How one misses Wodehouse, and all those others like him

On Books

March 04, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

There is a category of sophisticated, fanciful, witty, adventuresome novels that is typified by much of the work of George MacDonald Fraser, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse and John Kennedy Toole. At the top of their form, these writers offer as delightful an experience as can be available to the reading eye and the open mind.

Now, if one can believe the dust-jacket blurbery, a fresh contender -- H.W. Crocker III -- has entered the publishing fray. His new book, "The Old Limey" (Regnery, 336 pages, $19.95), the publisher proclaims, rivals the best work of these five delectable novelists. If that's the case, it deserves serious attention -- perhaps adoration.

Crocker lives in Virginia and has gone to school in both London and California. He has worked as speechwriter for a California governor, and wrote a book called "Robert E. Lee on Leadership." He has a fine command of language. His book bids for recognition with enthusiastic prepublication endorsements, also on the dust jacket, from Christopher Buckley, Robin Moore, the late and much lamented Auberon Waugh and others.

So?

First, the characters and situation: The book begins with Brigadier Nigel Haversham's car turning over in California, where he has gone in search of his goddaughter Alexandra. He is arrested, found to be very drunk, but turned loose by a policeman who assumes he will be well out of the United States in a few days. In the process -- in internal monologues as well as disputes with the cop -- Haversham has ridiculed pretty well everything American.

Among the quirkily Edwardian Haversham's least condescending observations of the U.S.: "Americans were a remarkably clean people, he thought. Professional, too. One had grown used to the idea that the Americans were rather hysterical, given to mass panics and strange fears that they might never find the secret of eternal life."

These scornful dismissals of Yankee failings and offenses are contrasted by the brigadier, now 60 and retired, with memories of glories as a Guards officer in every site of British military conflict in the last couple of generations: Katanga, the Falklands, Kuwait, Northern Ireland, the Gulf War and more.

He thinks in military metaphors. He has never been married, but is fond -- apparently chastely -- of the widow of one of his comrades who died gallantly, leaving a daughter he never saw, the selfsame Alexandra.

A sort of purpose and plot emerge. Alexandra is from a very old English family. Her boyfriend in Britain, a slickly presentable Irish lad, has unexpectedly fled for California and turns out to be a narcotics dealer who has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Jamaican drug gang in London. Then Alexandra disappears, letting her mother know only that she is in Los Angeles. Haversham is asked by his goddaughter's mother to find her. Neither has any idea of the boyfriend's involvement with either drugs or Alex's flight.

Haversham, the "Old Limey," wears a bowler hat and has a penchant for getting beaten unconscious by low-grade thugs and muggers. The story zigs and zags -- from an encounter with a Mexican narcotics cartel, in competition with the Jamaicans, to a gaggle of other players and forces. Haversham fantasizes he can insouciantly take on any possible foe single-handed. -- and is proven wrong at least twice in the first third of the book.

He meets and enlists in the quest two young women -- April, a brunette, with phosphorescent lime-green jogging shorts, and Penelope, blonde, similarly dressed. They say things like "like" a lot and seem to feel they are hip. They dream of having the capital to open an image-consulting business. Neither is quite sure what the adventure is all about -- nor, for that matter, much else.

Haversham is given to very elaborate fantasizing, all very mannerly, of course. He plans his assaults on homicidal drug dealers in terms of the strategies of the great captains of military history. He elaborately admires the lissome young women, but if a single lascivious thought crosses his consciousness, the reader never knows it.

The sequence of the narrative involves complex changes of time, reverting from one period to a previous one and back. There are intermittent interruptions by flashes of adventurers from Nigel's military career -- real or imagined, it is impossible to determine.

Apparently by fluke, all of Nigel's training and tricks and derring-do suddenly start to work. He rescues one of the young lovelies and himself from a gang of drugged kidnappers, and then pulls together a completely improbable miniature army composed of Jamaican drug dealers, borrowed Black Muslim enforcers, three middle-aged, vegetarian ex-Marine Vietnam vets and a few others. Alexandra's boy friend, the Irishman, proves to be a very sinister force.

I was predisposed to find the brigadier a charming, doughty anachronism -- for the sake of the book if not for his own. Sadly, he turned out to be a hollow, pompous bore. I couldn't grieve for his misfortunes or humiliations. I found it impossible to applaud his admirable if ridiculous eccentricity. I didn't find myself laughing.

Why? Crocker's whole yarn is a fatal bit too neat, too tricky, too contrived. It never swept me in. Sure, it's a spoof of a spoof, with the brigadier spoofing himself a bit. But all that spoofery overwhelms the capacity to suspend incredulity -- or mine, anyway -- which is necessary for any outlandish tale to work.

So, finally, the book is a disappointment. There's a remedy, an antidote: Go back and read any -- or all -- the celebrated, immortal predecessors.

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