Thursday, August 8, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: BROTHERS by William Goldman

'Marathon Man' by William Goldman. Now there's a thriller for you. A critical and commercial success when it was published in 1974, this conspiracy thriller to end all conspiracy thrillers has only grown in stature with the passing of years, managing to influence a whole generation of crime writers in the process, myself included. And rightly so - it really is that good. And Hollywood also made a pretty fantastic film version too, with a cast to die for and an infamous torture scene that still freaks people out even today. But then you probably know all this already. But what you may not know is that twelve years later Goldman finally delivered a sequel to his most famous book. Just why he felt he needed to this when the original wrapped up everything quite nicely is something only he could tell you, but I'm just glad he did because the result's a real barnstormer of a novel.

It's also - and I mean this in the nicest possible way - completely batshit crazy.

The first clue is given in the prologue (titled '...before the beginning...' in a nice nod to the original), where we learn a few years have passed since the events of 'Marathon Man.' Scylla - government super spook and sibling of that's book's protagonist, Tom 'Babe' Levy - has been given a new face and a new voice and is recuperating on a remote desert island somewhere in the Caribbean, getting in shape with a daily regimen of intense exercise and healthy eating as he waits to be called into action once again. This is the very same Scylla, it should be noted, who was previously disemboweled by the psychotic nazi, Szell, and then somehow crawled halfway across Manhattan before finally dying in his brother's arms. Yes, that one.

So only a few pages in and it's clear we're in 'modern fairy-tale' territory - which is perhaps not too surprising when you remember Goldman also wrote the wonderful 'The Princess Bride'. It seems he just liked the character of Scylla so much that he thought, 'Screw it. I'm the writer, I can do what I want. So what if he's dead? I'll simply resurrect him,' and then proceeded to exactly that. And it gets better too. Or should I say, weirder. I hesitate to talk too much about the plot as Goldman, master storyteller that he is, packs the pages with some really great reversals and I really don't want to ruin it for those who haven't read the book. So I'll try to keep things as brief and opaque as possible - which won't actually be too difficult in this particular case.

Anyway, here goes. In a small town on the outskirts of London, two small brothers walking back from the sweet shop are vaporised when a house explodes. In New York, a violent cabdriver and his streetwise girlfriend find themselves agreeing to the bizarre sexual requests of a total stranger. In New Jersey, a young couple with everything to live for suddenly decide to commit double suicide. At the same time, Scylla is called back from this remote island and given a series of tests designed to see whether he's fit for work or not. After passing with flying colours, Scylla's Division superior informs him that the world is on the brink of a global crisis ('...there's going to be a world war, America's going to start it, and counting you, three of us know'), and that it's all up to Scylla to avert it. Scylla accepts the challenge and soon learns that the three events that began the book are - surprise, surprise - all linked in some way and that they might hold the answers he seeks...

Now let me assure you that as odd as that pathetic excuse of a synopsis might sound, it's nowhere near as bizarre as the book itself. Nowhere near. In fact, at various points in the story the author comes dangerously close to science-fiction territory. Not that it matters, of course, because this is William Goldman we're talking about, and whatever else his faults, the man knows how to suck the reader in and keep him or her turning the pages. No matter how unbelievable everything becomes, you simply have to see what happens next. And he's also not ashamed to employ every narrative trick in his arsenal to help the process along either. You can be reading a scene thinking it's going one way only for the author to suddenly pull the rug out from under you in the last paragraph, sometimes in the very last line. And he keeps on doing it to you, relentlessly, scene after scene. It's great.

And the prose is pure Goldman too: both cynical and caustic, often with a healthy dose of humour thrown into the mix too. Scylla's the best example of this. While he merrily goes about his business of killing off various enemies of the state and averting World War Three, he's often making wry observations about the world around him that obviously match Goldman's own thoughts. Such as his initial impressions of the bustling San Juan International Airport:

All he knew was that more than their North American mainland neighbours, the Spanish visited airports. Was a third cousin going from Mexico City to Los Angeles? Fine. Twenty-two relatives would fit into a couple of vehicles and chug along. Was Aunt Consuela visiting Neuva York? Better to die than not be one of the fifteen who saw her off.

Or even better, his less than flattering opinion of Heathrow Airport (which still holds true today):

And how did some legendary architect manage it so perfectly, manage the seemingly impossible task of making every arrivals gate, no matter where in the world you came from, a good minimarathon away from the customs area. Somehow, you would imagine, there would have been a single slip, one gate where you could just smile good-bye to the stew, then a quick hip-hop and there you were, giving your passport. But no, Heathrow was sublime in its total disregard for human comfort.

