A Game Men Play

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

A Game Men Play is about power and its victims. Novelist Vance Bourjaily wisely avoids the labyrinth of international intrigue and focuses instead on the effects of wealth and power upon people trying to live their lives. One never learns precisely what policy issues, what diplomatic goals, the political intriguers are seeking, nor does one become more than superficially acquainted with the people who call the shots. Bourjaily seems to want to demonstrate the helplessness of victims caught, by accident of birth or association, in the opportunistic machinations of what passes for diplomacy. The book leaves no doubt that violence, even murder, are wholly acceptable to the makers and executors of foreign policy.

Specifically, A Game Men Play is about Chink Peters, who gains access to the elite “Agency” through the wealth and prestige of his Russian-born father’s patron, “Cap” Strawbridge. The youthful Chink proves so mindlessly effective in destroying whom he must that he becomes a legend—and the subject of a movie, unofficially condoned by his superiors. “Der Fleischwolf,” or the Meatgrinder, as Peters is known, has another side; he is a student of language and literature, he loves painting and animals, and as his wealthy former wife recognizes, he is too rigid in matters of ethics to endure in the world of big business.

At one point, Bourjaily recites a list of recent presidents, from Eisenhower to Nixon, with their particular failings as Chink perceives them; then, he comments that Chink would have given his life for all of them—if he had undertaken to serve them. An early lesson, stated by Chink’s father after he has whipped and slugged his son, was that a man never hits a woman and that he does not turn against the man he serves until he is ready to kill him.

A Game Men Play opens when Chink Peters is forty-nine years old, and it ends with his solitary celebration of his fiftieth birthday—far from the women he thought he might have loved. The experiences of World War II are behind him, as are the experiences of his brief marriage to Libby Strawbridge, daughter of his father’s patron. The “Agency,” however, like the priesthood, seems to be a lifelong commitment. No one who knows him, or his former occupation, will believe that he is no longer an agency man. His nemesis, Wally Diefenbach, has the wealth and position to manipulate Chink—and practically everyone else—in the “vicious game men play” for politics, “a kind of grown-up cops and robbers with real blood.”

The opening page of Bourjaily’s novel serves as epilogue. En route to New Zealand where he is delivering a shipment of horses, Chink reads a scholarly collection of nursery rhymes and smiles at the verses about the little boy who had but little wit. The poem concludes, “For the longer I live/The More Fool am I.” A shipmate asks what a “More Fool” is, and Chink replies, “One degree less than a Most Fool.” Section One of the novel is called “The More Fool,” and, presumably, the events of the second section (“These Blue Girls”) qualify him as the “Most Fool.” Chink’s “foolishness” is the kind to which western literature regularly assigns considerable merit. Bourjaily wants Chink to emerge as a “holy fool,” a man incapable of putting self-interest first. The switch from Meatgrinder to Victim never quite comes off, and, despite some excellent touches, Chink Peters remains a stereotype.

One learns nearly everything to be known about Chink’s background from his conversation with the horses he cares for aboard ship. Avoiding the human passengers and crew members, Chink muses over his history as he goes from stall to stall. He summarizes the dramatic events of his father and mother’s bloody escape from Russia, their illegal entry into the United States, and their settlement on “Cap” Strawbridge’s farm, where Chink...

(The entire section is 1608 words.)