The Old Man and Mr. Smith

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the beginning, God (aka The Old Man) is attempting to register at a fancy hotel in Washington, D.C. It seems he’s decided to revisit his creation to “become reacquainted with things.” Desiring a companion for his visit, he has invited Satan (aka Mr. Smith) to accompany him. These supernaturals, formerly brimming over with omniscience and grandeur, are now senior citizens. Satan is impatient and easily riled (when not falling asleep in front of the television); God seems befuddled much of the time. In fact, the adventure begins when God absentmindedly creates the wrong coinage to pay their bill. The local police don’t take kindly to counterfeiting, divinely initiated or not, and arrest the two.

Quickly tiring of jail, The Old Man and Mr. Smith use one of their supernatural powers and disappear, reappearing outside. They then hop from place to place throughout the world visiting various people: the President of the United States, a TV evangelist, a Vietnam vet, a Freudian psychoanalyst, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the FBI has been informed of the counterfeiting and gives chase.

Ustinov calls the book a fable; it’s closer to a morality play. Two-dimensional characters, easily satirized, fill the pages. The police talk as if they’re rehearsing for a 1940’s detective movie. The TV evangelist (Reverend Henchman) makes even Jimmy Swaggart seem sincere. The President of the United States advises his two supernatural visitors to get an agent to give their act “focus.” The book is repetitive—the continuous banter between The Old Man and Mr. Smith becomes tiresome—and not very funny.

Let the reader judge for himself. Read the first few pages. The remainder of the book is more of he same. If he likes it, continue. If not, Ustinov acts in some fine films now out in video.