By Henry G. Miller, Cogent Publishing, 320 pages, $25
The statue of Atlas adorns the cover of Henry Miller’s novel “More.” It is a fitting symbol for Miller’s drama. Indeed, one can envision the sinews of Atlas’ powerful thighs straining to compete with the testosterone-charged characters of Miller’s work.
This novel is a first for Miller, a widely-admired trial lawyer whose talents have allowed him to undergo a metamorphosis from advocate to playwright, then to thespian (having performed ubiquitously in a number of his own plays, including a monologue as Clarence Darrow), and now to novelist.
His protagonist is the young Michael Harvey, a recent Ivy League law graduate who begins work for the greatest entrepreneur of our time, T. Lawrence Bombly, whose factories produce virtually every product we encounter in our daily lives. His publicly traded company is, of course, highly regulated by the SEC and the EPA, among other government agencies, and therein lie the seeds of trouble. Add to that the monumental ego of CEO Bombly, who has risen from poverty to enormous wealth, and a great story is born.
The world Michael enters is full of hazards. There is Bombly’s right-hand man Luke Steele, for whom the appellation amoral would be generous, and who is determined not to let Michael dethrone him as Bombly’s heir apparent. On their team are white-shoe lawyer Edward Whitney, a trusted Bombly adviser whose lightly served up second opinions are generally disregarded; and a compliant U.S. Senator Anthony Onorato, who never met a contributor or harlot he didn’t like. Also on the team are Michael’s mother, Mary, who would do anything to advance her son’s career; and two young women, Emmy and Gladys, the former the daughter of a union leader who does business with Bombly Enterprises, and the latter the daughter of attorney Whitney. Michael’s struggle with his idealism and strong moral compass on the one hand, and his avarice and ambition on the other, is reflected in the differing characters of these women and Michael’s ambivalence about each of them.
Arrayed against the Bombly forces are EPA gumshoe Bobby Stone and career prosecutor Irving Cohen. The tension develops as Bombly and Company’s megalomania inevitably challenges and energizes the forces of law enforcement.
And there are twists and turns. A plot to entrap a government regulator backfires and leads to an indictment for bribery. Woven in is a richly real portrayal of crafty lawyering and jockeying over a plea bargain that only an experienced trial lawyer could create. The yarn is richly embellished with a trial that has both intrigue and authenticity.
Miller’s characters are boldly, not subtly, drawn, and resonate of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (remember the Masters of the Universe?) and Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”). Each is something of a caricature or stereotype of his dominant trait: greed, excess or uncompromising morality. However, Miller treats his protagonist, Michael, differently; among his craggy imperfections are signs of nagging self-doubt and residual humility. The reader hopes that at the end of some 320 pages of this novel, these characteristics will win out.
There are times when the stereotypes of Miller’s characters force the reader to suspend belief. However, as if sensing that, Miller’s clever tongue-in-cheek humour shines through as he imbues the characters with outlandish and oversized traits. On several occasions, I found myself chuckling and even laughing out loud as my mind’s eye pictured the outrageous conduct of Bombly, Luke Steele or the small-minded Senator Onorato.
Miller is also skilled at varying the pace of the drama, so you will never find your eyes drooping if you read late at night, as I do. He also has a gift for words, and the action is often preceded by little vignettes that capture the spirit of the characters. Here is one:
“Luke loved February. Most American heros were born in February, Washington, Lincoln, and, of course, Luke Steele. ‘Happy Birthday, To My Dear Luke’ read the card in Bombly’s scrawl. A jade chessboard. An oriental queen costumed as an empress in flowing green robes glided easily on her felt base across the board. The king towered over all the other pieces but particularly the pawns portrayed as lowly eunuchs on their knees. The bishops sanctimoniously held their peace. Muscles rippled on the horses. Great military castles anchored the four corners of this uncertain world. An apt portrait of the human struggle, thought Luke.”
Miller’s brew is lightly sprinkled with sex to fill out the human qualities of his characters. But we are never led to think that this drive dominates the lives of the players, who are far more concerned with power, wealth or justice. There are also some interesting secrets revealed along the way (not to be disclosed here) that add to the intrigue and color the relationships among the book’s characters.
The novel’s climax is quite unexpected and a bit improbable, and the denouement is a little long. But we have to credit Miller with prescience for conceiving his work before Enron, Tyco, Madoff or the recent stock market collapse (elements of each of these dramas may be clearly discerned). “More” is not only aptly titled, but it is a pleasure to read, a truly first class novel. You don’t need to secure a second opinion before deciding whether to read it.
Mark C. Zauderer is a partner with Flemming Zulack Williamson Zauderer.