This exceedingly peculiar novel seems to exist primarily to permit its author to express his heated opinions on any number of subjects, most of them having to do with the getting and disposing of money. Stephen Vizinczey means to entertain, and occasionally he does so, but most of the time he subjects the reader to one philippic after another; since the book is more philippic than entertainment, it is likely to be of interest primarily to those readers who take masochistic pleasure in subjecting themselves to lectures.
If you ignore the preaching and concentrate on the plot, "An Innocent Millionaire" can be read as a mildly diverting piece of commercial fiction. At its center is a young American, Mark Niven, who on the one hand believes that "people are monsters and I'd better get rich or I'll have to depend on monsters," yet on the other is given to "foolish trust" -- a contradiction, by the way, that Vizinczey never satisfactorily explains or resolves. Mark's lifelong dream has been to find the Flora, a treasure ship lost in the Caribbean since 1820, and to turn its cargo into vast riches; how he fares in this endeavor is the thread of plot upon which Vizinczey's tirades and jeremiads are strung.
Mark is an innocent in a world of cynics, needless to say, and his misadventures provide him with a painful introduction to life's manifold cruelties. While searching for the ship he falls in love with Marianna Hardwick, the young wife of a rich, philandering businessman, but this affair founders on a misunderstanding and Marianna abruptly disappears from the novel until its final pages. Once he finds the ship, his troubles only increase, as the combination of his sudden wealth and his thoroughgoing innocence leaves him prey to every shark in the sea.
These include, in no particular order, Marianna's husband, who discovers the affair and determines to have Mark killed but whose real purpose in the book is to be the head of a firm doing nasty and devious business involving chemicals, the subject of several Vizinczey outbursts; Dr. Mavis Rolle, chief valuation officer of the Bahamian Ministry of Finance, who proposes to sock Mark with a staggering tax burden; John Vallantine, a New York art dealer who schemes to part Mark from his treasure, and William T. MacArthur, a corrupt, politically connected lawyer who greases the way for him.
At one point in all these wheelings and dealings Mark is in the hospital recovering from serious wounds incurred during a raid on his boat. It is here that Vizinczey has the opportunity to deliver what could be called the central lecture of the novel. He writes:
"Vallantine too was lucky. While his unsuspecting adversary lay in the clinic, he could go about his business unopposed. In the great battle of intelligence and willpower which was shaping up between them, Mark started with the disadvantage of being at death's door. This is how people who create the wealth of the world end up with so little of it. It costs a great deal to do anything worthwhile -- even to recover sunken treasure -- and the doers are at the end of their tether, bleeding one way or another, by the time their work is done. That's when the parasites start living, bright and rested, fresh from their bath, ready to move in and take over."
It's not exactly an original thought, but it's the one from which everything else in "An Innocent Millionaire" originates. All the book's diatribes and asides -- about scheming businessmen, scheming art dealers, scheming mobsters, scheming editors and above all else scheming lawyers, curse their mendacious souls -- boil down to this one complaint that after the doer has done his bold, imaginative deed, the parasites move in and deny him his triumph. The point is not without validity, but the extremes to which Vizinczey takes it merely turn his novel into a long cartoon populated by exaggerated caricatures.
Oddly enough, Vizinczey's publisher seems to believe that "An Innocent Millionaire" can be a best seller in this country; the book is supported by an expensive advertising campaign and a substantial first printing. But though it was well received by some European reviewers, an American success seems most unlikely. People who want a bit of trash for the beach will have more fun with Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon, and this summer's lecture period appears to have been monopolized by John Irving. "An Innocent Millionaire" seems destined for a considerably more quiet disappearance than its hero's.