- Pohl, Frederik — Gateway (278 pages)
- Clement, Hal — Mission of Gravity (193 pages)
- Benford, Gregory — Timescape (499 pages)
- O'Hare, Mick (editor) — Why Don't Penguins Feet Freeze? and 114 Other Questions (232 pages)
- Dos Passos, John — Number One (218 pages)
Page count: 1,420 of targeted 12,500.
I stumbled across Number One in a used library book sale a couple of years ago. I had never heard of it, but I recognized Dos Passos as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the USA trilogy. The blurb on the back cover made it sound interesting, so I bought it. Later I found out Number One is out of print, so I was convinced I'd found a real gem.
Instead, now I think I know why it is out of print.
This book is almost unreadable. Hell, I was more than a third into the book before I figured out what was going on. The story is organized into five chapters, each representing a day in the life of "Chuck" Crawford (a fictionalized Huey P. Long) told from the perspective of his top lieutenant, Tyler "Toby" Spotswood. Each chapter is preceded by a two-page free-form "poem" attempting to pin down the "common man." The final chapter is followed by one of these free-form sections concluding that there is no representative "common man," that "the people is everybody/and one man alone; … the people are the republic,/the people are you."
Part of the confusion is that, rather than give you clues about what is going on, Dos Passos seemingly deliberately obfuscates the timeline. The five chapters occur over a span of several years: when Crawford is contemplating running for Senate, on a key day during his campaign, when he sets up a dummy corporation after being elected, on the day of his party's presidential convention, and when Spotswood is indicted as the scapegoat for Crawford's indiscretions. However, they each start the way the previous chapter ended; that is, at the end of one chapter, for example, Spotswood goes to bed drunk with a hooker at his side, and the next morning he wakes up hung over with a hooker by his side. Somehow I am supposed to figure out that it is now months or years later and they are in a different city or state. I spent far too much time trying to figure out what the hell was going on and far too little thinking about what Dos Passos was trying to say.
Once I got used to the author's unnecessary literary tricks, I began to get a sense for what Dos Passos real purpose might be. He wasn't just painting a portrait of Long's career, for the central character was really Spotswood, not Crawford. (Though Crawford was known to all as "Number One," Spotswood was Crawford's number one, and at the end of the story he realizes that he needs to take care of number one (himself), not "Number One," and that the people, not "Number One," are really number one, giving the book's title various meanings.) Dos Passos was trying to represent what the common people of this country might be like, from the point of view of someone who made his career out of manipulating them. Thing is, this has been done before and more effectively by other authors. John Dos Passos is no Robert Penn Warren, and Number One is no All the King's Men!
There was one item that caught my attention. Late in the book, Spotswood receives correspondence from someone urgently trying to contact him with important information. Spotswood wonders, "Could it be … some nut who wanted only a few dollars to get him a fortune out of the French Spoliation Claims?" I had no idea the Nigerian e-mail scam went back so far!