There are two family movies that worked for me way better than I expected going in, but then in the final moments ruined what went before, or at least snapped the mood that had been created: Secondhand Lions and the first Night at the Museum. Going into them, they did not at all seem like they would be in my wheelhouse, and yet by the endings I had been won over. But then that came crashing down. In Secondhand Lions, all the characters from the tall tales the old men had been telling the protagonist showed up. I always thought it would have worked better, and been a nearly perfect family movie if they had left the veracity of those tales ambiguous. Night at the Museum came to a perfect, sweet, non-treacly ending. Then there’s a giant dance party in the museum that completely ruins the mood. In both cases the mood that was the natural stopping point was snapped and the viewer, or at least this viewer, left with a bad taste in the mouth. I had a similar, but less extreme reaction when reading Graham Greene’s final novel, The Captain and the Enemy.
Greene has long been a favorite. I discovered him almost two decades ago when I was delving into Catholic novelists. I loved how sordid and seamy his worlds were and how his characters end up in situations that they are sure will damn them (in the literal sense) and yet there is no other moral choice to be made, so they move on. I was nervous going into this, knowing it was very late in his career and I wondered if I would enjoy it. But it is a perfectly structured thing that begins with a shocker, turns into a coming of age story that is gradually revealed to be a love story and veers into espionage in the third act. All of this flows naturally and happens in a perfectly believable manner and comes to a perfect conclusion. Then there is a postscript chapter that plays like a joke from Greene’s excellent Our Man in Havana but feels very out of place here. I suspect the postscript is mainly intended to show the fate of the narrator of the main body of the text, but it undid the tonal work the rest of the novel built and I walked away with a different set of emotions than I would have if it had ended just a few pages earlier.
Other than that ending, though, the book is fantastic. Great prose, great structure, intriguing story and characters. It has that same sense of frustrated moralism that is characteristic of the best of Greene’s work. The narrator gradually reveals his failings, almost without seeming to realize it. Brilliantly done. Similarly, the book comes out strongly against 1980s US foreign policy towards South America, without being explicitly polemic; it’s subtly done. Subtext is everything in this book, and the narrator is out of his depth. The natural ending point is somewhat cruel, if not as explicitly so as his bleak crime masterwork, Brighton Rock. While I was put off by the postscript, I enjoyed the rest of the book enough to recommend it enthusiastically.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 65/75
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