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Elegant prose, repellent content by Louis Begley

Kill and Be Killed

By Louis Begley

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

269 pages $25.95

By Michael D. Langan

Louis Begley is out with another elegant clunker, “Kill and be Killed,” to add to his taut “Killer, Come Hither” novel, reviewed in this space last year.

Why do I say “elegant”? Because the writing is terrific, the action well-paced, dialogue right on, and morality, as Jack Dana, Marine captain retired would surely admit, “missing in action,” (MIA). Is this morality element important?

Regrettably, important only if you are a philosopher looking for increasingly scarce “American values.”

Usually it’s enough to record the title of the earlier book. But in this case, because there’s so much material reprised from the earlier book, it makes the reader want to say, “Editor: get me rewrite.”

Here’s the background from Begley’s earlier bagel.

“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.”

This new version of continuing crime begins with Jack enjoying the solitude of Torcello, an island in the Lagoon of Venice. It is there that he has retreated from the jungle of New York. Now he is in “almost daily contemplation in the basilica of the great mosaic of the Last Judgment.” If you’ve been to Venice, Begley’s descriptions are perfect.

Maybe, I thought, Captain Jack, USMC, is thinking about becoming a Franciscan! But no chance of this. A couple sentences later, Jack tells us that he’s still ticked off because of his girlfriend Kerry having left him. Why is this so? Because she says, “I can’t stand the way you smell when you touch me, you smell of blood.”

Jack explains to the reader that he enjoyed killing a bad guy with a great name, “Slobo.” (Where are the bad guys named Frank?) Jack made sure Slobo bled to death before calling the ambulance to take him from Sag Harbor to Southampton. Slobo had to get his because he killed Jack’s beloved Uncle Harry and tortured his beautiful cat. Yes, Jack loves animals.

Captain Jack is revivified in Begley’s latest, saying, “The jobs that lay ahead were to find whoever had killed Kerry, (knocked off at the beginning of this book), and kill him, to bring to a conclusion my unfinished business with Abner Brown.”

Got that? What I want to know is what happened to Begley in the 20 years since he wrote “About Schmidt”, which was made into a film with Jack Nicholson.

Begley’s a good writer, who can still turn a sentence, but he’s fallen into a dark hole of violent activity and he can’t get out. The most plausible reason for writing this bunkum is that large cohorts of people like their mayhem with a drink, preferably seated. This is not a new phenomenon, and you can hardly blame old-timer Begley for cashing in on bad taste. Well, yes you can, as I think of it. James Patterson with his “penny dreadfuls” has been doing it for years.

Begley’s better than this and he needs a friend to tell him so.

Speaking of bad taste, try this episode as Begley’s latest in “Kill and be Killed.”

Jack is out for an early morning run in Venice, as Marines seem compelled to do. He is almost assassinated by a bow and arrow guy, whom he later threatens a mano a mano. As his antagonist rushes toward him, dodging and jiggering with a knife in his hand, the bad guy tells Jack in Italian, “Va in cueo da to mare and Ma ti ga emoroidi in testa? Roughly: “Sodomize your mother and Have you hemorrhoids on your brain?”

I’m not sure I catch the train of thought here, but you can’t vouch for killer’s logic.

Jack’s no slouch, replying “Same to you,” and then, remarking that it was a pleasure to hear him howl, he sliced the assassin’s belly open and guts spilled out.

This may seem satisfying if you work in a butcher shop. And enemies must be dispatched.

All that said: Captain Jack isn’t much of a Marine to me, as his distorted motto is “I kill because I can.”

It ought to be: “I kill if it is necessary.”

Marines are tough, but not nuts.

Jack is over the line

Michael D. Langan, a frequent reviewer, served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1955 to 1961.