Exhuming the '60s
The Talisman by John Godey Putnam's, 376 pp., $1.95 (paper)
THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT is all but finished, and Ken Booth knows it. Vietnam, the draft, the '60s--they seem to have been forgotten. When Booth, the central figure in John Godey's novel The Talisman, and a few others who have stayed with the movement demonstrate at the White House, not even the FBI shows up to take their photographs. So Booth searches for another way to reach the public, another way for the movement to get the attention it needs. He decides they will steal the remains of the Unknown Soldier of World War II, as ransom for the freedom of an activist priest convicted in the murder of an FBI agent.
The Talisman is a suspense novel that tries to be political, but ends up being unbelievable. The story itself is plausible, if only barely; the right combination of pumps and levers probably could raise the Unknown Soldier's coffin, and in any case, part of the fun with the book is in finding out how it is done. That was the case with Godey's earlier The Taking of Pelham One Two Three--how in the world, the reader wants to know, could a group of men kidnap a subway car in New York?
With The Talisman, though, the fun of the plot becomes confused with the characters' politics. The coffin-nappers here are not simply crooks looking for a big haul, but political protesters, holding one national symbol for the ransom of another--but very different--symbol. The trouble is that just as the book is too serious to be taken as light fiction, it is too outrageous to be taken seriously by anyone.
To call Godey's latest book simply a work of fiction would be misleading. Although none of the major characters really exists, there are striking similarities between most of them and actual political figures. For example, Francis Rowan, the priest whose freedom Ken Booth seeks by stealing the Unknown Soldier, seems clearly patterned after religious activists of the '60s such as Daniel Berrigan and James Groppi--and in fact, Berrigan is compared to Rowan by name.
The circumstances under which Rowan is convicted of murder are also reminiscent of what actually happened during the years of protest against the war. Rowan gave shelter to three young activists who bombed a building on a Midwest campus, and when troopers surrounded his Pennsylvania farmhouse, gunfire erupted, leading to the death of one of the youths, as well as an FBI agent. That scenario seems possible--especially because such a bombing did actually occur on a Midwest campus, in 1970. An explosion at the University of Wisconsin that year destroyed part of a building and killed one person.
Such similarities between events in the book and in the real world might, possibly, be coincidental. But in several references, such as when one character is mentioned as having known a woman killed in the 1970 explosion of a "bomb factory" in Greenwich Village, the difference between fact and fiction is negligible.
Godey seems to be trying to make both his characters and their vague movement realistic. He almost succeeds, and despite the novel's wild premise the reader begins to take Booth and his compatriots seriously. One member of the group, Bruce Parmentier, joined the movement after several years as a lawyer. He began his career as a public prosecutor in a small New Jersey town, but quit the job when he found that he no longer wanted to jail the people he was prosecuting:
The problem was that he kept looking behind their transgressions, which were frequently ugly, vicious, mindless, to the poverty and brutality of their lives, their social handicaps, the system that doomed them from birth because they were black or foreign or the spawn of poor white families...So he had quit a step ahead of being fired for having the worst prosecutory track record in the state and opened his own office to defend the very people he had formerly prosecuted.
Booth, the leader of the group, had been an associate professor of economics before he became involved with the fight against the war. He served in World War II, and even after devoting himself to the movement, he retained a deep feeling that somehow his war had been "good," and Vietnam was "bad." Booth believed in the rationale for the Second World War, but not for Vietnam--that, he thought even before the movement began, was an "abomination."
A NOVEL ABOUT CHARACTERS like Parmentier and Booth could examine just what it was that made some people leave society for "the movement," or for any movement, in the '60s. But The Talisman is not that novel, and most of the other people in the book are merely caricatures of stock political figures. The President seems to be mostly concerned with his makeup looking right on television, when, after the Unknown Soldier is taken from Arlington Cemetery, he will announce whether Francis Rowan will be freed or not. His news secretary is a nearly imcompetent former newspaperman who once worked for an advertising agency. The Secretary of the Treasury wears glasses with rims that are "square to match his economic theories."
Most current political novels have a Kissinger figure, and The Talisman is not exception. Here, it is Emerson Albert Griese, first special assistant to the President. Griese is arrogant, ruthless, and considered the "power behind the throne" in the White House. And to make the connection between Griese and recent actual White House staffers even clearer, Godey writes that "Like Kissinger, he was foreign-born and had been drafted from the Harvard faculty for a high position in the new administration."
Should the government release Francis Rowan, in exchange for the remains of the Unknown Soldier? While Booth and the others hide out on Cape Cod with the coffin, and the FBI launches the largest man-hunt in the history of the nation, Griese and the President realize that the American public wants its coffin back at any cost, even that of releasing an anti-war radical. Griese takes a quick helicopter trip to arrange the release with Rowan, and after some negotiation, the deal is set.
Meanwhile, back at the Cape, a paid FBI informer has tracked down the coffin. He gets together with the local police, and they decide to be heroes; they will capture the thieves themselves. From then on, it is only a matter of time before the book (and most of the movement members) ends in a fiery battle for the Unknown's remains.
John Godey has almost, but not quite, written a good thriller. The Talisman is more complex than it should be for easy, late night reading, and even the title, which somehow refers to the Unknown Soldier, is difficult to understand. But the book does not quite qualify as a serious novel, either. Godey is reaching for importance in describing the hopes and feeling of anti-war protesters stranded without a war to protest. In the end, however all his book achieves is sensationalism.