Prodigals

John Sutherland

  • A Prodigal Child by David Storey
    Cape, 319 pp, £7.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 224 02027 7
  • The Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer
    Hodder, 447 pp, £7.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 340 27687 8
  • Ralph by John Stonehouse
    Cape, 318 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 224 02019 6
  • The Man from St Petersburg by Ken Follett
    Hamish Hamilton, 292 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 241 10783 0
  • The Patriot Game by George Higgins
    Secker, 237 pp, £7.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 436 19589 5

David Storey’s new novel begins with a brief prelude reminiscent of The Rainbow’s, tracing the historical mutations of a locality from its natural to its urban (here 1930s) condition. The theme of the novel has other evident similarities with Sons and Lovers. Both deal with the emergence of artistic talent from working-class fetters. But in the way that he has chosen to tell A Prodigal Child, Storey defies Lawrentian precedent. The novel suggests, rather, that he is aiming to synthesise his play and novel-writing practices. The marrow of the work is in its dialogue – a dialogue which is largely constrained by the terse naturalism of Yorkshire dialect or the limitations of refined middle-class speech.

The action extends from around 1925 to 1939. Superficially, then, A Prodigal Child is a historical, or at least a period novel. But Storey evades the usual requirements of the genre. He supplies virtually no historical markers or colouring in his narrative. Were it not for passing references to film stars in vogue and for the German bombs that fall at the end, the reader might find himself in some perplexity as to date. This can hardly be accidental. In earlier novels, Storey has shown himself a richly descriptive scenic writer. The blanked-out background here seems a strategy designed to sharpen focus on the central drama.

That central drama is itself stark enough. The Morleys (he is a farm labourer, she a shrewish but good wife) move to a new house and a new life on the Stainforth estate. They have two children. Alan inherits his father’s energies and stupidities; the other son, Bryan, is gifted and has talents which he apparently owes to neither parent. Through visits to the farm where his father works (other Lawrentian echoes here), Bryan meets Fay Corrigan, the coquettish younger wife of a complaisant local businessman. This good fairy adopts him, takes him to live in their superior part of town, and sends him to a private school where his artistic abilities can flourish. Obliquely, we gather that she wants him, eventually, as her lover. The story ends with wreckage, as Bryan and Fay (the long-suffering Mr Corrigan has died) sit through an air-raid. Exactly how the hero progresses from this desperate situation the novel leaves unsaid. A coda, flashing forward to 1953, explains the title. Bryan is now a painter of reputation, with a talent which a recent reviewer has termed ‘prodigal’. He has returned to home ground for the Coronation street-party (now, it seems, hitched up with Margaret, the farmer’s daughter he played with as a child). But despite the feasting, this is not a prodigal’s return. ‘I mean to go on,’ he says.

At the heart of this engrossing novel there is something left deliberately inarticulate. Storey’s narrative paces its perimeters, but never penetrates. Take, for instance, the last encounter between Bryan and his father, who confesses, over a pint of beer:

  ‘I always thought we ducked out.’

  ‘From what?’

  ‘From raising you in the way we should. That we all ducked out. We should have known better.’

  ‘If we did,’ Bryan said, ‘it’s over now. We can make,’ he added, ‘a fresh beginning.’

  ‘With something missing,’ his father said.

  ‘We can still go on without it,’ Bryan said. ‘Even if,’ he added, ‘we know it was there in the first place.’

With this poignant exchange, the relationship and a phase of the hero’s life end. And it is typically mystifying. What are they talking about? What is the ‘something missing’? A cruder or more obvious novel would have chronicled Bryan’s upward career from the deprivations of his class with the usual Bildungsroman crises. Novelists more ostentatiously sensitive than Storey might have presented things more through Bryan’s alert consciousness and sensibility. But Storey maintains his hero-observer as remote and cold – incurious even about the motives of his patron-lover Fay. As a result, A Prodigal Child is an unsettling novel: at times it seems to require intelligent watching rather than reading.

