Richard Condon | Obituary by Charles McCarry

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Condon.
This section contains 1,004 words
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Obituary by Charles McCarry

SOURCE: "Storyteller for a World Gone Mad," in Washington Post, April 10, 1996, p. C1.

Below, McCarry reminisces about Condon's most significant novels and his contribution to the genre.

Richard Condon, who died yesterday in Dallas, the city of cities in the world atlas of conspiracies, was to paranoia what Tennyson was to melancholy, a writer of powerful and utterly unique imaginative gifts who transmuted a form of madness into the intellectual coinage of his time and place.

In his second novel, The Manchurian Candidate, arguably the best thriller ever written, Condon turned the certainties of Eisenhower-era America upside down with a tale of a made-in-China political assassin with an Electra complex. Like insanity itself, the story was deeply terrifying but also wildly funny.

What had seemed merely a good, amusing read when the book was published in 1959 became all too plausible with the violent, incomprehensible death of President Kennedy only four years later—a kind of death that only Condon had been able to imagine and, more than that, had been able to explain in terms of an airtight scenario in which certain powerful people profited from the murder of the living symbol of the nation.

America never quite regained its psychic feet after Dallas, which meant, in a sense, that it increasingly began living with Condon's reality. This reality, fictional to be sure though not for long, was based on the idea that there was a second America hidden inside the visible America, and that the hidden one was the real one. This dark inner country, in Condon's many subsequent books, was run by characters who enjoyed the purified serenity of the truly insane, men and women who pursued monstrous ends by rational means, people who were first, last and always motivated by one thing: money.

Money bought power, money bought fame, money bought love, money bought happiness. Money, in Condon's brilliantly realized world, bought everything except the totally irrelevant thing that no one in his right mind was interested in—sanity.

Wonderfully dotty characters, instantly recognizable to any '90s reader as the folks we elect and appoint and televise to the highest offices in the land, fall out of Condon's books like figures from a storybook in the titles of a Disney film.

The original, the ur-nut, is the mother of Raymond Shaw, the tortured, brainwashed assassin of The Manchurian Candidate. This is how Condon introduces her, at a White House ceremony at which Raymond is about to be awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Korea: "Raymond's mother was across the {Rose} Garden … hand[ing] out cigars to press people whether the press people wanted them or not. Raymond's mother was dressed up in about eight hundred dollars of the best taste on the market…. She would have given the press people money, Raymond knew, but she had sensed somehow that it would be misunderstood."

Immediately the reader knows how Raymond feels. And he recognizes that something funny, something awful, something beyond the usual excesses of motherhood is going on here. It is a Freudian rule of thumb that you can't trust your own mother. Soon the reader will find out that Raymond, winner of the nation's highest award for valor, is an assassin. But wait—Raymond does not know that he is an assassin, and he does not know who controls him. When Raymond realizes the whole appalling truth, 250 scintillating pages later, the reader will understand for the first time how little Freud really knew.

Apart from his spellbinding gift as a storyteller and his infallible instinct for character—he never met a maniac he could not in his own heart love and render lovable—what the writer admires in Condon is his mastery of the English sentence. No one since Gertrude Stein has done it better, and Condon has the edge on Stein in that his sentences hang together to form paragraphs, pages, chapters and whole novels in which there is rarely a cuttable word or punctuation mark.

Every Condon sentence in every one of his books is a quintessential Condon sentence. No one else could possibly have written this one, from his last novel, Prizzi's Money, which I am opening at random. "Nuela had a long farewell dinner with Lieutenant Zendt, her longtime companion from NYPD Homicide, who armed her with a note to a Superintendent of Police at Scotland Yard because he knew all the good restaurants."

Thirty-six words, two commas, one period … and a color snapshot of a character's whole world.

Condon, who was 81, will be remembered in his obituaries for The Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi's Honor, partly because both were made into memorable movies and mostly because they were such good books.

My own favorites among his more than two dozen novels are two that stand somewhat apart from the main body of his work. First, Some Angry Angel, in which a heartless gossip columnist is redeemed by the love of the wife to whom he has just been reconciled, only to lose her to blind fate in one of the most wrenching scenes every written.

Most of all, An Infinity of Mirrors, a story about a French girl, a Jew, and a German officer who fall in love in Paris in the days just before the outbreak of World War II. Here is a passage:

How could there be time for him to find the truth that she represented, or her magic, which glimmered and then concealed itself? How could she find him? How could he show himself? How could he know what his life meant until he had lived it and then could say, I am a particle of the love that I felt for you.' He felt that he and Paule were figures facing and reflecting each other endlessly in an infinity of mirrors, which were the past and the future.

Condon wrote just like that in the dozens of letters he and I exchanged over half a lifetime. Particle of genius that he was, standing between past and future, understanding monstrosity, understanding love, understanding the partnership between the two.

He just couldn't help it.

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