Warning: This review has spoilers. If you are reading this while still deciding on whether to read the book, I suggest you jump straight to the last paragraph.
When acting president TC dies due to a fluke of destiny, the succession laws implant Douglas Dillman, a black citizen, in the hot seat. Much to the disbelief and chagrin of racist America. The book is about how a nation, which professes equality and liberty as its cornerstones, lies exposed of its hollow inner. Written in the manner of a fast paced novel, it is quite a page turner. While the final showdown is long anticipated, what makes the novel great is that it holds your attention without any grand designs but by small well cooked incidents that add up to the whole. The Man is generously endowed with good to great characterisation. I specially like the characters of Douglas Dillman, Nathan Abrahams and Arthur Eaton. All three are powerful, thoughtful, restrained men. Yet each is different from other. And the author brilliantly sketches each for the difference to be conspicuous.
It is not a classic because no new literary ground is broken in the style of story telling or in the story itself. The novel first published in 1964, is preceded by another novel on racism, the widely considered as classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird”(1960). I would say that some of the characters in The Man draw inspiration from Harper Lee’s book. Douglass Dillman and Nathan Abrahams have shades of Atticus Finch and one can see Calpurnia in Crystal. That is where the similarity ends and that does not take away any credit from Irving Wallace for his noteworthy effort at pulp fiction.
But more than anything else, the novel makes a grand statement on goodness and honesty through the character of its protagonist – Douglas Dillman. He is sharp, intelligent, shy at asking any favours, very sensitive (gets on your nerves) and over-cautious lest he be labelled as showing preferential treatment to his kind. There are parts in the novel where you are angry with this man for being so good that he compromises his position with battle lines drawn. Like when he gives back to Sally Watson the index cards she is sneaking. The subdued acceptance displayed by Doug is where the story hinges and his eventual rise to confidence brings cheer to the reader’s face. Like when Nathan starts to give back the opposition a taste of its own medicine.
The writer keeps you angry long enough to make the retribution sweet. The sheer audacity of lies, the shameless hatred veiled in goodness, and the vocal mudslinging is just perfect to get the reader angry. And angry I was! So much so that while reading the book, there were instances when I had to keep it aside and allow the torrential anger inside me (at the injustice meted out to Doug) to subside. It is fun to be angry, happy, frustrated etc when reading a book because that means you are visualising well. The book is getting to you. But too much of it and you miss the subtle presence of other sub-plots. Like, if you are too angry, you miss the ‘beauty’ of the weasel like tactics affected by the good man’s opponents to trap him. To truly enjoy any read, it is imperative that you enjoy them all – the good guys and the bad guys. The Man provides ample opportunity for both.
There are sections where the novel fails to live up to its own standards. To being with, the manner of TC’s death is hard to digest. What of the purposefully missing interrogation of Eaton (was the author afraid of venturing into the demanding and explosive possibility?). And many sections are done in the manner of a Hollywood movie with its obvious drama, sleaziness and valour. The speeches by Doug could have been better. The characters of Gordon Oliver and Mindy Dillman hold no water. The end holds you to the edge except in the last few paragraphs where you can jump the book and ‘feel’ the outcome.
Some noteworthy sections of the text:
The NY daily editorial warning the country that it is the citizens (and not the new president) who must prove themselves
The ‘keep the door open’ sequence between Doug and Edna
The handling of Leroy Poole by Douglas
The wavering of Edna Foster
The fall and rise of Otto Beggs
The high octane bursts from The Judge
The acerbic and almost always bombastic speeches by Zeke Miller
The interrogation of Wanda Gibson by Zeke Meller
I would recommend The Man to anyone interested at a peak inside colour racism in America. But above that, this novel is a must read for people seeking a finely etched essay on goodness. There is never an excuse for being weak, but then not all (seemingly) signs of weakness are propelled by weakness. Sometimes it is just goodness speaking in its highest form – in the form of Douglas Dillman.
ps: Thanks to AV for recommending (and lending) the book to me.
– – Further reading – –
http://www.amazon.com/Man-Irving-Wallace/dp/067103894X (the Indian print costs Rs. 150/-)