Impending doom seems to be the theme of the 1962 best-selling novels. My favorites are each by a pair of writers.
Fail Safe and Seven Days in May are thrillers in every sense of the word. Both are marked by taut prose and tightly constructed plots. Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail Safe, though, conveys a continuing sense of menace that makes it my top pick of ’62. No one reading Fail Safe today could deny the US still is vulnerable to failures in its too-big-to-fail systems.
Seven Days in May is a political thriller about a conspiracy to overthrow the President. While there are striking similarities between the book’s events and contemporary news, Fletcher Knevel and Charles W. Bailey’s White House has a very low-key, Eisenhower era feel that doesn’t create the sense of continuing menace Fail Safe does.
Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference is my third-place pick. The politicians who fill its pages are aware of being part of history. They see the significance of events they are helping to shape. The complex plot that makes the book intriguing also make it easy to forget what happens in the novel.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh deserves an honorable mention. The quiet prose of her Dearly Beloved fares badly by contrast to the high voltage thrillers. When read among quieter books, however, Lindbergh’s novel gently creates room for thoughtful reflection on the status and future of the institution of marriage.
The Reivers is a zany tale of a none-too-innocent rural Mississippi childhood related by Lucius Priest to his grandson.
At age 11, Lucius and two pals who work at the family’s freight business borrow his grandfather’s automobile and drive up to Memphis from Jefferson, Mississippi, no mean feat in 1905.
While Boon and Lucius eat supper at a brothel where Boon’s girl friend works, Ned trades the car for a horse. Ned plans to race the horse, bet heavily, collect a pile, and get the car back when the horse wins.
Unfortunately, the horse hates to run unless there’s another horse ahead of him.
Ned has to enlist Boon and Lucius to help.
William Faulkner’s narrator tells the story in a wheezy, cracker barrel manner, letting readers deduce what actually happened—if that is possible. The yarn may be only a few facts embroidered by an old man’s fancy, the characters might be just enhanced wisps of Lucius’ memory.
The charm of the story is believing there was once a time when people who cared about one another might have had exciting adventures together and never come to any harm.
The Reivers: A Reminiscence
Random House, 1962
1962 Bestseller #10
My grade: B
In The Prize, Irving Wallace knits threads about Cold War political intrigue, Nazi atrocities, gutter press journalism, and the Nobel Prize awards into a complex yarn that ends with no loose ends.
The main character is the year’s literature recipient, Andrew Craig, an American novelist who traded his pencil for a bottle after his wife died in a car crash with him at the wheel. In Stockholm, Andrew falls for a girl brought up by her uncle, the physics honoree, after her parents perished at the hands of the Nazis. Andrew discovers Emily has some war stories of her own.
Other Nobel winners who figure in the story are a French husband-wife research team and an American doctor with a chip on his shoulder big enough to require psychiatric removal.
The secondary characters are presented with broad strokes; the main characters are only slightly more individuals. But Wallace uses the history of the Nobel Prize to tie all the disparate threads together, making the implausible plot seem as inevitable as the annual awards themselves.
The ending seems a bit too pat and romantic; however, it’s hard to see how a novel about the world’s most illustrious award could be anything but romantic.
Simon and Schuster, 1962
1962 Bestseller #8
My grade: B+
Seven Days in May is a thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, a pair of newspaper reporters whose knowledge of the mid-twentieth century Washington political realities infuse every page.
One May Sunday, Marine Colonel Martin J. Casey uncovers what he thinks could be a plot by his boss, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Scott to overthrow the President. Putting his job on the line, Casey discloses his suspicions to the President.
President Lyman takes some convincing, but as evidence mounts, he decides to act. He will act secretly, with help from just a few trusted men and his long-time secretary.
The characters are drawn in broad outline, recognizable as types rather than individuals.
Knebel and Bailey’s strong point is plot. Fifty years after first publication, the story sounds even more plausible than it did against the landscape of the 1960s. If anything, the fictional President’s observation that a frustrated electorate, feeling unable to influence events has “seriously started looking for a superman” rings more true today than it did in 1962.
As to the rest of the setting—a President the people are not quite sure of, high unemployment, economic insecurity, apprehension over potential foreign attacks—sounds like the morning news to me.
Seven Days in May
Fletcher Knebel & Charles W. Bailey II
Harper & Row, 1962
My grade: B+
1962 Bestseller #7
During a military exercise, American bombers armed with nuclear weapons streak off past the fail-safe point, headed for Moscow.
Watching blips on the air command’s radar screen blink are a congressman and a manufacturer whose equipment went into the complex system intended to make the nuclear deployment program accident-proof. All hope fervently that the radar reports are wrong.
Russians watching their radar screens are also convinced the problem is in the display: nothing has prepared them for an attack or an American accident.
The President calls Krushchev.
To prevent an unprovoked attack on Moscow, the President first tries to shoot down the US planes. When that does not work, he seizes the only option available to avert World War III.
With that material to work from and their taut prose, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler could not help turning out a thriller.
Fail-Safe, however, is not just a few hours’ entertainment. It’s a reminder that in any complex, untested system, the occurrence of several statistically improbable errors can bring the whole system crashing down. Perhaps if that lesson had been learned from this novel, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might not have come as such as shock to the American public.
Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
1962 Bestseller #6
My grade: B+
Youngblood Hawke is Herman Wouk’s contribution to the shelf of novels by novelists about novelists. The novel has the usual plot complications readers expect as the rube with the typewriter is taken on, taken in, and taken over by shysters.
The story opens with Arthur Youngblood Hawke’s sale of his first novel to Prince House. The novel is promising rather than good.
Art figures he needs to write about seven books before he’ll know his craft. He aims to be first a successful author, then a rich one, living off his investments while he writes great books.
Art invests the income from his books in enterprises from hog futures and commercial real estate to self-publishing. His financial successes and failures are spectacular, but they are never what’s important to him. His world is the pad of lined yellow paper that he fills hour after hour.
Like most other novels about novelists, Youngblood Hawke contrasts the mercenary publishing world with the world of the art. But Wouk’s cast of colorful characters makes clear that the profit motive operates throughout society: even artists have to eat.
And the most tenacious of the followers after fortune may be somebody’s mother.
[Herman Wouk based Youngblood Hawke on the life of Thomas Wolfe. The photo above shows the boarding house owned and operated by Wolfe’s mother where Wolfe lived until he went to college.]
Allen Drury followed up his blockbuster novel Advise and Consent with A Shade of Difference, which builds on events and characters from that novel.
In the mid-twentieth century, “Terrible Terry,”a Western-educated leader of a British possession, is seeking UN help in getting immediate independent status for his African country. Terry has the support of the Communist countries as well as the non-aligned and anti-American nations. More important, Terry has the support of the liberal segment of Americans always ready to denounce their nation.
When Terry dramatically escorts a black girl to integrate a white Southern school, he unleashes a violent clash of races and political opponents.
An experienced political reporter, Drury writes with an insider’s knowledge and a propagandist’s aim.
However, he’s also a capable story teller, who never forgets that readers come for the story. His omniscient character descriptions are borne out by the words and actions of those characters.
The most startling aspect of A Shade of Difference is how contemporary the story feels. Representative Cullee Hamilton, caught in the conflict between the races and his own political ambitions is a fictional sixties Barack Obama.
Whatever your political leanings, you will find intrigue and entertainment in the pages of this political thriller.
A Shade of Difference
1962 bestseller #3