Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Ross Thomas on politics and other absurd subjects

In honor of the day's events, I'm bringing back two posts I made way back at the beginning of the campaign season about Ross Thomas, a great political satirist, humorist, and Edgar Award-winning crime writer.
=================
Thumbs up to Ross Thomas' The Seersucker Whipsaw for its title, its subject, and its humor.

The political strategists at the Pen & Pencil Club here in Philadelphia are almost as bad as the cigar smokers and the lawyers, but Thomas' operatives, plotting a campaign for the first election in the newly independent fictional African nation of Albertia, make the profession sound like delightful fun without being more cynical than thou:
"I'm going to call him Chief," Shartelle said firmly. "It’s the first time I’ve ever worked for anybody who was a real chief and I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to address him by his rightful title.”
The book is also full of amusing social observations about its time (it appeared in 1967):
“English lit—right?”

“Wrong. Letters.”

“Letters?”

“As close to a classical education as Minnesota got that year. It was an experiment. A little Latin, and less Greek. It was to produce the well-rounded man. I think they abandoned it in favor of something called communications shortly after I was graduated.”
How good a writer was Thomas? He won two Edgar Awards, but I'm two-thirds of the way through the novel, no crime has been committed, and the book still works as highly entertaining political comedy.

With an American presidential election campaign on, the book will make especially entertaining reading. (Of course, there's almost always an American presidential campaign on.)
***
Speaking of American presidential campaigns, did I mention that, in a burst of serendipity Thomas could hardly have envisioned when he wrote the novel forty-five years ago, one of its characters is the Ile of Obahma? © Peter Rozovsky 2011

It's a strange land, where normal rules don't apply, where shifting tribal loyalties make life dangerous for the unwary, where even the most careful and idealistic visitors may soon get sucked into the intrigue and become indistinguishable from those whom they had previously affected to deplore.

It's Washington, D.C., and it's the setting for Ross Thomas's 1967 international thriller Cast a Yellow Shadow. Less overtly a satire of politics than the two Thomas novels I'd read previously (The Seersucker Whipsaw and The Fools in Town Are on Our Side), the book is nonetheless full of snippets of dialogue and nuggets of description evocative of their place and time in politics:
“The call came while I was trying to persuade a lameduck Congressman to settle his tab before he burned his American Express card. The tab was $18.35 and the Congressman was drunk and had already made a pyre of the cards he held from Carte Blanche, Standard Oil, and the Diner’s Club. He had used a lot of matches as he sat there at the bar drinking Scotch and burning the cards in an ashtray. `Two votes a precinct,' he said for the dozenth time. `Just two lousy votes a precinct.' “`When they make you an ambassador, you’ll need all the credit you can get,' I said as Karl handed me the phone.”
and
“He had watched it evolve from a virtually unexplored territory into a private preserve of the British South Africa Company, then into a colony, and finally into a self-governing country. Now he claimed it was independent, but Britain said it wasn’t and that its declaration of independence was tantamount to treason. Because of the chromium, the U.S. had made only gruff warnings about not recognizing the declaration.”
and
“It sounds like a typical American intelligence plot,” he said. “Only 2,032 things could go wrong—and probably will.”
Here are some notes about Ross Thomas and a Thomas bibliography. While you browse them, ponder these questions: What is your favorite Washington crime novel? Your favorite political crime novel?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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17 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Absolutely cool title, and, oh, so right about the switch from "Letters" to "Communication".
It may require a modest effort to learn some Latin and a little Greek, but it takes none whatsoever to "communicate." It was my misfortune to teach after the switch. Like the SNL character, you give the class a word, wave your hand, and say, "Discuss." They like it.

November 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Why did they like it?

Discuss.

November 01, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Young people like to talk. It requires the minimum amount of effort and thought. Do you wonder why there is so much texting (minimal writing skills), or why Twitter and Facebook are such huge successes?

November 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I'd guess that text messaging does lots to foster communication, but not so much for writing.

November 01, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read Thomas, despite having read much highly-charged praise of his ability, particularly of The Fools In Town Are On Our Side.

In a Washington Post article in the 80s he acknowledged a Chandler influence (sort of):

One hour and thirty five minutes before we were to land on an the beach of an island in the Philippines called Cebu, the first scout handed me something called Farewell, My Lovely, by someone called Raymond Chandler. It was January of 1945, and I was eighteen.
The title sounded as if it could have been thought up by the American equivalent of Agathe Christie whose works to this day I cannot read. Imagine my surprise, as Dame Agathe might say, when I opened it to discover Philip Marlowe over on that mixed Central Avenue block in east Los Angeles.

The first scout died shortly afterwards and Thomas claimed he didn't finish the book. But this passage from The Fools sounds very Chandlerian to my ears:

When the sad-faced ballhop handed me the bill for the whisky, I was surprised at its cost.
'It's gone up', I said.
'What hasn't?', he said.
'Talk', I said, 'It's still cheap'.

