Trials of Conscience
by Randall Curb
Early in Peter Gadols new novel a secondary character with the very official-sounding name Garett Jencks enters the story, and suddenly it seems we are in the fictional subcontinent called Greeneland. Jencks is a retired career diplomat in the Foreign Service who heads an influential public relations firm. Graham Greene, recognizing both Jenckss world and the themes of Light at Dusk, would correctly have classified the novel, as he did so many of his own, an "entertainment." True to the form, both the Foreign Service and public relations involve mutually understood codes and surface alliances, both depend on the dictates of quid pro quo.
Jencks is briefly in Paris, the cold and rain-soaked setting of the novel, and there meets up with another American, young William Law, the son of a deceased colleague and friend. Until recently, Will was also in the Foreign Service, but left after a crisis of disillusionment, the nature of which is not explained until late in the novel. Out of his admiration for Wills father, Jencks appoints himself the young mans advisor. Clearly longing for the world of international intrigue that once engaged him, Jencks is out to woo Will back to the Foreign Service. He is more than just paternal and something less than benign, a figure Gadol shrouds in a fog of vague menace, implying that he covets Wills youth and wants to wield power over him in a way not untypical of diplomats. In other words, hes a man of considerable guile, a kind of tempter, who says insidious things like, "You love everything about that life, Will. All the details. The letters you write back to your friends . To those people, youve seen the world, and we know what that confers. They think you wise." If he is representative of the Foreign Service, you want Will to say, "Get thee behind me, Jencks!"--but if he did the novel would stall in the second chapter.
This is not to paint Garrett Jencks as Gadols villain; he would be much less interesting if he were simply that. No, there is a more clear and present evil in Light at Dusk, and it belongs to gangs of black-booted skinheads who have taken up the xenophobic cause of the French Front, a faction eerily similar to the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party in contemporary Austria. These gangs roam the streets of Paris abducting children who dont appear to be native Europeans. One such gang kidnaps, in broad daylight, little Nico Chamoun, a boy being cared for by his Lebanese fathers American girlfriend, Jorie. About an hour before Nico is seized, Will, by pure chance, meets and befriends Jorie and her ward near the Seine. The gang is quick and easily slips away with the boy; he is one of a dozen who are similarly abducted that same day. Thus the plot is set in motion. It will be up to Will and Jorie--and Wills lover, Pedro, another expat American--to find and save the terrorized child. The police prove useless, as is so often the case in thrillers, and for his own narrative and thematic purposes, Gadol wants to leave the search and rescue attempts in the hands of his principals.
As did Greenes "entertainments," Light at Dusk succeeds admirably, with a driving narrative impetus largely lacking in Gadols previous books. It is a classically structured novel--a plot pyramid of rising action, climax, and dénouement, pressed into exemplary service--and is free of excess of any kind. Character revelations, such as the exact reasons why Will had left the Foreign Service, are appropriately delayed for the maximum emotional impact. We are usually left wanting to know more than we are told, a rare virtue in fiction these days.
Paris might have been more subtly evoked (theres much talk of arrondissements), but there is requisite atmosphere, and, thanks to Pedros being an art historian, there is a recurring thread of architectural observations which add texture to the story.
Yet without Jencks and what he represents this entertainment would have only the most superficial tension. It would be about the kid and not the state of Will Laws moral conscience. That is, there would be no test. In Greenes more "serious" fiction--say, The Power and the Glory--ultimately the test would be spiritual; the heros mortal soul would lie in the balance. In the entertainments, its usually a subtler question, one of relative moral corruption. Will thinks of his moral test as that of accomplishing "one good act--one seed cast into a hard fallow field, from which a new good life would inevitably flower." The phrasing is typical of Gadols low stylistic points, but the noble sentiment is unmistakable. Wills one good act will clearly involve the rescue of Nico. The means will just as clearly require some degree of capitulation to Jencks, who is called upon as intercessor when other resources fail, and who exerts a strong influence on Wills thinking.
There will also have to be covert negotiations with the nefarious French Front--the enemy. The question is how far to compromise. Will thinks that, before he left the Service, he crossed the moral line by implicating himself in the deaths of innocent people who were victims of a car bomb. But because it is the nature of the moral line to keep shifting-- Gadol is unequivocal on this point--and because he is obsessed with doing his own absolving deed, he gets another chance. He can compromise, he can make concessions, so long as he doesnt lose sight of the primary good. To him that good is that Jorie and Nico be together. With that in mind he dances with the devil. Before he even meets Jorie he wonders, "What did he believe? Where did his line fall now?" As he talks to the French Front leader, he sees the line and watches his footing.
But there are other questions he has not asked himself. There are other lives he may not be considering. How will his negotiations over Nico affect the fates of other abducted children and their families? Shouldnt Nicos father be informed? Will the concessions to the French Front end up strengthening their cause in some way? If lies are to be told to the public, whose interests will really be best served by such deception? The heart of the matter may not be where he perceives it.