Titles and general category apart, there is little to link A Prodigal Child with Jeffrey Archer’s blockbusting latest, The Prodigal Daughter (number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list as I write). Thematically, it carries on Archer’s fascinated depiction of success, as measured in supreme political office and millions. More directly, it furnishes a sequel to the best-selling Kane and Abel. This dynastic continuation (there may be more to come, presumably) follows the career of the Abel offspring Florentyna. Prodigally gifted and privileged from birth, Florentyna signals her future destiny by naming her first teddy-bear after the ‘Presidunk’, FDR. At six she maturely discusses the political columns of the Chicago Tribune with her lovable old battle-axe of an English governess. Thereafter, in inevitable succession: school prizes, college prizes, triumph at Radcliffe. The epic family feud is finally settled when she marries the Kane scion (a friendly rivalry persists, however, since he is a staunch Republican). Having taken over the family chain of hotels, tycoon Florentyna turns her hand to politics. She rises serenely through Congress and Senate. Her ascent comes to a momentary stop when her husband is killed, loyally motoring faster than he should, to catch up with her barnstorming election campaign. Florentyna is roused from subsequent torpor by an encounter on a Washington park bench with ‘Danny One Leg’. Her galvanised conscience dissipates any lingering widow’s melancholy. She throws herself into a welfare measure, eventually passed as the ‘Kane Bill’ which will restore every indigent American to full human dignity. Now that ‘her show is back on the road’ Florentyna succeeds to the Vice-Presidency. In that office she single-handedly, Kennedy-style, faces down a threatened Russian invasion of Pakistan. (The delinquent President is meanwhile off with his mistress in California.) Finally, in 1992, she becomes the 43rd, and first woman, President of the United States. Chancing his arm somewhat, Archer intrudes the factoid that her counterpart across the Atlantic is Prime Minister Hattersley.

The Prodigal Daughter is a crude, massive book with a well-worn – but clearly not worn-out – theme. It’s written to be read at break-neck speed in a manner which suggests a ratcheting research-dictation-office editing sequence of composition. The result is the kind of novel one imagines a Time Magazine team turning out. So where can the novel’s manifest appeal be thought to lie? Clearly there is an insatiable appetite for fables of success (elsewhere, of course, the appetite is satisfied by formula ‘how to’ books). This novel is appropriately bathed in Archer’s own lingering young-meteor glamour – that of the man who picked himself up from the debris of his political-financial career and turned his hand to best-selling fiction. (Like the other twice-born success, Jim Slater, Archer also dabbles lucratively in children’s fiction.) With a shrewd eye to the market, Archer evidently decided that there was more yield in America than in Britain. Many readers may well assume that this tatty rewrite of the American dream was done by a native American (I confess I read his earlier Shall we tell the President? under that misapprehension). In fact, it was written by a man who in 1969, we are told, was the youngest member of the House of Commons, and who must have nurtured his own dream of being a latterday Pitt. The Prodigal Daughter is a trashy novel, but the feat of national impersonation which it represents is quite remarkable.

If Jeffrey Archer embodies rebounding success, John Stonehouse’s book breathes failure. Stripped down, Ralph is the story of a successful politician who grows restless with his good life, gets into a terrible pickle, assumes a false identity, escapes and comes to a disastrous end. It’s not, one might think, a theme which would have occurred to the author before his disgrace in 1974 (by coincidence, the same year that Archer left the House). What we have here, despite ritual disclaimers, is Death of an Idealist – Stonehouse’s autobiography – fictionalised as melodrama and thriller.

We discover Ralph Edmonds as a top Eurocrat: 43, lithe (unlike his corpulent Brussels colleagues), with a ‘well-ordered life’ containing a lovely wife, two lovely daughters and a lovely Porsche. Ralph is ‘a pragmatist ... more of a Harold Wilson than a Ted Heath man’. His life is taken up with the disposal of butter mountains and the regulation of green pounds. Everything has gone well for him. But ‘perhaps it had all been too easy or too well ordered: the safe degree at Oxford, the safe career and the safe marriage. Had Ralph manipulated his own life so well that he had crushed deeper human emotions?’ Yes, it would seem he had. Now his deep human emotions erupt. He is captivated by Lotte, a beautiful German possessed of a sexuality ‘which could stir almost any man’. Hitherto, Ralph has performed ‘his manly role efficiently and effectively’. Now, with his German charmer, ‘the animal’ takes over. It’s very unfortunate, since the object of his newly uncaged animality turns out to be a DDR agent, setting Ralph up for sexual blackmail. Stonehouse handles the subsequent guilt and frantic writhings rather well. But the novel lapses into an always imminent romantic-thriller banality at the end, when a second seductive spy falls in love with Ralph and joins him in his doomed attempt to lose his past and find a new life. There is also a somewhat detached subplot concerning the rival attempts of the CIA and the Russians to subvert the EEC, which both regard as ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’. Faith in Europe seems to be another area in which Stonehouse’s idealism has died.

