PROUDLY AND HUMORLESSLY declaring himself the reincarnation of America's pioneering spirit, 35-year-old Kenneth Dangler has had a vision of our national problem and its solution. Problem: There's nothing real left to struggle against in this country; "'everybody's rich and insured and fat and there's nothing left to fight.'" Solution: Return the aristocratic lease-holders to their birthright, make them fit to lead again by proving to them their superiority to natural challenges. Instrumentation: Adventure Camp Wildwood in northern New Hampshire, a self-sufficient resort community of 11,000 acres providing "luxury accommodations, gourmet dining and morning stock quotes in controlled wilderness setting." Supervised sports include fishing, big-game hunting, croquet, boating, rock-climbing, skiing and bear-wrestling. With his "keen blue eyes full of maraudingg righteousness," Dangler trumpets his program: " 'I'm creating small, efficient cadres of the right people here who can overcome anything they have to overcome, including certain oil-rich foreign interests.' "
All this may sound like a joke, but the early laughter soons turns sour. For openers, all activities are cleverly and expensively choreographed: horses are trained "runaways"; birds are "boxed"; wild boars are imported; rapids-shooting canoes are connected to tracks by ball-bearing wheels; even Hugo "the bear" is a professional human wrestler in a chic fur costume. Through the sensible eyes off lawyer Andrew Cobb, Dangler's oldest friend from their Andover days, Wildwood is quite simply and ridiculously a summer camp for rich people where a large skilled staff fake "dangerous" situations for them at a nominal cost of $2,000 a week. How seriously, I ask you, could you take a camp packed with peopled named Chessy, Weezy, Sithee and Tit, who blithely chant the Camp motto -- "Whether it's at work or play, find a challenge every day"?
By turns envious, suspicious, wary and idolatrous of Dangler, Cobb is rather easily persuaded to join the camp in what looks like a professional capacity but eventually turns into a near-fatal commitment to his hero's megalomania. When he finally wises up, Cobb is in an untender trap tht almost chews off his manhood, as one camper chews off the end of a frostbitten finger.
If this all sounds like a compound of Lord of the Flies and Deliverance, the misleading is mine. There are echoes here of the Great Gatsby, not a model to be ashamed of. If Cobb is clearly and beautifully a Nick Carraway, Dangler is a strange combination of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan; his wife, Erica, is both Daisy and Nicole Diver. Cobb even finds a Jordan Baker in a brilliant consort named Divinia Thayer, about whom little is given and about whom we begin to care very much: "'the best field-hockey player who ever went to Bennington, and the only unselfish person alive' . . . pa happy, compact, nut-brown woman with strong hands, wide gray eyes and cool, precise movements." When we lose her late in the plot, we and Cobb lose quite a lot.
We're also supplied with a real villain, a rare commodity in modern fiction -- Dangler's chief aide, Hanspeter Gruenig (a purchased identity), who climbs like a suirrel, copulates like a mink and is more than a little upset by his Vietnam experiences. Grueing, who has taken to his corrupt heart Emerson's advice (used here as ironic epigraph) to "Become first a good animal," is a thief, lecher, arsonist and eventually a murderer, as well as a counry-music fan. In a fit of passion for Erica, he feels as if he were riding not just a snowmobile but "an SRX-440 Yamaha snowmobile with its throttle stuck."
Not even larger-than-life Dangler can cope with Gruenig, though very little else fazes this leader who smells of witch hazel and looks like General Custer (in the ingenious snapshot album tucked away as a pictorial appendix he suspiciously resembles Bruce Dern). He can quote William James, slow down his liver to make himself less susceptible to cold, close his mouth when he yawns and, in preparation for the disastrous mountain-climbing expedition that ends his world-dream and the narrative, he spends 30 minutes every night under a freezing shower with a blindfold on, untying knots in pieces of rope. When his wife becomes understandably hysteric, he first tells her to do some push-ups and later punches her in the stomach.
As enthralled witness to all this uproar, Cobb, like Carraway, is the real center of the novel. A man who knows how to dream but with a lifelong fear of touching or being touched, he transcends his built-in limitations, passes the grueling animal-test, and yet survives with his outdated humanist values shaky but intact. "He had bugled or drummed, at least once, in something larger than he could ever have mounted himself."
Charles Gaines, author of Stay Hungry and Pumping Iron, is a tough, precise writer who sometimes allows his fondness for technical details to overwhelm his story and characters, so that Dangler is as much a manual as a novel. He also risks parody (of the American-hero myth) and melodrama, but the novel overcomes the risk. Through cold craft.