Thursday, February 24, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- "Shibumi" by Trevanian

When I was a college sophomore, I had a conversation with my faculty adviser about popular fiction. She said something like, "Oh, yeah, I have a friend who writes spy novels. He uses the pen name 'Trevanian.'"

Rather than saying, "Holy crap! Tell me more!", I kind of blew her off. Nobody knew the identity of Trevanian, the author of "The Eiger Sanction," "The Loo Sanction" and "The Main." Surely my adviser didn't know what she was talking about.

Well, it's a good bet she did, and because I was a callow dope, I missed any opportunity to be introduced to one of the most secretive best-selling novelists of the past 40 years.

Trevanian was the pseudonym chosen by University of Texas, Austin film professor Rodney Whitaker when he published his first novel, the spy spoof "The Eiger Sanction." Most readers failed to see the satirical nature of the exploits of Jonathan Hemlock, art professor and master assassin (despite villains with names like Yurassis Dragon), so Trevanian upped the ante and made its sequel, "The Loo (think British toilet) Sanction," even more ridiculous. "Loo" proved even more popular with the reading public, and when Trevanian returned to espionage fiction with "Shibumi," he kept but muted the satirical edge and added historical detail and philosophical content that elevated the novel well above the aspirations of its predecessors.

"Shibumi" is an oddly structured thriller. Its protagonist, retired assassin Nicholai Hel, doesn't appear in the first 50 or so pages, and doesn't become an active part of the present-day action for almost another 200. The early chapters are concerned with either exposition provided by the antagonists or flashbacks to Hel's early life in Shanghai and in Japan before and during World War II. Then, there's a long sequence involving Hel mucking around in underground caverns in the Basque mountains. Eventually, as in Go, the classical Japanese board game that Hel has mastered, all the pieces are set in place and the plot moves to its inevitable conclusion.

This narrative strategy really shouldn't work, but it does. Somehow, Trevanian manages to build suspense in unexpected ways, orchestrating set pieces filled with remarkable characters, dazzling action and elegant wit. There's no other spy novel like it.

Rodney Whitaker died in 2005, having published three other novels -- a historical psychological thriller, a revisionist Western and an autobiographical novel about growing up in Albany, NY -- under the Trevanian monicker. In a few weeks, Don Winslow, author of "Savages" and "California Fire and Life," will publish a "prequel" to "Shibumi," and I'll post a review of it. In the meantime, track down the original.


kelly said...

This is weird -- somebody just told me to read this book yesterday. And while we're talking about books that start with "Sh" -- have you ever read Shantaram?
Something tells me you would love it.


jj. said...

One of my all-time favorites … do you hold out much hope for Winslow's Satori?

Michael Berry said...

I've read "Satori," and it's good. It isn't Trevanian, but it turns Hel into a credible franchise character. I'll post a review next week.

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