Richard Condon Essay - Condon, Richard (Vol. 4)

Condon, Richard (Vol. 4)

Condon, Richard 1915–

Condon, an American novelist and playwright, is best known for The Manchurian Candidate. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Richard Condon's first two novels—"The Oldest Confession" … and "The Manchurian Candidate" … are brilliant, highly individualistic, and hopelessly unfashionable demonstrations of how to write stylishly, tell fascinating stories, assemble plots that suggest the peerless mazes of Wilkie Collins, be very funny, make acute social observations, and ram home digestible morals. They demonstrate, in short, a good many of the things that were expected of the novel before the creative-writing courses got its practitioners brooding in their mirrors. Indeed, Mr. Condon knows his business so well that in his first novel he goes one step further. "The Oldest Confession," which puts the reader in that rare and agreeably painful situation of knowing that each irresistible page is shortening his pleasure, is at once a galloping novel in the grand manner and a parody of a galloping novel in the grand manner…. Yet, like all expert parody, which tints a perfect imitation of its model in just the right places, much of this is subtly and outrageously exaggerated. Although persuasive, the book's hair-raising ending, which involves a dizzy roundelay of murder and deception, is preposterous…. The same double standard appears in Mr. Condon's prose. Basically smooth, meticulous, and spare, it is always breaking into perfectly timed sweats of tough, outlandish, wise-guy imagery that are memorable takeoffs of all the self-indulgent writing in contemporary novels…. But parodists are bilious entertainers. Thus, with an unexpected-bonus feeling, one suddenly realizes at the close of "The Oldest Confession" that most of Mr. Condon's high-wire stunting has been compelled by an intense, barely reined-in disgust for the irreparable damage that human beings, out of passion and stupidity, do to each other almost every day of their lives.

This disgust turns to bugling derision in "The Manchurian Candidate," a furious pummelling of some of the cheaper aspects of present-day America that recalls, in its wrathfulness, the pyrotechnic loathings of the Philip Wylie of "Finnley Wren" and "A Generation of Vipers." The result is a wild and exhilarating satire, which keeps succumbing to the heartburn of heavy sarcasm….

Very likely, many of "The Manchurian Candidate"'s liberal readers will clap their hands over its savage parade of bourgeois decadence and the wicked political deception it outlines, while an equal number of conservatives will disbelievingly humph and bridle at such soiled, un-American images. Both groups, of course, will have missed its heartening and robust intent, and for a simple reason. The book is about them.

Whitney Balliett, in The New Yorker, May 30, 1959, pp. 101-03.

The cultural handicappers who tick off lists of the Ten Best Books To Be Stranded in Toledo With have missed a bet. Far more interesting might be a compilation of the Ten Best Bad Novels—books whose artistic flaws are mountainous but whose merits, like Loreleis on the rocks above, keep on luring readers. A place on such a list would go to Author Condon's second novel [The Manchurian Candidate], an almost complete catalogue of humanity's disorders, including incest, dope addiction, war, politics, brainwashing and multiple murder. The book carries a superstructure of plot that would capsize Hawaii, and badly insufficient philosophical ballast. Yet Condon distributes his sour, malicious humor with such vigor and impartiality that the novel is certain to be read and enjoyed….

Man's fate, as Condon sees it, is to work hard, sacrifice much, lead an intelligent, just and fruitful life, and then show up at the Last Judgment minus his pants. Sooner or later, like the blind beggars toppling after their blind leader in Bruegel's chillingly ironic painting, all the author's characters stumble into the ditch of mortality. Satirist Condon is not afraid to set up outrageously improbable situations to achieve his effects. In his first novel, The Oldest Confession (1958), an Achilles among criminals was brought to heel while trying to hijack Goya's The Second of May, from the Prado. In the current fable [The Manchurian Candidate], a brilliant Chinese disciple of Pavlov—a sort of Marxist Dr. Fu Manchu—directs the capture, brainwashing and reflex-conditioning of an entire American patrol during the Korean war. Before grinning Russian brasshats, he shows off his success. The Americans pull contentedly on yak dung cigarettes and delicately avoid G.I. profanity—they imagine they are attending a meeting of the garden club in Spring Valley, N.J. They are so thorougly Pavloved, in fact, that they are ready to commit murder on signal….

In the end, the effort at global satire proves too strenuous. In spite of a climax as apocalyptic as any since King Kong was shot off the top of the Empire State Building, Author Condon falters as he battles both cold-war antagonists simultaneously. But in his comic set pieces, he is wickedly skillful.

"Pantless at Armageddon," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time, Inc.), July 6, 1959, pp. 78-9.

