Niki Greenwood is a playboy, rich beyond the dreams of avarice but dominated by a father who orders him about like a servant. Paul Foster is a mystery man, a multi-billionaire of shady background and reclusive, secretive habits. Intelligent, ruthless, programmed like a money-making machine, he hates Niki and the whole Greenwood dynasty with irrational passion. His long, intricate vendetta against the family is especially difficult because they are even more wealthy than he is.
The story of this conflict, as told by Michael Korda, includes Paul's seduction of Niki's mistress (reluctantly abandoned on daddy's orders) as well as other manipulations more strictly in the line of business.
It is a suitable fictional subject for an author whose most successful previous book is a nonfiction how-to called "Power!" And it demonstrates that Michael Korda is not only the editor in chief of a major publisher but a competent popular novelist. "Worldly Goods" speaks of power knowingly (though sometimes, no doubt, at second hand) on nearly every page. It is a well-crafted potboiler, readily digestible for the casual reader and evidently written with Hollywood (where the name of Korda is not unknown) in mind.
It will translate well to the screen; the scenes are punchy and the dialogue should be quite adequate with a little help from actors, director and cameraman. It has a wealth of scenery, contemporary and flashback: a Manhattan literary cocktail party complete with drunken writer; a secluded mansion in the Virginia hunt country, where Foster consummates his seduction; the private plane in which he can pop over to Paris for lunch and a bit of business; a little French restaurant where Onassis used to dine; a boar hunt on a lavish Hungarian estate with Hermann Goering as the guest of honor; casual encounters with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, and the horrors of World War II, including an occasional glance at the concentration camps.
It is, basically, the story of the family Greenwood (formerly de Gruenwald), a Hungarian clan with enormous wealth and "a little drop of Jewish blood," from the 1930s to the present. In the beginning, there is much talk of Project Wotan--originally a pretext for the Gruenwalds to sell uranium to the Nazis with the suggestion that a process might be developed for transforming it into bombs of a power never previously imagined. By the end, it is chiefly the story of the family's efforts to erase the records and consequences of its curiously checkered past.
The profiles of Nazi leaders have a sleazy charm. Goering is particularly vivid and well-drawn, Hitler a bit less impressive. Both are ultimately more caricatures than portraits, but Goering's is a caricature with lots of color and a well-sketched background.
Beyond its intricacies of plot and scenery, however, the book has another dimension that is strangely absorbing: the aphorisms that pop up every few pages, particularly early on. A diligent collator might dig them out, reassemble them into a slim volume titled "A Young Man's Guide to Hard Realities" and turn a quick dollar or two in profits. It may be that Korda's true ideal is not Dickens or Ludlum (two authors whose fingerprints one occasionally finds on these pages) but La Rochefoucauld.
"Good mistresses make bad wives," for example. "They become strict moralists once they've married, to make up for the past."
Or: "We don't exercise because we're disciplined. We exercise because we're vain." Or "Every government is terrible, each in its own way." Or "People go into a deal arguing about the numbers, then make up their minds because of something else completely--jealousy, hatred, love . . . "
Sometimes, the aphorism is clearly fictional, something the author uses to help define a character but probably would not want published as his own opinion. "You can only buy journalists by giving them a better story" is probably not a sentiment of Korda's but of a character in the novel--as is the apothegm uttered much later by the journalist in question (a caricature of someone like Seymour Hersh, rather more crudely drawn than the Goering caricature): "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a smart-assed billionaire."
It is almost worth a few hours' browsing just to pick out such distilled statements and to conjecture on which ones the author put in because he feels the world should be told. "In the act of love," he informs us, "women want everything to take place at their own rhythm until they are close to orgasm, at which point they want to be dominated." File that one away against the time when the information might come in handy. And while you're at it, don't forget that "Atomic bombs are a business, just like everything else."
Books, too, are a business just like anything else, and Michael Korda writes like an expert businessman.