IT WAS REALLY no contest, once Iago decided to play puppet master to the proud, dangerous and simpleminded Othello.
But what if, instead of an Othello, he had had to contend with a far from simpleminded Hamlet?
In At Button's , Garry Wills, that nonpareil among present-day political essayists, offers us in his first fiction work a modern-dress presentsation of this question and its answer. Make note now that the plot of his novel bears no resemblance to the plot of any Shakespearean work, but it does address itself to the problem of what may happen when an agent, almost satanic in motive and method, enters into the deadly manipulation of a man who wants to remain emotionally and intellectually remote from the society crowding close around him, yet who may have the capability of analyzing and countering manipulation.
At Button's was described in its pre-publication notice as a "novel of deception and deceit," which is accurate, if redundant. Possibly because there is no shelf in any bookstore which exclusively presents volumes so described, the book, on publication, announced itself as a "novel of suspense," which is not accurate, suspense being in scant measure here. The book is short and has its fascinations, notably in the moral, philosophical, and literary reflections it may inspire in the reader, but its pacing is distinctly uneven, alternating between the laggard and the occasionally precipitate. Most trouble-some of all, its characters never become flesh and blood, hence never involve our emotions. We have set forth for us a sympathetic protagonist, but never one whose concerns carry us with even moderately bated breath from page to page.
In his classic The Man Who Was Thursday , G. K. Chesterton dealt with the themes of mankind's unlimited capacity for evildoing, the compulsion in the really gaudy evildoer to manipulate others to their destruction, and the cosmic implications of this. Wills, moving along the same course as Chesterton, makes uphill going of it.
At Button's is divided into three sections. In the first, set in New York in 1977, we meet Gregory Skipwith, a research librarian, an observer of life rather than a participant in it, and a worshipper of Joseph Addison, that well-regarded essayist of the Enlightenment, identifiable to Lit. 101 students as half of Addison and Steele. Addison was, as Skipwith tells Marcia Roquist, a young confidante with eyes for him, a man who "lived and wrote nothing but praise of balance," and thus, we may assume, held credentials as a proper role model for anyone. Yet, as Skipwith then remarks: "My interest in him ended my lief."
The meaning of this emerges in the second section of the book which is a flashback to Cambridge in 1974, where Skipwith was a member of At Button's, a select club of fanatic Addisionians-few of whom are what they seem to be. Skipwith's relationships to charismatic college professor Thatcher Harris, brilliant hustler Ben Wingate, and lovely, troubled Lynn Baker lead to both the revelation and exercise of murderous evil around him.
The third section-and here we hit a problem created by the use of a lengthy flashback which obliterates along its way too much memory of the opening section-we reenter 1977 and follow Skipwith as he settles with his past, defining and confronting his enemy.
Manipulation, as the story reveals, can be an evil in itself, and thematically this is good stron stuff. And in obtaining a nightmarish ambiance for his entire story, a sense of veiled menace clouding even amicable and sunny pasages, the author is at his best. But I have a clouded feeling that Wills overintellectualized his tale; he was more interested in getting ideas across than people. There are too many doulogues along the way where the indulgence of the speakers in intellectual muscle-flexing, as if before a mirror, is fatal to the narrative.
It is a curious twist that Wills should invest his admirable essays and texts-written in a precise and fluent style Addison might applaud-with such vitality, yet withhold that very quality from his fiction.
Choice of characters can make trouble. What most of those in At Button's needed was to have a Garry Wills sit among them for awhile and call to their attention, in his inimitable way, their tendency to address the audience rather than each other. CAPTION: Picture, Garry Wills