The Fifth Horseman is a thriller merging 1970s international news and hometown fears in a narrative that still feels contemporary.
Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has devised a plot to trigger a nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in New York City if the Americans don’t get Israel to abandon territories seized from Arabs.
Getting the bomb into New York and getting directions to the White House falls to Kamil and Whalid Dajani and their sister, Laila.
The trio had vowed vengeance for the loss of the family’s West Bank home.
Whalid studied nuclear physics and went to work for the French nuclear program.
Whalid’s political views softened; Kamil’s and Laila’s became harder.
Laila, disguised, delivers the terrorists’ threat.
Gaddafi gives the U.S. 36 hours to comply. Should the U.S. attempt to evacuate the city, Gaddafi will detonate the bomb immediately.
Americans scrambling to respond to the nuclear threat discover they have few options other than to find the bomb and disarm it without news of the crisis leaking out.
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre had been news reporters before joining forces to write books. Their first-hand observation of political appointees shows in their depiction of inept bureaucrats trying to solve an immediate problem.
That in itself still renders The Fifth Horseman terrifying.
The Establishment is the last novel in Howard Fast’s trilogy about the family of Dan Lavette, the son of an immigrant fisherman who made and lost two fortunes.
Here, as in Second Generation, Fast focuses on Dan’s daughter Barbara who married a Jewish soldier of fortune. Barbara’s writing produces a good income without her touching her inheritance.
Husband Bernie operates a garage. He works very hard, barely turns a profit, and is bored. He jumps at the chance to fly planes to Israel to prepare the new nation for a forthcoming war against Arab countries with established armies.
He’s killed in Israel.
Reporting Barbara did from Nazi Germany brings her to the attention of the McCarthy hearings. She’s sentenced to six months in a federal prison for women.
Meanwhile, Barbara’s brother Tom is becoming a power broker, part of the wealthy establishment men who select the people whom Americans will elect by popular vote to run the country.
Fast’s novels cry out for video treatment: The main characters are merely sketched, there are swift scene changes, and the historical context has been lost in the intervening 40 years.
Masterpiece could make Fast’s novels come alive.
Fast merely makes them hurtle through history.
The Establishment by Howard Fast
Houghton Mifflin, 1979. 337 p.
1979 bestseller #8 My grade: B
To say James A. Michener’s whopping 1965 bestseller The Source is an historical novel both understates and misleads.
Into a narrative about a contemporary archaeological dig at Makor, a man-made mound in Israel, Michener weaves a chronological series of short stories about key people and events in Makor’s history. Through this complex literary device, Michener traces unravels the history of Makor from its earliest human occupation up to 1964.
The Source: A Novel by James A. Michener
New York: Random House, 1965. 909 pages. 1965 bestseller #1. My grade: A
The short stories explore the character of the various peoples who came to Makor—from the Canaanites to the British—with particular focus on the Jews.
Michener makes the characters increasingly complex as centuries pass, giving a sense of the progress of civilization.
Michener connects historical events in Israel and the Middle East with happenings in distant places like Rome and Mexico. He shows, for example, that the Crusades were part of Renaissance colonialism in which Europeans carved out city-states in the Holy Land.
The characters in the excavation narrative form a kind of Greek chorus to comment on and interpret the significance of the history of the Holy Land for the post-World War II world.
As America’s ties to Israel are tested by events in Syria, Iraq and Iran, The Source is worth reading once more.
In The Big Fisherman, Lloyd C. Douglas explores the rise of Christianity in a complicated story tangled around the figure of Simon Peter.
I learned lots of trivia, like the fact that multinational crowds came to Jerusalem for a big, annual Pentecost camel auction, but I didn’t enjoy the novel in which Douglas package it.
Douglas gets his characters out of central casting. He runs them around to show the human side of historical events.
But when Douglas tries to transform Peter from impetuous braggart to martyred saint, he makes the apostle seem hokey.
Unfortunately, that’s not all that seems hokey.
There’s a love story that reads like a patchwork of scenes from bad movies. The girl, known as Fara or Esther, is an Arab Jew who vows to kill her father, Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee. To get to him, she disguises herself a boy.
Fara’s boyfriend, Volti, follows her to Judea to assassinate Antipas himself. The Romans get suspicious and lock him up. But Volti is such a gallant guy, they let him out so he can kill Antipas, who in their view needs killing.
I kept reading to see what happens to Fara and Volti — but nothing does.
If you’ll excuse the pun, The Big Fisherman just peters out.
The Big Fisherman
By Lloyd C. Douglas
Houghton Mifflin, 1948
Bestseller # 1 for 1948
My Grade: C