Like many another toiler in the vineyards of schlock fiction, Irving Wallace is a specialist in howlers. Some readers, prowling through the pages of "The Almighty," will fasten upon this one: "Now, gathered around the coffee table, Armstead seemed almost benign." Others will take a liking to this: "Beside him, on a pad, lying on her back which spread and flattened her bare breasts . . ." But my choice sweeps the field: "Throughout her short life Victoria Weston had been a young person, and death had been far away."
The reader who chooses to approach a Wallace novel in search of these and other Malapropisms, or Irvings, cannot but come away from it richer for the experience. Unfortunately, though, the cost of such satisfaction is very high: You have to read the book. This is not easy. A little bit of fractured syntax can be a lot of fun, but 400 pages of it add up to hard, exhausting work; a little bit of unintentional hilarity can brighten up the day, but 400 pages of it leave you gasping for breath. The occasional rewards offered by "The Almighty" are much smaller than the sheer labor involved in getting from the first page to the last.
The gentleman referred to in its title is one Edward Armstead, who at the age of 56 is at last freed by the death of his famous, domineering father to take over the billion-dollar Armstead communications empire--most specifically the New York Record. "I wanted the Record above everything else," Armstead says. "Having it would give me my chance to prove myself, prove I was worthy." But his vile daddy's will contains a "zinger," a provision that requires Armstead to do the near-impossible if he is to maintain control of the newspaper -- close a circulation gap between it and The New York Times of almost 350,000.
This, of course, he does, by most underhanded means; he stages a sensational story so that the Record can have exclusive coverage of it. But getting control of the paper is not enough for Armstead, nor is he content to wallow in the affections of his daddy's mistress. He wants more, more, more:
"Sex was not first-best but second-best.
"Power was first-best.
"Power to manipulate, control, dominate -- everything, everyone, the world.
"It had come to him with clarity . . . what to do, how to do it. It was dangerous, very dangerous, this bigger seduction, this rape of life. But he would attempt it. He would enjoy the ultimate orgasm."
And what, you may ask, is the ultimate orgasm? God-like power, but of course. To make the Record the mightiest newspaper in the world, Armstead hires his very own terrorist gang and sets it on a series of missions that result in one exclusive story after another. Eventually he comes to realize that "it wasn't all that easy, playing God," but by then he is trapped in his own megalomania.
Who brings him down? Why, the doughty girl reporter, none other than the aforementioned Victoria Weston, who had burst into journalism with this ringing declaration: "To hell with the money. I'll live in one room in a ghetto, eat an apple a day, mend my own panty hose -- as long as I can wake up unable to wait for my job to begin, and go to sleep knowing I want more hours of the same. I want to be Nellie Bly. I want to be Annie Laurie. I want to be Dorothy Kilgallen." No kidding.
It takes her a ridiculously long time to do so, but as the pile of sensational Record exclusives grows ever higher, the doughty girl reporter finally figures out that something weird is going on and applies her terrific investigative skills to the exposure of her very own boss. This ultimately involves Air Force One and the president of the United States and a mad kamikaze pilot with a score to settle -- and, just for good measure, the man she loves, who just happens to be aboard Air Force One at the climactic moment. You will not be surprised to learn that a happy ending is had by all, with one notable exception.
"The Almighty" was written on automatic pilot and reads accordingly. Wallace begins at the beginning and goes on until he comes to the end; then he stops. His narrative is strict, relentless exposition, with not a shred of wit, subtlety or imagination. The only pleasures it affords are unwitting ones, and soon enough even they pall. Four hundred pages of Irvings do not a novel make.