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Richard Eder

The Propheteers by Max Apple (Harper & Row/Perennial Library: $7.95; 306 pp.)

March 08, 1987|Richard Eder

There was a time, not a quarter century ago, when the symbol of regimented consumption in America were the orange roof and the 18 ice cream flavors at the Howard Johnson highway stops.

Today, at least on the roads of the Northeast, where I live, it is something of a triumph to find a Howard Johnson, with its real if limited choice of food that tastes relatively fresh--the sandwiches and hamburgers, at least, and the bacon and eggs. It's a triumph because most of these highway stops have been taken over by the fast-food chains with their tight selection of boxed fats, starches and proteins. In retrospect, the vanishing HoJo has come to seem like your village bistro in Normandy.

I'm not sure if this temporal shift--where is the fast food of yesteryear, considering what we get nowadays?--was behind Max Apple's choice of Howard Johnson as legendary hero in his amusing fantasy about national change and decay. The legendary villain is Walt Disney and his brother, Will. Margery Post Merriwether, heiress to the Post Toasties fortune, floats fiercely but futilely somewhere in between.

Apple is a rueful humorist whose work, up to now, has consisted of short pieces. Now he has written his first full-length novel. It demonstrates superb marksmanship at short range; the long-range firing is scattered.

"The Propheteers" is a three-legged parable whose style and tone, with its light-mannered but seriously minded appropriation of real figures, is reminiscent of E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime." The legs are uneven.

Apple's vision of Howard Johnson is marvelous enough almost to carry it all off. His Walt Disney is interesting but the invention flags. And his Margery Post Merriwether is an engaging footnote that grows elephantine and plods away with everything else.

The parable teeters upon its unequal supports. It pits innocence against manipulation, the exuberance of our native, inventor-capitalism against the calculation of the later abstract and bottom-line variety. The business of America may be business, Apple suggests, but there is a whole national decline as we go from those who took creative pleasure as well as money from satisfying some human need, to those who manipulate humanity and re-define its needs so as to make even more money.

No doubt, making Howard Johnson the Paul Bunyan of our national woods, and the Disney organization its International Paper Co. is fairly arbitrary. But that is not really the point, since Apple's Johnson and Disney are historical fictions, however astute.

The Johnson fiction is impossible to resist. We see him slowly touring the highways of America in a giant limousine equipped with an ice cream freezer, and accompanied by his faithful assistant, Milly, and his faithful driver, Otis. Besides being faithful, both have become extremely rich, as well.

Johnson is a visionary and an idealist. His ideal is ease and comfort for the traveling masses who are as individually real to him as if, like Milly and Otis, they were traveling in his car. When his board of directors asks why the motor inns require colored TV in each room--putting it in the lounge would be cheaper, and travelers would order more drinks--Johnson replies, simply: "Because they have children." He works by invisible inner messages. He will order Otis to stop the car somewhere in the middle of a seeming nowhere, and then run across a field, sniff the ground, meditate, and decide to put an inn or restaurant there.

The portrait is wonderfully appealing. So is that of Otis, sober and sensible, and of Milly, whose tidiness barely conceals the romantic temperament that links her to Johnson. It was she who suggested the orange roofs. In New Hampshire, one late afternoon, after introducing Johnson to her former teacher, the poet Robert Frost--a splendidly incongruous juxtaposition--she points out the sunset gilding the hills. Johnson decides that it is a sunset that should crown his rest stops from Poughkeepsie to Tucson.

All this is largely in the past. When the book opens, Johnson, Milly and Otis are old; and an impersonal management largely runs the organization. But Johnson has a last battle in mind: to take on Disney, to replace the feverish activity, invented fantasies, and one-day visits of Disney World--then on the point of being built in Florida--with something more natural and more restful.

As they head for Orlando, we anticipate a glorious confrontation. We never really get it. The book shifts to Walt Disney, a timid genius who lives in a state of passive depression because he has compromised his artistic instincts in favor of the commercial formulas pushed by his hard-driving brother, Will. From there, it shifts to Margery Post Merriwether, daughter of another visionary, the late C. W. Post, whom Apple presents as a religious fanatic who is convinced that breakfast cereal is America's moral as well as physical salvation.

Margery lives, with her money, her paternally overshadowed life and her memories, on a huge estate in Orlando. She employs a battery of lawyers to resist Disney's plan; not from conviction, but because she does not want to be disturbed. She is spunky and original but aimless; and the book's energy is dispersed as Apple tries at considerable length to endow this aimlessness with significance.

The climactic encounter between Johnson and the Disneys--with Margery as Johnson's natural ally--never properly takes place. Johnson, having arrived, more or less fades away. Walt Disney, pushed by his brother, leads a parade of children up to Margery's gates to protest her legal obstructions. The ending is bizarre and undoubtedly ironic, but it lacks any real force. Like Apple's projection of America, his book goes into a long decline once it abandons Howard Johnson, his limousine-errant, his faithful companions, and his visions.

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