A Broken Record
A God Against the Gods By Allen Drury Doubleday, 310 pp., $10.
POLITICS, they say, is a funny game, one that no one ever really loses. Even when you do not win the first time, there's always the next election, and the one after that. And if you never win--well, they say the game is mostly in the playing anyway. New York State is a case in point. For years the state has elected Senators named Javits and Buckley and Kennedy and Moynihan; for years it has rejected two men named Abe Hirschfeld and Paul O'Dwyer. Yet neither has thrown in his cards. Hirschfeld, a millionaire garage contractor, has already spend enough money to buy the Capitol dome in his biennial attempts to win a seat of his own. And O'Dwyer, a die-hard politico, has maneuvered his way through an entire dormitory of strange bedfellows in his continuing pursuit of a free ticket to Washington. Of course, neither ever succeeds, but neither do they ever admit defeat. Campaigning has become for them, as for so many others, an end in itself, a way to fame and happiness without ever actually winning. In politics, it often seems that persistence is its own reward.
But persistence, though a solid virtue, still has its limits. One can always allow politicians their endless pursuits; many are harmless, and it's simple enough to ignore them as they make their way to the electoral junkheap. But for political writers one faces a different matter. Literature, even such a frequently-derided form as popular political fiction, is an art--and any pattern of mindless repetition, of going through the motions for their own sake, is bound to do violence to the art, to turn it into a game where some people lose out. Contemporary political fiction suffers from this affliction: many American writers have grown self-satisfied, and this persistent complacency has lent their works about as much novelty and excitement as a Harold Stassen campaign address. When that happens, everyone is a sure loser.
Allen Drury's A God Against the Gods, the latest offering from the nation's most annoyingly prolific political writer, does not change this gloomy picture. Drury, who struck gold in 1960 with Advise and Consent, a superbly-written Pulitzer Prizewinner about the scandals surrounding a would-be Secretary of State, has never been one to tinker with a good thing. Shrewdly noting that his first book spent two highly profitable years on the New York Times Best Seller List, he spent the next 15 years churning out a seemingly endless series of high-priced sequels, which lacking better titles might just as well have been called Son of Advise and Consent, Return of Advise and Consent and so on ad nauseum. But by the time Abbott and Costello Meet Advise and Consent hit the bookstores two years ago, the public seemed to be growing weary of the sport. So Drury settled on what was his first "original" of the decade: an historical novel about politics in ancient Egypt. He clothed his Secretary of State in the garb of an ancient vizier, convinced his stable of characters to call their leader "Pharaoh" instead of "Mr. President," turned the Capitol building into a pyramid--and thus was born his latest novel, affectionately known as Advise and Consent's Nile Adventure.
In all fairness, Drury must have spent at least half an hour revising the plot of his past novels to fit this new setting. Gone is the Russian threat to destroy democracy that occupied center stage in his innumerable previous efforts. In its place he has contrived a threat to the Egyptian royal dynasty, stemming from the machinations of a priestly cult bent on weakening the Pharaoh and aggrandizing a mysterious golden idol. But lest his fans grow confused at this radical turn of events, he has obligingly included the familiar signposts that dot his other works: the danger of growing unrest among the unwashed masses, treachery and lunacy afoot in the councils of government, the gruesome and untimely deaths of several key characters, and a goodly share of promiscuity and homosexuality in high places. The result is another embarassingly improbable but predictable romp through Drury's private fantasy-land, a fanciful world where the wise and stout-hearted members of the establishment fight their usual never-ending holy war against the misguided and often wicked forces of extremism and oppression.
FOR ALL THIS, Drury still made a great effort to hammer out a respectable book. A God Against the Gods is the product of years of meticulous research, as the impressive bibliography at the end of the volume attests. From an intellectual standpoint, the book offers fascinating insight into the details of ancient Egyptian customs and the intricacies of dynastic politics, which the author has adapted deftly to his main theme. And Drury has clearly not lost his old gift for sustained narrative that salvaged some of his previous works. An accomplished literary craftsman if nothing else, he has skillfully worked this great mass of complex detail into a smooth stream of polished prose.
Yet one suspects that this preoccupation with Egyptian arcana has affected Drury's other literary skills. Drury was never famous for creating endearingly human characterizations; yet the figures in his latest book actually impress the reader as having been embalmed for a thousand years. They are not unbelievable--it is merely difficult to understand why Drury would ever have bothered to resurrect this hedonistic, simple-minded Pharaoh and his sycophantic friends. The dialogue, moreover, could only have been overheard coming from inside a dusty sarcophagus. Like the stiff-jointed and forbidding statuary that is ancient Egypt's gift to the world's wealthier art collectors, Drury's characters never bend or smile--they simply stare straight ahead at the endless desert of a plot the author has created for them.
NOT THAT ONE can blame them. Indeed, eternal mummification would seem the easy way out of Drury's world, where not a day can pass without some new crisis or disaster threatening to topple the foundations of civilization. Whether the threat comes from the subversive Russian agents of Drury's earlier works or the dangerously unbalanced religious cultists of A God Against the Gods makes little difference. All Drury's worlds are the same. No matter what the time or place, one can always be sure that his heroes will be hard at work to save the world from the dangers of extremism, and at the same time to put in a good word for Mom, the Flag and Apple Pie (or its Middle Eastern equivalent). In fact, these paragons are so hard-pressed by all this turmoil that one wonders if they ever have time to think about what they are doing. But then again, they should not have to think: the high school civics textbook from which Drury has drawn his inspiration for all these years must certainly have the answers.
When will all this end? Certainly not after just one book; the first sequel to A God Against the Gods will appear this spring, and only the combined will of God and his publisher can stop Drury now. Already the momentum is starting to build. While it took him 15 years of Advise and Consent novels just to kill off three Presidents, two Senators and a Secretary of State--and, of course, all those Chinese who died in the nuclear war--Drury now has 3000 years of Egyptian history to play around with. The possibilities are, unfortunately, almost endless. One can only hope that Drury will learn a different song-and-dance soon, before we all wind up losers.