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The Choirboys Are Getting Old : THE GOLDEN ORANGE <i> by Joseph Wambaugh (Perigord/William Morrow: $18.95; 320 pp.; 0688-09408-2) </i>

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Joseph Wambaugh may not be the first professional cop ever to succeed in the writing trade, but since the publication of “The New Centurions” back in 1970, he’s arguably the one who has so far made the biggest impact on the readers of crime fiction and nonfiction.

“The Blue Knight,” “The Choirboys,” “The Glitter Dome” and “The Secrets of Harry Bright”; “The Onion Field” and “Echoes in the Darkness” stand out for me, a short list of which any author might be proud, though every one of his books has given me pleasure.

In “The Golden Orange,” he gives us a handful of engaging characters, authentic settings, a couple of haunting half-images, an obscured vision of a beautiful woman in white, a tune that keeps popping into the anti-hero’s mind --all within a few chapters.

There’s Winnie Farlowe, 15 years a cop, three years a Marine in ‘Nam, now an ex-cop and practicing drunk. As one of the alcoholic habitues of Spoon’s Landing once told him, " . . . you’re just another sad clown playing a nightly gig under the boozers’ big top.”

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There’s Tess Binder, 43, three times married, three times divorced, on the prowl, child of wealth, impoverished on a legacy of $250,000 left her by her father after his suicide, living in a house on the wrong side of Linda Isle worth a mere million-two. “She sat catlike, exposing that muscular thigh. Those . . . white stockings! Winnie was a sucker for willowy babes in white stockings. Made them all look like lascivious nurses in blue movies. . . .” So, OK, we know what we’ve got here. A keeper, as Winnie and his friends would say.

There’s Corky Peeples, the queen of the husband-cruising yacht club barracudas; Guppy Stover, Spoon’s Landing’s resident lady drunk; Bilge O’Toole and Carlos Tunas and their amorous turtles; Buster Wiles, a Newport cop burned out on the job, and the ladies who swarm, enchanted, to his rare, violet, Elizabeth Taylor eyes; and Spoon himself, working the bar. Trash fish tossed up from who-knows-where onto the Newport’s Orange County beaches.

And later on, Warner Stillwell, 70 years young, living in the desert in the house where he’d lived with his lover, Tess Binder’s father, the house his to enjoy for his lifetime, after which it will pass on to Tess.

Gunshots in the dunes, the revelation of a fortune unknown to Tess, non-stop sex and drinking engaging Winnie’s and Tess’ every waking moment. A grand party in the glittering setting of Catalina Island. All the ingredients.

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So why didn’t it work for me?

A writer of Wambaugh’s popularity and stature, with so many best sellers to his credit, commands generous advances. In such situations, with practically all such authors, there is pressure to write a book of substantial, even imposing, length.

There are fashions in this as there are in everything else, but, by and large, the trend today is toward longer books, the publishers apparently believing that market pressures insist that they deliver value for money in the number of printed pages a book contains.

It’s very hard for writers to resist this pressure and, indeed, there is a tendency among writers to welcome the opportunity to write their fill of a story when given the opportunity.

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I offer as examples the works of John le Carre, P. D. James and Dick Francis. The first books were much shorter than the latest, and I contend they were much the better for it.

It’s true that Wambaugh’s first book, “The New Centurions,” was even longer than his current offering, but the multiple stories it told demanded a book of such a length.

This story just doesn’t seem to be able to bear the weight. Too often in scenes--often wildly funny, always well written and compelling in themselves--I sensed puffs of air and wads of cotton padding. A tendency to turn a one-liner into an anecdote and a character insight into half a chapter.

Readers come to a book with expectations. It may not be fair, but it’s true that a writer gets known for subject matter and for style. He or she develops a following, and their readers are apt to buy what they’ve enjoyed before.

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A writer should have the right to offer new merchandise from time to time, to challenge himself or herself with problems never before tackled, to experiment within reason with the voice with which the book speaks, the architecture and materials out of which it is built.

The downside of popularity and success, however, is the power of the reader’s expectations, and I for one don’t know what can be done about it. Any writer working scenes and settings never worked before, or fashioning a new voice or point of view, is in danger of producing something not altogether pleasing to a great number of his or her fans.

Which is not to say that Wambaugh has deserted his genre altogether. He hasn’t stepped more than a pace or two off the road he’s been treading for 20 years. But, somehow, his natural habitat doesn’t seem to me to be the ritzy, glitzy, sun-soaked streets and sands, the Polish vodka-soaked clubs and boat decks of Newport and Balboa.

His country is made up of mean streets and alleys, hard-scrabble countryside and abandoned fields, scrap yards and the saloons where cops gather to drink, play and curse their fate.

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Cops gather at Spoon’s Landing to play snooker and belt back a few, but somehow these Newport cops aren’t made of the same stuff as the cops he’s given us before. They just don’t seem to have their hearts in the grit, grime, blood and spilled whiskey. They’re not funny enough or crazy enough or mean enough. They’re not mad enough or sad enough. They just aren’t Wambaugh cops.

When a lawyer writes a novel about trials and the law, when doctors write about operating rooms and medicine, when scientists write fantasies about laboratories and alien worlds, and when cops write about police procedure and homicide investigations, they bring to the work a natural, unforced authenticity for which other writers have to work very hard.

What the non-professionals have to absorb at second or third hand through research and interview, those who have pursued two careers know right down to their fingertips, and every page, every line, is permeated with that knowledge. Even when they bend or alter the reality, it is done with confidence in their ability not to go too far or have their people act too uncharacteristically.

Which, I think, brings up the question: How much time away from the job passes before the writer, retired from the profession that made him or her such an expert, instinctively choosing the right incident, the right dialogue, finds that he or she is now like the rest of us, depending upon research and conversation with people still in the field to get the new procedures straight and the feelings just right?

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There are a few red herrings in “The Golden Orange” that go out with the tide without much of a struggle, and the ending fails to satisfy. Nearly everybody gets what he wants and no harm done.

Even Winnie has a straight shot at what he’s always dreamed of-- save perfect love--and it seems to me a most contrary self-regard that dictates his final gesture.

As they might say in Chicago (where so many of my own characters lead their lives), “Take the offer, Winnie. Favor for favor. That’s a fair deal.”

So as the golden orange sinks slowly in the west, what conclusion can I draw?

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Well, if I’m right in thinking that Wambaugh now lives down there in Orange County, it might not be a bad idea if he took a walk around the streets of Los Angeles now and then. If he hangs around at some yacht club, that’s OK, but maybe a drive downtown in a squad car would sharpen the edges of his words a bit.

I don’t say that he should get back into harness again and patrol the mean streets but, damn it, if he’s getting a little soft around the middle and a little thin on top--metaphorically speaking--then that means I am, too, and it seems like only yesterday that I was of an age with the new centurions.


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