Rabbit Redux is a literary Pompeii

Rabbit Redux is the second volume of what would become John Updike’s four-book series about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Although Redux is peppered with allusions to Rabbit, Run, readers who haven’t read that will feel slightly out of place.

Red, gray and blue striped cover suggests things out of whack in Rabbit Redux
The moon landing happens during Rabbit Redux.

The novel is set in 1969 in Brewer, a small Pennsylvania city whose neon outskirts conceal a decaying core left by the middle class folks like the Angstroms fleeing to the suburbs.

Harry takes the bus (“It stinks of Negroes.”) to work downtown. Janice drives the car to her job so she can meet her lover conveniently.

Janice moves in with her boyfriend.

Invited to a seedy bar by a black man with whom he works, Harry agrees to give a bed to a runaway, who says she’s 18 and drug free.

He brings Jill home; soon she and Harry’s son, 13-year-old son Nelson, are pals and Jill’s sharing Harry’s bed.

Then Jill brings home a black drug pusher wanted by police and things get complicated.

Reading Updike is like visiting Pompeii today: You see ordinary people going about ordinary lives captured as their world blew up and caught them unaware.

Rabbit Redux would be worth reading just for its glimpse into American culture circa 1969.

Rabbit Redux by John Updike
Knopf, ©1971 [my copy, 1981] p. 407
1971 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Other: Plausible horrors

In The Other, Thomas Tryon does something few horror stories do: He makes the horrific plausible enough to happen.

Boy's head set within the O of The Other on an otherwise empty front cover suggests secrets.
Peek through the key hole into The Other.

The story is set in the 1930s in a small Connecticut town where everybody knows everybody else’s business.

The narrative is buttressed by monologues by an unnamed person who recalls various bits of history from Pequot Landing, Conn. The person is confined in an upper floor room in some unnamed institution.

The Perry twins, Niles and Holland, are close, not just because of their twinship, but because their father died in an accident the previous fall, their mother is emotionally fragile and drinks, and their household is run by the boy’s maternal grandmother, Ada.

The boys are temperamental opposites: Holland is easily angered and sadistic; Niles is gentle and loving, with an uncanny ability to think himself into the role of animals.

Tryon lays the story out as a mystery, with plenty of clues for the alert reader.

The novel gets its impact from the fact that the novel’s characters have the same clues available and fail to recognize their significance, just as the California neighbors of David and Louise Turpin failed to put their clues together.

The Other by Thomas Tryon
Knopf, 1971, 280 p.
1971 bestseller #9  My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Drifters roots for the rootless

The Drifters is a big novel about six rootless young people and two much older men whose addresses are poste restante.

White, red and gold text on black are only elements on The Drifters dust jacket.
This copy of The Drifters has circulated.

Initially, it seems a surprising departure for James A. Michener, noted for big, place-based novels, such as Hawaii and The Source, but it becomes an exploration of how Vietnam-era youth became alienated from the societies in which they grew up and what it would take for them to put down roots.

The stories of the six young people are narrated by a 60-something financial deal maker for an insurance company. His work takes him around the world to find good investments.

Divorced and alienated from his own son, Mr. Fairbanks meets some of the youth in the course of his work and is introduced to the others through them.

Fairbanks introduces the young people to ex-Marine Harvey Holt, a communications technician who works in remote places, but comes every year to run with the bulls in Papaloma.

From the dust jacket descriptions, the young people bumming in Europe and North Africa sound like caricatures of ‘sixties figures. By showing Fairbanks’ efforts to understand them, Michener makes them feel very real.

Through The Drifters, I found myself understanding somewhat today’s right-wing youth who want their countries back.

The Drifters: A Novel by James A. Michener
Random House, ©1971, 751 p.
1971 bestseller #8. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Winds of War: WWII history in stories

Herman Wouk’s 1971 bestseller, The Winds of War, immerses readers in world history from 1939 to December 1941, showing great leaders as ordinary men and ordinary men as great leaders.

Dark clouds are background for title and author info
Winds of War bring storm clouds over Europe.

The story is told through the experiences of an American naval family — Commander Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, and their three children — and the people who matter to them: the sons’ wives and their families, the prominent people the daughter meets in her work for a popular national radio show.

Pug is sent at President Roosevelt’s behest to “observe” on behalf of the military in Berlin, England, and Russia. He meets Hitler, Churchill, Stalin.

