ONE GATHERS from advance publicity that a lot of people are going to make a lot of money off The Last Best Hope, touted by its publisher as "a monumental epic novel of the 1960s." According to the jacket copy on a special soft-bound edition published for reviewers and other early readers, the novel is scheduled for a 50,000 first printing and has a $65,000 advertising and promotion budget. It is a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which is money in the bank before a single book hits the stores. And it has been sold to Ballantine Books for the considerable sum of $465,000, a sum that puts Peter Tauber right up there in Rose-mary Rogers country.
It would be nice to be able to say that what all of this adds up to is a case of virtue rewarded. So few novels of any distinction get onto the best-seller lists that each one that does is cause for celebration. A couple of years ago there was Ragtime, throgh it tends to shrink in esteem the longer one stays away from it; and this year there has been Falconer - which may well prove to be the most overpraised novel of the decade, if not indeed the century. For my money, the only recent novel that did reasonably well commercially and also added something worthwhile to our literature was Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall - and it didn't make any national best-seller list that I'm aware of.
That having been said, I've run out of ways to evade stating today's unhappy lesson: that The Last Best Hope is a truly, in fact monumentally, bad book. Give Peter Tauber points for sincerity and good intentions, but after that he gets nothing but demertit. In no particular order, he is guilty of ham-handed irony, clumsy dialogue ( a problem he compounds by making his conversations interminable), awkward plotting and structure (which he attempts to compensate for by blatant backing and filling), a show-and tell method of exposition (To understand what Bowen's job was meant to accomplish, Operation Research must first be understood"), and some of the worst sex-writing ever committed:
"Proprioceptive distractions came to him then: a tingling in his head, a brief stinging all about him. A chill in his freshly sensed arms and legs, a newborn first discovering himself. Then he discovered something finer."
All this nonsense has to do with a young man named Tyler Bowen, an all-American boy who has, through a process I never quite understand and certainly never cared about, ended up doing PR for something called the Gila Compound National Laboratories a research institute and think-tank in the West. He falls in love with Johanna Riegeluth, the wife of a scientist at another institute, and soon they are into a steamy affair. They are also, this being a monumental epic novel of the 1960s, into every headline from the People's Park to Kent State. No kidding. With a witlessness that staggers the imagination, The Last Best Hope manages to place either or both of them at almost every major event of the period, so that we are treated to a richly predicteable revisitation of Vietnam, Chicago, the assassinations, the McCarthy campaign, what have you. The novel ends, sententiously and melodramatically, with Kent State.
The Last Best Hope would not merit comment were it not a publishing phenomenon, and in that sense negative comment is more pointedly directed at the publisher and others who are cashing in on the book than at the author. It is evident, to begin with, that this soggy lump of a book never had any serious editing; if it had, it would be at least 200 pages shorter and a lot livelier - and one might care a bit about one or two of the people who populate it. But really that just makes the book typical of the publishing business today; hardly anyone edits any more, and books are sent onto the market place pretty much as they emerge from the typewriter.
Of course, it may simply be a case of bad taste: some people in the publishing business may actually think The Last Best Hope is a good book. But I lean to a more cynical view. I think they immediately recognized that it contains ceratin basic ingredients for commercial success: it is very, very long; it is close enough to recent history to be "relevant"; it has a cast of thousands; and it trots in enough real historical personages to provide a tinkle of the Ragtime jingle. With those ingredients, it must have seemed to have best-seller written all over it, so the calculated process of making it into one was launched.
Well, Barnum and Nixon notwithstanding, the public is not always a fool, and from time to time it declines to do what the hucksters tell it to do. The Last Best Hope could start a consumer rebellion.