Book Review : A Simple Man of Garbage to the Rescue

Times Staff Writer

Dunn's Conundrum by Stan Lee (Harper & Row: $15.95)

Walter Coolidge was an anthropologist whose task was searching for clues to the daily life of one or another dead civilization. It was only a matter of time before he was chosen to be one of 12 members of the Library--an elite intelligence group in "Dunn's Conundrum" that draws upon everything every other agency knows to make a kind of ultimate world picture, available only to the President plus the secretaries of state and defense.

Coolidge's specialty in this supreme think tank is garbage. The Library's garbage trucks lumber around Washington in the early hours of the morning gathering the trash of the city's mighty, suspect and indiscreet. It is all winnowed by Walter and his staff--scraps of memos, empty liquor bottles, torn underwear--to assemble a picture of who is up to what. "Garbage in--data out," is Walter's motto.

Walter, brilliant and goofy at the same time, is the hero of a funny and original book that manages to combine spy intrigue, Armageddon thriller, impassioned plea against Doomsday technology and a dryly absurdist parody of our pre-nuclear plight. The mixture is sometimes lopsided in this first novel by Stan Lee, a New York advertising man and former campaigner for Eugene McCarthy.

Path of a Simple Man

What triumphs is not the hard-breathing plot or the scary message, though these are generally well-handled. The best thing in the book is the marvelously zany peregrination of a simple man through the conceptual nightmare of our political-military thinking and, possibly, practice. Walter is part Candide, and he is a cousin to the triumphantly bumbling William Boot of Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop."

As Boot was to horticulture, Walter is to garbage. Near the beginning, before the plot thickens, we see a demonstration of his devotion. A telephone call comes from his assistant while he is making love to Vera, another of the 12 librarians. An "anomaly" has been found in the garbage outside one Washington house. It is a three-bedroom house, yet the garbage is that of 23 adults and one-half of a child.

Walter examines it. It is "self-conscious garbage," he finds, "garbage that is trying to make a good impression." A break-in is arranged. The house, it turns out, is a dummy used by a nuclear agency to monitor the effects of some future atomic attack. Each day the agency's employees take garbage to work in order to fool the neighbors. Walter is vindicated. "Garbage is never wrong," he says modestly.

He says it to Harry Dunn, founder and head of the Library, a Strangelove-like figure who, in his corpulence and leap-frogging brilliance, seems to suggest the late Herman Kahn. Dunn's librarians are specialists, each outstanding, with access to batteries of computers, aerial and ground cameras covering the whole world, and every bit of information available to the CIA, the NSA, the Defense Department, the Treasury, the nation's telephone and banking systems and all kinds of other agencies.

Its distinguishing feature, aside from this unprecedented input, is its methods. All 12 librarians share all of the information for instant feedback and cross-fertilization. Unlike other intelligence agencies, it does not operate by the criterion of the "need to know," Dunn boasts. In the library the watchword is "Need to Know Everything."

Dunn plucks Walter from his single-minded passion and gives him a far dirtier job--surveillance of his fellow librarians; his predecessor has just died of what seems to be a suicide, though we come to suspect more sinister causes.

Leak in the Library

Before long, Dunn and we become aware, respectively, of two different things. The first is that somebody inside the Library is leaking information to a peace group led by a senator and other prominent citizens. The second is that the information concerns the Library's principal function: the monitoring of the OFF. It is Lee's skill to make us only gradually realize what OFF is. At first it seems to be simply a measurement of the likelihood of war between the United States and the Soviet Union. It turns out to be far worse.

Washington leaders have become convinced that the United States, due to its technology and to Soviet geographical and technical handicaps, is gradually reaching a position where it can launch a nuclear strike so rapid and devastating that something like 99.85% of Soviet missiles will be destroyed. Not more than eight or nine Soviet missiles would get back through, causing about 20 million deaths. The OFF is an index that shows when this state has been reached.

As a member of the Library, Walter knows about the OFF. What he only comes to realize gradually is that the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff plan to use the OFF once it has reached a point of near-100% certainty. They're counting on making the Soviet Union aware of its impossible situation and forcing its surrender. Alternatively, they consider 20-million American deaths an acceptable political price to pay for the final elimination of the enemy.

Walter, in a series of comical adventures and misadventures, takes off to try to discover the leakers. But as he realizes what is being planned, he changes sides. Lee writes with such comic invention and richness of incident that Walter's changes and our own changes of sympathy come gradually and almost unnoticed. The good guys and bad guys at the start of the book switch places by the book's end, yet they are exactly the same people all the way through.

There are no snarling villains in "Dunn's Conundrum," a book that administers charm and dismay in beautifully balanced proportions. It is the system that snarls, the appropriation of increasingly deadly power and decision-making by fewer and fewer people; the technological and security requirements of a system that, in the words of one of the characters, turns a democratic government into "a government by cover-up."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World