Friday, November 20, 2020

The Book You Have to Read:
“Crisscross,” by Harmon Henkin

(Editor’s note: This is the 168th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
There’s something unexpected happening here, in Harmon Henkin’s very accessible Crisscross (Putnam, 1976), and it’s that this political thriller is really a socialist primer. But don’t let that put you off—Henkin integrates his message into the novel’s plot with humor and expertise, and with help from a provocative leading man. Spencer William Duval is a washed-up 1960s revolutionary with no prospects. A bombing—“armed propaganda,” he calls it—was botched and landed him and his Red November Gang cohorts in federal prison a few years back. It’s now the mid-’70s, the complacent “Me Decade,” and Duval has finally been sprung but is lying low in Washington, D.C.

Shunned by his fellow partisans (who are all in hiding or have melted into the background), Duval spends his time smoking dope, chasing women, and writing for a third-rate left-wing weekly newspaper. Opinionated and outspoken (perhaps like his creator?), Duval remains a believer in the struggle, but at the moment he’s in sore need of basic purpose. He finds that raison d'être when Simmons, a cop who’s been assigned to surveil him, is murdered in the course of said task.

Duval had no beef with Simmons; a while ago, the pair reached a wary détente. In fact, at the time Simmons was killed, Duval was out buying pizza for the both of them. It was a snowy D.C. night, and Simmons was waiting in his undercover car. No stranger to the qualities of violence, Duval can see that the cop’s slaying there was the work of a professional, the murder weapon being Duval’s own pistol, found on the seat next to Simmons. Duval learns soon afterward that Simmons was actually connected to the CIA, and that he’d been planning to publish an exposé on the Agency, the mafia, various Washington power players, and oh, by the way, drug running. If Duval is to identify the killers and thereby save himself, we’re told, he needs help from the very people his past bomb-setting ineptitude helped put behind bars.

But things are complicated.

Aren’t they always.

In order for Duval to go underground, as he wishes to do, he must first make peace with those “fellow travelers” who felt he betrayed them. Adopting the code name Leon Bronstein—Leon Trotsky’s old nom de guerre—Duval begins his flight and his investigation. On the bright side, he doesn’t have to do much digging; the bad guys have no trouble finding Duval first.

Harmon Henkin (1940-1980) was an accomplished American outdoors writer who called hunting and fishing “a form of fighting oppression,” and the political commentary in Crisscross can’t be ignored. Duval sets off on a cross-country trip, which allows him to cast judgment upon every cultural component he encounters. Among other pithy observations, he calls middle-class neighborhoods “spiritless in the same American processed imitation way,” but gives props to the 1970s detective series Columbo, calling Peter Falk’s protagonist the “most class-conscious cop on TV.”

Despite his past acts of violent progressivism, Duval has a warmer side: he’s an unapologetic romantic and a movie fan. On a train heading to Montana, where he’s to meet another former militant, now a college professor, Duval makes the acquaintance of a woman named Liz (think Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest). Duval may be a bomb-thrower, but he’s a smooth-talking satyr, as well, and Liz is the first of his many conquests in this story. Unfortunately, she’s a careless choice on his part, for Liz turns out to be a CIA tail. And while that fact doesn’t impede Duval’s quest for satisfaction or his trust in people, it does rather endanger his life.

A subsequent leg of Duval’s journey, down the Pacific Coast to Berkley, California, introduces him to a wide spectrum of humanity, including those at the very bottom of the social strata—the “marginal people in the land of plenty.” His initial contact during this odyssey is an activist whose war against “the system” involves everything from scamming Ma Bell to outright thievery. Later he rides the rails with an elderly Wobbly, a member of the International Workers of the World, who survived the violent labor struggles of the early 1900s. They’re joined by a hippie couple, drifters searching for an enlightenment they can’t quite define, who refuse to participate in the capitalist system at any level. Elsewhere, Duval shows his sarcastic side when he makes cruel sport of a simple, hardworking cowboy who lives hand-to-mouth, a man Duval tries to educate in the basics of America’s welfare system.

The road finally delivers him to Berkley, his old college stomping ground, and from there on to the affluent community of Mill Valley, north of San Francisco, where even the most stalwart-appearing people hold secret dreams of vast social change.

For a man on his way underground, Duval never finds himself alone. Someone either has his back or is sneaking up from behind him. But when he finally engages in a public showdown with his pursuers, it’s a face-forward, no-holds-barred confrontation—and justice is served.

Crisscross boasts a no-nonsense tone, and its cultural criticisms are pleasantly seasoned with wry humor. The book’s pace moves quickly, and its action is never sacrificed to make way for glaring factional reproofs. Henkin, like any good teacher, doesn’t preach; he places his points in a context and environment with which readers can relate. Coincidences help move his storytelling along, helping to avoid complications or the need for excessive clarification. The various mid-plot deuses ex machina, however, might give Aeschylus pause.

Harmon Henkin died young, and biographical information on him is scant. He seems to be something of an enigma—not as intriguing as, say, B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but a minor head-scratcher, nonetheless. He penned a couple of books about the art and sport of fly-fishing (1976’s Fly Tackle: A Guide to the Tools of the Trade being perhaps the best-known), but Crisscross showed him heading in a different direction. It can be interpreted as experimenting with what literature might resemble were it created in a radical-left-leaning, perhaps even socialist environment, one where opposing viewpoints are not suffered gladly. What sorts of stories would be generated under such restrictive conditions? Clues might be found in Trotsky’s classic Literature and Revolution (1924), if one can make it through that old Bolshevik’s boilerplate prose. Or in George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, both of which are still taught in high-school language arts classes across the country (though it will be interesting to see how those works fare in curricula of the future).

Fortunately, Henkin’s Crisscross isn’t overburdened with doctrinaire messaging. It’s an entertainment, first and foremost, written to be widely read and digested quickly, and then perhaps handed off to another reader. This is not a condemnation; the author knew exactly what he was doing when he created this book—he was making his case to those with real power, the man and woman on the street.


Ron Morris said...

So glad to see this review. Read this book when it first came out from my local library. Purchased it about 8 years ago. Loved it then, love it now. Always pleased to see a review of a hidden gem like this.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Absolutely. A gem. The political correctness Cancel Culture would prevent this novel from being published today as it has dated some in that regard--probably too much so to be published under his own name, at least.

Unknown said...

Found a copy on ebay. If you were radicalized in the seventies like me, it's a terrific evening's read.