ON DECEMBER 2, 1954, Joseph Raymond McCarthy-swept from his committee chairmanship by a Demoncratic resurgence in the fall elections-was censured by his colleagues for conduct "contrary to Senate tradigions." This novel is set in Washington in that same watershed December.
Here we meet Joe Mccarthy once more, now stripped for us by on omniscient narrator. If you have ever wondered what Mccarthy dreamed, this is the place to find out. If you would like to know what he admitted to the priest in the confessional, you can read it here. If you ever speculated about his sexual potency, you may like being told by his ex-lover that "'Joey couldn't do it for the life of him. And we tried everything. One time I danced naked to the gramophone with candles lit in the bedroom. Nothing.'"
Apart from being made to yield such voyeuristic amusements, McCarthy rigures here as an issue. He is a childhood friend of Sam Taylor, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and is welcome as Taylor's house guest despite their opposition on matters of principle. The central conflict of the novel lies in an atempt to force Sam Taylor to resign. His toleration of McCarthy is held up as the reason.
Which is, of course, pure "McCarthyism." A group calling itseld the Syndicate is formed to topple Sam Taylor.
He is spied upon. The suggestion that he is a homosexual is anonymously phoned to the press. His relationship with McCarthy is invoked as a judgegment upon him. "Guilt by association," explains one of the plotters triumphantly. If that seems a naive admission for a villain, consider that the Syndicate consists chiefly of high school kids, classmates of Sam Taylor's daghter, Natalia at Sidwell Friends school. In a novel that cuts freely back and forth between sets of people, told through a consciousness that fairly caroms among multiple points of view, Natalia is as close we have to a central character. The Syndicate persuades her to take part in a kidnapping hoax: to demand her father's resignation in exchange for her return.
The novel is flawed by continual explanation of motives, of relationships.
For instance, an interesting fact about Sam Taylor-he is kind to drunks-becomes textbook-dull when we are provided with a mechanical explanation for it: he is trying to atone for permitting the death of his father, who drank. Similarly, Natalia is reduced to an illustration of teenage psychology: "She had for yers balanced carefully as a young gymnast between her own requirements and the demands made to belong. Now the balance had altered and she was concerned with merging undistinguished as part of the whole."
To dissect a character with the neat thrusts that we so much admire in biography, to sum her up in a telling phrase, is a fine achievement but the wrong achievement. People in fiction reveal themselves through action (including speech and thought). They reflect in the warping mirrors of other people's appraisals of them. To go beyond and explain character is for the novelist to become a scientist, to tease apart and label the parts-to explain character away.
The plot, seductive at first, broadens into melodrama. The week of time that it embraces catches every major character near the climax of a personalcrisis. For the sake of simultaneity, some of the subplots require to be spurred on by actions the resist belief. Sam Taylor gets drunk (a disastrously convenient device when a character must be made to act unnaturally) and hits a cop and falls in love with a young man. Natalia, a smart and independent girl, falls easily under the sway of the Syndicate. Though the point of view can pop into anyone's mind at any time, it direetly looks the other way when a person is acting so strangely that he can hardly have mental life at all.
The story moves swiftly, and the dialogue is remarkably sharp-people really do talk this way. The social milieu is intriguing. We begin to get a sense of the everyday lives of the powerful and famous. And of their children's lives: when a girl is 17, we learn; the facts that her father breakfasts with the President can be the least important thing in the world.
If much in this novel is hard to believe, perhaps it is no more so than the McCarthy era itself. It is appropriate that we leave the senator hospitalized with alcoholic intoxication. And it is valuable to be reminded, as we are here, that a man who gives his name to an age is a shadow-however large, however frightening-of the common human heart.