Not only that, but Goldman (and by proxy, Scylla) fully understands how ridiculous and cliched the tropes of spycraft really are and takes great pleasure at mocking them at every opportunity. Often with farcical results. For instance, in one unforgettable scene, Scylla is to meet a Division recruiter at a museum and given a single password - 'blistering' - that will identify him to the man's receptionist. So naturally when the times comes, Scylla, who hates passwords with a passion, simply can't find it in himself to say it:

       Now the officious woman was back. 'Ah don't know whah ah fand this heat so ay-maz-in', ah just dew. It is sew hot.'
       Scylla stood there.
       'Yew dew agree?'
       Scylla made a questioning look.
       'The heat, the heat, ahm talkin' 'bout the heat.'
       She was beginning to get just a wee bit flustered. Scylla said, 'Definitely.'
       'How would yew descrahb it? How hot it is, ahm talkin' 'bout.'
       'There's a word - on the tip of mah tongue - ah just can't come up with it.'
       'If you could think what letter it began with, that would be a help.'
       'Ah believe it begins with a 'b.''
       'Oh, sure,' Scylla said, smiling. 'Brutally. I'm sure that solves your problem.'
       'It does not. That is a different word entirely.'
       'Bitch? As in 'hot as a bitch'?'
       'You are drifting further an' further away.'
       'I know the word,' Scylla said then. 'Berry.'
       She just looked at him. 'Berry?'
       'Sure. Didn't there used to be a comedian on 'Saturday Night Live' who said, 'Baseball been berry berry good to me'? Well, I say, 'It's berry berry hot out.' Are your problems solved?'
       He watched as she stormed up the stairs.

It's never been Goldman's style to stick to one POV, though, so along the way we also get to spend time with an eclectic cross-section of characters, such as Scylla's friend and immediate superior, Perkins - who, in both appearance and intelligence, bears a very close resemblance to Mycroft Holmes. And we also play catch-up with Scylla's brother, Babe, who's now a happily married professor of history at Columbia University. We meet two Division assassins who are forced to work together and spend most of their time threatening each other with painful death. There's The Blond, another assassin who gets his kicks by scraping the faces off his dead victims with a potato peeler and raiding their fridges for a post-slaughter snack. Or there's Grumpy, a mute dwarf information broker who gives out his information in the form of sidewalk art. And they're just a small sample of what's in store. But as you'd expect from Goldman, all are fully fleshed-out three-dimensional characters, and all are allowed their individual moments in the sun. Even the minor ones.

But how does it fare in comparison to its bigger brother, 'Marathon Man,' you ask? (see what I did there?) Well, let's be honest - very few sequels match up to their predecessors and 'Brothers' is certainly no different in that respect. Goldman even pokes fun at the problem when he has Scylla visit a movie theatre as part of his reconnaissance and forces him to sit through 'Return To Oz':

They really should pass a law, he thought, as he sat there: No Movie Sequels. Ever. Under threat of death or worse, banishment from Chasen's. Other arts didn't do it to this degree - Leonardo never made a Mona Lisa II. Michelangelo had a smash with his Sistine Chapel, but once was enough for him. Why would anyone feel the need to sully Judy Garland?

And then there's the ending. Don't worry - I'm not going to give anything away here, other than to say Goldman does his usual thing of finishing everything on a downer. It was the same with 'Marathon Man,' 'Magic,' 'Colour of Light,' and all the rest. It's like he just can't help himself. I can kind of understand it as I've seen Goldman interviewed a number of times and he always comes across a pretty pessimistic guy, so it's no surprise that that negativity flows through into his work. But I just wish he'd restrained himself a little more in this case, especially as this would prove to be his very last book before he focused entirely on writing screenplays. But other than that small gripe, 'Brothers' works just fine as a novel. All the way through, Goldman rations out the clues while holding back just enough for you to keep turning the pages, and that's a major prerequisite for a successful thriller. Just don't expect realism, that's all. 

And to be perfectly honest I think I've actually read this more times than I've read 'Marathon Man,' which must say something about the book's quality. Or maybe it says something about me. I don't know. In any case, if you're the kind of reader who enjoys something a little out of the ordinary then I suggest you check 'Brothers' out for yourself. You could do a lot worse.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review - BBC radio have just put out a 1hour radio version - see if you can track it down.