James Park Sloan Writes Again

In the mid-60s, when the ideals of collective living and mass protest held many of us in thrall, James Park Sloan dropped out of Harvard to fight in Vietnam.

He survived, went back to Harvard, and then wrote two cold little novels about loners: War Games, more than a trace autobiographical; and The Case History of Comrade V, about a maverick mathematician behind the Iron Curtain institutionalized to be brought around.

“I lay awake after finishing it,” wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his New York Times review of Comrade V, “trying to figure out . . . what is sanity, what is madness; who are the doctors, who are the patients . . . and, by the way, what is James Park Sloan planning to write next?”

At the time, 1972, Sloan thought he knew. He was nearly done with his “Mensa book,” about intellectuals taking their preservation into their own hands. He sold it, even informed the friends it would be dedicated to, and then decided the book was no good. It was never published.

Sloan fell silent. Save for the odd book review; save for the science fiction column he writes in the Chicago Tribune with his son Eugene. And his lectures on English and journalism at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

So what happened? we wondered the other day. We were sitting in his narrow backyard in Evanston; he had just got done tilling his garden.

“I wrote the first two books — I know how this will come out in print — I think I wrote the first two books on pure brilliance,” he said. “They were brilliant but incompetent, in a lot of ways. I didn’t know how to make the material at all accessible. Thematically, I think, they were about the problems of the exceptional individual against the constraints of the society as a whole and the conventional point of view. They were also — my first two books — not very empathic with the reader. I didn’t care what the reader wanted to hear. The reader was going to hear what was on my mind.”

But Sloan’s been loosening up. And this month, he finally answers Lehmann-Haupt’s question. The Last Cold-War Cowboy began taking shape several years ago as a “straight, artsy” novel. Then The Year of Living Dangerously appeared, the film version of an obscure Australian book with essentially Sloan’s plot. Sloan chucked 350 pages. He turned the material into a “thriller” — a literary mode for which Sloan believes readers have an almost Jungian affinity. Actually the novel is less thrilling than fun. Professor Keith McCallum is a common man swept into the vortex. A whiz on Indonesia, he’s perilously close to untangling the truth about the coup of ’65, when Sukarno fell and the military took over, and up to a million people died in the extermination of Indonesia’s Communist party. But McCallum is another of Sloan’s exceptional individuals. He prevails at every harrowing turn and has a wonderful time!

We wondered if Sloan had buried the Mensa book idea for good.

“I was thinking the other day, thinking of, I guess, skills, some skills I’ve picked up here and there,” Sloan said, munching on tuna salad spread over rice cakes. “I still think if people like me got to be terrorists, we would make a lot more noise than the people that are currently terrorists. And there are good reasons the world never comes to that.

“But my God, a certain number of Old Boys who felt that things were out of hand in the world, trained, in the special warfare center and everything — I remember times when I was with Special Forces groups and we would do a number, we would do estimates of what size of a unit we could demolish, hit everyone, take them out. We’d game it — a battalion with guards posted and who you’d have to get first, you’d get the sentries on one side silently, you’d get the nerve center of it, and then you’d spray the people who were kind of the sheep. Basically. And it was real doable. Everybody just had to do his job, relentlessly and remorselessly. Bip bip bip, brooom, brooom, brooom.”

Did he really think so? We tend to doubt any plan that banks so entirely on competence.

“Absolutely. You bet. It’s doable up to a half-dozen or maybe ten people. It is not doable beyond that level. But terrorists can do it, and the thing that I think is interesting about terrorism at this point is that so much energy of so many people is expended with often great courage and with total commitment, to such paltry results. I mean to blow up a couple airplanes and that kind of thing — if I were Abu Nidal, I would have done things that would be remembered a lot longer than anything he’s done will be remembered.

“What you lack is commitment. I would never have total commitment because I always have other things happening in my life. People I care about. But if you can account in a book for the motivation to get a half-dozen people who have the physical and technical capabilities, and have balls, and are bright and competent and Western, rather than being benighted and being angry but incompetent people out of a nontechnological society, you can do terrorism events that would just stagger the imagination.”

We remained skeptical of keen Western minds. We thought of Oliver North.

“It’s just the ones you hear about that are incompetent,” Sloan said. “I think Indonesia, the Indonesia coup, was an American-orchestrated operation of incredible subtlety, such subtlety and skill that we still do not know the names of the people involved. Or the method by which it was executed. We tried a few stunts with Sukarno, and in the end we got his ass out of there.” He laughed. “In a way that never got unstuck.

‘You can write a book speculating about it,” said Sloan, who just did. “I think I speculate accurately.”

The Color of Murder

Here’s good news. On capital punishment, America “has reached what looks like a sensible splitting of differences,” writes George Will. America will go on executing people, but just when they really have it coming. “Today,” said Will, “capital punishment is essentially restricted to the function of expressing society’s horror of such crimes” — “such crimes” being “especially cruel, wanton, or cold-blooded killing.”

There might be one other earmark of “such crimes.” Will was writing to hail the five-to-four U.S. Supreme Court decision that it’s OK for Georgia to execute more killers of whites than killers of blacks.

The condemned man, Warren McCleskey, “did not argue that Georgia intended a racially discriminatory effect from its law,” Will noted. “He did not say he was innocent or his trial was improper.” Will apparently thinks the only good reasons for overturning a sentence of death are the same ones for overturning a verdict of guilty.

McCleskey’s appeal rested on a study showing that in Georgia, blacks like McCleskey who kill whites are more than four times as likely to be executed than whites who kill whites or whites who kill blacks or blacks who kill blacks. “Damnedest thing!” says Georgia. “We decline to assume that what is unexplained is invidious,” says the Court, with Will’s approval.

Why should there be anything invidious about Georgia jurors unselfconsciously putting into practice exactly what George Will applauds: a close correlation of capital punishment with public horror? If, in Georgia, less horror is felt when blacks are murdered than when whites are murdered — well, the world is a messy place.

But if Will’s basic principle of meting out justice is sound, it could use some fleshing out. We took a stab at the following penal code:

Black kills white. Utter outrage: hang from highest tree.

White kills white. Mixed outrage and dismay: consider execution.

White kills black. Sharp indignation: let him rot.

Black kills black. No small concern: 20 to 40.

Black kills Oriental: Pathetic tragedy: 20 to life.

Oriental kills white: Bewildered curiosity: 10 to 20.

Oriental kills Oriental: Bafflement: five years for manslaughter.

Black kills Puerto Rican: Strict disapproval: probation.

Puerto Rican kills black: see above.

Anyone kills American Indian: Annoyance: firm warning.

If you find this schedule at all helpful, Mr. Will, talk it up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.