Charles Laughton as Senator Seab Cooley and Walter Pigeon as Senate Majority Leader Robert Munson in Otto Preminger's adaptation of Allen Drury's Advise and Consent.
First book by Allen Drury I read was his fourth, Capable of Honor. It was one of the first serious contemporary adult novels I read. Since I found it on my father's bookshelf where I'd also found novels by Vonnegut, Cheever, and Joseph Heller, I assumed it counted as literature and was therefore as truthful and accurate about politics as Moby-Dick was about whaling.
But then I read Preserve and Protect.
Something weird was going on. I'm not sure if I knew the word paranoia when I was thirteen. I'm sure if I did I didn't have a real understanding of what a constituted a paranoid personality. Nixon was President but I thought of him as just a mean and angry guy. But however I did learn what it meant to be paranoid and to identify paranoia, reading Preserve and Protect and its two sequels, Come Ninevah, Come Tyre and The Promise of Joy, probably helped form the basis of my understanding. I didn't have a lot of experience with the world of adults but I knew there was something just plain nuts about Drury's view of how that world worked.
It wasn't so much the apocalyptic visions or the cynicism or the sheer terror that I sensed was behind every word Drury wrote---Drury wasn't the only one who was convinced the world was on the eve of destruction back then. It was that I suspected that he thought what he was writing was realism.
His plots had become surreal as nightmares and his characters, already not all that psychologically complex, had transformed into simplistic grotesques, most of them as mad as the characters in Alice in Wonderland. Drury had gone from being a realist to being an allegorist, but with this problem. He didn't seem to know it.
It was as if William Blake insisted he was writing like William Wordsworth or Salvador Dali claimed John Singer Sergeant as his major influence and model.
To put it another way, it seemed to me that Drury was reacting to his own creations as if he was reporting a truth imparted to him from someone else, an omniscient someone else, someone practically God-like in his authority, and he didn't realize that that someone else was his own wacky self.
Basically, without being able to put it in clinical terms, I recognized that when I was reading his books I was in the company of a divided, delusional, and paranoid personality, and it creeped me out.
Something else was going on too.
At the same time I was reading his books, thinking I was reading real literature, I was reading real literature. I'd become a fan of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut. I was making my way through the plays of William Shakespeare. I discovered Dickens and Dostoevsky, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, James Thurber and E.B. White.
I wasn't a complete aesthete. I was also reading a lot of Alistair MacLean, Agatha Christie, and Isaac Asimov. But their writing was teaching me the same thing about Allen Drury as Twain and Vonnegut and the others---Drury couldn't write.
His plots creaked. His dialogue was clunky. He didn't know how to construct a scene. And even before he went nuts his characters had no life beyond their place in the plot and no psychology except for the attitudes that gave them their place in the plot or were necessary to placing them in the plot.
Also he had no sense of humor, no sense of play or fun, no real sense of irony only of contradiction and coincidence.
And he had no style or, rather, his style was defined by an absence of style. His competence with the language was on par with that of a very good writer of technical manuals.
Once I realized these things, that he was nuts and a poor writer, his books were ruined for me.
All his books.
Including Advise and Consent.
Which may be too bad.
This essay in the New York Times by Thomas Mallon isn't the first thing I've read that's made me think I should take another look at Advise and Consent.
Drury’s Senate is such a passionate, full-throttle place that “Advise and Consent” never has occasion to quote George Washington’s famous wish that the Senate serve as a cooling saucer for legislation that boils over from the more demotic House. His mid-20th-century senators certainly speak better than those serving today, most of whom, during debate, could scarcely pronounce, let alone deploy, its orotund courtesies and barbs. Indeed, much of the ambience in which these fictional senators work and preen has vanished. In Drury’s capital, printed newspaper editorials still drive the action, and the head of General Motors calls up senators from Michigan not to rattle a cup but to dictate and threaten. At the parties given by Dolly Harrison (a more genteel version of the real-life Perle Mesta), guests stay twice as long and drink three times as much as they would allow themselves to do at any Washington party today.
And yet, 50 years later, most of the subject matter remains recognizable. Drury’s 99 men and lone woman wrestle with the issue of pre-emptive war, the degree of severity with which lying under oath must be viewed, and the way the coverup is invariably worse than the crime. Part of what kept the book on the best-seller list for 102 weeks is its comforting assumption that many politicians come to Washington hoping to do good.
Considering how fascinated by politics and politicians a lot of people are, it's amazing that there are no other great American novels about Washington. And, you're right, I'm not counting Harlot's Ghost, for a reason. It's about Norman Mailer's obsessions, not about politics.
What we have instead are some pretty good potboilers, like Gore Vidal's Washington, D.C. , and some good but minor novels by the likes of Ward Just and Joan Didion. I'm not sure why this has been the case, except that in order for a writer to make Washington her subject she'd need to live in Washington or have spent significant time there and American writers have seemed to gather in every other major city except Washington. In fact, there's a livelier literary scene in Missoula, Montana than in the District of Columbia. But it may be that there have just been so many good works of journalism and history that there's no need for a novel.
Whatever the reason, the outcome may in fact be that Advise and Consent is by accident and default the great American political novel.