According to Orwell, if most novel reviewers were honest they would have to say: ‘I have no thoughts whatsoever about this novel.’ Had Ralph been written anonymously, it would be a nullity. As it is, one reads it, almost hating oneself, for the piquancy of passages like the following, in which Ralph is threatened by his German control:

‘Your life won’t be worth living if these photographs are circulated. Remember what happened to your Mr Profumo and that MP, Commander Courtney. Englishmen are prudes about other men’s sexual excesses but never their own, Mr Edmonds. You are the world’s worst hypocrites. When someone in a public position falls you all tear him to pieces. It will be your turn next. They will tear you to pieces.’

It is almost as if one saw Stonehouse, like the Rector of Stiffkey, naked in his barrel.

Ken Follett’s The Man from St Petersburg (number 3 on the NYT best-seller list as I write) is, I think, his best yet. The plot is one which he has made his own: that of a cold, nerveless assassin on a mission abroad to change the course of history. In its bare form, this description could cover his previous successes, Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. The novelty of this latest production is its setting. The period is that just before the First World War and takes in the secret diplomacy and skulduggery by which Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) aims to ‘bring Russia on a plate’ to the Allies. To this end he has the Earl of Walden treat with the visiting Prince Orlov about negotiable bits of the Balkans. Russian anarchists dispatch Feliks Kschessinsky (mercifully called Feliks throughout) to assassinate Orlov. As usual in Follett’s fiction, the struggle resolves itself into a contest between an inhumanly ruthless foreigner and a warm, bungling but ultimately victorious Englishman (the ‘beefy’ 50-year-old Earl). The author has a weakness for melodramatic elaboration, and here it is supplied by the Earl’s wife being Feliks’s long-lost lover and the Earl’s supposed daughter actually Feliks’s offspring. Discovery of his unsuspected paternity thaws the Russian’s icy resolve, and confuses his mission.

The characterisation of Feliks, and his nihilist ideology, is handled well. But the main success is the re-creation of period London. Particularly well done is the set-piece of the daughter’s presentation at court and her subsequent involvement with Mrs Pankhurst and suffragism. Follett shows a surprising skill in this respect. There are also, of course, the thrills and the mounting suspense. These weary somewhat. And there is a quite preposterous scene in which Walden, surprised in a Savoy suite, launches himself forward like a silly-mid-on fielder to catch a glass phial of nitroglycerine thrown by the assassin.

George V. Higgins is a novelist whom a large number of American critics think very well of. In this country he’s probably best-known as the author of the work on which the film The Friends of Eddie Coyle was based. His speciality is the Boston Irish milieu. He relishes and reproduces voluminously the language and dialect of the types who live there. The plot of The Patriot Game, like others of his novels, is thin. Essentially, it concerns the hunting-down by a US secret agent of an IRA arms purchaser (the cause, incidentally, is viewed unsympathetically in the novel). There is, in fact, less hunting than drinking and talking. In the following sample, the hero explains why he joined the Marines:

Friend of mine married a girl in college that was so light she would’ve floated clear off the ground if she didn’t have lead weights in her shoes. Here is this guy with an absolutely indecent genius for quantum physics, and he goes out and marries this bubblehead. Maybe he didn’t know that she had Timken roller bearings on her heels. Maybe he didn’t know that whole armies had marched over her. Maybe he knew and didn’t care. Two years later, divorced. Asked him why he did it. Shrugged his shoulders. ‘I dunno,’ he said. ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Same thing with me and the Marines.

The virtuosity here is not that of the Chandlerian laconic one-liner, but an overflowing copiousness which contrives to be exuberant without ever sacrificing anything of masculine toughness.