Literary Fallout

FOUR YEARS ON, it seems safe to say that Iran-contra isn't going to make it as a literary movement. If it were truly a latter-day Watergate, we would have had more books by now from the participants. The downfall of Richard Nixon, after all, not only supplied us with volumes by Chuck Colson, Maurice Stans, John Dean, Sam Ervin, Leon Jaworski, Jeb Stuart Magruder, Judge Sirica and a shelf-load of others but also turned John Ehrlichman and G. Gordon Liddy into novelists while resuscitating, after a fashion, the literary career of E. Howard Hunt.

Liddy, in fact, is currently on tour for The Monkey Handlers, perhaps the first thriller about animal rights testing. "It probably would have been very difficult for me to have been first published without the notoriety or whatever you want to call it that Watergate gave me," the Fort Washington, Md., resident comments from his Seattle hotel room.

(Notoriety is probably as good a word as any. Remember how he was said to have offered to stand on a street corner and let himself be bumped off for the good of the cause?)

But even without access to the big-time provided by Watergate, Liddy feels that he would still have become a writer. "Eventually the stories that were in me would have forced their way out," he says, although he concedes that prison speeded up the process. "One of the things you need to get started is a lot of time, and in prison I had all the time in the world."

There have been no such literary efforts from the Iran-contra participants -- no tales of international intrigue from arms-dealer Albert Hakim, no autobiographical tidbits from national security adviser Robert McFarlane. The scandal's central figure, Oliver North, has quite understandably concentrated on his legal troubles rather than his memoirs.

For more than a month, however, a rumor has been making the rounds that HarperCollins has signed up North for his story, and has gotten William Novak (ace ghost for Lee Iacocca, Tip O'Neill and Nancy Reagan) to do the work.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, HarperCollins chief George Craig swore the rumor wasn't true. North's lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, didn't return phone calls. Novak confirmed he is currently ghosting a book, but said: "Whether I'm doing this or another one of the rumors or none of them, I just can't say. I'm now at the point where I can't even deny anything." Footnote: An executive at one publisher confirms that phone calls had been made several months ago scouting out interest in North.

For one-time North secretary Fawn Hall, things are more definite. Iran-contra fans will remember that her book went to Warner for $100,000. It was described at the time by her agent as "a great inspirational story of a young girl who grew up in a family that served in government, and who happened to be working as a secretary to someone who became the subject of news."

Asked about the status of this oft-delayed project, Warner president Larry Kirshbaum said: "She wrote one version, but wasn't happy. We were prepared to publish it, but she wasn't. Now it's pretty much moribund as far as we're concerned. Unfortunately, the time for the book has come and gone."

But Hall has not completely forsaken a literary career. She recently was spotted applying for a job at Book Soup, an L.A. store. The English personnel manager didn't recognize her, and consequently gave Hall an unenthusiastic response. Owner Glenn Goldman says that when he found out, "I encouraged the manager to hire her, but by the time he got back to her she had apparently found something else."

Starting a New Chapter

IN JON HASSLER's 1985 novel, A Green Journey, a character reflects: "He was tired of busybodies telling him how real-life stories would end. Real-life stories wrote themselves and often included some very surprising chapters."

Was Hassler looking in a mirror as he wrote that? Consider his story: Born in Minneapolis. Lived ever since in small-town Minnesota. Taught high-school English from 1955 to '65, then switched to college-level. Decided in 1970 he wanted to be a writer. Since 1977, he has published six novels for adults and two for teens. For most of this period, his fame scarcely extended over the border into Wisconsin. The books, universally described as quiet, humorous, touching tales, seemed to go out of print within minutes.

Here's where the story starts to get interesting. Hassler's devout following in Minnesota, frustrated at the unavailability of his work, made him into a cause. A Ballantine sales rep in the state was converted, and she in turn converted the home office. All his previous books were reprinted in paperback, and Ballantine has just launched in hardcover Hassler's new and most ambitious book, North of Hope (reviewed on page 6). Backed by an expert publicity campaign, Hassler now seems on his way to achieving the sort of breakthrough that Baltimore's Anne Tyler achieved with The Accidental Tourist.

There are other points of comparison with Tyler. Just as all of her books seem to take place in the same corner of an idiosyncratic universe, so has Hassler staked out his particular territory: northern Minnesota, land of lakes, jackpine trees and towns that time didn't exactly forget, but that don't seem overburdened with yuppies, either. Furthermore, Hassler, like Tyler, has attracted the attention of Hollywood.

