Defectors, by Joseph Kanon

Here is another marvelous work from Kanon. This author often focuses his thrillers on a specific location, and does so again here. In the past, it has been Los Alamos, Berlin, Hollywood, and Istanbul, among others. Here it is Moscow. And it is about two brothers, Simon Weeks, and his older brother Frank.

Following World War II, the brothers, who were close, worked in parallel espionage tracks for the Unite States, Frank in an active role for the CIA and Simon at a desk job in the State Department. Then, one day in 1949, Frank vanished, only to turn up in Moscow. He had betrayed his country for a new ideology. And Simon recalled how a friendly Frank had often in the past milked him for information, asking what was going on at State.

The novel opens in 1961, when Simon, now working for a book publisher, journeys to Moscow because his brother has written a memoir about his double life in the United States. Simon’s company has decided that the book is going to be a best seller, and has agreed to publish it. And who better to edit the manuscript than Frank’s brother on its staff?

In the memoir, Frank describes how his political thinking shifted course after volunteering in Spain in the 1930s, how he began passing on information to the Soviet Union, even betraying Latvian activists, and how he began plotting his escape. It is not clear why the Soviets are allowing him to publish this memoir abroad, but the assumption is that it is because his story shines a positive light on Soviet espionage operations.

The book opens with Simon’s arrival in Moscow, and the reader experiences not only the brothers’ reunion from Simon’s viewpoint, but also the mixed emotions Simon has about the meeting. For he both loved his brother and felt betrayed, remembering how Frank used to pump him for State Department information. Yet he also was looking forward to being with him again, and in Moscow he finds him still friendly and gregarious.

But gradually he begins to wonder if his brother has an ulterior motive for either publishing the manuscript abroad or for choosing Simon’s own company to do so. In any event, Simon is determined to do a professional edit of the manuscript, which means getting Frank to offer deeper explanations for his actions and also to fill in potential gaps.

In passing, we would note that Kanon does not include here any of those editing sessions, with their give and take, even though it might offer deeper insights into the brothers and help us understand their relationship, both past and present. One suspects Kanon does not do so because, a former editor himself, he deemed such conversations, especially in depth, not appropriate for a thriller—and would, in fact, bore the reader.

Instead, the novel focuses on Frank’s motive in bringing his brother to Moscow. In a surprise twist. Frank tells Simon that he wants to defect again, back to the United States. He is disillusioned by life in Moscow, as is his wife Joanna, and hates that the distrusting Soviets have assigned a man to watch him constantly. His demand is that in exchange for returning to the States and providing Soviet secrets to the Americans, he and his wife be given a new identity back home.

Kanon will follow this revelation with additional twists, one after another, often reversing the reader’s expectations but all typical of a superior espionage thriller.

The next twist occurs when Simon deduces that his brother does not really intend to defect but is planning to betray the Americans in order to enhance his own reputation in Moscow. And so he makes a plan to foil his brother. Except, in implementing his own plan Simon forgets certain details that put at risk his reversal of Frank’s plan. Whereupon, Frank steps in and helps him achieve his objective—and then does not. At the very end, in fact, the author introduces an ironic twist that seems simply one too much. And prompts me to wonder why authors so often fall in love with irony. Why do they think it offers an ideal punch line to end a story? Instead of trying to come up with an ending that becomes a final character revelation.

But the effectiveness of this novel depends on more than its twists. It also depends on the portrait of Moscow itself and on the characters these two brothers encounter there. The first is Joanna Weeks, Frank’s wife, who followed him to Moscow long ago. She is a former flame of Simon’s, and now Frank has used that relationship to intrigue his brother into helping his defection—by saying she, too, is unhappy in Moscow and this will enable her to leave. While Simon himself, filled with memories of that past relationship with Joanna, must tread carefully, because she does not yet know of any plan that will enable her to leave.

