting character, complex on one level but mainly a shallow foil when compared to the women of the novel. He has an ambitious dream that he convinces himself will enhance the community, and he plots and maneuvers to have his way. Yet one doubts that Casey intends him as a true villain, based on the fate Jack encounters on the final pages. Indeed, those final pages reverberate with the sympathy Casey has for all his characters, and particularly the women.

The novel winds down with, first, Rose’s performance, and the negative reaction of Elsie, who just does not understand that her daughter has the same independence of spirit her mother had when she challenged convention in her affair with Dick. Slowly, Elsie realizes her own frustrations prompted by both the need to share Rose with others and the expansive maneuvering of Sawtooth Point that threatens everyone who matters to her.

Indeed, there is a final gathering of all the characters, as a resolution to the Sawtooth incursion is achieved. Ironically, or realistically, this resolution reflects the inevitability of human as well as natural evolution. It is another way of saying that we are all involved with each other and must bend to each other’s needs.

Dominique Browning, in her beautiful review in the Times, writes: “This bit of a world is complete unto itself, with its own force fields, its own variations on true north, its own way of tilting into alignment. Like the love affair that is the novel’s magnetic pole, Compass Rose gathers its quiet strength from a slow accretion of instants of intimacy, ‘both ferocious, and serene,’ moments that bubble up, collapse, and decompose in the natural order of things, on their way to becoming the history of a place.”

Another reviewer says that this is the second volume of a planned trilogy. Could the final volume revolve around the expansion of Sawtooth Point? I would indeed be interested in a concluding volume, for this work is far superior to anything else by Casey. But we surely cannot wait another 20 years for this 75-year-old author to produce such a work. (June, 2014)

Advertisements

The Untouchable, by John Banville

This 1997 novel is the first Banville I have read, and I now understand why he is so admired. He is a beautiful stylist, with an admirable ability to explore the sensibility of his characters. What is striking also is that he has written here a penetrating novel about a spy, the repercussions of being a spy, with no details about his actual spying.

Banville was clearly inspired by the treachery of Burgess and McLean, and the later exposure of Anthony Blunt, the art historian, as the ”fourth man.” His main character is Victor Maskell, the Blunt character, who narrates this story in his old age, knowing that he has been exposed and that he is soon to die of cancer. His story, this novel, recaptures the complicated gamesmanship of those years as a Russian spy. And he himself is literally untouchable, for not only he does not like to be touched, but on a deeper level he perceives himself to have been untouched by British authorities. And on a still deeper level, he is a stoic, one who remains emotionally aloof from his fellow men. His only commitment is to an ideal, a sense of justice that he has identified with Moscow since his student days at Cambridge.

Victor moves among other men who share either his ideals or the sexual and drunken carousing of the late 1930s. Seemingly on a whim, he enters a pro forma marriage and sires two children, only to be seduced and discover that he is gay. Which ironically deepens his character, as he balances his two hidden lives, that of a spy and that of a homosexual. Except, the novel probes his new sexual life more than his life as a spy. His character is further enriched by a Bluntian dedication to art, for his life ambition has been to head an institution that will collect and train others in understanding art. It is another example, indeed, of his commitment to an ideal that is based on an abstraction of life rather then an emotional commitment to life itself.

It is Banville’s portrayal of the escapades of his friends that sustains the reader’s interest across nearly 400 pages. But interest is further piqued by Victor’s brief adventures. He discovers a painting by Pousin that he values more than his family, since it represents the death of the stoic Seneca. He enjoys a junket to Moscow, where he is disillusioned by the life there—even though he retains his Marxist ideology. He is sent to Boulogne by the British army in 1940, and then escapes at Dunkirk. He retrieves a cache of scandalous photographs from a German castle after World War II to save the royal family from blackmail. He drives his two friends, Boy Bannister and Philip MacLeish (stand-ins for Burgess and Maclean), to the ship that will start their flight to Moscow. And all the while, he parties with Waugh-like friends and searches for gay sex in dark bathrooms.

As the novel opens, we know Victor has been exposed as a spy, and the rest of the book is his explanation of how this came about, how very effective he thought he was, and his rationalization regarding the justice of what he has done. But we slowly grasp that he is an unreliable narrator. He is surprised, for example, that after the war Moscow lets him resign as a spy without repercussions. He does not see that this is because he was not that effective. (The reader also wonders, as a result, how effective Victor is as an interpreter of art and as an art historian—even as he boasts of his art knowledge and as Banville enriches his novel by comparing the deception of reality that is art with the deception involved in espionage.)

