TO STEAL A PHRASE from that notable phrasemaker Gore Vidal. The Coup is a novel in the form of a memoir. It is John Updike's eighth novel and 22nd book in 19 years, and on the surface at least, it is very different from its predecessors.
The narrator is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Minister of National Defense, and President of Kush, a fictional constitutional monarchy south of the Sahara - "with the constitution suspended and the monarch deposed." The terrain - a large, drought ridden and destitute enclave locked between the desert and the forest - is as exotically different from Updike's familiar Pennsylvania and Massachusetts landscapes as Colonel Hakim Felix Ellellou is from Rabbit Angstrom. But "the great urgencies of sex and death," as Updike called them in Rabbut, Run, the Calvinist temperament (speaking this time in the accents of Islam), and the bemused vision, stark and funny at once, remain the same.
"The life of a charismatic national leader cannot be all roses," the Colonel notes with his accustomed stoicism in the face of adversity as well as glory, and at this moment his life is anything but Colonel Ellellou has just lost his wallet containing his credit cards, Brezhnev's unlisted telephone number, the snapshots of his four wives clothed and his mistress in the nude - not to mention his charisma and his job - at the hands of a thirsty mob driven by "the white devil's offer" of free beer. Moreover, he has sustained "one cracked rib, a fat lip, the removal of [his] shoes, [and] the bestowal of a quantity of derisive spittle." Yet as he says, usually in the third person but now in the first, "I live." It is less a cry of exaltation than an acceptance of the fact.
The land of Kush is a blighted place. Its economy is based on peanuts which are exported to Marseilles where the oil becomes "the basis of heavily perfumed and erotically contoured soaps destined not for [the colonel's] naturally fragrant and affectionate country-men but for the antiseptic lavatories of America - America," as the colonel puts it, "that fountainhead of obscenity and glut." But unfortunately America has a surplus of peanuts, which has undercut the world market and destroyed the economy of Kush. At the same time, America is flying in tons of Corn Curls, Total, Carnation milk ("just add water" - but in Kush water is more precious than blood), and cream of celery soup, which the colonel wishes to reject.
"Who're you trying to kid?" an ill-fated AID officer tells the colonel. "These cats are starving . The whole world knows it, you can see'em starve on the six o'clock news every night. The American people want to help. We know this country's socialist and xenophobic, we don't care. This kind of humanitarian catastrophe cuts across the political lines, as far as my government's concerned."
"Are you aware," the unrecognized Ellellou asks him, "that your government's cattle vacination project increased herd size even as the forage and water of this region were being exhausted?"
"I've read that in some report, but -"
"And that the deep wells drilled by foreign governments disrupted nomadic grazing patterns so that deserts have been created with the wells at their center? Are you aware, furthermore, that climatic conditions in this region have been the same for five years, that the 'humanitarian catastrophe' you speak of is to us the human condition?"
The colonel, of course, knows a lot about the human condition. He is an educated man (McCarthy College, Franchise, Wisconsin, in the 50s). He is a passionate advocate of Islamic Marxism, with an equally passionate aversion to the United States. He travels about his country disguised in rags, the better to mingle with his people in their suffering - followed by his silver Mercedes. He loves the king he deposed, whose head he later severs with his own hand. (A state such as Kush," he remarks, "is too thin to be administered except by gestures.") He knows the Koran; every day he says his prayers. Every night (almost) he struggles vainly to overcome his impotence. He is, in fact, a fascinating man - no mere caricature derived from a cursory reading of Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief and Scoop . And he is, in the words of his blond upper-middle-Class American wife (number two), "the most narcissistic, chauvinistic, megalomaniacal, catatomic, schizoid creep this creepy continent ever conjured up."
"Her clinical epithets," the colonel says, "reminded me of her book-club books - the warping, fading termite-riddled stacks and rows of volumes imported from her native land, popular psychology and sociology mostly. How to succeed, how to be saved, how to survive the mid-life crisis, how to find fulfillment within femininity, how to be free, how to love, how to face death, how to harness you fantasies, how to make dollars in your spare time - the endless self-help and self-exploration of a performance-oriented race that has never settled within itself the fundamental question of what a man is . A man is a clot of blood."
Fundamental questions trouble the colonel. He speaks of the need for forgiveness and is asked what he had done to forgive.
"I was born of a rape," he replies. "And now I govern a starving land."
The land, however, is not to be starving for long, nor is Ellellou to govern it. His austere vision of an Islamic Kush is sold out by the Minister of the Interior when oil as well as water is discovered in the Ippi Rift. ("Prettiest sludge I've seen outside of Oklahoma," says an American engineer.) The colonel is reported to be away from the capital on a fact-finding mission, and later he reads that he has been abducted by leftward-leaning terrorists. The city, rather like Bayonne, that grows up around the oil rigs is named Ellellou, after the "President-for-Life and Supreme Teacher." Its new drugstore dispenses cans of soft drinks, candy-colored condoms and cream-colored vibrators, deodorants and mouth-washes. Ellellou, shoeless now and unrecognized in his rags, gets a job first as a short-order cook in the city, and then as a parking attendant, before he extorts a pension from the new government and moves to a villa in the south of France. In that congenial climate he writes, in anonymity and silence, these memoirs, "his face downcast to the cashiers in which he pens long tendrils like the tendrilous chaains of contingency that have delivered us, each, to where we sit now on the skin of the world, water-lilies concealing our masses of root."
The Calinist God - and the God of Islam, too - may be merciful but he is also just, and justice is stringent. But surely no one who's read Couples - or any of Updike's other books, for that matter - would expect Updike's long view to be a barrel of laughs. Humor, though, flashes in the particulars, and The Coup is a very funny book as well as a very serious one. It's the work of an intelligent and funny and passionate man - and it's good.