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Contentions

Bookshelf

• I spent the past month staying in a string of New England country inns, most of which were of the sort that have libraries—of a sort. These moldering collections typically consist of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember them?) and the best sellers of yesteryear, lightly sprinkled with the odd novelty. On occasion the novelties can be quite odd indeed. I passed a pleasant evening reading the memoirs of Lowell Thomas (remember him?) as I sat by the Atlantic Ocean a couple of weeks ago, and the very next night I stumbled across a copy of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in Lithographs, a 1934 volume abridged and illustrated by Hugo Gellert, a long-forgotten artist whose earnest prose breathes the air of other spheres:

But out of the East rises a new Prometheus. And all the Gods in the World cannot chain him! The great disciple of Karl Marx, Lenin, led the Russian workers and peasants who created the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. And these workers and peasants became the Masters of their own destiny. The Young Giant with his mighty hands builds the future of mankind and bright lights flare up in his wake . . . .

More often, though, I contented myself with mysteries and thrillers of varying vintages, the oldest of which was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963, mere months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy robbed a generation of Americans of their dewy-eyed innocence, blah blah blah. Not that the pseudonymous author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had much innocence of which to be robbed, judging by the book’s denouement, which hinges on the complete and final disillusion of its grubby, self-pitying anti-hero:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.

As it happens, I’d never read a word of le Carré, and I was fascinated to find that he appears to be the man who introduced moral equivalence to modern espionage fiction. (Actually, Somerset Maugham beat him to the punch four decades earlier with Ashenden, but that book’s eponymous secret agent is not so much disillusioned as indifferent.) In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the Brits and Russians are interchangeably unscrupulous and cynical, and it is taken for granted that neither side deserves to prevail in the “long twilight struggle” proclaimed a scant two years earlier by the idealistic speechwriters of the soon-to-be-martyred architect of the New Frontier. It says something noteworthy about the emerging ethos of the Sixties that such a book was soon to become one of its emblematic literary successes.

• Repellent though the message of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold may be, it at least has the advantage of being exceedingly well written, albeit in a style indistinguishable from that of Graham Greene. In 1963 many best sellers still aspired to the condition of literature, and as late as 1987, Scott Turow, the author of Presumed Innocent, was clearly doing his best to produce a serious novel. Would that his editor had thus insisted on a complete rewrite, since Turow is a chronic overwriter who should be forced to spend a full year reading nothing but the complete works of Elmore Leonard. To be sure, he is also capable of writing with admirably clear-eyed straightforwardness about the mixed motives of lawyers and lawmen, and Presumed Innocent, which I found on the shelves of a Connecticut inn last week, has a richness of observation that helps to bring it within spitting distance of seriousness. Alas, it is disfigured at clockwork intervals by patches of the deepest purple:

Whatever wild, surging, libidinal rivers Carolyn undammed in me by her manner and appearance, there was something about the tender attention she showed this needy child that drew me over the brink, that gave my emotions a melting, yearning quality that I took to be far more significant than all my priapic heat.

No doubt this sentence was written with a straight face, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read with one.

• Unlike Scott Turow, John Grisham makes no pretense of being a serious writer. Indeed, it would be an act of charity to describe his lumpy prose as functional, for it bears much the same relationship to his elaborate plots that the flavor-free iceberg lettuce in a Midwestern salad bears to the Thousand Island dressing in which it is drenched. Since I find it all but impossible to read an ill-written book, I’ve hitherto made a point of steering clear of Grisham, but I reluctantly confess to having rather enjoyed The Firm, the 1991 novel in which he recounts the protracted travails and ultimate triumph of an Ivy League law-school grad who takes a way-the-hell-too-good-to-be-true job with a Memphis law firm that turns out to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Mafia, Inc.

Needless to say, The Firm is all plot and a yard wide, but at least it’s full of interesting facts. (Should the need ever arise, I now know how to launder large sums of money.) Even better, it’s a lawyer joke blown up to book length. Did you hear the one about the hot young gun fresh out of Harvard Law who landed a job with a firm that gave him a BMW and paid off his student loans . . . then tried to murder him? That’s my kind of moral equivalence.


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