Underground Reading: A Man of Affairs by John D. MacDonald
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
First published in 1957, A Man of Affairs is one of John D. MacDonald's rare forays into writing a unabashedly pure 'business' thriller. One of JDM's strengths is to render financial and corporate problems down to their human essences - explaining shares and dividends in terms of small towns, family homes and personal relationships.
In A Man of Affairs, the focus is solely on the lattermost point. From the set-up, JDM makes it clear that the stakes of the book aren't about life and death, or even wealth and discomfort. The conflict is about pride and ambition. How far will some men go for power, and where are the limits of self-respect?
The protagonist is Sam Glidden, an executive (not a shareholder) in a small-town manufacturing company. He owes a debt of honor to the company's founder - a debt which he maintains by sticking about at the business (despite being a 'bright young thing'). Unfortunately, the second generation of the company's ownership is not as worthy of Sam's loyalty (or are they?).
The book begins with the advent of an ambitious corporate shark, Mike Dean. Glidden and the company's current lackadaisical ownership are flown to a secluded island, so that he can seduce them into a buy-out (to be followed by a barely-legal stock inflation and unloading).
The island is filled with debauchery - 1957-style. The drinking begins at dawn, followed by sun-tanning, barracuda-fishing and prolific adultery. When the sun goes down, there's a brief and sodden discussion of business, followed by more drinking, a bit of singing and shameless bed-swapping.
Against this background, Glidden is tempted (repeatedly) by the nubile flesh of those around him (including one of the [married] bosses) and by the generous, Faustian offers of Mike Dean. Although the conflict of the book is set up nicely - Sam vs. Mike, Sam vs. the Old Guard, Sam vs. himself - everything is resolved far too neatly.
After positioning everything so nicely, John D. MacDonald effectively punts for the final third of the book. Sam makes tough, terrible decisions, but never needs to fret about them, as the rest of the world invariably maneuvers to prove him right (posthumously). Awkward interjections of physical violence make the conclusion all the sillier - despite Glidden's moral and intellectual challenges, his 'success' eventually hinges on his upper arm strength.
The one tiny, golden highlight of the book's conclusion is the final page. The denouement of the story is surprisingly romantic, and even a bit poignant. It does not, however, redeem the lackluster fumbling of the previous pages. This book is excellently set up, but poorly resolved - John D. MacDonald comes down with ill-timed cold feet and sabotages his own work.
Tube journeys: 2
You might also like:
- Our collection of John D. MacDonald covers - his books had some fantastic art (and also some true crap)
- Previous reviews of JDM's work - One Monday We Killed Them All, Deadly Welcome, Death Trap and Please Write for Details.