Another major character is Boris, a KGB man assigned to watch over Frank and protect Soviet interests. He is almost a comic figure, as he continually keeps his distance, but he is always there as a reminder that every movement, every conversation by Frank and those he meets is being carefully monitored. He is a constant reminder, Frank says, that he himself has no freedom in this country he has fled to. Boris will also play an important role in one of the novel’s final twists.

Significant roles are also played by Tom McPherson, a Look photographer and Hal Lehman, a UPI reporter. Tom serves to convey messages or information back and forth between the Weeks brothers and the American embassy, and Hal even participates in the eventual escape plan. They are able to do this because they are free to move about and talk to people on both sides of the ideological curtain. Of course, they also recall the suspicions of the press that were often expressed by the Russians even then. But, at the same time, they help to expand the horizon of this tale, reflecting not only the interest in this story back home but also the potential repercussions these characters will face once they arrive home.

In sum, I now eagerly await the next Kanon thriller. What city will he choose? What intrigues, what human relationships, what double dealings will he explore next? (January, 2019)

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Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison

This is a hard-boiled thriller from 1996, but it is also literature. I’ve searched for Harrison novels for some time, but this is the first work of his I’ve found. And it has met my expectations. It is terrific.

The author grabs the reader in two ways on the novel’s very first pages. First, he establishes the tough, gritty Manhattan scene, its dark alleys, its scandals, its dangerous people and its dramatic nights. Then he establishes the cynical viewpoint of a newspaper columnist assigned to satisfy the public’s demand for both titillating scandal and the ironies of justice.

The columnist is Porter Wren. He is a confident man who has a high opinion of himself and of his skills as a journalist. At a party given by his obese Australian publisher, Hobbs, he is approached by a beautiful woman, Caroline Crowley, a femme fatale who is used to controlling men with her beauty and has an equally high opinion of herself. She tells Wren that she wants him to find out what happened to her husband, the famous movie director Simon Crowley, who vanished and whose body was unexpectedly discovered in a demolished building. But Wren is not convinced that that is her true purpose for approaching him; and the novel’s plot revolves around a kind of duel they have, each trying to use the other, control the other, and, as they become intimate, to understand what makes each other tick.

An initial complication is that Wren is happily married to a smart hand surgeon, Lisa, and has two children he loves. So he is continually troubled by what he sees as a betrayal of both his wife and his children. But Caroline fascinates him, tantalizes him physically, and appeals to his professional instincts. And the tales she tells of her husband and of their relationship seem to remind him of the many other human relationships he has encountered and that have prompted columns that helped make him famous. Indeed, as a cynical narrator, Wren early on declares that “we live in a time in which all horror has been commodified into entertainment.”

The dead husband was noted for short documentaries based on real events, and the initial story line revolves around the tape recording of an embarrassing meeting between Caroline and the obese publishing magnate Hobbs. Which the latter is determined to destroy at all costs. But Caroline’s husband has created other tapes as well, including one that shows how a policeman was killed and another incriminating one which shows a strictly personal murder.

The story grows more complicated as Wren speculates why these tapes are important and how he can use them, and then it becomes even more complicated as he discovers what each tape contains. However, these complications also serve to deepen our understanding of Wren, for they show how human this cynical columnist really is. For example, one tape forces him to change his opinion of Hobbs, the boss who has threatened his journalism career; while another tape, that of the murder, deepens the moral questions confronting Wren, who is already dealing with the moral issue of his extra-martial affair with Caroline.

Overall, this is a richly told story of lust and greed on one hand, and of vanity, power, and human folly on the other. It is also a tale in which violence lurks around every corner. For example, Wren himself is beaten and maced, while his house is invaded and his little boy shot. As a result, he himself exacts his own revenge, which produces a violent streak in him the reader does not anticipate. Indeed, reading about the violence dehumanizes him. And then Harrison takes the violence a step further as we witness on tape the actual carving up of a murder victim. It appears that Harrison wants the reader to feel the horrors and the risks that challenge these characters, but for me he overdoes it—just as for some he will have overdone the sex in order to make Wren’s fascination with Caroline convincing.