Gadol has written a taut and satisfying novel, and he puts a clever but totally believable twist on Wills ultimate decision. What he mostly loses with his emphasis on plotting and moral quagmire is characterization. None of the three lead characters is deeply imagined, and a schooldays connection between Will and Jorie is tendentious at best. Strangely, Gadol adopts Pedro, who had had a lengthy affair with Will before Will turns up years later in Paris, as his sole narrator. But Pedro isnt a witness to any of the crucial events leading up to the climax. He never even sees Garrett Jencks, though hes our source for everything that goes on between Jencks and Will--including what Wills thinking at the time. Pages of apparent third-person narration go by, and then an "I" pops up, like God. We never know how Pedro happens to know as much as he knows. Indeed, the whole business of point of view should be framed more clearly and convincingly. Pedro is rather a cipher anyway, defined solely by his career and his relationship to Will. A cliché-heavy scene of baking cookies with Jorie doesnt round him out any. Gadol does have his reflective moments, and they give us both his best and his worst prose. He can also be simplistic--even when he addresses shifting moral sands--in ways that Greene, that tower of ambivalence, never was. When it comes to thrillers with a keen moral edge, he could learn a few lessons from the supremely deft Ian McEwan (who wrote of an abducted youngster in A Child in Time). Light at Dusk has, however, sinew and heart and a bracing sobriety. It may be Greene Lite, but theres value in that these days.
The conscience thats plaguing Ted Neel in Robert C. S. Downss novel The Fifth Season is not so much moral as filial. Ted, a sixty-year-old literature professor in Pennsylvania, has come to Fort Lauderdale to spend some sabbatical time with his declining parents. His father, Abel, at 92, has just had a cancerous kidney removed. Lillian, his mother, age ninety, has lost considerable eyesight since Ted last saw her and, he gradually realizes, is in the early-middle stages of Alzheimers. The novel has a very simple structure: all the action relates to what and how much Ted is allowed to do for Abel and Lillian, who have remained independent throughout their retirement years and want as few changes as possible to their way of life. Ted thinks they should move to an assisted- living facility, but Abel sees things differently. Even resisting a nurse-companion for Lillian, whose mental health is rapidly deteriorating, he insists the two of them can stay in their ocean-view apartment and carry on as best they can. At one point, Abel firmly tells him, "You have got to stop trying to tell me what to do." Through most of the story Ted is continually at stalemate with his irascible, inflexible father--over health care, over Abels will (he threatens to cut off Teds brother Benny), over hiring help ("No jigs," the bigoted Abel declares), over social activities, over Lillians condition. Abel has been pretending the Alzheimers doesnt exist, that Lillian is merely forgetful, but the day comes when she no longer recognizes her own son, when she is incontinent. Abels bluff is called.
LIKE GADOLS STORY, The Fifth Season is told with a clear, uncluttered, unassuming, even rather flat style. In the first quarter of the book, before we really get to know the three main characters, theres an almost documentary feel to the present-tense narrative, and the writing is so purely declarative and unsophisticated that engagement is difficult. Mostly what we see are a hospital room, a grouchy old man, a bewildered son, a simple-seeming wife, and an almost stereotypical collection of neglectful staff and brusque, indifferent doctors. Eventually, however, the books more profound dynamics emerge, and before long three distinct but interrelated love stories have come to life. The first is glimpsed after Abels kidney surgery, Ted speaking: "I move a straight-back chair to the side of the bed for Lillian and she sits in it, one arm on the mattress, her hand covering his. He opens his eyes about halfway and they look at each other as if they are the only people in the universe." Later, when Abel is home from the hospital and Lillian goes briefly missing, he tells his son, "I idolize her." The two have been married for well over sixty years and are as much in love as they ever were. It is a love that will blind Abel to Lillians real needs, but, a self-made millionaire, he has always taken care of his darling and cannot bear to cede that responsibility to anyone else.
Downs beautifully evokes this love in The Fifth Season, the season of extreme old age and approaching death, but he also makes poignantly manifest Teds love for his parents, his desire to see them through that season with as much dignity as possible. Already preparing to face his own retirement, he is made to feel the child once again--and Abel wants to keep him that way. Emotionally closer to his mother, Ted has to put some fight into his love if he is to subdue, even in a small measure, his fathers willfulness. This job is doubly difficult because, as Ted concedes, "Weve never been much of a family for directness." Yet before he leaves to go back North (he will return to Florida later in the novel), Abel says, "I dont know what Id have done without you." Ted thinks, "This is the first time I have ever heard him admit to a situation in which he did not have control. When I was a kid I used to think he did have control, but as I grew older I came to understand that even when he didnt he thought it best to look as though he did." It is the first sign of any thawing in Abels relations with his son. The rest of the book will focus on further developments in that emotional process.
For, finally, Robert Downs has written a father-son love story. In the end, Lillian, who believes the year is 1952, can no longer really love Ted because the son she remembers is still a little boy. Abel, never affectionate to anyone except his wife, will show his regard for Ted by trying to make him the sole beneficiary of his considerable fortune. (Ted will reject this plan.) He will come closest to confessing his love by quoting some memorized lines from Tennyson that Ted used in one of his scholarly books--a book he never thought his father had read. It is the passage that ends, "And after many a summer dies the swan." The indomitable Abel is dying fast. Ted has smelled the odor of it in the apartment and seen the red-tinged water in the toilet. He realizes that this fifth and last season "is not the most important time of their lives, but of mine." Above all, he wants something that will plainly signify as closure with his father. Whether he gets that or not constitutes the novels final movement.
This is an earnestly told story on the two basic themes of literature: love and death. It says nothing particularly new, and the writing is more serviceable than lyrical or elegiac. Yet it pierces deep into the heart of its subject and does so without blanching. The small day-to-day dramas of illness and dying are captured with pinpoint precision and admirable proportion. There isnt an inauthentic note anywhere. It is Robert C. S. Downss first book in almost ten years, and it will probably get lost in the frenzied book marketplace. But those who do find it, and show some of the patience Ted Neel must maintain, will be moved by novels end and will look with renewed awe at their own mortality.
Randall Curbs reviews and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers, the Oxford American, and the American Scholar.