Eisendrath's 'Crisis Game' -- Cold War follies

February 03, 2002|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | By Elsbeth L. Bothe,Special to the Sun

Crisis Game: A Novel of the Cold War, by Craig Eisendrath. Sunstone Press. 176 pages. $24.95.

Craig Eisendrath is a polymathic person. A Ph.D. from Harvard, he has published authoritative books on the star wars illusion, national insecurity after the cold war, the contemporary university, the psychological philosophy of William James and Alfred North Whitehead. He's a fellow at the prestigious Center for International Policy, and was once a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. On the cultural side, he's an established playwright of dramas about the Holocaust, Macbeth, and Central American politics, has scripted TV documentaries, even written the libretto for an opera. On the faculty of Temple University, he headed the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

Set in a surreal zone, Crisis Game is billed as a novel, Eisendrath's first. Its premise looks like thriller fiction, but is actually based on those rarefied real occasions when the State Department enlists stand-in leaders to act out experimental diplomacy within elaborately staged scenarios. Crisis Game's gameboard is Cold War 1960s, hypothesizing a specter of atomic confrontation when Chinese Communists thrust into Thailand while Soviet forces are attempting to take over Iran. The theoretical quandary would be more stimulating posed as a present possibility -- such as Arabs striking American soil -- but then, the eternally popular game of Monopoly still does take place in 1930s Atlantic City.

The big problem is a brief but ambitious plot that is nearly impossible to follow in book form. The story runs like the outline of a movie proposal. (Indeed, the publisher specializes in novels that can be transformed on to celluloid.) Books don't allow a reader to see who is talking. This one contains a profusion of conversation, the speakers all too often unattributed. In a hapless effort to keep identities straight, this reader put down a list that resembles the dramatis personae page in a grand opera Playbill -- except that the players can't readily be introduced in order of appearance.

Numerous characters -- alternately playing themselves and role-playing -- make scattered entrances on multiple levels: Zachariah Smith plays under secretary for European affairs, but his real career path is headed downhill to a makeshift job in the State Department; Frank Sansone, cast as under secretary for international affairs, in real life is a somewhat shady former U.S. senator, dumped by his party and out of work. The acting secretary of state, Mansfield Vane, is really a Cabinet member under several presidents, now a big law firm man; his ersatz assistant is Michael Klein, actually a bright law professor and adviser to the State Department.

The principals are all male. Each has a fitting 1960s version supportive wife. During their intense three days of critical strategizing -- in what looks like another bow to movie prospects -- the players take ample time out for sexual diversion. Michael dallies with a divorced woman lawyer. Latent homosexual Zach Smith and his adored trophy wife conceive a child.

Accepting the accuracy of the Crisis Game analogue, one wonders what American readers, moviegoers and taxpayers can get out of this performance. Multi-talented Dr. Eisendrath had best go back into other productions. Unless current events fit the script, as the Cuban missile crisis did for Dr. Strangelove and the Clinton / Lewinsky affair for Wag the Dog, the concept is not very entertaining.

Elsbeth L. Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying serious criminal cases, many of them murder. As a lawyer, Bothe represented a number of death row inmates. She has been an active member of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder for 40 years and is on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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