These people share stories of seduction, lying, self-doubt, and shame. And, as a result, the author probes the rich inner emotions of these characters, as well as the rationalizations and the psychology of strained human relationships. Wren confronts a fascinating woman he does not understand but craves, a woman he knows is using him but who is hiding answers to a puzzle that fascinates him. What is she hiding, he wonders. About her real motive in seducing him. About her husbands’s mysterious death. About her relationship with Hobbs. And how can he get her out of his system, and then back to his own life?

The duel between Wren and Caroline reaches its dramatic conclusion when Wren finally challenges her. “No, Caroline, no. You brought me into this. You thought you could just…lead me around. But you didn’t study me very carefully, Caroline, you didn’t figure out how a small-town boy like me with not one connection in New York City elbowed and hustled and hassled his way to be a newspaper columnist.”

As Jim Shepard wrote in The New York Times, “The novel’s protagonist is most memorable when that small-town boy, for all his bluster, articulates with real sadness his understanding of his own wrongdoing, and of the damage he’s done to those he loves.”

Indeed, our final glimpse of Wren takes us into his core, and into the rich contradictions that Harrison brings to his portrait of this troubled man. “I wished then, with a final sweet pain…that despite my betrayal of those whom I loved most, I might yet prove worthy of their affections. Better then, I thought, that our respective confessions go unheard, that they fall away into time. There would, I know, be other questions to worry about, other dark crises of heart and hope; sooner or later life brings to all of us some form of suffering. Would that we were equal to it always.”

These musings, these probings of internal doubt, are what raises this thriller for me to the level of literature. And what makes me want to seek out more of Harrison’s work. (December, 2018)

 

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Louisiana Power and Light, by John Dufresne

This is a clever but frustrating novel from 1994. I was very impressed by its rich literary style as the novel opens. The author directly addresses the reader in a Southern homespun style, and appears in complete control of his characters in the small town of Monroe, Louisiana.

But disappointment slowly grew on me. Because there were too many homespun Southern characters whose lives intermingled but did not come together to produce a single dramatic whole. I also sensed too much local color, too much surface cleverness, and not enough exploration of these characters in depth.

This reaction was not unlike a comment in the Kirkus Review: “We soon realize Dufresne is rambling on about his characters’ lives, never once entering their emotions or examining their motives….[And his] plot is continually interrupted by narratives about minor characters. Dufresne wastes so much time telling readers he’s telling a story and expounding on the art of storytelling that we lose interest in the characters and, thus, in the story.” And as Jill McCorkle in The New York Times suggests: Dufresne “offers a plot line as complex as the network of backwoods roads these people and their ancestors have committed to memory,”

And while I decided to finish this novel to see where the author was heading, what he was trying to say, I also decided that this novel was perhaps not going to be worth writing about.

What prompted to me to pick up this novel in the first place was that its main character, Billy Wayne Fontana, was training in a novitiate to become a priest. This is before he became involved with the citizens of Monroe. It would be interesting, I thought, to learn how that background carries into the secular world. And it is quite secular. For Billy Wayne’s story begins with a family curse that has produced generations of unfortunate sinners, all males; and the authorities have believed they can help end that family curse if he is trained to be a priest.

But, alas, he is seduced by Earlene—an unstable woman who writes country music lyrics—while pretending to hear her confession in a hospital; and then he marries her and leaves the novitiate. Moreover, they soon become incompatible, and she leaves him; whereupon he marries Tammy Lynne, another unhappy woman, and sires two boys, Duane and Boone, the latter also known as Moon Pie. This second son is born with flippers instead of legs and is confined to a wheelchair. Is this the curse again at work? But Moon Pie is a genius, and he becomes interested in God and in the meaning of faith.

