Sneaky, diabolic, a bit depraved, disturbing, maddening, heartbreaking, manipulative and fascinating--all of these apply to William Goldman's new novel, a sequel to his 1974 thriller, "Marathon Man."
In that earlier work, arguably his best fiction, he introduced the two Levy siblings--Babe, a somewhat nerdy history student who let off steam by long-distance running, and his beloved older brother, Doc, a ruthless government spy, known primarily by his code name, Scylla. In the course of an assignment involving a Nazi war criminal, Doc was apparently murdered, focusing the attention of the villains--both Nazis and those in our government--on the hapless Babe.
I say that Doc was "apparently" murdered because in both the book and the subsequent motion picture, he was not only stabbed, but elaborately disemboweled. What we discover in a sort of prologue to "Brothers," however, is that Doc did not succumb to his wounds, but was whisked away to a tropical island by one of the top dogs in his clandestine agency. And in the intervening decade or so he has been building himself up to killing strength, the perfect spy, a man officially dead, waiting for a particularly nasty threat to the world that would require his brand of unwavering dedication.
Because of an almost miraculous talent for storytelling, Goldman not only gets us to gobble up this poppycock, he convinces us that it is as filling as a seven-course meal. This is because, despite trappings (super spy nonsense, interdepartmental politics, code names like The Cheetah and The Blond) that edge perilously close to those wheezes concocted by Robert Ludlum and the late Alistair Maclean, the tale he is spinning is another not merely tricky but basically empty yarn about a cardboard anti-hero on a save-the-world quest. His characters have dimension and weight. And the world they inhabit--a dark and pitiless one, to be sure--is so coldly credible that even the least paranoid of readers should find it disturbing.
Goldman lures us into his novel with expertly applied misdirection. After reintroducing Doc/Scylla on his balmy isle, he swiftly switches the action to England, where two young brothers are destroyed by an explosion, then to Manhattan for a perverse experiment in mind control and, finally, to Upstate New York where an ideal high school couple sample a drug that leads them to suicide. Then it's back to Doc and, eventually, to Babe, now a happily married history prof at Columbia, whose role here, though essential, is definitely a secondary one.
We also meet Babe's levelheaded and beautiful spouse, an immense spymaster named Ma and his quadriplegic wife, a narcissistic assassin who removes the faces from his victims, a diminutive sidewalk artist described as "the Switzerland of privileged information," and assorted murderers, muggers, thieves and sadists. Goldman's cast of characters is almost 90% loathsome. But they are strangely compelling in their repugnance.
And they keep us guessing at what could possibly be connecting them. What in the world is going on here? We are forced to wonder. And, naturally, we keep turning pages until Goldman decides that it's time to clue us in.
Along the way, he also provides samples from his past works. In addition to the references to "Marathon Man," there is a hint of "No Way to Treat a Lady" and his screenplay for "The Stepford Wives." There's even a touch of the sort of film industry criticism found in his collection of nonfiction essays, "Adventures in the Screen Trade," when Doc wanders into a motion picture theater: "They really should pass a law, he thought, as he sat there: No Movie Sequels. Ever. Under the threat of death, or worse, banishment from Chasen's."
How can you not appreciate an author and screenwriter ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") who makes that kind of a statement in a book that is no doubt destined to become precisely what he is decrying--a movie sequel?