Article: 19820701041

Title: Books

19820701041
00048994
200050_19820701_048994.xml
Books
0032-1478
Playboy
HMH Publishing Co., Inc.
Review-Books
46
46
review
Has success spoiled Ken Follett? The Man from St. Petersburg (Morrow) certainly seems to point that way. The scene is England, on the eve of World War One. While England is trying to work out an alliance with Russia to face the German menace, a Russian anarchist is trying to assassinate his country's envoy. There are several implausible subplots that try to keep this heady salad of a book, uh, tossed. No amount of dressing--women's suffrage, life at court, views of the London of the period--can save it.
46

Has success spoiled Ken Follett? The Man from St. Petersburg (Morrow) certainly seems to point that way. The scene is England, on the eve of World War One. While England is trying to work out an alliance with Russia to face the German menace, a Russian anarchist is trying to assassinate his country's envoy. There are several implausible subplots that try to keep this heady salad of a book, uh, tossed. No amount of dressing--women's suffrage, life at court, views of the London of the period--can save it.

Edward Abbey's new collection of essays and musings, Down the River (Dutton), should be on James Watt's required-reading list. Abbey continues to be our most persuasive conservationist, largely because he is as respectful and as curious about his own craggy mental landscape as about any geographic one (the MX missile, he feels, invades both). One of the best essays in the book describes a river trip during which he rereads Thoreau--and often takes him to task. This book is filled with many unexpected confessions; our favorite is that Abbey frequently salutes morning in the wilderness by cracking open a beer.

It took five years of research; it was serialized in The New Yorker last February; everybody's talking about it: Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth (Knopf) is a book not to be missed, for he writes of the perils and the consequences of nuclear war in a concise, deep and graceful way, bringing our universal nightmare into the open with an informed focus and a hopeful heart. Read it before we're extinct.

D. Keith Mano, a longtime friend of this magazine's, took ten years to write Take Five (Doubleday). And we should all be very glad he did. This is a tough book and an odd one, too. It's paged backward, for one thing; its hero, Simon Lynxx, is a man whose appetites and obnoxiousness are as big as life--and the novel is about how he loses his senses. You can feel the writerly sweat on each page; Mano's humor is smart and ruthless. Take Five is a triumph.

"Two years old, that's what we are, emotionally--America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn't bring me this and why didn't Santa bring me that. . . . Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything." Thus sayeth Ishmael Reed in his latest lighthearted evisceration of life in these United States, The Terrible Twos (St. Martin's/Marek). Not since Reed's Mumbo Jumbo has his increasingly dry humor been as appropriate for a story as for this one, which involves a President whose main voter appeal is that he was once considered the most handsome male model in America; a renegade Catholic priest named Boy Bishop; a pimp called Big Meat; the ghosts of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry Truman: a scheme by big business to boost the economy by incorporating Santa Claus; an appearance by the spirit of Saint Nicholas, who comes to avenge said desecration; and a Rastafarian ventriloquist named Black Peter, who singlehandedly almost engineers the collapse of American civilization. If that's confusing, you are not yet ready for Ishmael Reed, for whom plots and characters have never been more than vehicles for pungent social commentary.

The passing of Philip K. Dick, in March, went nearly unnoticed, even though he was one of America's best and most prolific novelists, because Dick chose a ghetto in which to be brilliant. He wrote science-fiction novels--35 of them published in his 53-year lifetime. But s-f is a low-rent literary neighbor-hood, so only his fellow ghetto dwellers know the secret of his genius. Unfortunately, his final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (Timescape) is no place to begin learning it. Throughout the Sixties, Dick managed his enormous output and wrote his best novels--The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik--using amphetamines for fuel. The books from that period bubble with original ideas, often funny and profound at once. His many strange futures are always believable, ironic extensions of now: What's bad is worse; hard, harder; weird, weirder--just the way it'll probably be. And underlying even the wildest of his space-opera plots are deeper concerns. Like a life-long college sophomore and the wisest of men through the ages, Dick wondered and wondered and wondered about the very nature of reality--what, if anything, it all means. It's this literally cosmic underpinning that distinguishes his novels from the usual run of science fiction and makes them literature. But when, in the early Seventies, he finally quit taking speed, those concerns--coupled with the sudden loss of several people close to him--led him into a near-suicidal depression. Timothy Archer is the last book of a loosely connected trilogy; its earlier volumes, Valis and The Divine Invasion, appeared last year. Each is a fictionalized facet of the same story--Dick's own deep spiritual crisis and its successful resolution, however tentative. Timothy Archer, which focuses on the spiritual quest of a Bishop Pike-like character whose son and mistress are already suicides when the novel begins, is merely a final minor chord in the Bach fugue of Dick's life, but old fans will find in it a welcome completion--as if after a lifetime of confronting the void, he had briefly found peace.

Abbey on the wilderness, Reed on Santa and Dick remembered.

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Ken Follett's folly.
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Missiles in the wilds.
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