And this is why I finished this novel, and why I am writing about it. For the author, in his own idiosyncratic way, is addressing an issue that interests me and that surely is one I should address. For one can regard original sin as, in fact, a curse, and can see this Fontana curse as a way of addressing, in more worldly terms, one of mankind’s spiritual conditions. In other words, this author is addressing a basic religious issue, albeit through quirky Southern characters who live a hardscrabble life, encounter many dead ends, and are often frustrated by the life they lead.

Moon Pie finally convinced me to write about this novel when he becomes a radio evangelist and introduces a lengthy spiritual discussion of the presence of God and how we should relate to Him. Added to the guilt Billy Wayne feels for having abandoned the priesthood and failed to meet the needs of two wives, this suggest the author is indeed addressing more than the foibles of Southern hicks.

The title of the novel also supports this spiritual aspect. While the power company itself plays a minor role here, merely serving the town of Monroe and offering employment, its name suggests the primary characteristics of God that are under discussion here—in terms of both the power He has and the light He generates and offers to others.

Unfortunately, the reviews seem to relate more to the quirky nature of these Southern characters, even calling the novel a blend of comedy and tragedy, than to the spiritual search introduced by Moon Pie and Billy Wayne. Indeed, Billy Wayne asks how he can justify abandoning his priestly vocation, since he has become a failure in his relationship with two wives and has prompted the death of two others. The answer he reaches is not a satisfactory one for me, with its crown of nettles, although it may be for the author, his creator, who seems to rate the symbolism over the reality.

Of course, once things go wrong, humans beings do tend to look in various directions for the reason. Some ask if what happened is their own fault. Others ask if it is the fault of circumstances, or fate. Still others ask if the fault is God’s. In this case, Billy Wayne faults mainly himself, as he takes on the burden of the family curse. But the author, in his approach to the entire novel, seems to suggest otherwise, that the fault, or much of it, rests with God.

In fact, when Billy Wayne sees himself as a failure at the end, he himself begins to question God. “Surely, there had to have been a purpose,” he reasons, “elsewise this world and everything in it were all merely accidental and random—not the kind of world a God would create.”

The implication seems to be that God has failed mankind by instituting this curse called original sin. For allowing a family to be destroyed through no fault of its own. And for leaving survivors with little understanding of the reason, either for their own existence or for the eventual fate of every human. Asked the meaning of life, one character says: “That it ends. Just that.”

The narrator concludes with speculation about the next story people will hear about. “Whatever it is, we’ll feel different when it’s over. We’ll feel wiser, even if we aren’t. Wise and fortunate.” For life will go on. They will discover more about fate, questioning it at the same time that they accept it. But they will not have the answer to God’s role in their lives. Just as Billy Wayne himself did not, which does lead to this novel’s tragic consequences. (December, 2018)

The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago

After 60 or so pages, author Saramago introduces into this 1989 novel an interesting, provocative premise. But he uses the first sixty pages to set up that premise, which depends on his main character, the proofreader Raimundo Silva, inserting a “not” at a crucial point in a history book he is proofing. He does this arbitrarily, acting, as he says, as a Mr. Hyde rather than a Dr. Jekyll. But because his action is so arbitrary, Saramago must spend those initial sixty pages setting up his hero’s action. And, in the process, this delays when the action of the novel truly starts, for he must first both convince us of the man’s unsettled character and establish his particular role in the world of publishing.

What the inserted word “not” does is confound Portuguese history. For it makes the book of history our hero is proofreading say that the Crusaders, on the way to the Holy Land, did not stop to help free Lisbon from its occupation by the Moors. When, of course, they did stop to do exactly that.

As a result of his inserting the one word, falsifying history, a woman, Maria Sara, is hired by his publishing house to manage both him and other proofreaders to be hired for subsequent works. Raimundo meets with her and learns he will not be punished, because of his long and faithful service to the publisher. But she reveals she is intrigued by his bravura insertion, and she provocatively proposes that he himself write a book, one in which the Crusaders do fail to help in the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors.

