Exective suites and corporate board rooms are as much caverns of power as the Oval Office or the Senate cloak room. Yet they are less often explored by novelists for intrigue, corruption, romance or heroism than are the corridors of government. Perhaps the answer is simple: government, as a public institution, is far more open to scrutiny than a commodity broker's portfolio or a conglomerate's books. But the corporate cave-dwellers are as real -- as the politicians, and it is a pity that so few literary spelunkers enter this territory.
In "The Power Players," journalist and author Arelo Sederberg takes his searchlight into the dankest corners of the corporation, illuminating personal greed, crippling ambition, overseas bribery, brushes with organized crime and naked manipulation of people's lives -- all of it excused for Profit and The Company. The story works, less because the topic is business than because Sederberg understands people and how to write about them.
Senderberg has written two other novels and plans at least on more, based on Howard Hughes, for whom he once worked. "The Power Players" may indeed be a practice run for a Hughes book, but no matter. It stands on its own, chiefly because of its strong central character, Lewis Anthony Breedlove. (The novel once was to have been titled "Breedlove," which I think was a better choice.) Breedlove is a man of obscure origins, tremendous skills, violent passions and a ruthlessness that is as much the foundation of his conglomerate empire as his shrewdness in the corporate cockpit.
Because much of Breedlove's powers is built around food companies, this novel seems at times to be about the use of natural resources in influence international politics. After all, grain, oil and gold have proved to be as formidable as intercontinental missiles or Soviet combat brigades. But "The Power Players" is not about that. It is about the deft and shameless handling of others for Breedlove's maniacal purposes -- and of their willingness to be used in their own lust for power.
Old Breedlove, his treasures under assault from an amazing array of enemies -- including a legitimate and an illegitimate son -- sets up a troika of top executives to struggle for his job and save his empire. That empire is beset on all sides by environmentalists, unions, terrorists, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and, of course, the press. This blending of phenomena of the '60s and '70s is handled with sufficient credibility. There is even a bow to the revisionist morality of the post-Watergate era.
One member of the troika is Henry Lancaster, 43, a marketing expert. He is sleek, flashy, crude and half again as ruthless as Breedlove himself -- and therefore a good bet to win. George Powell, 53, is an intense, Harvard-trained stoic, as proper and reserved as the board room could possibly demand. But as the financial wizard, he has sunk to shaving legal points at work and moral points at home. Bribing foreign governments and cooking the company books have spilled over into taking a mistress and squirreling away a Swiss bank account. Mark Scott, 39, is a specialist in administration, advanced planning and industrial and shareholder relations. In one sense, those are front-line corporate assignments. But they are spongy ground from which to spring to power. Futhermore Scott is the most naive and gentle in confronting the external forces that threaten the Breedlove kingdom. Could he, despite these apparent flaws, be the son Breedlove wishes he had had? Breedlove's mind, as fashioned by Sederberg, is far too devious for the reader to be sure.
Along the trail, Sederberg offers sex, but only to explain the participants properly; intrigue, in an instructive way that could serve as a manual for those on the corporate make, and characters as solid as the story. Among the best of these are the battered corporate wives.
I confess that good novels often tell me more than nonfiction does about the intricacies of such complex subjects as the Vietnam war or intelligence-gathering. Sederberg's book gives that kind of insight into the machinations of business and their impact on people and nations.
And his ending neatly handles two critical questions -- whether the prize is worth the seeking, and what, at last, is more important, the institution or the individual?