Jeffrey Archer is a novelist in a hurry. He has only 540 pages to tell his story, so he must get on with it. No time for characterization or nuance or style. He forges ahead with simple declarative sentences, dragging the reader along with him. His latest book, "Kane and Abel," is a page-turner, all right, but a journey with Jeffrey Archer is not a pleasant one. It's like being keel-hauled.
Archer is the English writer who three years ago brought us the novel "Shall We Tell the President?" which was based on the premise that Teddy Kennedy is elected president in 1980 and becomes the target of an assassination plot. The new effort, "Kane and Abel," (the book jacket tells us) is "a No. 1 best seller in England" and has been "hailed as 'the novel of the decade.'" The English, apparently, hold little hope for the '80s.
What Archer tries to do as he rushes along through 61 years of history (1906-67) is give us two fictionalized biographies -- one of Abel Rosnovski, a poor immigrant who becomes a hotel magnate in the mold of Conrad Hilton, and the other of William Lowell Kane, a stereotyped Boston Brahmin financier who bears a certain resemblance to Paul Cabot of the State Street Investment Company, the former treasurer of Harvard University.
The paths of Kane and Abel cross frequently, and, because of a couple of misunderstandings, they hate each other and spend their later years plotting elaborate revenge. Unfortunately, Archer is in too big a hurry to develop either of his heroes, and they emerge as stiff, unsympathetic fellows, cut from the same sheet of cardboard.
Heavy irony weighs down every page as Archer constructs awkward, obvious contrasts. Abel, for example, is born a bastard and an orphan in a Polish forest at the very same moment that Kane is delivered with three attending physicians in Massachusetts General Hospital. Abel is adopted by a big family of destitute, rustic serfs, while Kane goes on to be elected president of his class at St. Paul's.
But tragedy strikes them both: The Germans march into Poland, and Abel spends four years in a dungeon, where he finds out that he is actually the son of a baron. Meanwhile, Kane's father goes down with the Titanic, and his mother marries a fortune-hunter, who turns out to be a gambler, a crook, and, worst of all, an Italian. Abel arrives at Ellis Island penniless, finds work as a waiter at the Plaza, gets some good stock tips, and ends up running a string of hotels. He too gets very rich. Then come the misunderstandings and the revenge.
Those acquainted with this genre have probably already guessed that Kane's son falls in love with Abel's daughter.
A story about a battle between two millionaires from disparate backgrounds is not a bad idea. But in Archer's clumsy hands, it's a mess. He piles cliche upon cliche, cranking out sentences like, "The waiter would have turned red if he hadn't been black."
A lot of readers are suckers for this soap-opera stuff, and perhaps I am one of them. But it makes me feel unclean in the morning. And worse, it's a diversion from a more profitable path. There are things we want to know about Kane and Abel that Archer won't tell us: Does anything motivate them other than this foolish quest for revenge? What keeps millionaires in the fray anyway? The deside for more money? Fame? A sense of duty? Or is it that they can't stop?
There's also the question of work itself. Besides Louis Auchincloss, it's hard to think of a living novelist who gives us a good idea of how people actually spend their 40 hours a week at labor. What is it that men and women do in their offices? Kane is always taking important phone calls and having board meetings. Abel is flying around opening new hotels. But there is more to it than that. Do they bring their work home? Do they eat tuna-fish sandwiches at their desks? Do they do the daily crossword puzzle before answering their correspondence?
All of this nuance is missing in Archer's book, and it's a shame, because the man clearly can write if he wants. The novel contains a single sentence of brilliance: "Lucy began locking herself in the bathroom, turning on the water and writing secret letters to Richard, who could never figure out why they always gave the appearance of being damp."
But Jeffrey Archer is too busy hustling Kane and Abel through the decades, introducing them to Anton Cermak and John F. Kennedy, to bother with such matters. That's why, in the end, while both Kane and Abel manage to avoid bankruptcy, Archer's book does not.