Raimundo at once rejects the idea, but when he goes home it begins to intrigue him. Just as Maria Sara does. And he starts speculating how and why the Crusaders would reject the king’s appeal. Which leads to typical Saramago speculation about the various possibilities. And then leads to Raimundo one day visiting the castle that was the headquarters of the Moors—whereupon, the answer comes to him.

Except, author Saramago is not one to immediately reveal his hero’s insight. Instead, the proofreader delves still deeper into the process by which the Crusaders might decide to deny their services in his new version of history. He decides this means the Crusaders would enter into negotiations. They would ask how they will be rewarded if they help defeat the Moors, and the answer Raimundo’s king comes up with is that just as God has helped the Christians in other battles in Portugal, he will help the Crusaders enjoy such a victory if they agree to join in retaking Lisbon from the Moors.

The Crusaders’ answer is a kind of blasphemy, for they say that since God has brought you victory in the past, you surely do not need our help. The king is mollified, however, when a few token Crusaders do agree to help. Whereupon, Saramago switches from Raimundo’s imaginative speculation to the reality of Raimundo’s life. The proofreader decides to bring a book of poems he has proofed to his publisher. And just as the man weighs the possible outcome of every encounter, whether in his own life or in his fiction, his indecision is amplified when he is faced with the attractive Maria Sara as he delivers the book of poems. Since this is the first time, half way through the book, that he has finally made a connection with another person, one anticipates Saramago, at last, picking up the pace.

But, instead, Saramago develops his story on three levels. He concentrates on the viewpoint of the Moors under siege, especially a blind muezzin to whom is described the movement of troops below. Then he switches to Raimundo at his writing desk but also thinking of Maria Sara. And finally, he gets inside the writer Raimundo, who is evaluating the impact on the king of most Crusaders abandoning the siege and heading off to sea, while a few troops remain behind to join the besiegers. The overall impact is that of watching Raimundo figure out how to write a book that contradicts history. Which approach Saramago continues in the following chapters, moving back and forth, in and out, ending with Raimundo hesitantly approaching Maria again.

And for the first time, about three quarters into thus work, there is a human connection. But what is not clear to me at this point is Saramago’s intent in writing this book. The title suggests the goal is a portrait of history. And that as a novelist he knows he must approach this purpose through a human being, his proofreader. But we don’t sense the humanness of this proofreader until now. When it briefly takes over the book.

But then, in his finale, the author returns to the siege of Lisbon, and spells out in detail how the siege could have ended, even though, in history, it did not end that way. In his version, Saramago also tells the story of a knight and his concubine Ouroana. And how a common soldier Mogueime declares his love for her and how she replies. This suggests a parallel to the love of Raimundo and Maria Sara, with the common soldier standing in for the common proofreader. Just as Saramago’s history of the siege stands in for the real siege without repeating it.

In an Afterward, translator Giovanni Portiero explains why Saramago has written this novel in this way. That he prefers “stories inserted into history.” That “the central concern of Saramago’s novel focus[es] on our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, to differentiate between reliable and suspect historical reporting, and the difficulty of drawing the frontier between the two.” As Saramago himself says, “The truth is that history could have been written in many different ways and this idea of infinitude and variation are the essence of my writing.”

And so we have a work of fiction in which the fiction merely embellishes a literary philosophy, rather than explores human relationships. This is not for me true fiction, but I must also acknowledge that this work has made me aware of a moment of Lisbon history that I knew nothing about. Which, in a way, is perhaps Saramago’s intent. To make history come alive, by inserting his own fiction, by showing, in the translator’s words, that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping.” (December, 2018)

A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson

The small death in this 1999 novel is a kind of culmination of larger deaths, as we begin in the 1990s with the rape and murder of a young girl in Lisbon and then are switched to Portugal in the 1940s and that country’s role in aiding the German cause that resulted in the deaths of millions in World War II. Indeed, for the rest of this novel, we alternate between the recent small-scale story and the earlier large-scale story. Can there be a connection between the two?

