This section contains 2,182 words
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Critical Review by Sarah Booth Conroy
SOURCE: "From 'Prizzi' to Politics, Slippery Satire," in Washington Post, May 10, 1990, pp. D1, D6.
In her review of Emperor of America below, Conroy questions Condon on a variety of topics, including his politics, his writings, and his future plans.
Each time Chay would make a plan to slip into New York incognito, Keifetz and Grogan would increase the mood-altering drugs, which led to more hypnosis, which led to more biofeedback, which led to making him feel more and more and more that he was actually Ronald Reagan, until he began to reach the point where he ran the country's foreign affairs and Defense Department purchasing by astrology. [Emperor of America]
"Strident, venomous, punitive, mean"—that's the way Richard Condon characterizes his new book, Emperor of America, a rough, ready and raucous satire on Ronald Reagan, and on Lt. Col. Oliver North and co-conspirators.
In which: A businessman drops a nuclear bomb on Washington. An army colonel becomes a national hero battling Nicaraguans bred to fight. The CIA flies Colombian cocaine to Nantucket. And the colonel is crowned Emperor of America.
Well, it's not as though any of his earlier 22 novels were Anne of Green Gables.
The Manchurian Candidate eerily predicted the character of John F. Kennedy's assassin and Lee Harvey Oswald's death.
In Winter Kills, Condon went back to a presidential assassination, presenting another plausible plot; in Death of a Politician he fantasized a Sen. Joe McCarthy-like character.
Condon's most recent hits have been his three Prizzi books—Prizzi's Glory, Prizzi's Family and Prizzi's Honor, from which the magnificent John Huston movie was made.
"If you're writing about the Mafiosi, it's based on a rock bed of reality. If you're writing about politicians, you're writing about marshmallows and smoke," he said. In any case, money is both the villain and the unifying theme in all his books. The constant reader may suspect he prefers the Mafiosi—hit men and women (equal opportunity employers), gangsters, gamblers and cooks (does Prizzi come from Pizza?)—he seems to find them more principled. But then he grew up in Manhattan.
"Because of the universally popular concept of the Mafiosi, I was able to maintain the realism of who and what they were and where they lived while satirizing them."
Condon does not look as though he has ever committed assassination, murder, orgies, coups etc., although those are some of the crimes that he's written about. Not long ago, Condon—ensconced in the ultra-respectable Hay-Adams Hotel—was disguised as a nice 75-year-old author. He drank pitcher after pitcher of—steel yourself—iced tea and explained why he doesn't need Russians to play villains in his stories as long as he has corrupt American politicians.
Emperor of America resulted from Condon's coming back to the United States from Ireland during the 1980 election, at the beginning of Reagan's first term.
On April 26, 1982, the book began to ferment—maybe mold is a better word—in the novel factory in Condon's head. That date was when he was traumatized by reading in Time magazine a full-page story about the visit of the Reagans to Claudette Colbert in Bermuda.
"The story said that the trip was backed up with a fully equipped hospital ship, four helicopters, two fire engines, a new telephone cable for 50 telephones, 110 drivers, 518 people, including 200 journalists. And that slammed home to me that whoever was doing the thinking for Reagan had decided that now was the time for an American monarch. After all, the Divine Right of Kings is the same as the Teflon effect—the king can do no wrong. My book just takes it one step further."
Not until the last year of Reagan's second term did Condon write Emperor. He can't believe "that two days after Reagan left the White House, the New York Times reported he was the most popular president in history. I elected myself as the person to say, 'There's no reason for this man to be a popular president and here's why….' I felt I had to raise my voice, and say, 'Damn it, how can you possibly accept this idiot as your great leader in history?'"
As a character says in Emperor:
Television and only television elected Ronald Reagan, did it not? His lovely tailoring, his Harold Teen manner, his acknowledged genius as a waver—why else would the owners of the country have chosen a failed movie actor to fill the presidency? Television! The key to all minds and hearts because it permits the people to be entertained by their government without ever having to participate in it.
The novelist believes that "the manipulators—I should say the custodians of law and order, our lives and government—have decided that the attention span of the American people is limited to three days. When you think of all the things people have to get done in a day, plus the engulfment of television, all they can do is to view politics as entertainment.
"I think of the American people as sitting on bleachers by the river. Around comes a float—the Iran-contra float; here comes another: our brave president daring to go to Colombia to solve the drug problem. You can't get any more satirical than that…. Satire can only survive by holding a very slippery thin edge of reality. You have to try to make people believe in what you're writing about, even if you're mocking what they have accepted."
Condon expected opinions—literary and political—to be divided on Emperor. He was right. Roy Blount Jr. in the New York Times Book Review wrote that he finds the "hithertofore deft Mr. Condon becomes not only heavy-handed but airily hard to follow." And he postulates, "Mr. Condon, like his Manchurian candidate, was programmed years ago by the Republicans to establish himself as a trenchant observer and then, when the time came, to render the truth about Reaganism in self-discrediting form."
Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World said the book isn't so much a novel as a jeremiad, but he added that "as a sendup of the Reaganite nightmare and the televidiotic culture upon which it fed, Emperor of America is bang on from first page to last—a mean, nasty and thoroughly hilarious piece of social and political lampoonery."
"This is a black book—devastating," says Charles McCarry, a novelist and ghost writer of the biographies of Donald Regan and Alexander Haig. "Inside every cynic is an evangelist," says McCarry. "Richard struggles to keep it corked. And when he does, any writer would be proud of that absolutely original voice."
