Sunday, November 07, 2004


Book Review-James M Abraham

Old-style politics makes great read

Edwin O’Connor’s "The Last Hurrah" is the fast-moving, well-textured story of the last mayoral campaign of city boss J. Frank Skeffington.

But "Hurrah," written in 1956, is a forgotten book today. More folks probably remember the movie of the same title, which starred Spencer Tracy and adhered well to the book. That’s too bad because "Hurrah" is probably the most well- developed political novel ever written. In our time it can be compared more than favorably with Joe Klein’s "Primary Colors," the popular book by a magazine writer about a rising political star from Arkansas.

"Hurrah" takes us from the political novel standard set by poet-laureate Robert Penn Warren’s gloomy "All the King’s Men" to "Colors."

But of that trinity of twentieth century American political novels, "Hurrah" is the most underrated. Here’s why, even as many celebrate or hibernate in the days following the presidential election, readers should consider picking up a copy of the book for a not-so-distant reflection of politics in an earlier time. And here’s what separates "Hurrah" from the two better-known novels about politics.

In "King’s Men," an intelligent, mature narrator describes how a man he never fully trusted betrayed a political trust. In "Colors," a political naivete learns the big lessons of love, honor, betrayal and political expedience.

But in "Hurrah," there is no spirit guide or single voice to lead the reader. O’Connor serves as omniscient narrator, popping in and out of all the characters’ heads. There’s no tell-all character with which a reader can empathize. The reader has to pick his or her own favorites, as no one character is endowed exclusively with the narrative thought or voice.

The result is a book that makes one think and imagine, as the reader must constantly weigh gradations of evil while reassessing one’s own place in such equations. Philosophical considerations aside, O’Connor’s lack of a central narrator makes it necessary for all the characters to work harder to fill the void. In other words, there’s lots of character development and interesting side stories throughout "Hurrah."

Here’s how Skeffington picks them up and puts them down as he plans his next campaign:
"We can count him out, then, if all he’s got is Camaratatta," Skeffington said. "And while we’re at it, let’s count Camaratatta out, too. For good. I’m tired of him. He’s a double-crosser we’ve put up with for years just because he controlled that longshoreman vote. I’ve never liked him personally, but more important, I don’t think he’s as strong as he used to be…I say it’s high time we froze him out permanently…Any objections?"

People still do and say those things, but in few modern novels are such arguments advanced with the candid eloquence O'Connor brings to "Hurrah." There’s little breast-beating, little solicitude, guilt or consideration of morality in those words. Instead, Skeffington and all the characters go full tilt, without the restraining hand or paraphrasing voice of a singular narrating character.

Skeffington’s story is as old as that of any cave-dwelling strongman who used guile and strength to win predominance over his fellow rockers.

It’s not too hard to imagine Skeffington and his myrmidons as medieval condottiere clad in hose and doublets and hatching plans for urban ascendancy against the backdrop of an umber bell tower in Renaissance Italy. And echoes of Skeffington’s appreciation of naked political power are heard in quarters as mundane as a back room in the city motor pool, during an argument over who gets to drive the municipal mosquito control truck, ride shotgun, or sit in the middle.

But one reason why "Hurrah" is no longer heard or read is because it’s dated. That, unfortunately, is made clear early on in the book, during the same conversation cited above, as Skeffington and his cronies discuss and dissect yet another mayoral candidate, a young challenger who owns a string of hair salons.

"A barber for dames," Weinberg said. "He fixes their hair in a couple of beauty shops he owns...Strictly a nut kid, Good-looking, wavy hair, melty eyes, about twenty-nine or thirty. He goes over big with the old dames."

"Too bad it’s an election instead of a beauty contest," Skeffington said. "I’m afraid J.J. is in for a disillusioning experience."

In this age in which style trumps substance and function often follows form, those words mark Skeffington and the gang as badly-out-of-touch losers.

With that passage, the story is mired in time, and unfolds as a particularly eloquent story of hubris and high office in a time far removed from our own.

Hence, the book’s fading from public consciousness. "Hurrah" deserves a better fate.

James M. Abraham is a syndicated book columnist.
He can be reached at (copy and paste only. No direct link)

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