Killer, Come Hither
By Louis Begley
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
243 pages, $25.95
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Louis Begley, born Lukwik Begleiter in Poland in 1933, has a piercing visage. He looks as if he’s scanned evil across the world and it’s seared his retinas. “Killer, Come Hither” is his latest novel, with a flirty request in the title. But what’s on offer is questionable literary trade. Read “Come Hither” at your own risk.
Writers are most successful, usually but not always, when they stick with the familiar and known. This book seems to be foreign territory to Begley. He needed help and thanked friends, Matthew Blumenthal, who served as an infantry officer in the USMC, and Daniel I. Richman, a physician, for comments and suggestions.
It’s a pity, since in 1991 the author won the PEN/Hemingway Award for “Wartime Lies,” whose locus was World War II, an epoch he lived through as a child.
Some background: Begley is the only child of a Jewish physician who, with his family forged papers to survive the Nazis, pretending to be Polish Catholics. The family moved to Paris in 1946 and to New York in 1947, where thereafter Begley graduated from Erasmus High and went on to Harvard.
As a writer, Begley is called “the master observer of upper-crust New York life.” He is a lawyer like another New York writer, Louis Auchincloss of the upper class. However, Begley’s expository writing couldn’t be more different. Auchincloss could dither diffidently for pages. In the effort, he made Henry James look like Ernest Hemingway.
Contrarily, Begley herds words as if they’re cattle to be prodded to slaughter. There’s sharpness and concision to the exercise, adjectives are used only in the old-fashioned way of “as necessary.”
“Killer” is about Jack Dana, a star history student at Yale who goes into the Marines and is shot up by sniper fire in Afghanistan. While recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital, Dana begins a novel about his wartime experiences.
Jack’s uncle Harry is like a father to him. Harry’s a hugely successful lawyer in Manhattan who lines up a publisher for Jack’s first novel. While Jack is away in Brazil’s western plains with his girlfriend, Uncle Harry is found hanged in his Sag Harbor home, an apparent suicide. Not so, Jack thinks, aware of his uncle’s sensibilities against such an ending. Jack begins an investigation into what he thinks is his uncle’s murder.
Some more contrary evidence: Jack finds out that his uncle’s cat Plato, a Burmese tomcat, has been strangled at the same time Uncle Harry was killed. He reasons that nobody would strangle one’s cat before taking his own life. As he investigates Harry’s death, he discovers that Harry, as counsel, has come upon the secrets of Abner Brown, a right-wing multibillionaire known for extremist causes. Could Harry’s demise be related?
Jack calls his old college friend, Scott Prentice, who works for the CIA. He’s also aided by Kerry Black, Uncle Harry’s associate. Their plan: to get the facts, and if Abner Brown is guilty, work up revenge worthy of a Marine who has lobbed grenades into the midst of the enemy.
This new novel seems to me a strange and unsuccessful topic for Begley. I find his delineation of character paper-thin and unconvincing in “Come Hither, Stranger.”
The characters that Begley has herded into the pages of “Killer, Come Hither” – to fill the story-pen – seem listless extras in a distant drama, edgily awaiting an unknowable ending.
Michael D. Langan, a frequent News reviewer, joined the Marine Corps Reserve 60 years ago.