As you might guess, McCarry is a good friend of Condon. "When I write him, I address him as 'Cher Maitre.'" With Len Deighton and Rod MacLeish, McCarry and Condon name characters after each other. Condon invented the International Confederation of Book Actors—he says it's composed of people "who would have acted in movies, radio or opera if we hadn't been too busy writing." But all he really means is that they borrow each other's names to use for their characters. Condon sends the friends so honored (?) a certificate of performance when he uses their names in a book.
He also sometimes uses allusions to his friends as real people; for example, as a way of chiding McCarry for ghosting political biographies instead of sticking to his great novels, Condon writes in Emperor:
Since the night he had entered his sister's bed, Chay had not wanted anyone to know the true facts about anything in his past … working with such distinguished biographers as Abner Stein and Charles McCarry, or rearranging the facts of his life for the ghost writers who assisted him with his autobiographies, Chay always needed to change the truth to something else.
To confound his fans, who might confuse him with his characters, let it be explained that readers often think that writers have the same sexual adventures, physical characteristics, etc. of their characters, while in truth, writers are usually fatter, more chaste and less murderous than their characters. Hotfooting it all over seven countries in 27 years, Condon perched in, among other roosts, what he calls "gringo heights" in Mexico City; in a palazzo in Lugano; and Rossenarra, an 1824 country house in Ireland. These and all other exotic places he used as settings for his life and his books. He came back to the United States with the wife he skipped the country with, Evelyn Hunt Condon. After 53 years of careful inspection, he still counts the former Powers model as a great beauty.
He's hiding out now in a safe house—the innocuous sort of place you'd expect if he were a federal grand jury witness, relocated under a new identity: in a semidetached house in a suburb of Dallas. (Condon, who grew up in Washington Heights, Manhattan, calls Dallas the most foreign of all his venues.)
"It's like living on the back yard of Metro [Goldwyn-Mayer]—trees and picket fences. Judge Hardy goes by every hour on the hour. We're very tame. Our car is 10 years old and has 19,000 miles. We take long tours of the supermarket."
"We thought about heading out to Timbuktu or the Amazon, but we weren't sure they'd accept our Medicare card," said Condon. There are other attractions on this side of the Atlantic for Condon and his wife: the two Condon daughters (who speak five languages as a result of his travels) and three grandchildren. Imagine! Condon as a grandfather, not a godfather!
Evelyn Condon serves as his first editor. "I'm weak on punctuation," he said. "She makes check marks by what I should change." Condon uses an Olivetti computer—"I was the second professional writer to use a computer, John Hersey was the first. But his was borrowed—in 1976 I was the first writer to buy one." Condon says he's slowing down—"always before, I had two books ahead in my mind."
His 24th novel, not long finished, is even now up for auction. Condon prefers the advance he gets when three publishers bid against each other. "Publishers love to call writers disloyal. But Ronald Wilson Reagan taught us to 'Get the money.'" The 24th, Get out of My Dream [later called The Final Addiction], is a political satire too—set in the 1992 elections—about the entanglement in cocaine dealing of a frankfurter salesman.
Five of Condon's books have been filmed—most recently the block-buster Prizzi's Honor, for which he wrote the script. "Never ask a writer advice on casting," he said with a shake of his head. "I opposed Jack Nicholson bitterly. 'He isn't Italian,' I said. 'He looks German.' Anjelica Huston was the only one in the movie who looked right. But I was wrong. Nicholson was wonderful."
Condon admits that movies sell books. The Manchurian Candidate only sold 14,000 in hard copy. My wife said there must have been only four copies bought and those passed hand to hand. Not until the film was a hit did the softback make back the advance."
Frank Sinatra (who stars in the movie along with Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury) and two others owned the film rights to Manchurian Candidate, Condon said. "In the first place, people were nervous about making a movie about a presidential assassination. Sinatra flew in to the Kennedy compound to see how [Kennedy] felt about it—and Kennedy said he had no objection."
After the film was withdrawn from distribution after the Kennedy assassination, Sinatra bought it from the other owners. "And he wouldn't allow it to be shown again until the distributor straightened out the bookkeeping on it—till then it hadn't made a profit," Condon said. The current re-release helped sell the paperback.
Condon, who once wrote that it takes more than 50 novels to equal the take on two screenplays (but he claimed the proceeds of the film rights to The Manchurian barely covered his Mexican move) is gleeful at the thought of a recent inquiry from a movie company that wants to film one of his best, Infinity of Mirrors, where his wrath is turned to denouncing Nazism. "Even in Texas, there's some consternation about the reunity of Germany. Film people have to be opportunists."
In And Then We Moved to Rossenarra or The Art of Emigrating, Condon admits to only "three out of the seven deadly sins: greed, wrath and gluttony."
Condon, with the intention of living forever, now enjoys food mostly as a voyeur, feeding his heroes and villains well. Emperor is fixated on kalbsbratwurst, a German sausage.
One of his most charming books, The Mexican Stove—Words by Richard Condon, Food by Wendy Bennett [a daughter]—has recently been reissued by a Texas publisher with Condon's original choice of title, Ole', Mole'. Condon makes two claims for the book: It's the only Mexican cookbook written (and test cooked and eaten) in Ireland, and it has the longest introduction (55 pages, also autobiographical) ever written for a cookbook.
After the pouring out of the invective in Emperor of America, no wonder Condon says: "I'm so tired of writing political satire. I think my next one will be about a nice collie—better a dachshund, maybe a hunting dachshund."
You can hear the dog story pawing through his mind.
Who knows, the next book may be about a politician who becomes a weredog at the full moon and is bribed by the Mafioso with feinbratwurst.
This section contains 2,182 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)