There is even a kind of surprise ending, in which Victor is revealed to have been a patsy. For he learns that his best friend is also a spy, and this friend has been manipulating his espionage career. I say kind of a surprise, because we have not penetrated into any of these colorful characters (because narrator Victor himself has not) enough to allow this sudden reversal to have the emotional impact the author likely intended. Indeed, that final scene seems in its way artificially created, down to the gun that is never fired and which Banville acknowledges breaks all the rules of conventional drama.

I must note that Patrick McGrath has written an excellent interpretation of this novel in the New York Times: “Banville has explored the various themes suggested by the study of art: the relationship of painting to the real world, the process of restoration, the distinction between the fake and the authentic, the futility of representation, its complementary pleasures and so on…he has woven these ideas into morally complex stories about violence and passion, guilt and redemption.”

This indeed, reflects the richness of this novel. The original Blunt had the perfect profession to inspire Banville’s insight into a world of artifice, a world of shallow surfaces, of originality, of bravado, and a world of deception and self-deception. Not to forget the world of gay men, who are always living a lie, who continually face the possibility of exposure, and who are always looking back over their shoulder.

The key to Victor’s life is why he is a spy. He is writing a memoir in an attempt to figure it out himself. He intends the memoir for his biographer, who has asked him this question. But he never finds the real answer. Is it because he is Irish, and so hates the British? Is it because he resents his father, a Protestant bishop, and the Soviets preach atheism? Is it because he is a stoic, and so does not identify with his impact on others? Is it because he feels superior to others, and spying allows him to justify this? Is it because he likes the game, much as he likes the game of concealing his homosexuality?

We never know the answer, but this only adds to the mysterious richness of the novel. To sum up, this is a brilliant exploration of the game of spying as told by a narrator who is not nearly as clever as he thinks. Indeed, this is why this work is not filled with his exploits as a spy, because he was indeed ineffectual. Instead, it brilliantly portrays the world he thinks he is deceiving, both his friends and the actual spies who float through his shallow world of drunken parties, back room assignations, and subversive meetings.

This novel surely inspires me to read further Banville novels. He offers that perfect blend, for me, of style and sophistication, of introspection and self-deceit, of story subjugated to character. (June, 2014)

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

This 2012 work is another example of history as a novel. Mallon put extensive research into this work, surely taking advantage of the many works written by the participants. The result is “we are there”—in terms of the individual actions and the conversations of a multitude of characters. And these actions and conversations are entirely believable, even as they verge on the scandalous. Indeed, on many pages, with its lying and its cheating in both its politics and its love affairs, this novel often reads like the inside scoop of a gossip columnist.

The novel is highly readable, of course, and entertaining, but it is also quite confusing. First, because there are so many characters. Even the author seems to realize this, as he lists 112 “players” over four pages before the story begins. And such a multitude makes it next-to-impossible for the reader to separate the main characters clearly, to grasp their relationship to one another and to the events, whenever they reappear on the scene.

Second, because even as we follow this story from the inside, we must be a student of Watergate history to grasp how these events reflect what is going on in the outside world, in that world of Woodward, Bernstein, Deep Throat, Jaworski, Cox, Sirica, and the American public.

And third, because, early on, the characters are reacting to events that are not put fully into context, and over which they themselves have no control. Moreover, they are reacting rather than causing others to react to them.

Mallon calls this first half, “Hide,” as the participants seek to conceal both their own involvement and the president’s. But the reader keeps asking, what is really going on here? Why are these people doing what they are doing? What is the connection among their various actions?

The second half Mallon calls, “Seek.” This is not only the government seeking to learn its responsibility under the law, it is also the participants seeking to learn what the government knows about their actions. These participants are now more active than reactive, and do become more interesting as characters.

What distinguishes this book is that Mallon has put himself into the minds of all his major characters, beginning with President Nixon and his wife Pat. But they also include Howard Hunt, Rose Mary Woods, and Elliot Richardson. And especially they include Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the elderly daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, whose presence adds considerable color and even humor, but whose function beyond that was never clear to me.

