Richard Condon | Critical Review by Donald E. Westlake

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Condon.
This section contains 1,063 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Donald E. Westlake

Critical Review by Donald E. Westlake

SOURCE: "Stalin Goes Hollywood," in The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1992, pp. 9, 11.

Below, Westlake calls The Venerable Bead "a lot of fun, loose-jointed, manic, over the top from first word to last."

Richard Condon has always been way out there on the cutting edge between prescience and lunacy. In toughly comic novels from The Manchurian Candidate to Prizzi's Honor and beyond, he has reflected the real world through a slightly distorting mirror in which our near future grins back at us, without comfort. In such books, there's tight and brilliant control over story, over character, over Mr. Condon's own savagely satirical instinct. But from time to time his irritation boils over, and out of him comes whirling a fictional doomsday machine, mowing down everything in its wake, from our most pious political platitudes to the entire best-seller list. Now, in the twilight of spydom, with sovereign nations everywhere cracking like the glassware in a coloratura's hotel suite, comes the spy novel not to end all spy novels but to bury them, and then do something raucous on their graves.

The Venerable Bede was an English monk and historian, born in 673. He wrote Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, among other works, introduced the concept of dating backward into antiquity from the birth of Christ, and died in 735 without ever knowing about Richard Condon's latest novel. The Venerable Bead in The Venerable Bead is the Ahmadabad Ruby, a stone that—but let Mr. Condon tell you:

"It was so old and so priceless that its name had been changed to the Venerable Bead. It had been a gift to Leila on her wedding night from her second husband, the most powerful man in the history of Hollywood, who had inherited it from his father, a close comrade of Joseph Stalin. It weighed 97.643 carats…. It was valued at $1,483,700." The juxtaposition of Hollywood and Stalin, and the combination of utter absurdity with finicky numerical exactitude, are what this book is all about, if it's all about anything. It isn't about the Venerable Bede, of course, but then again it isn't about the Venerable Bead, either.

In the novel, the ruby is not stolen, not lost, not pawned, not traded, not a plot point, not a Maguffin, not an issue, not even referred to except at the beginning and the end. It's merely the red thing Leila carries on a thin gold chain around her neck.

Ah, Leila. If this novel had a heroine, which it hasn't, Leila would be it. Her history is so complex that we are given an entire chapter just to list her careers. The daughter of a Mafia-connected Congressman, she has been at one time or another a counterspy for the United States Government, a movie star, a rock singer who earned an average of $63 million a year—"Her second record album on the Cacophony label, I Stand Alone, from her hit film Nobody Stands Alone, sold 7,450,000 copies"—and also a dominant Washington lawyer for the weapons industry, the cigarette industry and the mob. In addition, she is the sometime head of her own powerful New York public relations firm, the closest adviser to the President and a sexual athlete who hip-flips men into the air when she's in the mood.

When we first meet Leila, aboard a Florida-bound passenger liner called Eros, she's in her early 40's and is president of the largest fast-food company in the world. She's also beautiful—wouldn't you know it?—and she had "big hair"; hair apparently so big it could be (but isn't) rented to the underclass as living space. If the heroine of a Jackie Collins novel were to meet Leila, Leila would merely laugh, but the other girl would be so envious her eyelashes would catch fire.

Leila has had four husbands, the first of whom nobody can remember. The second was a Hollywood agent and a spy, the third the cocaine-snorting head of the National Gun Carriers' Association, and the fourth a professor of Gaelic studies at Columbia University. His propensity to speak only in Gaelic, particularly in bed, is what drives the poor woman into the arms of a sports dentist; trust me.

I'm not going to give a plot summary here. If Mr. Condon could get along without one, so can you. I'll just say that manic scenes come flying out of nowhere, divert us and self-destruct. There's the hilarious conversation between Leila and her third husband about legalizing flamethrowers for civilian use: "Sure, it's possible that some kids loitering in schoolyards could get a little charred—but the greater good is the safety and protection that flamethrowers can give us by allowing each citizen, armed and ready, to defend his rights under the Constitution." Again, when the Chinese disguise their spies with four-inch elevator shoes; American know-how beats them with "Manhole Shoes," to make our spies four inches shorter.

It is one of this book's conceits that virtually all Hollywood agents are actually in deep cover, that they are, in fact, Albanian spies working for China. When the F.B.I. swoops up more than 300 of them, we get this: "Only three people were left throughout the entire craft of film making who knew how to make deals, get the right tables in restaurants, actually read a script, or to help an actor write a letter home to mother—in sum, how to make movies. This accounted for such films as Ishtar, Hudson Hawk and Howard the Duck."

The free-floating rage behind such commentary is not always under control, nor is it always used to fuel a comic intent. For instance, the fourth (but not the last) time Mr. Condon informed me that "PAC's, or political action committees, had been invented by the U.S. Congress so that it could be bribed legally," without then putting any comic spin on the idea, I gave up hoping he'd find the satire inside the concept. (He never did.) This is merely reportage, realistic pastel inappropriately amid the pyrotechnicolorics.

Still, despite the author's occasional confusion as to which side of the looking glass he's on, The Venerable Bead is a lot of fun, loose-jointed, manic, over the top from first word to last. Pending the arrival of a rational world, Richard Condon is among the most accomplished and witty ranters in the bedlam we've got. Just don't ask him to make sense until the rest of us do.

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This section contains 1,063 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Donald E. Westlake
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