Psychology and politics, or more accurately the psychology of people in political conflicts, are the topics of three of my favorites of the 1964 bestsellers: Armageddon by Leon Uris, The Man by Irving Wallace, and The Martyred by Richard E. Kim.
Oddly enough, the central characters of each of these novels are not themselves memorable.
Armageddon is a fictional account of the Berlin airlift. The effort’s mastermind controls the action from off stage. What readers remember is the incredible ingenuity and endurance of the mass of unnamed men and women who made the airlift succeed.
The Man is a fictional account of a run-of-the-mill senator shocked into rising to the occasion when, through no effort or desire of his own, he becomes America’s first black President. Douglass Dilman’s very ordinariness makes the story memorable and him forgettable: I can picture scenes from the novel vividly, but had to go back to look up the title character’s name.
The Martyred also turns around a character whose personality is less memorable than those of the less pivotal characters: South Korean Army Capt. Lee.
Lee puts his brain power into discovering what happened to a group of South Korean pastors when they were captured by the Communists. The intellectually understandable facts provide no explanation. The pastors’ behaviors arose from fear, love, and faith rather than from facts. Thus their behavior is comprehensible only through sympathy and insight.
If you want a real brain workout, read and compare these three novels.
That will keep you off the streets until the snow melts in Maine.
In Convention, veteran Washington reporters Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II take readers behind the scenes to see what happens at a national political convention out of sight of TV cameras.
Unfortunately, what happens out of sight of the TV cameras isn’t much more interesting than what readers see on TV.
Charles B. Manchester, Secretary of the Treasury and heir-apparent to the President, appears to have his party’s nomination sewn up.
Then Manchester utters an off-the-cuff comment at a press conference, which turns everyone with a stake in building a new defense system against him.
Manchester’s honestly believes the new weapon is not needed. He won’t back down, even if it means losing the nomination.
What is interesting from a contemporary perspective is that the plot hinges on use of a secret computer stuffed with data about the convention delegates. That may sound tame, but when Convention was written 50 years ago most people had not heard the term computer and Big Data was still a baby.
Other than that, there’s not much new or interesting in the novel.
I don’t need to tell you that with a little nudge The Great American Electorate will rise up to support The Honest Man.
You’ve seen this plot before, and the characters are as cliché-choked as the plot.
Note to subscribers: I apologize for not posting this review Tuesday as promised. Apparently I deleted it instead of scheduling it.
By Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II
Harper & Row, 1964
1964 bestseller #10
My grade: B
This Rough Magic is a romantic mystery set on Corfu where Lucy Warring, an actress of modest talent whose first London gig folded after a short run, is visiting her pregnant sister whose husband has had to stay in Rome to work.
Lucy’s sister and brother-in-law rent one of their island properties to the acclaimed actor Sir Julian Gale and his composer son, Max, who keeps uninvited visitors away from the property. Another of the Forli family properties on Corfu is rented to an Englishman who is working on a book of his photographs.
On her first morning in Corfu, Lucy is horrified to hear shots aimed at a dolphin frolicking in the cove. Max Gale is the only person in sight.
Thus Mary Stewart sets up a familiar plot in which the initially antagonistic couple solve a mystery and find love.
Stewart weaves into the novel elements of an old tale that Corfu was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s magic island in The Tempest, heading chapters with quotations from the play.
Steward also lards characters’ conversation with literary allusions. The characters, however, aren’t substantial enough to bear a literary novel.
This Rough Magic remains a boilerplate novel, more rough than magic.
This Rough Magic
By Mary Stewart
M. S. Mill and William Morrow
My grade: C
You Only Live Twice is next to last of the 12 James Bond novels Ian Fleming began publishing in 1953. Assuming readers are familiar with the names and personalities of the series’ characters, Fleming plunges into what passes for a plot.
Bond’s wife died in the previous novel; 007 has messed up two assignments since.
His supervisor, M, gives Bond the opportunity to redeem himself by persuading the Japanese to share radio transmissions captured from the Soviet Union. Japan’s price is the assassination of foreign “scientific researchers” living in a Japanese castle on a volcanic island.
Japanese wishing to commit suicide are drawn to the site’s geysers and fumaroles, as well as the researchers’ collection of toxic plants and carnivorous animals. The suicides are bad PR for Japan.
Bond infiltrates the castle, learns the researchers are the couple who killed his wife and blows the place up.
The explosion leaves him with amnesia.
A word in a news story triggers a faint memory, and Bond is off to a new adventure.
You Only Live Twice reads like a collaborative project by 13-year-old boys, with elements of every story they’ve ever seen or read from Random Harvest to — I’m not making this up — Winnie the Pooh.
Unless you have a life to waste, read some other novel.
You Only Live Twice
by Ian Fleming
New American Library, 1964
1964 bestseller #8
my grade D+
The Korean War is the backdrop for The Martyred, but the story could just as easily be set in Afghanistan or the Central African Republic today.
Richard E. Kim presents his novel as a first-person account by a South Korean Army Captain stationed in Pyongyang between the expulsion of the Communists and their recapture of the city.
Shortly before pulling out, the Communists seized 14 Christian ministers and shot 12 of them to death. Korean Army Intelligence wants to know whether the 12 were martyrs — great anti-Communist propaganda — or if the two were informers.
Only one of the two ministers survived with enough brain function to be able to tell the truth about what happened, and the Rev. Shin seems to be hiding a secret. Did he lie? Is he lying now? Captain Lee must uncover the truth.
