Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review: The Boys From Brazil, by Ira Levin


I first hear of Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil on Adult Swim's hyper-clever comedy Frisky Dingo (it's like Sealab, but more so). One of the characters, Stan, is surrounded by a cadre of his own clones. His petulant boss, Xander Cruise, retorts to some comment of Stan's, "Yeah, you and the Boys From Brazil!"

You had to be there.

And I'm glad I was, because I probably wouldn't have read Levin's Boys without the curiosity Xander's reference piqued in me. Who were these Boys, and what were they doing in Brazil?

Levin's one of the big names from the past generation of writers whose novels straddled the space between Serious Literature and Fluffy Entertainment. By Serious Literature I mean writers like Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom) or  Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). And by Fluffy Entertainment I mean anything from the high-velocity cardboard-cutouts of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code to Thomas Harris' serious and competent, yet basically escapist, Black Sunday. Levin does both: his books are "page turners" that trick the reader into dealing with Big Ideas.

Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, also by Levin, use dark-fantasy elements to discuss women's lib., abortion, and patriarchy. In the former (again, SPOILER ALERT) an individual husband makes a deal with Satan to allow his wife to be raped, while the latter portrays a suburban men's club which secretly replaces members' wives with obedient cyborgs. Both were made into films: Rosemary's Baby is one of Roman Polanski's early masterpieces, while Stepford is both a mixed-review 1975 film and an obscene 2004 remake. Boys was also made into a crappy 80s thriller, with Steve Guttenberg of Police Academy in one of his early roles.

Boys is a bit more "realistic" than Rosemary or Stepford, in that it eschews horror/fantasy elements and instead takes the form of an international spy-thriller/noire with a dash of sci-fi. The setup goes like this: Liebermann is an aging Nazi hunter who one night receives a phone call from a college student who claims to have taped a meeting of famed Nazi fugitives who've hatched a plot to resurrect the Third Reich. When the line goes dead, Liebermann must find the Nazis and halt their plot.

The twisting, tight storyline is about as much fun as you could ask for, and while Levin's prose is nothing to write home about, it gets the job done:

Mengele shrugged. "So obviously he doesn't know," he said. "I'm sure no one came up with the right answer."

"Rudel is sure too," the colonel said, "but he'd like to know how Liebermann came up with the right question. It doesn't seem to surprise you very much."

Plus Levin drapes the whole work in moral-overtones. Liebermann is introduced in this way:

...the Nazi hunter made everyone feel guilty, always. Someone had said of him--was it Stevie Dickens?--"He carries the whole damned concentration-camp scene pinned to his coattails. All those Jews wail at you from the grave every time Liebermann steps in the room." It was sad but true.

How can one live after the Holocaust, in the wake of distilled evil? Could modern people allow another Third Reich? (I mean, why not? Normal people already did it once, right?) To stop another Hitler, can we kill--kill innocents, kill children?

It's big, tough questions like these that Levin tricks the audience into thinking about. And to his credit, he doesn't create any easy answers. While the cast is clearly divided into Good Guys and Baddies, Liebermann spends most of the novel not quite sure if what he's doing is good, or productive, or necessary. There's no bomb on a train, or orcs at the gate, to guide the protagonist's decisions. Watching Liebermann, we get a taste of a man struggling to be good in a world without directions. Yet Levin, for all his skepticism toward the decency of human beings, ultimately reveals himself to be an optimist. For example:

Almost all of the young Germans who offered to help Liebermann were children of former Nazis. It was one of the few things that made him think God might be real and at work, if only slowly.

Verdict: The Boys From Brazil is a pop-classic for a reason. While its aging-Nazis premise is outdated, Levin's storytelling isn't. It's both clever and smart, and a hell of a lot of fun to read. I'd similarly recommend William Goldman's Marathon Man (the books are nearly interchangeable). Read 'em. Read 'em now.

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