One story concerns Lisbon Inspector Ze Coelho‘s investigation of the girl’s death, and the other the adventures of Klaus Felsen, a German factory owner conscripted into the SS, and who is assigned to smuggle wolfram out of Portugal for the German war effort. Felsen later is ordered to smuggle German gold into Portugal and to set up a bank in order to preserve the gold, and we follow his fortunes postwar as the bank he helps set up reaches international prominence. And as the time frame narrows between the two stories, we do begin to wonder how, or will, these two stories ever come together.

The search for the girl’s killer is rather routine, with the inspector interviewing the girl’s family, including her powerful father, a lawyer, and various people on the fringes of society who know of the secret life that led to her murder. The wolfram adventures of Felsen are also routine for an espionage novel, as he works underground with the head of the Abrantes, a Portuguese peasant family, to set up the supply chain. In fact, his relationship with them continues after the war, as the sons use the banking gold to create a new and prosperous image for themselves with no ties to the past.

Despite what I find to be somewhat formulaic adventures in both the present and the past, this work has earned laurels from many crime critics. But for me it gradually became a disappointment. In part, because the pursuit, in one case of facts and in another case of fulfillment, seemed to be reaching no conclusion. Interest heightened only when the stories of Coelho and Felsen become personal. When they introduced sexual or family relationships, or when sudden violence was required because one’s reputation or one’s survival was threatened. This also results in a number of brutal murders that do, if only briefly, heighten the dramatic tension. As a small counterbalance, however, the author, as a resident himself, is very effective at using streets, plazas, and landmarks to ground these various adventures in a real Portugal.

One waits to learn the connection between these two tales, the girl’s murder and the earlier maneuvering with, first, the wolfram and then the gold. When the connection comes, it begins as a generational link, an obvious but arbitrary outcome that disappoints. And then come the details, which are quite complicated, as in many a mystery. The details involve teenage prostitution, obscure characters playing major roles, a major character taken out of commission, a family rape and revenge, the innocent being guilty, the truly guilty not participating in the deaths, and, finally, the irony of an illegitimate birth.

Given both the violent acts and the sexual activity of these characters, The New York Times review by Richard Bernstein speculates positively about author Wilson’s intent in writing this crime novel “It as though Mr. Wilson wants to draw a private, personal parallel to the organized breakdown of civilized behavior represented by the Nazis, the idea that mass murder engineered by a mad ideology has its microscopic counterpart in individual acts of sexual domination and cruelty.”

But Bernstein also says the novel is “not persuasive in absolutely every detail” and that the author “overdoes matters” towards the end, resulting in a kind of “lurid indiscriminateness.” Which remarks reflect my own opinion. That there is too much authorial ambition here. Too arbitrary an effort in trying to connect past and present. And there are too many complications, with too many characters, some obscure, playing too significant a role, as the author tries to make sense of their complicated relationships.

I have another Wilson novel to read, about a police inspector in Sevilla, and, while I have enjoyed the author’s work in the past, I am not sure how eagerly I should look forward to a work that appears to be similar to this Lisbon story. (December, 2018)

Two Moons, by Thomas Mallon

I have always been intrigued by Mallon’s historical novels, but have read only Henry and Clara, which did disappoint me. This 2000 novel, however, is quite effective. It is a quiet novel, but its youthful romance, its pursuit of scientific evidence in the heavens, and its late 19th century Washington scene are quite effective. The actual year is 1878, when the Capital is still recovering from the Civil War and people are yearning for a brighter future.

