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Books: The Rivals

3 minute read
Paul Gray



248 pages. Doubleday. $7.95.



236 pages. Norton. $7.95.

A moral can be found in these two fledgling fictions by public figures: aspiring novelists should try to avoid becoming mayor of New York. William F. Buckley Jr. was lucky. He lost his 1965 campaign and has since had plenty of time to tend to his twitting—in articles, books of nonfiction, the National Review and on TV’s Firing Line. John V. Lindsay was not so fortunate. He not only won first prize in 1965 (four years as mayor) but, as things turned out, second prize (four more years). Because of Lindsay’s self-evident weariness, this battle of the books between old antagonists is a decided mismatch.

Not that either one poses much of a threat to Norman Mailer (yet another mayoral ex-candidate). Buckley’s spy thriller is set in the early ’50s, when Stalin was in the Kremlin, Joe McCarthy was “going after the fags” in the State Department and all was right with the cold war. Blackford Oakes, Yale ’51, is pipelined by the old-boy network straight into the CIA. His assignment proves crucial to the survival of the West. Someone close to England’s Queen Caroline is leaking American H-bomb secrets to the reds. With nary a false step, Oakes foils this villainous plot and gets as close to the Queen as is possible for a robust young conservative.

Buckley, Yale ’50, is clearly half kidding. But the half that is not causes some problems. No discernible irony or worry leaven his political message—free world ends justify the means—or his fulsome adulation of the “beautiful” Oakes, “the man-boy American, loose, bright, shining with desire and desirability.” At times like these, not even Buckley’s wittiest sesquipedalian sonorities can allay the impression that he is writing with his foot in his cheek.

Lindsay’s prose, by comparison, seems set down by the numbers: “Mayor James Carr sat heavily in his big leather chair behind his littered desk in the handsome office in downtown San Marco.” If Buckley has written Frank Merriwell Joins the CIA, Lindsay’s lumbering parable could be subtitled Seven Years in May. The time is the not too distant future. Runaway unemployment and racial strife have brought about two years of martial law in America. Before Congress is a “Special Powers” bill that will eliminate virtually all civil liberties. “There may be,” a Justice Department official concedes, “a minor constitutional question about it . . .”

The really important question, however, is can handsome California Congressman Mike Stuart get reelected? Not with the speeches Lindsay gives him. “Does anyone really know any one?” he asks his wife thoughtfully. Clichés wobble by like placards at a party convention: “Carr’s voice rasped like rough gravel . . . Pat was strong-looking, with a finely chiseled face and closely cropped, wiry hair.” Yet for all its ineptitudes, Lindsay’s novel does offer a disquieting peek into the political mind—or, at least, his political mind. With airports barricaded and uniformed troops prowling the streets, not one of the elected officials in The Edge thinks about anything but the upcoming campaign. This insight is depressing enough. And there may be worse on the way. Among other coming attractions, 1976 promises novels by John Ehrlichman and Spiro Agnew.

Paul Gray

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