"Isn't it funny how the screen validates fiction?" he wondered when he was here three weeks ago -- the same night, as it happened, that the TV adaptation of A Green Journey was broadcast. "The level of excitement in people's minds over a television show seems so much higher than over a novel."

Back home in Sauk Rapids, his family and friends were watching Angela Lansbury as the flinty Agatha McGee, newly retired schoolteacher who "treated her fellow townsmen much the way she treated her sixth graders, which at least half of them had been at one time or another."

Even if Hassler hadn't been out on tour -- his first to cross state lines -- his eyes would have been averted from the screen. He has another book in mind about Agatha, and would rather she didn't take on Lansbury's mannerisms. "If I were home, I'd be out walking. Then I'd go to my den, read the paper, do the crossword puzzle. Tell me, honestly, do I seem to be overcareful?"

Oh, you can never be too cautious in this business. Like the centipede and his legs, if you look too closely at how you do it, you may lose the ability. This, at least, is Hassler's worry.

"A year and a half ago, I got a letter from someone whose friend was dying, and their dying wish was to meet me," he said as self-effacingly as it is possible to say something like this. "I read letters like that, and I think, 'My God, I'm really touching people.' But I'm not sure I know how I'm doing it. But I'm not sure I should know."

Perhaps it has something to do with that decade of teaching high school. "It gave me a sense of boredom in my listener, or my reader. Don't you read novels once in a while and get into these long passages where you think, 'This writer doesn't have any sense of his audience'? I have a concept of writing for my B-minus students. The A students will listen to anything, and the D students go to sleep for anything."

During fall semesters, Hassler teaches writing at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. (Covering the same course during the spring, appropriately enough, is that other acclaimed Minnesota writer with a similar interest in Catholic topics, J.F. Powers.) He sees much work ahead of him, corners of his universe that must be patched together. Always, they will be novels: The short story, he once said, is "precision work, like making jewelry. Writing the novel is more like butchering a cow."

Hassler is 57 now; his first book wasn't published until he was 44. "I started late and I'll write late. I think I needed those years of living to pile up impressions and material." Like the time his grandfather lived with the family and told the railway stories that ended up in Grand Opening (1987), including how he was fired for letting his friends ride free.

Besides, the writer said, "There's something about living in small towns and seeing stories unfold over years. It seems if you wait around, there's another chapter. That's another advantage of staying in a place for a while: There's always another chapter.

"I guess I'm easily amused, eh?"

Metropolitan Thrills

YOU would assume the lawyers for Ten Speed Press went berserk when they saw the manuscript for The Urban Adventure Handbook. Imagine a guide that tells you all about fun activities in the inner city, things like "buildering" (climbing buildings as if they were mountains), balancing (on chains, especially) and spelunking (through culverts and storm drainage systems). Imagine that this guide makes it all seem both possible and thrilling. Imagine someone following your directions, falling and damaging a vital organ, and suing your cute little publishing house for enough money to buy Donald Trump's yacht.

So you'd think the lawyers were the ones responsible for the large box on the very first page of the Handbook. A small snippet: "The activities discussed in this book are inherently dangerous and should not be done by anyone . . . The author, publisher, and contributors to this book accept no responsibility or liability for any actions or attitudes of anyone who uses this book."

Talk about mixed messages. Almost as striking is the book's categorization on its back cover as "Outdoors/Humor," two categories that are rarely paired but which seem intended here to give a "Hey, I was only joking" attitude toward any potential litigators.

But as it turns out, the disclaimer wasn't written by a lawyer. It came straight from the author, economist Alan North of Sausalito, Calif.

"I was originally going to self-publish the book, and I wanted to cover my bottom," says North. "I don't want to actively advocate this stuff for legal reasons. On the other hand, I think it's fun, and if others are going to be doing it, I want to help them do it in a safe way. Of course they shouldn't be doing it at all. Everyone knows you shouldn't play in traffic."

North says he started climbing things when he was small. It's all his mother's fault. "She never told me not to. Big mistake." He defines the challenge in urban adventuring as "how close you can get to the edge without going over. Literally." Has he ever broken anything? "Well, I broke the law. A couple of weeks ago I ran through a stoplight and I got a ticket."

Enduring Charms

TRY TO think of pleasant things to say, it recommends in White Gloves and Party Manners. Okay, here goes: This book by Marjabelle Young Stewart and Ann Buchwald appeared a quarter-century ago and remains in print from the same firm, Robert B. Luce Inc.

This seems not only to prove that at least some young women still wear white gloves and go to the type of parties where manners matter, but that the authors did a good job of explanation. It was the first book for both, provoking the following headline on a feature in the New York Times: "2 Mothers Prove They Can Write."