This is the story of thirtyish Civil War widow Cynthia May and her love of an ambitious astronomer Hugh Allison. Both are fictional characters. She is a mathematical whiz at the U.S. Navel Observatory, while he is a handsome and ambitious, but physically delicate, astronomer scientist. The author blends their love affair with the lives of real scientists who surround them at the Observatory. And he supplements those lives with the predictions of a presumably fictional astrologer, Mary Costello. This woman advises a powerful senator, the historic Roscoe Conkling of New York, on how the stars might help him beat back reformists who are challenging the party machine. Conkling is a ladies man, and the plot turns when he encounters Cynthia, is fascinated by her, and decides to pursue her.

Cynthia’s own story is a quiet one, not a dramatic one, and yet, as I indicated, effective. For she is both smart and settled into her widowhood—until, that is, she meets Hugh. The reality of their affair is enhanced by the care the author takes to create the hectic daily life of the Observatory, where Mary is called a computer since she deals with mathematical calculations and Hugh tracks the planets through a telescope. What also enlivens this scientific background is the political and personal infighting at the Observatory, climaxing with the desire of most of the scientists there to move their location away from Foggy Bottom, where the fog and the malarial mosquitoes both disrupt their investigation of the skies and endanger their health.

And this effort to move the Observatory is complemented by the political maneuvering in Washington D.C between the Presidency and Congress. Even as Mallon captures the woman’s point of view through Cynthia and Mary, he also captures the political history underlying this novel. Such as the maneuvering by Senator Conkling, for example, in support of President Rutherford B. Hayes, maneuvers which are not always clear to the average reader.

The scientists at the Observatory spend their time searching the skies, studying the planets (the discovery of two moons around Mars is made during this period), and seeking to identify new heavenly bodies through their telescopes. But while these efforts are directed toward reaching out and discovering unknown civilizations across the heavens, Hugh Allison thinks about knowledge flowing in the opposite direction. He wants to send out a message to those possible civilizations and make them aware of we fellow beings here on earth.

And so Hugh seeks to shine a powerful light into the sky that will draw attention toward the planet earth. As he says, he wants the speed of light to carry through the universe a message that will be found long after he himself is gone.

Much of the novel focuses on his efforts, aided by Cynthia, to obtain a machine from a fellow scientist in France that emits the powerful light that he needs. Senator Conkling enters the scene here because Cynthia realizes that, after their casual encounter and his efforts to seek an amorous relationship, she needs to develop that relationship. Because he has the power and influence to help them bring over the searchlight from France and pass it through customs.

Hugh’s plan is to take his searchlight to the top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, and to shine its beam into the sky. This effort represents the climax of the novel, after which their story eases into a quiet ending. Meaning that there is no dramatic finale, no earthshaking discovery. What follows is merely a New York Blizzard ten years later that allows the author to settle the fortunes of his main characters.

We have glimpsed in this novel a moment if imaginary history, and a moment of imaginary reality. And it is a reality both highly believable, and symbolic of its times. It reflects, as the Washington Post says, “a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American.”

Yes, one wants to seek out more of Mallon’s work. In his historical fictions, he brings together the humanity of his characters, whether historic or fictional. And then, as he captures the sense of their times, he lets a quiet moment of history reverberate into our future. (November, 2018)

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

This is a fascinating novel that begins with what purports to be an accidental death—of a college student named Bunny. But it has happened because five other students at Hampden, an obscure Vermont college, believe Bunny intends to reveal their involvement in the death of a Vermont farmer during a strange ritual. One of the five students is the narrator, Richard, who has fallen in with the other four shortly after the farmer’s death. The other students are Henry, the group’s manipulative leader; Frances, wealthy and seductive; and the twins, beautiful but aloof, Charles and Camille.

The novel is immediately fascinating because of how deeply the author understands these students and how well she communicates their bravado and their uncertainties. And yet, even as both their talk and their actions are convincing, the students themselves do not come alive on the page as separate individuals. Not even Richard, the narrator of their tale, a poor California youth who pretends to come from wealth. This may well be because all five are under the spell of eccentric Greek professor, Julian Morrow, whose favorite saying is “beauty is terror,” and whose cultural frame of reference they have all absorbed.