“As close to a classical education as Minnesota got that year. It was an experiment. A little Latin, and less Greek. It was to produce the well-rounded man. I think they abandoned it in favor of something called communications shortly after I was graduated.”

Why pick on Minnesota? That comment is true of almost everywhere now. I say almost everywhere because my niece who lives in Düsseldorf attended an Ursuline school where Latin is still taught. You won't get that in an Irish school, though.

November 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, it's Thomas' narrator who's picking on Minnesota, jocosely comparing his homely origins with his his current globe-hopping.

I'll look for signs of Chandler's influence as I read more Ross Thomas. In this book, I was too knocked over by the subject matter to notice much about the style, other than that it was somewhat lighter than what I think of as Chandler's. My one previous attempt at Thomas did not last long, but I love this book, and I will read more.

Crikey, they got rid of the Madgalen laundries. Did they have to get rid of Latin, too?

November 01, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Latin is no longer mandatory for entry to university, so it is rarely taught in Irish schools now.

I was relieved to be spared yet another generation crossing the Alps and being befuddled by the gerund when my own children were at school. Science is more highly valued these days.

However, the loss of the classics at university level is causing a lot of justifiable concern as so much knowledge is in danger of being lost.

My first Latin teacher, a nun, was exceptionally good and honours were expected at the time.

However this post does beg the question about the personality type that makes a good leader or chief. Spouting Latin does not go down well with many people and having the "common touch" is much more useful for those seeking power.

November 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Speaking of chiefs and the common touch (or the appearance thereof), one of the characters in The Seersucker Whipsaw has this to say about John F. Kennedy:

“They talk and write a lot about his grace and style. He had all that and he had a beautiful wife and two nice children. They looked like something out of a bad ad. Yet he didn’t seem to think about how he looked—I mean he didn’t think about himself so much...

“Yes. He knew he had what everybody else wanted, but he didn’t really care anymore about having it.”

November 02, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

That, if it is true, is sad.

I found the film by Oliver Stone "W" very insightful on how a person can be picked out from the crowd to lead.

The final scene, played out in an empty ball park, showed a great sense of sympathy which surprised me. It was a reminder that leaders are often victims of the pack.

November 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I took the passage to mean that Kennedy has an admirably devil-may-care attitude about his wealth and attainments.

An empty ball park, you say? Baseball? Thomas' novel opens with the novel's central figure, a charming and talented political consultant, having worked his way into playing shortstop in a local baseball game. It's the sport Americans turn too when they want emotional oomph.

November 02, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

There seems to be a lot of ambiguity in the meaning. I don't find the writing clear, but understood that it meant that, having achieved the success he had, Kennedy took it for granted.

The reference to a "bad ad" is the centre of the criticism that led to this conclusion.

I think you would enjoy "W". There's a very entertaining scene where the great leaders and pundits wander round in the fields, possibly the most outstanding metaphor for loss of direction.

The end verges on the tragic because there is nobody in the stadium and the president seems to be suffering from aphasia. It could be interpreted as a cruel scene, but I found it very moving.

I assume it must have been baseball. When it comes to sport I lose interest.

November 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Context would have made clear that the characters admire Kennedy and that Thomas, while he may have been just a bit sardonic, shared that admiration.

Thanks for the recommendation on W.

November 03, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I enjoyed I J Parker's thoughts on communication. The past ten years have been spent here trying to keep up with new linguistic forms and strange codes. Just as well Greek hasn't got thrown into the mix.

Thank you for elaborating on the context, Peter. It is essential for comprehension.

November 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The character who speaks the "bad ad" line is a young woman marvelling at her own enthusiasm for Kennedy.

November 03, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

This reminds me of reading Robbe-Grillet, an experience I don't intend to repeat.

The disembodied voices of the mid-20th century almost put me off reading.

In fact, the great value of most genre writers is that they stick with a form and style that
I enjoy, even if the subject matter is often not to my taste.

(Also, for the second time, I have had a memcache message when trying to post a comment here. I don't know what it is and cannot tell whether it is at my site or yours.

"http://moderntwist2.blogspot.com/2011/11/memcache-value-is-null-for.html"

If I solve it, I'll let you know.)

November 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had to read Robbe-Grillet for a college course, an experience I am not especially eager to repeat.

As it happens, intensely detailed descriptive passages in crime novels sometimes remind me of Robbe-Grillet.

I don't know what the memcache value is, except that is sounds like a Robert Ludlum title. I have received similar messages.

November 04, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I think that the "new" writers were put on the course to make students fail exams...

I wanted to study George Orwell when I went to college and should probably have done a course in journalism. However I needed a degree to work as a teacher.

November 04, 2011  

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