AT FIRST BLUSH, L*S*I*T*T looks like a typical novel about business--trashy, hackneyed, populated by stereotypes. The plot synopsis on the jacket is not encouraging: The avaricious Steve Berg, we learn, "directs his unsolicited corporate affections upon Leslie Royal, a proud, decent--and tough in her own fashion-- young woman struggling to protect the independence of her family's pharmaceutical company." The initials in the title stand for "Let's Stick It to Them," the secret slogan of Berg and his raiding party--another bad sign.
But, surprise! L*S*I*T*T turns out to be a rarity. It's an entertaining, witty, and enlightening book about business. It's not a serious book--even though you do learn a lot about ethical drugs and tender offers. Arthur Herzog is no Theodore Dreiser, no Louis Auchincloss. But he handles his main characters--Mr. Berg and his prey, the noble Ms. Royal--in a remarkably sensitive way. They turn out to be quirky, paradoxical figures. They grow as the book progresses. You get to like them both.
The main story is the takeover fight, a timely one considering the billion-dollar battles of recent years over St. Joe Minerals, Cities Service, Conoco, and Martin Marietta. But L*S*I*T*T has a delightful kicker: Royal Pharmaceuticals has come up with a new drug, an FDA- approved, safe, reliable aphrodisiac. The patent is worth a fortune, and Berg's company, Allied Technologies (no relation, one assumes, to Allied Corporation, which in real life emerged as the winner in last year's Bendix- Martin Marietta war, or to United Technologies, which tried to acquire Bendix but failed) wants to market it in a fairly sensational way.
There's a wonderful discussion between two Allied marketing types about the name of the new drug. Anyone who's ever sat in on this sort of brainstorming session knows the tone is just right.
" 'Erosium' is too much like erode. 'Satyr' for men, 'Nymph' for women? Too flat out. I thought of 'Preparation Y,' there's a 'Y' in both satyr and nymph . . .'
" 'Not so bad.'
" 'Except that there's 'Preparation H' and 'Preparation Y' evokes YM-YWCA locker rooms. No good. . . .'
"Berg was on the phone minutes later when Alice burst into the room, fingers back to snapping. 'I have it,' she shouted, and he cupped the mouthpiece. 'ArouZ' with a capital "Z". And I think I have the slogan: "Satisfaction Guaranteed." ' "
As with any business novel, there's greed, violence, sex, romance, and a brief appearance by the Mafia. But you could hardly ask for better summertime reading on life at the corporate battlefront.
While more ambitious than L*S*I*T*T, Bullion is less successful. It purports to tell us, with names and events slightly altered, the true story of why the price of gold doubled, from $400 to $800 in a six-week period between December 1979 and January 1980. The panic buying and selling almost caused a collapse of the international financial markets, and no one to this day has a good explanation for it.
John Goldsmith wrote the book with help from what the publisher called "two sophisticated insiders," Gordon Briggs and Don Bernard. Whether Briggs and Bernard were the real-life versions of Goldsmith's heroes, Eddy Polonski and Dan Daniels, we can't tell. But the story is so complex--the explanation for the rise in gold prices so outlandish--that it's doubtful that a novelist could have thought it up on his own.
Polonski and Daniels are two Texans unleashed by some shady characters who in turn work for an eccentric Greek. Their assignment is to sell 2,000 tons of gold bullion, more than $20 billion worth. Now, if you know even a little bit about economics, you're probably asking yourself how, if these fellows are dumping 60 million ounces of gold on the market, can the price of gold soar? Doesn't an increase in supply mean falling, not rising, prices? There's a fairly implausible explanation--the crux of the book--but I won't give it away.
What bothers me about Bullion is not its implausibility but its pace. Everyone is in a wild hurry. No time for plot nuance or character development. It's an Airplane Thriller; most of the action consists of people flying from airport to airport (Zurich, Houston, London, Paris, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, etc., etc.), meeting briefly, making quick deals. No one works or ponders or eats or sleeps.
In this sense, it's like a Paul Erdman financial novel or almost any spy novel that businessmen read on airplanes. Which, in fact, may be the point: Business people like airplane thrillers because they glamorize their own mundane activity, i.e., flying from airport to airport, meeting briefly, making quick deals.
Both L*S*I*T*T and Bullion rank far above the average business novel--and it's a pretty squalid average. Consider Tender Offers, by Peter Engel, the former president of Helena Rubinstein Inc. It's a disgrace: a convoluted plot about some gangland types trying to take over a pharmaceutical company (another one!) that has developed a formula to turn garbage into oil.
Engel, a master of the awkward metaphor ("His every conversation was filled with the names of the famous in business, as if they were the luscious chips of the really superb chocolate chip cookie that was his life"), has written a book in which every character is either a vicious hood or a coward. And all anyone seems to do, in terms of business activity, is to threaten other people, usually verbally but occasionally by blasts from a shotgun.
And understand that Tender Offers was written, not by a fanatic socialisttbut by a full-fledged capitalist, the president of American Consulting Corporation. The May issue of Institutional Investor quotes Engel as saying that the characters in the book are "recognizable in the sense that they're true to type." True to type? Engel's captain of industry is a guy who gets his kicks by whipping prostitutes: "He brought the whip down onto her shoulders with a stinging crack. The girl's feet never moved, but her head tossed back and, her mouth grimacing with pain, she let forth a string of obscenities."
Engel, says Institutional Investor, "dictated most of the book into a machine during his travels . . . while he jetted between his offices in New York, London and Paris and visited clients." How would you like to be sitting next to him, trying to enjoy a drink on a 747, while Engel talks into his microphone about whips and obscenities?
The ultimate Airplane Thriller?