When Germany invades Poland, one son, who was working in Europe, is trapped along with American Jewish woman with whom he’s fallen in love.

The other son, a navy pilot,marries the senate’s most outspoken opponent to American intervention in a European war. He’s at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it.

Wouk lets all these characters take readers around the world to get a 360-degree view of what led each of the participants into World War II.

Amazingly, Wouk makes every character a believable human being.

The Winds of War is the reading you would have liked to have had in history class.

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
Little, Brown. [1971] 888 p.
1971 bestseller #7. My grade: A+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Message from Málaga: Suspense for the cerebral

After a week of business related to his U.S. Space Agency job, Ian Ferrier stops in Málaga, Spain, to visit Jeff Reid. Ian and Jeff worked together eight years before, gathering evidence of Khrushchev’s rocket installations in Cuba.

Flamenco music, US flag and communist hammer-and-sickle are incorporated into art on dust jacket of Message from Malaga
Music, flamenco dancing, and politics mingle.

Now Jeff works for an American wine importer, and Ian’s current work entails scanning the skies for another Cuba-type crisis, this time satellite-based.

Jeff remembers Ian’s love of flamenco and takes him to see the local flamenco star, Tavita, dance.

Before the evening is over, Jeff meets a man claiming to be a defector from the assassination division of Cuba’s Foreign Intelligence Service. As he goes to alert his superiors to the defector’s demands, Jeff is the victim of a cyanide attack.

Barely alive when Ian finds him, Jeff confides in Ian, who becomes a de facto CIA agent when Jeff is assassinated.

Message shows why Helen MacInnes became known for “highly literate” spy novels. Readers must be as alert as the intelligence operatives. MacInnes’s story is tense but restrained. Readers seeking explosions and high-speed chases should look elsewhere.

So too should readers who want James Bond-ish sex romps. Ian appreciates beautiful women but he’s not going to risk his life to bed one.

Message from Málaga by Helen MacInnes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [1971] 367 p.
1971 bestseller #6. My grade: B+

©2018 LINDA GORTON ARAGONI

‘The Betsy’: Smaller ‘Wheels’, quicker start

Angelo Perino, a retired race car driver, is hired by “Number One,” Loren Hardeman, to design and build a totally new automobile to be called The Betsy after his granddaughter.

Engineer's drawing of sporty car with BETSY on its license plate
Drawing showing the Betsy’s hood.

Although 91 and confined to a wheelchair, Number One is prepared to commit his entire personal and corporate fortune to the project, as is independently wealthy Perino.

There’s a catch: the entire project must be kept secret until the first Betsy rolls off the production line.

Bethlehem Motors, founded in the days of Henry Ford, diversified under Hardeman’s son and grandson. In 1969, CEO “Loren 3” is looking for an opportunity to unload the auto business, keeping only Bethlehem’s more profitable product lines such as washing machines.

The Betsy gets off to a lusty start with the male lead in bed with a auto racing groupie, and keeps up the supercharged sex to the end.

Unlike the whole-industry approach of Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, Harold Robbins’ focus on a single company makes for easier storytelling, although Robbins indulges in frequent and distracting flashbacks.

The main story is mildly interesting, scattered with intriguing bits of information, but it not sufficiently interesting that the dramatic end to the automobile project will be regretted by readers.

The Betsy by Harrold Robbins
Trident Press, ©1971, 502 pages
1971 bestseller #5. My grade: C

Reviewer’s note: the art is from the cover of the First Charnwood Edition of The Betsy, published in 1984 in Great Britain.

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Day of the Jackal: A thriller plus history

Spring, 1963. The OAS, a secret organization of Algerian ex-military, wants Charles de Gaulle killed.

A jackal escapes the hunter's sights
Jackal narrowly escapes

Having failed spectacularly in one attempt to kill de Gaulle, OAS leaders decide to hire a professional assassin, a blond man from England who calls himself Chacal, which is French for jackal.

Chacal wants to operate entirely on his own, with no contact with the OAS except for a telephone number in Paris he can call for information on the security situation.

The OAS set off a rash of thefts across France to raise Chacal’s $500,000 fee, then await developments.

French security officials guess the thefts are to finance another assassination attempt.

They pull in the best detective in France, Claude Lebel, a homicide cop who gets results by deliberate, plodding inquiry and fact checking.

Fredrick Forsyth was a newsman before turning novelist. His knowledge of how government agencies work and his crisp, clear, just-the-facts-m’am prose style makes Day of the Jackal a real page-turner.

