I wept for my youth, sweet passionate young thought,
And cozy women dead that by my side
Once lay: I wept with bitter longing, not
Remembering how in my youth I cried.
Going in, this thriller has two things working for it: the verse by Kunitz and a promising plot idea blurbed on the cover. Straight-arrow diplomat Dennis Showers is posted as deputy chief of station to the U.S. embassy in Ottawa. But before he can leave Washington, Showers, who has scaled the heights at State with his integrity and much of his virginity intact, receives a late-night phone call from his old high school flame, Felicity, pleading incoherently for help. He begins an obsessive search for her not knowing she is involved in a plot to bomb the Parliament building and major bridges in Ottawa in an attempt to bring Canada to its knees.
But once into the book, all bets are off. President Warren Harding's prose, e.e. cummings once wrote, was so bad that after a while a sort of grandeur emerged. No such luck here. Kilian's prose is so wretched that it not only isn't right, it isn't even wrong. From the first sentence, the prose is so paltry the reader finds himself longing even for Robert Ludlum. Take these examples: " One CIA agent asks another, "Are you acquainted with Gary Lesser, herein employed?" and "They spent all of that night on that beach, and they never saw Hugh Laidlaw again, which was in time pleasing to him, because there proved to be no need" (say again?).
So what? Few thrillers pretend to be literature. How does Kilian do with the story not as literature but on its own terms simply as story? This is important: To become involved the reader must believe in the story and its characters. But in trying to people his plot, Kilian fails to breathe life into any of his characters. His lead, Showers, is a bundle of contradictions. A hot-shot careerist in the Foggy Bottom battles, he simultaneously is shy and self-abnegating. He is an alcoholic who thinks and drives better after a bottle of scotch; so dull in bed his wife continually sleeps around, but so sexually exciting to his neighbor's daughter that she runs off with him. He loves truth and beauty and wildlife and hates the military, the CIA and violence and yet has been picked for his new post primarily to persuade Canada to put more of its GNP into its armed forces lest the Russian bear invade its northern ice. His foe, old friend Guy Porique, who saved him once on Mount Blanc, also loves wildlife and plots the bombing to stem the fouling of the environment by Canadian and American industry.
There is the obligatory hit man tailing Showers, a Vietnam veteran of course (billed as the best hit man in America, he is the biggest amateur since Robert Mitchum), who has been hired by a Russian agent, himself hired by the French. Joyce, the private eye who accompanies Showers and his neighborly rich bitch on the search for true love Felicity, is pretty much a cipher, annoyingly given to addressing Showers constantly as "My man." Three CIA agents do the work of four men--Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo and Gummo--but can't speak without trying to outdo one another on literary quotations.
Kilian fails to resolve some subplots and characters, but perhaps this is a blessing. The sex is par for the genre, almost all of it going beyond Krafft-Ebing and some of it involving acrobatics surpassing the Kama Sutra. But in the muck, an occasional water lily. A White House biggie on the CIA: "Can't trust those bastards . . . El Flako over there's scared to death to send anything up to the president the Old Man might disagree with."
Leo Durocher's team once had such a comfortable lead that he gave a rookie a chance in right field. After the kid dropped the first three balls hit to him, tying the score, Durocher replaced the kid with himself. Durocher dropped the next two and lost the game. Later he growled at the kid, "You've screwed the field up so much now nobody can play it!" Exactly. With this book Kilian has so loused up the thriller genre that it will be a while before even Eric Ambler or Graham Greene can play it.