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Flood of Fiction From Hearings

July 19, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

It's been hard to pay a lot of attention to literature these last couple of weeks, what with the fictional flood that has been spilling out of desk radios and home television sets.

--How can I, Ollie talking there

My attention fix

On anything but Washington's

Discursive politics?--

If Sen. William Cohen can neatly quote T. S. Eliot warning against illumination that fails to become part of experience (What will be left of the hearings once we've all had our fun?), I suppose a book reviewer can paraphrase Yeats. Not as neatly, to be sure.

It's not the events recounted by the witnesses that are fictional, though some of them sound that way, and some necessarily have got to be. It is chiefly the characters: Oliver North, of course, the co-chairman, Daniel K. Inouye, the opposing counsels Arthur Liman and Brendan Sullivan, and such committee members as Henry Hyde, Jack Brooks, Warren Rudman, Cohen, Edgar Jenkins and others.

By fictional, of course, I don't mean that these are not real people. I mean that these real figures are momentarily placed in a narrow, dramatically focused context that none of us--not even lieutenant colonels or congressmen--usually find ourselves in.

In this public confrontation for the purpose of elucidating, concealing or bending a large political event, they have taken on roles whose highly simplified, and sharply contrasting, colors give them the storytelling qualities we find in fiction. We, the public, are experiencing them day by day as we experience a novel. Or as we once did.

Because it's hardly a contemporary novel. Possibly one or two of the peripheral figures could make the affectless kind of character found in a story by Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver.

I think of Gaston Sigur, a State Department official, who comes on the scene only to have breakfast with North and a Taiwanese diplomat. Except that he didn't really have breakfast; he left almost immediately. He couldn't really say what was discussed or, presumably, what the sausages were like.

No, this is a vanished species, the full-blown 19th-Century novel of Dickens and Trollope and, once in awhile, Thackeray. It is life-absorbing, page-turning, melodramatic, irresistible. It gives simplified and compelling glimpses of trades and professions, of schemes and finagles, of hierarchies caught standing on their heads with their shirttails drooping floorwards, and of a whole widely assorted collection of characters.

They are not rendered profoundly or introspectively, but with a trait or two, an attitude or two, whose lack of depth is made up for by the agility and variety of the life they engage in.

Not to rely too heavily on Dickens, though he is hard to keep out, there is Oliver. (Cruikshank, for that matter, could have had a splendid time with the colonel's carefully marshaled iconographic qualities: uniform and medals, perfect posture, gap-toothed smile and the limpid glance that reminded his high school teacher of "an angel.")

Oliver Twist is too easy, even if there are those who would like to play on the "Twist"; and if the famous soup scene--"Please, sir, may I have more"--might conceivably evoke the speeches North made at fund-raising gatherings.

But the essence of the fiction lies not in the substance but in the means of characterization; or more exactly, self-characterization.

There is the much remarked-on alternation of Boy Scout deference--the "yes, sirs ," the barely restrained contempt that sneaks into those "yes, sirs ," the confidential good humor, the voice-cracking emotion. There is his third-person reference to himself for emphasis: "Ollie North," he calls himself, or sometimes "this kid" or "this Marine."

As rounded, as vivid, as perfect as Sydney Carton or, if you prefer, the Artful Dodger, and all in a relatively few, bold strokes.

There are the counsels--iconographically, again, Daumier could have done a lot with Arthur Liman. There is North's attorney, Sullivan, in a perpetual, high-tension state of outrage. And Liman, choosing to moderate his celebrated bulldog style, interrogating North like a high school principal whom the community has recently barred from the use of the paddle.

And there are the congressmen and senators. Some of them seem to add little in the way of personality to their efforts to clarify the testimony or point it up. But others manage to stand not just for themselves and their concerns, but for types. They exist, in other words, as characters exist in fiction.

Inouye, the deep-voiced chairman, manages in his resonant imperturbability, to assert the responsibility of Congress against the efforts of North and other witnesses from the Executive Branch to assert the supreme responsibility of the presidency. Inouye is the Constitution's Article I in a business suit.

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