The academic atmosphere, yes, comes alive, but not the characters. If these six youths seem more types than vividly individual students, it may also be because little dramatic happens after the opening pages. They are more interested in themselves than in each other. Early on, these students talk a lot, often about the Greek classics they study. And the author certainly knows those classics. But such discussions contribute more to the college atmosphere than to any dramatic developments.

Yet this rich atmosphere and the author’s fluid style sustain one’s interest.           What drives the novel early on is the fear among the four students that, angry he was not included in the ritual that resulted in the farmers death, a blackmailing Bunny will betray them. And half-way into this novel, after discussing what to do about Bunny, they quickly plan the “accident,” the murder that begins the novel. Narrator Richard is present, but more as a witness than a participant. Yet he is conscience-stricken and filled with guilt.

The students’ desperate reactions are interesting, but overall I am turned off by what is happening in this book—even as I read on to find out why this interesting author has written this novel. Where is she going with it? Certainly, identifying with these characters—with their defense of and justification of their actions—becomes difficult.

For example, the five students at first stand around and talk, often drinking or indulging in drugs, as they wait for various search parties to discover Bunny’s body and the apparent accidental circumstances. Then, after a brief campus-wide mourning, the five students attend Bunny’s funeral in Connecticut. All the while talking and drinking, talking about what they should do next. It is a well-drawn portrait of guilt, denial, and desperation, but nothing is really happening externally, certainly nothing dramatic.

In the final pages, the students try to come to terms with a situation in which their mutual guilt is compounded by a distrust of each other. Will one of them betray the others? Henry grows elusive. Charles gets drunk and becomes desperate. Francis panics. While narrator Richard follows them around—ineffectual, but indispensible for telling the story.

Two plot developments bring the story to a head—a melodramatic head. First, Professor Morrow, who has guided these privileged students into a world of dark conspiracies, makes a discovery that changes his view of them and the reader’s view of him. It is not a convincing shift, but seems to occur because it leaves these students without their cultural base, without the professor’s intellectual and emotional support they have long relied on.

And so they are on their own. And become desperate. One fearing death and finding a gun. One hiding from responsibility. One feeling helpless, and out of the loop. And then there is a melodramatic confrontation, followed by a death. Is there meant to be a moral here, that the victimizer becomes the victim?

The novel ends with a brief epilogue that describes the future of the various characters. But there are no revelations that further explain their actions during this melodrama of their student lives. Nor do those events have any impact on their future lives. It is simply a round-up chapter, like those that once concluded old-fashioned novels. But for me, it is a cop-out. It carries no significance. The significance of this novel is in their student experience—an experience that has turned this novel into a college novel like no other. It is as if the author has been guided into reverting to tradition. But the content of this novel is far from traditional.

And so, one asks where was the author trying to go with this novel? She began it while in college, and so one can easily conclude that she chose the college setting. That is, she decided to write from experience. But obviously, she was inspired to write something that was different. She wished to probe the psychology of students reacting to two deaths they are responsible for. There are no love stories here, nor tales of academic woes. No, this is about guilt and its repercussions.

In fact, Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, after praising this novel for its controlled pace and its entertainment value, comes to a conclusion similar to mine: “Because Ms. Tartt’s characters are all such silly customers, they do not so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. As a result, real guilt and suffering doe not occur in this novel; neither does redemption. The reader is simply left with a group portrait of the banality of evil.”

My first caveat is that guilt and suffering do occur. But are simply not recognized. For what else drives the inexplicable, melodramatic climax?

Nor do I find evil present in this novel. Especially a Dionysian evil out of the Greek classics. That is too much weight for these studious but callow youths to carry. They simply do not know as much as they think they know. And are unprepared for their own fateful decisions. (November, 2018)