IF NICK CARRAWAY was repulsed by the foul dust that floated in the wake of Gatsby's dreams, he'd be really nauseated by Peter Maas' latest version of the orgiastic future to which our republic has been summoned by that twinkling green light. In 1974, the new world of this novel has become a burned-out wasteland: The South Bronx resembles a no-man's-land in South Vietnam; the Inwood section of Manhattan has acquired the siege mentality of Johannesburg. Whores crouch in 42nd Street doorways "like bears on a riverbank during a salmon run." Every ethnic group hates and fears every other.
Bleak. But all hope is not abandoned -- America is still the land of opportunity, where the system says to look out for yourself. And Richie Flynn, at 33, still believes in the Fourth of July speeches. In 1963, as first-year running back for the New York Giants, Flynn had made a 93-yard run against the Cleveland Browns -- "the longest from scrimmage in Giant history" -- only to have his professional football career snapped off by a leg injury during the next season's summer practice. Now a sales supervisor for Goldblatt Beer, Flynn is offered an All-American opportunity to "be somebody," to cash in -- all more or less legitimately.
The scam is intricate (and Maas deals knowingly with its convolutions) but surefire. All Richie has to do is buy at auction an abandoned city-owned synagogue in the Bronx and then lease it back to the city for a federally funded day-care center. Net estimated profit: nearly $2 million. "'This is business, is all,'" Richie says. "'. . . All those companies downtown do it. The Chase Manhattan Bank does it every day.'" Since Richie, unfortunately, isn't the Chase Manhattan Bank, he's forced to borrow the seed money from a notorious Hoboken loan shark and enforcer, one King Kong Karpstein, who "demands respect." (With the right casting from the SPCA, Karpstein should steal the movie version of Made in America. )
When the fix shows signs of not being completely or firmly in, Richie (who sweats more than Edmond O'Brien in The Barefoot Contessa ) makes a second, time-buying loan from a "soldier" in a powerful Mafia family, and the liver is soon chopped into a very messy pate.
Richie Flynn is not a character the reader roots for; neither is he very interesting -- self-pitying, whining, fawning, out of his league, a small-time man-on-the-make. The day-care deal is only the most visible of a million workaday scams: phony income-tax rebates, land-development frauds, leaky union funds, prosecution of organized crime as the springboard to a political career. And -- look around! -- everybody's doing it not just Richard M. Nixon, who hovers in the background of this sprawling novel like Banguo's ghost. A warden can be bribed to provide private prison rooms with icebox, hot plate, television and phone. An old bewhiskered flowerwoman resells discarded roses, for which she has already triply overcharged. Sister Patricia "adjusts" Richie's high-school records so that he can meet the admission standards of Marquette University: "'I'm so glad you chose a Catholic college. So many of the boys don't these days.'"
As was evident from his Serpico, The Valachi Papers and King of the Gypsies, Peter Maas has a sensitive eye and nose for the unsavory underside of urban development. The salesmen in a discount television store are equipped with earplugs that look like hearing aids; a sign reading "We Hire the Handicapped" is placed in the window, and the price tags are removed from the TV sets. When the owner shouts a price, the salesmen always quote a figure that is $100 less. "Within a week's time the store was cleaned out." An experienced con man suggests that Nixon hadn't destroyed the damning White House tapes because he intended to use them to negotiate for his memoirs and then to donate edited portions of them to some university for a huge tax write-off.
Maas' ear doesn't seem to be as acute as his other senses. A special federal prosecutor has "a handsome angular face, golden hair and an impish grin that caused feminine hearts to beat wildly." And his chief assistant says to him, "'Flynn's outside even as we speak.'"
The book also sags under a lot of waste material: every shot in a game of eight ball; every race on Monmouth Park's opening day; every grimy detail -- credit lines, finders' fees, brokers' commissions -- of the operation of mortgage companies. Maas also furnishes us with the clothing tastes and boringly gossipy background of every character mentioned, whether star or walk-on. With a single exception, the women are compliant, submissive, passive housewives and cooks. The exception is Diane Dare, a topless (and often bottomless) go-go dancer in a Mafia-owned bar. Once a cheerleader in Toledo and now poor, sweaty Richie's Monday-night mistress, Diane makes more strenuous demands on Richie than the Giants used to. Her presence in the novel is crassly exploitative and overdeveloped, especially since her sole contribution to the plot is to set up Richie in an anticlimactic confrontation with a Mafia "lieutenant." Her costume in this scene: a transparent light-green chemise. The sex episodes have all the subtlety and tumescent grace of the couplings performed by those magnetized dogs from service station vending machines.
If Made in America pretended to be anything more ambitious than an inside, open-eyed stare at a greedy but incompetent amateur in a world of professional hustlers ("'When the elephants fight, it's the ants that get hurt'"), it would be a pushy failure. Without pretentions and despite its amorphousness, it's workmanlike, readable, and grim. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the sludge.