Budd Schulberg's daughter lives on a farm in Idaho where she raises all her own vegetables and chops wood and makes her clothes and even her own toothpaste (he winces as he tells it) and never upsets the ecology or the political system.
"I argue with her," the famous writer said, "because this is the thing that's happening in this country, we're becoming cynical or we're turning away from the whole thing, and the power people are taking over."
His latest novel, "Everything That Moves," is a parable about a driving and completely power-concentrated labor leader whose career, death and name (Joey Hopper) resemble those of Jimmy Hoffa. It is a short book, in the present tense like a film script, stripped of specifics, place descriptions and adjectives, to give it a timeless quality.
"I wasn't trying to tie it to the '50s or any other time," Schulberg said, "but I wanted to say that this can happen any time."
Power and the corruption that it can bring have always fascinated this child of Hollywood, the son of the late film mogul B.P. Schulberg. His first novel was "What Makes Sammy Run," an acid portrait of a movie titan, an amoral dictator who cared for nothing but power and more power.
His novel, however, is not about his father, he has insisted for decades. "My father was too vulnerable, too creative. He wasn't driven by power, and he was sacrificed because he couldn't keep up with the competitive struggle."
In about 1920 he and Louis B. Mayer formed Mayer-Schulberg Studios, but Mayer soon moved to what became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and his partner wound up with Paramount.
"I saw the change in L.B.," Schulberg mused.
"We'd have these gemutlich Sunday brunches, and he'd reminisce about his courtship of his wife Margaret from his junk truck -- he was really from hunger, he came up from picking up bent nails -- and he seemed quite human to me, but he took on all the trappings of power and almost disowned his own past. Traveled with Hearst and Herbert Hoover and people like that. . . ."
Power and corruption were themes in Schulberg's "On the Waterfront," and perhaps more subtly in "The Disenchanted," a prize-winning study of the nightmarish last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The young Schulberg had been assigned to team up with the fading novelist on a screenplay about the Dartmouth Winter Carnival, adapted from Schulberg's own work about his alma mater. Fitzgerald started drinking and quickly fell into an alcoholic tailspin. Was it his early fame that had corrupted him?
"Now Marlon Brando never had any concept of power, how to use it, how much he had. I got to know him well on the set of 'Waterfront.' Such a marvelous man, marvelous actor. I hear he's gone up to 300 pounds now. But he's the kind of person who has no sense of what you can do with power. Like that protest about the Indians that he arranged at the Oscar ceremony. What good did that do? It's all disconnected. He could have done a great film about Indians, he could have written his own ticket. He had the power." f
Schulberg is not exactly a power person himself, but at least he had the sense to put his concern and rage over the Watts riots to work: He organized a poetry workshop for the youth of Watts, brought his proteges to Washington to testify before Congress, published their work in "From the Ashes."
That's one kind of power. The other kind he finds an increasing danger to America. It is symbolized by a character called Shecter in his new book, whose nickname curiously is "Kissinger," who is smooth and presentable in the most respectable society, who moves in the chic circles of Washington, hobnobs with governors and corporation heads and who is just as much at home in the banal haunts of organized crime.
"These people are buying up eastern Long Island right now," the writer said. "They're moving in. What do you do? You have a garbage business and these guys come around and they pay you in $100 billions and they're never late and they're always nice and cooperative and friendly. So are you gonna ask where the money comes from?"
Who is the enemy?Not the Mafia. Bigger. "It's the sheer weight of money and connections. They concentrate on getting what they want, concentrate totally. And you can't beat 'em working part-time."
He put it this way: The neighbors stop a highway project or a high-rise building, and everyone cheers and goes home. But a year later, two, four years later, the same people come up again, and if they don't win then, they try again until they do.
Schulberg, now 66, is more concerned about American cyncism than ever. He believes that a small fraction of the populace elects our leaders these days, and too many of us just don't care where the $100 bills come from.
He is working on his autobiography. It is as rich with detail as his new novel is spare. It is 175,000 words long (down from 300,000) and only goes up to page 18. He will have to publish it in volumes. How do you write something that's timeless -- by cutting out all the details or by leaving them all in?
He shrugs. "When you're through, you're never sure."