If Condon's Manchurian candidate was a thinly veiled Joe McCarthy, Mulligan [in The Vertical Smile] leaves even less to the imagination. He is described as an "Amish lawyer from California." He has a persistent "blue, black underbeard." He speaks stiffly about making one thing perfectly clear. His nickname is "Funky Dunc." Get it?

Candidate Mulligan does have one interesting after-dark fetish (tight black rubber evening gowns) the average reader would hardly credit to the Nixon imagination. But Condon's dirty-joke allegory is not the type of novel to quibble over details. At all costs, it is determined to prove that the grotesqueries of our politics and government are engendered by the sexual repressions and perversities built into our character.

If this book hadn't been so heavily loaded with Redeeming Social Value, it might have made amusing lightweight pornography….

In the past, I've found that the faster I read Condon's novels the better I like them—and that at top speed some are excellent thrillers. In this one, even though the pace and tone are ostensibly "madcap," the usual fast surface is pitted with authorial asides—all of which are designed to explain the psycho-social significance of just about everything.

Ron Rosenbaum, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1971, p. 44.

The main problem with [The Vertical Smile] by Richard Condon is that the author is potentially a much better writer than he seems willing to allow himself to be….

Whenever he can bring himself to stop sandbagging the reader with quips and lectures, Condon reveals himself as an ingenious and original writer with a genuine gift for dialogue and characterization.

L. J. Davis, in Book World (© The Washington Post), October 31, 1971, p. 15.

Mr Condon's prose style [in The Vertical Smile] is hard-boiled, cynical and often very funny. Who but Mr Condon could describe the eyes of an avid filmgoer as being so bloodshot from watching so many movies that it looked as though someone had thrown ketchup in them? Well, Peter de Vries or S. J. Perelman, perhaps. But all Mr Condon's own are the loving descriptions of conspicuous consumption, of feats of prodigious skill, and of the preparation and consumption of food (though there may be too much about hamburgers for the taste of gourmets on this side of the Atlantic).

Unfortunately, however, though the parts of the book are entertaining enough they do not add up to a satisfactory whole. As the book progresses one gets the uneasy feeling that Mr Condon is losing his cool on the subject of the corruption and violence of American society and politics. The characters show an increasing tendency to lecture one another about the American constitution, the American way of life and the real meaning of democracy. For Mr Condon's style to work it needs to be totally cynical, hard-hearted as well as hard-headed. At times in this book the mask seems to slip. It is as though Swift had given equal time in his "Modest Proposal" to a spokesman of the NSPCC. Though humanly entirely understandable, the result is sometimes artistically unfortunate.

"Rot Around the Clock," in The Times Literary Supplement (reprinted by permission), April 28, 1972, p. 500.

Anyone who has read much of the current output of America's giants of fiction could not be surprised to be told once again that all is not well with the US in the matter of social conditions. Yankee materialism has been condemned many times, the breakdown of US society through crime, drug taking, booze—you name it, we've had plenty of evidence.

Mr Condon seems to think it time that he climbed aboard the bandwagon—but no, how could he? Mr Condon is the bandwagon. This book is described as 'an entertainment' but it's nearer to being a self-indulgence. The USA is bad: very well. We accept that not everything there is perfect. But in The Vertical Smile all, all, is rotten. The author throws in everything, but everything, with the abandon and lack of discrimination of a delinquent 10-year-old doing his best to be naughty in every possible manner….

If there is anyone or anything in the book that could be recognised as 'normal' I failed to find it. Did the author intend the work to be funny? Comic? Mole ruit suâ.

The Vertical Smile has all the attraction of a mud pudding, all the wit of the six-hundred and fortieth throwing of custard pie. Every oddity and quirk is placed not under a magnifying glass but under an electron-microscope that enlarges to such an extent that nothing under its scrutiny is recognisable as bearing any relation to the known.

John Boland, in Books and Bookmen, May, 1972, pp. 71-2.

The most original novelistic style of the 1960's was the style of paranoid surrealism. As created by such novelists as Joseph Heller, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Thomas Berger, Ken Kesey and Thomas Pynchon, the paranoid novel drew equally on the facts of national life and the cliches of popular fiction to create a world where technology, politics and history had run wild and the only possible humanism was gallows humor. The dream of community that had inspired the Popular Front (and the literary methods of Dos Passos, Farrell, Bellow and the Mailer of "The Naked and the Dead") had been replaced….

Richard Condon was one of the most distinguished members of this group and through the controlled corrosiveness of his two great early novels—"The Manchurian Candidate" (1959) and "Some Angry Angel" (1960)—has some claim to being a founder. But something seemed to fall apart in the five novels that followed "An Infinity of Mirrors" (1964). Condon became a cult novelist, a little paranoid epicycle of his own, cutting easy slices from the same chunk of multicolored, hyperdense imagination, producing novels without any real qualities of invective and intelligence, stuffed with in-jokes and obvious parodies, a kind of virtuoso shoddiness.

"Winter Kills," Condon's 11th novel, seems to come on in much the same way…. But "Winter Kills" is not another Condon novel like the last few, filled with the forgettable frenzy of a mechanical satirist. "Winter Kills" is instead a triumph of satire and knowledge, with a delicacy of style and a command of tone that puts Condon once again into the first rank of American novelists….

How can the paranoid intensities possible in art compete with the normal paranoias of everyday life?… The form of the novel has always implied paranoia: the reader and writer alone with each other and themselves, the plot that organizes the world for your benefit. Joyce reestablished what Laurence Sterne already knew: the added paranoia of the writer trapped with his words, the closed moment of history and language he believes it is his mission to recreate.

Joyce finally withdrew into his words totally. But novelists like Condon and Thomas Berger have completely moved away from the modernist obsession with literary language and are experimenting instead with the ability of the rhythms of daily speech and popular culture to embody the plain-speaking clarity of their satire. By destroying the gap between "serious" and "popular" culture, they make us realize that the myths and images we may consciously disdain affect us more deeply for our ignorance of them.

"Winter Kills," then, is "some kind of bummer through American mythology," in which almost all of Condon's characters, from highest to lowest, are driven by the American dream of being someone, making a difference, having power and control. "Winter Kills" isn't the world; it's the way we think about the world…. Condon has created a paranoid novel that does not leave us trapped inside its world, but functions instead as a liberation, exposing through the gentler orders of fiction the way we have been programmed to believe anything in print. By mingling historical reality with his own fabulous invention, Condon savagely satirizes a world in which fiction and reality are mingled to manipulate, exploit and kill.

Leo Braudy, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 26, 1974, p. 5.

[Condon's] early books, The Oldest Confession, The Manchurian Candidate and A Talent for Loving, are among the maddest funny novels of the last couple of decades. They seemed to have been written by Mephistopheles, raucous with glee at the insane excesses of the human creature. But Condon's last several books have been querulous and scolding.

It should be enough to say that Winter Kills is a gothic farce about the assassination in the early 1960s of U.S. President Tim Keegan….

[It] is in grossly bad taste, although cynicism prompts the additional observation that taste might not matter if the book were funny. It is not. It is paranoid. Condon clearly wrote the novel to take his suspicions for a stroll, and what he suspects is that the very rich are in conspiratorial control of the country….

Condon has unraveled. The world's villainy simply does not work so simply. To pretend that it does is mindless mischief.

John Skow, "Obscurity Now," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time, Inc.), June 24, 1974, pp. 91-2.

Of that group of novelists who re-create fiction from news stories Richard Condon has proved himself one of the most adept. He has constructed a series of sly intricate thrillers out of the pop fantasies on which the weeklies thrive. At the same time he has tried to distend his stories with his own stubborn, eccentric, almost malevolent sensibility into something beyond mere suspense and parody.

His clipped style, cartoon plots, and magazine metaphors are, of course, not the stuff of literature in the grand tradition. In … "Winter Kills," his hero Nick Thirkfield wonders openly if he's living in a John Wayne movie or in a "bummer through American mythology."…

Condon's is a curious genre, parasitic on the Nightly News and the weeklies yet trying to transcend in fiction some of the comic strip banalities of the other media. And "Winter Kills" is one of his more successful efforts, a witty, readable, neatly plotted pop allegory, but it suffers nevertheless from a confusion of purpose.

For at times it seems Condon entirely believes that the mass media, particularly television, generate by themselves both the substance and the nonsense of our lives. He seems to regard the so-called American dream, whatever that is, as a creation of tv journalists and media executives. All the other institutions of our lives serve merely as illusory backdrops on a picture tube.

According to Condon, literature as we have known it, with its intimacies and niceties and internal convolutions, cannot survive except as a gloss on the television news. Outmoded language and metaphor must be replaced by a pop vocabulary …, and 1000 brand names the honors of allusion which were once reserved for gods and heroes only….

In "Winter Kills" he exaggerates the pop fantasies about wealthy men, power, and glamor until they appear grotesque and completely unlivable….

But "Winter Kills" is a competent novel, neat and quick and clever, and that alone elevates it above the usual fare. Those seeking great literature or a first-class intelligence had best look elsewhere, but those who want light and mildly provocative entertainment will find Richard Condon a congenial companion.

Leonard Orr, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), June 27, 1974, p. 29.