Although Kim is frugal with adjectives, his simple prose creates an atmosphere as terrifying as any Gothic novel. There’s something about the good guys that feels untrustworthy.
Kim’s prose isn’t hard to read, but readers have to pay close attention. Every sentence is on the quiz — and some day your life might depend on knowing the right answers.
By Richard E. Kim
Seoul, Korea: Sam Jung-Dang
1964 bestseller #7
My grade: A-
Rejected for service with the British Army because of heart murmur, Brian Aspinwall lands a job at Justin Martyr, an Episcopal boys’ boarding school outside Boston, in September, 1939. The school’s founder-headmaster is the Reverend Francis Prescott, D.D., the most influential secondary educator in New England.
Brian begins a journal which becomes a record of his own observations of Prescott and those shared with him by others. Brian writes of Prescott the public figure and Prescott the private man.
Being a quiet, shy person, Brian has difficulty adjusting to life among 450 boys and their male teachers, all of whom seem to Brian to be in thrall to “the god of football.”
Nevertheless, he becomes a good friend to Prescott’s dying wife, and, in return, is helped by Prescott to master the art of commanding students’ respect.
By giving Brian boundless opportunities to observe Prescott and his world up close, Louis Auchincloss makes Brian’s picture of Prescott potentially either highly reliable or highly distorted. What fact is recorded by Brian’s keen mind, which by his soft heart?
In the end, readers of The Rector of Justin have to sort out not only what kind of man Francis Prescott was, but also what kind of man Brian Aspinwall is.
The Rector of Justin
By Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin, 1964
1964 bestseller #6
My grade: B+
The title character of The Man is a U.S. Senator horrified along with the rest of the nation to realize he has become American’s first black president.
Douglass Dilman has never made waves politically; he’s never felt secure enough to attempt to do so. He’s not even been able to get up courage to propose to the woman he’s loved for five years.
His party’s elite think Dilman will fall into line as US President as he did as Senate President, but just in case, they draft a bill that prohibits the executive from firing a Cabinet member without the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.
Dilman lets the bill become law without his signature; it’s his first, tiny act of personal political responsibility, and one that will lead to his impeachment.
Irving Wallace didn’t imagine Dilman as an elected black president, but that’s one of the few details of the story that don’t read like news from the post-LBJ years: Tussles between the US and Russia over fledgling African democracies, threats of presidential impeachment, blacks’ resentment of a black president who doesn’t support them over whites.
Everything Wallace gets right in the novel, points out everything that’s still wrong in America.
And that’s why, beyond its marvelously well-told story, The Man is worth reading once more.
The Man By Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, 1964
1964 bestseller #5
My grade: A-
Armageddon is a sprawling novel set as World War II ends and the Soviets move to turn Europe into Communist satellites.
The themes Leon Uris raises are as familiar as today’s news, but easier to examine with a degree of objectivity in a 75-year-old setting.
War-weary Americans want to pull out of Germany and let the Germans fend for themselves. General A. J. Hansen begs American politicians to plan for a post-war political settlement. He sees withdrawal would give rise to a more serious threat than Hitler’s Reich.
Hansen assembles a team of experts lead in everything from electrical generation to municipal government to design a plan for governing Germany after the war. Hansen sends them to a Nazi stronghold where they deploy and refine their plan.
Then Hansen redirects them to Berlin to begin guiding the city into rebuilding on democratic principles before the Russians can build Berlin into a Communist satellite.
When the Russians block all land routes into the city, leaving Berliners to face starvation in the frigid winter, Hansen fights against Congressional and military leaders to win presidential approval to attempt to supply the city by air.
Although Hansen is behind most of the novel’s action, he’s rarely seen in the novel. Uris reserves the role of the hero for the team of men who put their individual expertise at the service of America. Uris lists yards of facts about the Berlin airlift, emphasizing the monumental achievement and personal self-effacement of the men who made it happen.
It takes a rare kind of man to serve his country without the benefit of pyrotechnics or reward and a different kind of courage to keep your mouth shut and go on working and believing when you are positive those around you are wrong. We don’t have enough men of this kind of dedication.
by Leon Uris
1964 bestseller #4
My grade: B+
Saul Bellow’s Herzog is the sort of novel about which critics utter phrases like “certain to be talked about.”
I’ll say the novel contains some clever sentences. (I particularly liked, “He was a piece of human capital badly invested.”) But it takes more than a few good sentences to make a novel.
Having a plot is always useful.
Bellow seems to have missed the boat there.
The story, such as it is, concerns Moses E. Herzog, 47, a man with two ex-wives, two children, and a trail of fondly remembered sex partners.
Herzog may not be crazy, but he is definitely a guy with issues.
Most of the book is Herzog’s letters to friends, family, colleagues, strangers, each attempting to set the record straight. He writes others were wrong, he was right.
Herzog reminds me of Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s nineteenth century novel Middlemarch. Casaubon wants to find the key to all mythologies; Herzog wants to find the key to all of life. If Casaubon had written a personal memoir, it would have sounded a lot like Herzog’s scribbling, although to give Herzog his due, he does have a sense of irony which Casaubon entirely lacks.
Herzog finally writes himself into exhaustion and winds up back in the same neglected house where the story began.
by Saul Bellow
New York: Viking Press
1964 bestseller #3
My grade C