Oscar Wilde to the contrary, there are immoral books, and this is one of them. Not badly written, only basely aimed: straight at our morbid curiosity.
But the book has a great deal of meaning. Does it matter that it's all inadvertent, an afterwave? That the reader's intelligence has to override the author's intention in order to reveal it? That the book, in the end, is thought-provoking because of its flaws?
The core of the book is the 1977 Playboy interview which dubbed Barry Rothman "Mr. Death." By the time the interview appeared, Rothman was dead of a heart attack. The author of this book, son David Rothman, found references to the published piece in his father's effects and made up his mind that his father was, indeed, a man whose business was to supply the CIA with lethal devices.
The pages pulsate when the interview itself--the only portion where Barry Rothman's voice is heard--is interfaced with the rest of the text. Listen to Rothman as he talks to Playboy interviewer Laurence Gonzales:
"Suppose you're in a situation in which it is impossible to bring into a room any firearms or unconventional things that would be suspect. How would you take care of a roomful of guys? Well, next question is: How taken care of? I mean, do you want them extracted, do you want them blinded temporarily? Biological assault?--Always loved that term. It sounds obscene. Well, in this particular instance, my contact said, 'We want them extracted for sure. A fair number of them, in a moderate size room.' And I wound up with one of the nastiest nasties that I came up with. That, incidentally, was the jargon for those gadgets: Assorted Nasties. This one . . . kills you faster than you can believe. I've seen films of tests on monkeys. The knockdown is truly remarkable. Load it into a shell, fire it at someone, and his whole central nervous system goes berserk."
Chilling, isn't it? But forget the CIA. Shiver instead because the author presents more evidence to suggest that Barry Rothman didn't do this kind of thing for a living. Shiver because Barry Rothman is the kind of guy who would like you to believe that's what he did. That's a nice twist. But it does, of course, make the subtitle, "The Life of a CIA Assassination Expert," a lie.
The preponderant evidence consists of son David's interviews with, among others, Barry Rothman's high-school English teacher, his ex-wife (and David's mother), his girlfriend, his best buddy, even his urologist. All by themselves--without the Playboy piece--these sections wouldn't add up to much. Given the "Mr. Death" extract from Playboy as a point of reference, however, they become enormously revealing. On the one hand, the reminiscences reduce Barry Rothman from assassin to run-of-the-mill creep. But they also show the lure of Rothman's mean pose--why, probably, he selected it. One by one, the people who surround Barry Rothman admit to courting his craziness. All of these folks, the author included, clearly would love it if the Playboy interview were true; if Barry Rothman had been, as he claimed, responsible for 150 hits, give or take a few.
There's much that seems extraneous in these interviews. They appear to be printed exactly as they rolled off the tape recorder reel. But boring as this method is, it ultimately works for, rather than against, the book. It makes the people all the more ordinary, and thus renders their attraction to Barry Rothman all the more frightening. This is particularly true when an entire family conversation is taped.
Here are the elder Walton and his 22-year-old son, (no relation to the TV Waltons) gleefully describing Barry Rothman's flirtation with venomous creatures:
". . . So he turned over and dumped it out. Out popped a seven-inch black scorpion. The only kind of scorpion that is--
"Walt Walton: Speaking over his father An African rock scorpion.
"Dr. Walton: Not missing a beat --supposed to be highly poisonous or even fatal to man. Alive! Laughs heartily
"Walt Walton: I remember once he told us he had a cobra loose in his basement and he had to chase it around down there with--
"Dr. Walton: Oh, yes! He had to succeed in catching the cobra!
"Walt Walton: A big cobra!
"Dr. Walton: Speaking over his son The cobra actually turned on him and cornered him. He was able to eventually--
"Walt Walton: --subdue it with a badminton net or something ridiculous. Some kinda pole."
But I also objected to things that didn't enhance the book. I objected to the fact that David Rothman has given us a "Daddy Dearest," but won't fess up to it. Instead, he caterwauls about his quasi-mystical search for a dad he never really knew. I just plain didn't believe it.
What I do believe is David Rothman saw what he could do with the 1977 Playboy article and went ahead and did it. Nothing wrong with that. What's wrong is that he doesn't admit it, maybe even to himself. As a result, whenever he tries to lay the search thing on us, it's false and embarrassing. We know we're being had:
"Some nights, some days, I feel you close. My heart beats a little faster, my chest tightens, I grow weak and strong at the same time. Are you here to tell me--tell me what? What could you possibly tell me that would have any meaning?"
Less embarrassing are the extravagant sex scenes. Less because here, at least, David Rothman is having a genuine good time. He manages to come up with a reason for including them--he is trying to fill the "space" his dead father (whose tastes were considerably odder and even odious, if they are to be believed) left behind.