LOVE, GREED AND GOD: these are the subjects of Grahm Greene's 21st novel. The first and the last of these his readers have come to expect. But it is greed that is here the centerpiece, and that gives this book its strangeness.
We begin with a hero unlikely enough. Alfred Jones, an aging Englishman missing one hand, ekes out a marginal living by translating letters for a Swiss chocolate manufacturer. His low station notwithstanding, Jones woos and weds Anna-Luise Fischer, daughter of the Croesus of toothpaste -- malign and inscrutable Doctor Fischer, who casts his lures at the center of the plot.
Dr. Fischer's greatest interest, since the death of his wife, has been his research; a series of experiments designed to measure the greed of the rich. His laboratory of choice is the named dinner party -- a Lobster Party, a Porridge Party, and so forth. His experimental animals are his hangers-on, all filthy rich themselves, known collectively as the Toads. These he withers with social humiliation of increasing severity, which they furiously bear for the sake of the gifts that Fischer distributes after dinner.
Fischer and his Toads, bound together by contempt and rage, stand opposed to the noble characters: Jones, who narrates the story, and his bride, Fischer's daughter. We read to find out whether Jones will himself become Toadified, or whether Dr. Fischer will apply cruder measures. But in the end it is a skiing accident that robs Jones of Anna-Luise, and makes him accept an invitation to what Fischer has named his Final Party.
This becomes the Bomb Party of the title. Now the Toads -- and the heartsick Jones -- are invited to earn their prizes, not by enduring their host's abuse, but more dangerously -- or so they are made to think. Fischer has designed a variant of Russian roulette. What his guests don't know is that there is really no danger at all; their host wants only to measure their greed against their fear. (A violent ending lies in store, though.)
The alternate titles have a comic ring, and much of the novel is lightly told. Fischer and the Toads are grotesques of the sort that we accept only in comedy. The love story of Jones and Anna-Luise, by contrast, asks to be taken seriously; it comes from a different fictional world, where people matter and wounds really hurt. The attempt to make warp and woof of these two fictional worlds, each with itw own conventions, each demanding to be seen as whole, doesn't work. Greene weaves no density of texture. His several strands lead on and on with an effortlessness that becomes peculiar, as though across an emptiness more pure than the nature we know will bear.
The novel's unity is not helped, either, by ponderous comparisons of Fischer (a name that asks too loudly to be read as Christian symbol) to God and to Satan, nor by ingenious, irrelevant speculation on the nature of the soul. Nor is it helped by subplots that spring up only to vanish inconsequentially. For instance, Jones is asked to translate (into Turkish) a secret letter that has to do with international military sales. He does -- and we never hear a word more about it. In such places the novel has the look of an early draft, sprouting with possibilities that await development or deletion.
Perhaps Green's greatest gift has always been his power of fugitive language, and apparantely no number of books will exhaust it. We meet, for example, Mr. Kips, one of the Toads, "a thin old man in a dark suit bowed almost double. He projected his head forward and looked, I thought, rather like the numeral seven. He held his left arm bent at his side, so that he resembled the continental way of writing that number."
Greene is wonderful, too, at summing up the experience of a lifetime in ways that make it suddenly comprehensible: "I doubt if one ever ceases to love, but one can cease to be in love as easily as one can outgrow an author one admired as a boy."
For graces such as these, anything by Graham Greene rewards the reading, even a novel that, like this one, seems the work of the author's left hand. Those will enjoy it best who can gladly grant that not even to Green is such a tragic masterpiece as The Heart of the Matter, or comic maspterpiece as Our Man in Havana, always given.
It ought to be mentioned that the novel's jacket is misleading. Jones, we read in the jacket copy, "discovers at the last moment that Dr. Fischer's guests risk not only humiliation at his hands, but death." What Jones in fact "discovers at the last moment" is that Dr. Fischer's game of Russian roulette is perfectly safe. The claim of mortal danger is enticing, but it is not true.