Even more significant a character is Fred LaRue, deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President. His presence is justified for two reasons. First, he was in regular contact with the Watergate break-in team: Liddy, Magruder, Colson, McCord, and Bernard Barker. He is also the one who delivers the hush money to the burglars. And second, Mallon uses LaRue’s personal story, separate from the Watergate break-in, a story about his responsibility for the death of his father—as a through-story to tie the novel together.

LaRue has an affair with a Clarine Lander, an attractive seductress and a Democrat, who is apparently one of the three fictional characters in the book. It is she who obtains for him the official file concerning his father’s death, and it is her nickname (given to her by Mallon) that seems to set off the actual break-in of chairman Larry O’Brien’s office at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This revelation is a bit of irony that leads the reader to smile, but it is an irony manufactured by the author. It cannot for me tie together his entire novel. Yet Mallon seems to have intended this personal story to do so, for he says in his Acknowledgements that of all the historic characters, “LaRue’s life has undergone the greatest degree of fictionalization.”           

One other fictional character (because his name in the list of “players” is also written in quotation marks) is Tom Garahan, supposedly a retired lawyer. He is introduced as a boy friend of Pat Nixon. I just do not understand why Mallon has created him. It is as if the author thinks that Pat Nixon must have needed an emotional relief from a cold, detached Nixon. Yes, he is careful to not to put them into bed, not to make them lovers, but it does not help me to understand Pat better, to make her a more real or more sympathetic person, or even to explain why she sticks with her husband.

On the other hand, Mallon does impugn the integrity of Elliott Richardson, as an ambitious snob, and Martha Mitchell, as a shrew—with her husband, the former attorney general, subservient to her. On Richardson, however, little is made of the “Saturday night massacre,” of which he was a dramatic victim.

Mallon also speculates on two Watergate questions for which there have been no clear answers. First, he suggests that it was Rose Mary Woods who did erase the 19 minutes of tape, not because it revealed anything significant about the cover-up but because she did not want to reveal to the public a few irrelevant personal comments her boss was making about others. And, second, he repeats as a reason for the break-in that the Republicans wanted to find evidence that Castro’s Cuba was contributing to the Democratic campaign.

Overall, this work did not convey what I expected. It is not a story of the break-in, how it was detected, the specific efforts to cover it up, the impact on the public of Woodward and Bernstein’s series, the development of the government’s case, the efforts by the defense lawyers, the various trials, the tightening noose around the White House, and Nixon’s final decision to resign. There are elements of these present, but not in a cause and effect sequence that helps one to understand the Watergate story as seen from the inside. Indeed, some of the major developments that would interest me occur offstage, and then our characters react to them.

What Mallon does here is suggest the atmosphere that followed the discovery of the break-in. How did these individuals react, and what does it reveal of their character? How organized were they, and how did their actions relate to each other? What does the entire operation reveal about how Washington works? How cynical, how selfish, how pragmatic, how venal, how defensive, how clever, how loyal, how self-pitying were these elected and appointed individuals?

But I question whether this is the purpose of a novel. Is it not to explore character? Rather than a society—although many critics will defend this, and cite precedents. Nixon and LaRue are the candidates here for a deeper portrait, and Mallon is sympathetic to both. Nixon, especially, is a character rather than the usual caricature. There is even a moment when he worries that the phrase “expletive deleted” will suggest far vulgar language than what he actually used. But he never becomes a tragic victim, which a new Shakespeare of the 22nd century might one day create from this situation.

LaRue is a richer character, a shy man from Mississippi who is yearning to return. And he is uncomfortable with his Watergate role. But that role remains separate from the personal family issue that confronts him. And as the reader learns the truth of that issue (or is it merely Mallon’s speculation?) but he himself apparently does not, this does not quite produce a reader’s identification with him that the author seems to have intended.

To sum up, this novel gets too close to the players for me, which clouds any perspective on the overall situation and how these characters interfaced with it. This was a dramatic moment in 20th century American history, and yet there is no sense of that drama. These individuals are too wrapped up in their own fate to be sympathetic, and there are too many of them. There is no North Star among them whom the reader can latch on to. LaRue is merely a spinning planet, and we jump around too much among the others.

I suspect that Mallon would reply: I did not want or intend to write your kind of Watergate novel; I intended to write this one. Because all of these disperate characters were fascinating to me. And because I wanted to show both the humanity and the failings of this particular group of people who were operating inside the Nixon administration at this key moment in history.

Certainly, Mallon takes on interesting subjects; but, as with Henry and Clara, I have ended up disappointed. (June, 2014)