It’s hard not to find William Goldman just a little bit annoying.
I mean, he cranks out a screenplay like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and the movie becomes a classic. He decides to update the all-too-familiar fairy tale, writing a whimsical 1973 novel called The Princess Bride, which he then ends up turning into another classic film. A few years later, he writes not one but two terrific books about the screenwriting business.
Scattered between these achievements, he knocks off a few other novels and screenplays. (And, in a move for which Ross Macdonald fans are eternally grateful, he boosts that California author’s career with a New York Times review of The Goodbye Look (1969), calling the Lew Archer novels “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” Before that, Goldman had done a very nice job turning Macdonald’s The Moving Target  into the 1966 Paul Newman flick, Harper.)
But what’s particularly annoying--at least to those of us who must struggle to turn out a thriller annually--is that when Goldman decided to take his shot at the genre, he penned one of the best thrillers published during the last 40 years.
Because that’s what Marathon Man is.
Goldman might as well have woken up one morning, decided to take piano lessons, and outplayed Oscar Peterson by the end of the day.
Marathon Man, first published in hardcover in 1974, remains one of my favorite novels. (One of my favorite movies, too. Goldman adapted his book for the screen version, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier.)
I still have the copy of Marathon Man I picked up in 1975 from the twirling paperback rack in the IGA grocery store in Bobcaygeon, Ontario. (The same rack where I bought my first Macdonald novel on the basis of that Goldman blurb adorning the cover.) The bright red letters of the title are bold and uneven. There’s a picture of a man, in a business suit, windblown tie trailing over his shoulder, running. And a blurb from The Washington Post: “The best American thriller this year. Also one of the best novels of the year.”
I was 19. I read a lot of mysteries. Started with The Hardy Boys, moved on to Agatha Christie, then Rex Stout, and had recently discovered Macdonald.
But I had never read anything like Marathon Man.
The story opens with a bizarre car accident in New York. Then we’re on to Babe Levy, a Columbia student who’s also a marathoner. But wait, now we’re on the other side of the globe, with Scylla (what kind of name is that? Scylla the Rock?), who’s some kind of assassin or spy working for an outfit called The Division. Whoa, hang on. Now we’re back with Babe, who’s got a crush on a foreign student named Elsa. Then we’re back with Scylla, who’s met a former adversary, another assassin, in the airport, and they’ve put aside their differences long enough to chat, but when the other assassin is gone too long on a bathroom visit, Scylla suspects something funny is going on, so he ...
What in the hell is going on? It’s literary whiplash. What do these stories have to do with each other? Where’s the connection?
Waiting for the payoff, waiting to see when these strands--these stories within stories--start stitching together is only part of the fun of Marathon Man. Mostly, what’s so enjoyable about this novel is the depth Goldman brings to the characters, the asides, the back stories. And most of all, the writing.
Goldman was perhaps the first writer to demonstrate--at least to me--how to do more with less. (Spoilers ahead, for those two or three people who have been orbiting Neptune since 1974.) For example, when Scylla--whom we now know is also Doc Levy, Babe’s older brother--returns to Babe’s apartment, attempting to keep his insides from spilling out after an encounter with the nasty Nazi, Szell, Goldman writes:
It must have been fifty seconds before Doc died.I love those words as much now as a did when I read them in 1975.
No discussion of Marathon Man, no matter how short, would be complete without bringing up the subject of dentistry, and there aren’t many thrillers you can say that about. This book, and certainly the movie adaptation, did for going to the dentist what Jaws did for going to the beach. Goldman tapped into one of our greatest fears--of sitting, helpless, in a dentist’s chair--when he wrote the now-iconic torture scenes in which Szell attempts to extract from Babe the answer to the question, “Is it safe?”
We’re with Babe in that chair. We feel the drill penetrating pulp. We want to answer Szell’s question, make it stop, but like Babe, we’ve no idea what the question means. Is it safe for what? For whom? Babe can’t answer, and the drilling goes on. These scenes are as difficult to read as they are to watch.
Marathon Man isn’t, to be honest, William Goldman’s only thriller. There’s Magic (1976), and Heat (1985), and a sequel to Marathon Man called Brothers which also came out in the mid-’80s, and which I know I have somewhere, but can’t honestly remember a thing about (except that I liked it, and that it was the last novel Goldman wrote).
But it’s still a tad annoying that a guy who’s not known strictly as a thriller writer produced one of the best examples of the genre. He turned the form upside down, raised the bar. A quick check of Amazon shows this book was reissued seven years ago. Find it.
How long can a novel like this hold up?