Because de Gaulle died of natural causes, readers know who wins, but Forsyth keeps readers up past their bedtime to see the ending.

A bonus is the illumination of European history largely unfamiliar to contemporary readers: France’s conquest of Algeria in the 1830s, her colonial operation there through WWII, and the belief of many Algerians that de Gaulle had promised them French citizenship as a reward for their military service.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Press [1971], 380 p.
1971 bestseller #4. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Passions of the Mind: Where’s the novel?

In The Passions of the Mind, Irving Stone presents Sigmund Freud as a family man who works hard, walks fast, and writes prodigiously while smoking expensive cigars.

The random pattern represents the Passions of the Mind
Random pattern represents the mind.

He also loves Renaissance art, collecting antiquities, and reading literature.

Freud takes a medical degree, intending to go into research instead of treating patients. Circumstances conspire against him; he ends up practicing as a neurologist in Vienna.

Freud’s inability to treat by conventional means patients whose symptoms don”t arise from physical causes lead him into what in later years would become known as psychoanalysis.

Freud is determined to have his theories accepted by the medical community. To that end, he befriends and nurtures younger analysts, several of whom he supports financially as well as emotionally.

Stone reveals Freud as frequently unaware of the import of events around him, both among fellow practitioners and nationally.

Only as the Freud family suffers deprivation in WWII Vienna and Sigmund develops cancer of the mouth does the analyst begin to seem like a real person.

Stone’s meticulous research (the novel includes a bibliography and a glossary of psychoanalytic terms) will appeal to those already interested in Freud.

Readers looking for an interesting story will be quit reading long before Freud sees his first patient.

The Passions of the Mind: A Novel of Sigmund Freud by Irving Stone
Doubleday, ©1971. [Book club edition.] 856 p.
1971 bestseller #3. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Exorcist leaves scares for the silver screen

The Exorcist is every parent’s nightmare: Losing a child to a horrible, un-diagnosed disorder that changes the child into a murderous monster while it kills her.

A blurry face on front cover of The Exorcist.
Nothing is clear in The Exorcist, not even the victim herself.

A divorced actress, Chris MacNeil, distracted by work, notices odd sounds in her apartment before she notices odd behavior in her 11-year-old daughter.

When Chris finally consults a doctor, he can find nothing to account for Regan’s sudden personality change.

Chris turns to a Jesuit priest who is also a psychiatrist. Father Karras knows the church is skeptical of reports of possession and unlikely to authorize an exorcism without very good reasons.

Dust jacket notes say William P. Blatty read every work in English on the subject of exorcism before writing The Exorcist. That’s how the novel reads: like research notes propped up by cardboard figures.

The novel is gruesome but not terrifying. To create terror, readers must see the victims as people like themselves, but Blatty’s characters lack personalities.

Subplots about a creepy butler with a drug-addicted daughter and a Columbo-styled homicide detective pad the novel without adding to the main story.

Like Love Story, The Exorcist needs to be acted out, and like that novel’s author, Blatty was a screenwriter before this, his first novel.

The Exorcist by William P. Blatty
Harper & Row, ©1971. 340 p.
1971 bestseller #2. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Hailey’s Wheels is flat.

In Airport, novelist Arthur Hailey used a single fictional airport to put in the infrastructure needs of American’s airports in human perspective.

Black dust jacket of wheels has only tiny figures of people standing around a car.
Not a very racy cover for a book about cars.

In Wheels he attempts to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the entire auto industry. He can’t squeeze it all into an average-length novel.

Wheels has three main stories: The marriage of Adam Trenton, who is head of General Motor’s newest product launch, and his sexually under-served wife, Erica; the relationship of GM product designer Brett DeLosanto and Barbara Zaleski, an ad agency creative working for auto industry clients; and Rollie Knight, a black ex-con who gets a job at GM through an employment program aimed at Detroit’s home-grown underclass.

Those three stories would be plenty for a novel, but Hailey brings in two others to give a rounded picture of the industry. In the process, he lets the air out of the main stories.

In its own way, each of the three stories’ endings is as unsatisfactory as a Monday-built automobile.

Hailey’s allusions to current events probably kept 1970’s readers attention, but they they won’t gain much traction with 2018 readers: Today Hailey would need to give free car washes to every reader who finishes the novel.

Wheels by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday, 1971. 374 p.
1971 bestseller #1. My grade: B-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni