Kazan, Elia 1909–
Kazan, an American born in Istanbul, is now a novelist. In the 1930s he was primarily an actor, and in the '40s, '50s, and even into the '60s he was "the foremost director of the American Theater … and the most creative screen director of the postwar generation." Larry Swindell wrote: "A Kazan film was always an Event. The rollcall of titles mesmerizes the imagination as it regales the memory." Swindell adds that "the metamorphosis of Elia Kazan into a person who considers himself primarily a novelist is without precedent in American life." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
"The Assassins" may well reach the same high place on the bestseller lists [as did "The Arrangement."] It has two reliable ingredients: much of the action is built around a trial—and trials, at least in fiction, are almost surefire; also, several of its characters are hippies, and the mysterious world of hippiedom is still news. There is plenty of suspense and plenty of sex, not limited to the hippies. There are the usual four-letter words, and it is a credit to Kazan's realism that these are used almost as freely by Air Force officers and their wives and civilian authorities and their wives as by the longhaired boys and the braless girls….
Kazan protests with more than traditional fervor that "any reference to living persons and actual events is coincidental." His fervor is such that the wary reader is on the watch for coincidents. Sure enough, one soon turns up. Vinnie, acknowledged leader of a hippie "family" near the air base, seems to have many of the traits of the most notorious of hippies, Charles Manson. He is arrogant and cruel, has a manner like "an eighteenth-century noble, a prince," and is adored by his women. But Vinnie's story is not Manson's after all—and he is eliminated on page 64. If there are other "coincidental" references to people and places, they escape me. (p. 6)
"The Assassins" is in many ways a good enough novel. One wonders why it isn't better. The story, including all the turns and twists of the trial, is skillfully told, and the author keeps the many characters under control. The heart of the matter, I feel, is what Kazan does and doesn't do with the hippies. They make the charges against society that we have heard many times, and the representatives of the Establishment, as presented here, are corrupt, selfish, and shortsighted enough to warrant the indictment. But we naturally want more than that.
It isn't fair to expect Kazan to explain why the hippies are the way they are: this book isn't—and isn't supposed to be—a treatise on abnormal psychology. What we do reasonably hope for is that his hippies will have the breath of life in them—as, for instance, Jill has in Updike's "Rabbit Redux." But Vinnie is no more a credible human being, someone we might know, than is the Charles Manson of the tabloids. And Michael, though by long odds a pleasanter character [and "the only character with a genuine interest in justice," according to Hicks], is not much more real.
I am sure Kazan felt that he had something to say about the hippies—or more accurately, perhaps something to show. I wish he had. (p. 20)
Granville Hicks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 5, 1972.
Those who have long admired Elia Kazan as a film and theater director, and who recall that at one time he was an actor, may be tempted to regard Elia Kazan the novelist as a dilettante seeking recognition in all art forms and media, and to wonder whether he will turn up next as a New Journalist.
His first two novels, America, America and The Arrangement, had about them the quality of a man recording deeply personal experiences. His third novel, The Assassins ("A" is his talismantic title letter), is something else: a social statement on war between the established American culture and counterculture, a panoramic narrative so topical that some of it is already dated. Set in New Mexico, it is a tale without a hero, but full of weaklings, victims, and villains—so many villains that either side can take comfort in the fact that, corrupt and evil as they themselves obviously are, the opposition is even more depraved. Kazan also villainizes the well-meaning mugwump, the man of good will who, seeing validity in the arguments of the opposed parties, refuses to commit himself to either, and thereby presents an obstacle to both. (pp. 75-6)
Clearly antimilitarist and antiestablishment, [Kazan] is equally disenchanted with the drug culture and revolutionaries. He indicts the military for turning men into killers but blames the counterculture for doing precisely the same thing.
Which seems to make Elia Kazan very like a mugwump. (p. 76)
William Kennedy, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 1, 1972.
If "The Understudy" has very little else, it does have an energetic, if slightly preposterous plot. Kazan's interest in the visible world is primarily as a source for allegorical musings; it is a moral bestiary. Sonny [the protagonist] flees to Kenya where he watches lions eat zebras, cheetahs eat gazelles, wild dogs eat wildebeests and hyenas eat what's left, as he speculates on the meaning of life, with particular reference to the moral relationship between predator and victim. He takes instructions in Social Darwinism from a white hunter who makes Ayn Rand seem soft on herd animals: "… If a zebra felt sorrow and guilt every time one of his herd went down, he'd crack up, life would be impossible."…
Oddly enough, for someone who has spent so much time so successfully in film and theater, Kazan seems to have no reflective feeling for character at all. Personal psychology, for his characters, consists almost wholly of mammoth self-contradiction and inexplicable motivation. The mystery of human behavior is for him a gulf to be bridged by histrionics. Men are all evil on one page, good on the next. The remarkable thing is that, in spite of the fact that novels cannot be written at that level of vulgarity, Kazan has written something very nearly resembling it. (p. 6)
Gene Lyons, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.
There is nothing wrong with The Understudy … that a good script and some believable characters would not help.
Such problems are doubly disappointing because Kazan has tackled a subject on which he qualifies as an expert: actors. (p. K8)
The wheel-of-fortune theme is always potentially intriguing (Who's up? Who's down?), and the acting profession, with its embattled loyalties and ulcerous rivalries, is a better place than most to find it. Kazan, however, rarely trusts his material to stand on its own. He piles up absurdities, apparently hoping that someone will say, "I couldn't put it down."…
Save for a few anecdotes about Marlon Brando, the novel skimps on backstage gossip and theatrical lore. One of Sonny's more probing thoughts about his profession is "Crap's better in an English accent." Maybe. Laurence Olivier reading The Understudy aloud might improve it, but not enough. (p. 74)
Paul Gray, "The Assays of Elia," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 13, 1975, pp. K8, 74.
There is just enough excitement in this show-biz cops-and-robbers adventure blockbuster ["The Understudy"] to tease you on to the end, but not enough to enable you to overlook its slickness, its sentimentality, and its made-for-the-movies underpinnings…. Despite the thick slatherings of schmalz, the bond between the guilt-burdened narrator and [a] hammy old Yiddish star is an interesting one, revealing a lot about the way theatre people work and think. However, their story is constantly being shouldered aside to make room for duller episodes. Nearly a third of the book, for example, is taken up with the narrator's Abercrombie & Fitch trip to the African bush, and what it is supposed to reveal is not quite clear, unless it is that the author seems to know a great deal about Thomson's gazelles and buffalo and lions. (p. 102)
The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 27, 1975.
Style is not a question of superficial games. For Kazan, meaning is style; under the pressure of formulation, an idea creates its own. [The Understudy] is a fine novel, dramatic, bewitchingly irrational and undaunted by complex ideas. It shows all too clearly the negative side of niceness—how, if unfought for, decency becomes a disease. (p. 350)
Robert Buckler, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Robert Buckler), September 11, 1975.