Column

‘Now, if only Cheever, Bellow or Singer could be useful like Arthur Hailey...'

Mordecai Richer January 22 1979
Column

‘Now, if only Cheever, Bellow or Singer could be useful like Arthur Hailey...'

Mordecai Richer January 22 1979

‘Now, if only Cheever, Bellow or Singer could be useful like Arthur Hailey...'

Column

Mordecai Richer

For a literary man, I suffer from an embarrassingly unretentive memory. Years of reading have undoubtedly enriched my life, but they have left me with only an immortal sentence here, a great phrase there, that I can summon up for instant recall: “Reader, I married him”; “Call me Ishmael”; “If God did not exist, everything would be lawful”; “All happy families are alike but every unhappy one is unhappy in its own way.” To this I would now add, out of Arthur Hailey’s latest novel, Overload, (Doubleday, $13.95), “Could a quadriplegic woman have an orgasm? Emphatically, yes\”

The truth is that Arthur Hailey, much maligned by snobby critics everywhere, is a fascinating writer, each one of his novels crammed with more useful information than any issue of the old Popular Mechanics magazine. The quadriplegic heroine of Overload is called Karen, she’s 39, her long hair blonde, her skin flawless, ü and her nose pert. She also 5 writes the most perfectly ï appalling poetry, albeit composed right onto an electric typewriter with a stick held between her teeth:

My sensual delectation lingers:

A swirling, heady, Cyprian mixture,

At once

So sweetly light, robustly carnal.

Karen is dependent on a life-support system provided by Golden State Power & Light of California, whose vice-president, embattled Nimrod Goldman, also becomes her lover. “Nim had wondered, like others he supposed, how it would be for an unimpaired man to make sexual love to a quadriplegic woman,” and Overload is the unflinching novel that answers that question: “He had a sense, over and over, of glorious eroticism, of floating and soaring, of joy and loving, until at last, as always, the ending came: Attainment of a summit; climax of a symphony; the zenith of a dream. And for them both.”

If, in Overload, the underestimated Hailey ventures into romantic terrain hitherto unexplored by any of our so-

called major novelists, it must also be said that his protagonist, Nim Goldman, marks a new departure for him. He’s Jewish, but with a refreshing difference. After all those guilt-ridden, self-doubting, endlessly wisecracking Jews of Bellow and Roth, here, at last, is a Jewish character without any inner life whatsoever. The first of his race to be painted by numbers. Mind you, Nim is a man of a certain sensibility. In a tender moment, the philandering Nim, contemplating his wife’s breasts, remembers their courting days when he

used to fondly refer to them as his very own “half-pint specials.”

I do not intend to deal at length with the plot of Overload here, a formula that works well for Hailey yet again. Suffice it to say that this story is introduced by quotations on light, by St. Luke, dark, by John Milton and generating capacity in California, by Fortune magazine, which shows a neat sense of intellectual balance. Furthermore, it tells you everything you ever wanted to know about electricity, maybe more. The joy of a Hailey plot is that you can feel absolutely comfy with it, anticipating the author well before he reveals his leaden hand. For example, when Nim goes to comfort the wife of his best friend, a colleague who has just died in an explosion at the power plant, you fully expect him to bed her, celebrating life in the midst of death, as it were, and so he does. Hailey’s characters, bless them, never do the unexpected, but behave exactly according to plan, which is very reassuring in these difficult times.

And Nim is a triumph. He not only makes love to a quadriplegic, which is fraught with mechanical problems (“ ‘Later,’ Karen said, ‘I’ll ask you to put a chest respirator on me.’ ”), a radical black journalist, which is very trendy, but he also serves as a stud of sorts for his friend Thurston. Thurston, confessing to sterility, tells him, “It seems my pistol will cock and fire, but I feed it only blanks.” Taking the hint, Nim provides a live bullet for Thurston’s wife that very night, taking her to his bed and before dawn (good heavens) the wife’s sister also slides between his sheets. “ ‘I’ll be damned,’ Daphne said as she took the negligee off, ‘if I’m going to be left out altogether. Move over, Nim, and I hope you have some energy left.’ ”

Overload not only tells us what an unimpaired man can manage in bed with a beautiful quadriplegic, it also passes on information even more useful. Young Wally Talbot, heroically rescuing a boy from a power pylon, is painfully electrocuted: his penis is burnt off. “ ‘They’ll do skin grafts,’ Nim says. ‘But you can’t order a new penis from the Sears catalogue.’ ”

Not yet, maybe, but meanwhile there is a doctor named Brantley Scott at the Texas Medical Center, who happily makes Wally a brand-new one: “The whole thing is made of silicone rubber, the same stuff that’s used for heart pace-makers.”

Well now, I’ve been reading Cheever, Bellow, Walker Percy and I. B. Singer, among others, for years, without ever learning anything truly useful. It was left to critically neglected Arthur Hailey to bring the good news. Immensely encouraging news. And yet— and yet—in this instance what the reader wants is even more hard facts.

If, for instance, brand-new ones can be built so easily, can the good Texan doctor provide added inches for the more poorly endowed? Don’t ask me: write directly to Arthur Hailey for an illustrated catalogue.