ONE OF THE fascinating, but less momentous, points for discussion that the British colonial legacy gives rise to is this: What is it that makes British expatriates behave so much more badly when they're away from the home country? There are lots of reasons, most of them banal -- the heat, the lethargy -- some of them shameful, but it was one of the unexpected consolations of reading Maureen Freely's entertaining second novel to realize that the British are not alone. If we're to grant any credence to Freely's acerbic account of expatriate American academic life in Istanbul, then it's clear that Americans can be just as guilty of letting the side down.
The Americans in question are all members of a typically tight and enclosed expatriate community -- most of them employed by the erstwhile Woodrow College, a privately funded American university in Istanbul which, until it was nationalized in 1971, had acquired a well deserved reputation as one of the two finest institutions of higher learning in Turkey. The greater part of the narrative, however, takes place before the nationalization, during the last half of 1969, a time of civil unrest, powerful anti-American feeling in the country and ruthless factional bitterness between left and right. The American professors and their families are, by and large, unaware of this turmoil (except where it touches on them directly) and pursue their normal round of boozing, parties and casual fornication with customary expatriate vigor.
At the core of this group is the figure of Hector Cabot whose recreational energies would demand respect from the most seasoned reprobate. Hector plays hard, makes passes at any female within range and generally neglects his wife and family. But however much the others may deplore Hector's excesses there is no doubt that life would be much, much duller without him, and, like many lovable rogues, he is constantly apologizing and constantly being forgiven.
Much genuine comic milage is made out of the various scrapes and embarrassments Hector finds himself embroiled in. But this is not merely an expatriate rake's progress. The narrative crux of the book concerns Hector's transformation: he changes, repents and reforms. Forswearing alchohol, becoming a churchgoer, Hector develops into a shadow of his former self. The life goes out of him, and out of the party too. Without Hector whirling round at the center the whole show collapses with its usual quota of personal disasters, emotional maiming and the like.
HECTOR RECANTS because he accidently kills his mother in a shooting accident and finds his long lost father -- a homosexual priest. An apt time for turning over a new leaf, one might think, but in the farcical context that passes for Hector's life these events seem not so much horrendous as inevitable. A sad legatee, Hector inherits a lot of money from his mother's estate and leaves Istanbul for America. The book's conclusion sees him returning some 10 years later to revisit the little community he so inspired and influenced. Still teetotal and now running some sort of educational missionary outfit, Hector in the flesh bears little relation to the legend that has lived on since his departure. However, one final wild drinking bout, inaugurated at the behest of an old Turkish friend, brings about some sort of just nemesis and exorcises a few ghosts.
The novel's conclusion, then, is sad and downbeat; the ideal sort of conclusion for a serio-comic novel. Indeed, much of The Life of the Party admirably fulfills the criteria for this particular type of novel: it is well written, and its gaze on the world and its follies is acute and sentiment-free, but, in the final count, it is less than satisfying. What is at fault here is not the material (Freely handles the locale vividly; her characters are individuals; her ear is good) but its organization. The novel is too long -- by a hundred pages, I would say. At times the narrative moves beautifully -- which is to say unobtrusively -- only to flag for long stretches of sometimes interesting but scarcely relevant digression; flashbacks last too long; background information on minor characters is needlessly generous. There is also a complicated subplot about a feud between the Turkish members of the faculty which is introduced after the novel has been going for a good 200 pages. True, it has some bearing on the novel's conclusion, but its introduction and exposition at this stage, when we are over halfway through the book, appears both baffling and irritating. Who are these people? the reader demands; I want to get back to Hector.
And this, I think, is the crucial error Freely has made. In Hector Cabot she has created a comic character who by no means disgraces the blurbist's extravagant claim (as memorable as Tom Jones and Joyce Cary's Gully Jimson), but having established him, provided him with a genuine aura and masses of energy, Freely deserts him to ramble off down another biographical flashback or anecdotal digression. Much of what is observed or discussed therein has its interest, but The Life of the Party depends on Hector Cabot as much as does the expatriate American community in Istanbul, and -- curiously, unusually -- it seems to me that the author has underestimated her own hero's appeal.