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And now the century has ended — the millennium has ended — the lives of the members of the house, whose disparate journeys began together so many years ago at the beautiful University in the foothills of the San Francisco Peninsula, are, one by one, ending too.
As the call goes out for a last reunion, eleven of the original twenty-six members of the World War II Alpha Zeta house of 1939 are gone. An average of sixty years has passed since most of them left the lovely campus to enter a world rushing headlong into the abyss of global war. Some of the survivors, not all of whom have stayed in touch in recent years, are surprised that so many are left.
The call for reunion goes out, on a sudden sentimental impulse, from the Capitol Hill office of the Honorable Richard Emmett Wilson, senior Senator from the state of California (which he will be until he leaves office, voluntarily retiring at age eighty-two, when the 107th Congress convenes at noon on the upcoming January 5 of the year 2001).
His suggestion ("full of the old Willie hype," as that distinguished oncologist, Dr. Clyde Gaius Unruh, remarks to his ever-faithful, ever-plump Maggie in their spectacular home overlooking Honolulu) reaches all of his remaining fourteen fraternity brothers. Of these, only twelve are still capable of understanding and acknowledging it. The other three, while still physically present, have vanished into the living twilight of the dead-in-life that claims so many who once strode, vigorous, laughing, confident and secure in the possession of all their faculties, across the happy fields of memory in the golden haze of youth.
Willie is still the most famous member of the house, although Guy Unruh, his closest college friend and more recently co-winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine for his contributions to cancer research, is not so far behind. But it is Willie who, in the public eye and in the eyes of his fraternity brethren and classmates still living, is, as always, the most dominant, the most famous, the best known, the graduate who has brought most credit to his own name and most reflected honor on the University.
This does not surprise those who have traversed contemporaneously with him the savage chaos of the twentieth century.
"There goes Willie again," Duke Offenberg has often remarked to gentle Shahna when some new report of Willie's doings has reached them in their beautiful retirement home on "President's Knoll" overlooking the campus.
"He never stops," Shahna agrees in the affectionate tone in which they always mention Willie. His staunch defense of Duke through Duke's difficult years as president of the University has made them his for life.
The same cannot be said for another fraternity brother, that perennial, and perennially hostile, gadfly, Dr. Rene Suratt, self-appointed scourge of all those who are skeptical of that self-sanctifying "establishment" which Renny has always supported and which, in turn, has always supported him.
Renny is not one of those whose brain and personality have been dimmed by time. Far from it. Approaching eighty-one, he is as waspish, savage and unfair (as many see it) as he has always been. "Such a pity nothing has damaged his brain," Guy Unruh observed once when back on campus for a year's stint as visiting lecturer in the school of medicine. "What a shame he can still think."
Renny still thinks; and being, now as always, as sensitive to slights as he is adept at giving them, he knows perfectly well what his remaining fraternity brothers think of him. He despises them; and sensing with complete accuracy the depth of their dislike for him, he never fails to raise whatever hell he can for them. At almost eighty-one this is still quite substantial enough to make them pause before crossing him.
"Just be sure that if you have to pick up a skunk, you pick him up by the tip of his tail and hold him at arm's length," Willie once ironically advised Duke when Renny had launched one of his many savage attacks on Duke from his tenured sanctuary in the political science department. "Otherwise his hind legs will get purchase and then you're dead, man. You'll smell as bad as he does."
"I know," Duke agreed ruefully. "I try to ignore him. But," he sighed, "that's easier said than done."
For that reason — and just because of Renny's generally unlovely characteristics — his lifelong reputation as a campus seducer of young minds and young bodies, his harshly intolerant, ruthless, unforgiving personality — Willie has thought for quite a while before directing his secretary to send an invitation to the reunion to Dr. Suratt. But then, as he remarks to Tim, Renny is, after all, a brother. And old fraternity loyalties, even though faded by time and other difficult aspects of advancing age, still carry some sentimental weight.
"Oh, hell," Timmy says. "Put him on the list. You can't very well snub him altogether, that would be a little too much. And he can't do any more harm there than he's done to you and Duke and me and Rodge and who knows how many thousands of others over the years."
"I'm not so sure," Willie says, drawing another analogy from the family ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, where he and his younger brother, Billy, grew up. "Even an old rattler still has his venom."
"Renny has venom, all right," Tim agrees. "Too bad nobody's ever figured out a way to make him bite his own tail."
"Dear Willie," Renny writes in response to Willie's note. "Thanks for the invitation to the reunion. I hope it will be better than the last one. I hope to attend. Sincerely, Renny."
About as sincere, Willie thinks, as a dead fish. But, oh, well. Timmy of course is right. There is no way that they are going to keep the reunion quiet, and if Renny were snubbed and decided to retaliate, there would be another public row of the kind Renny has flourished on all his professional life. More of his savage and self-righteous rhetoric would spill forth to inspire stories in the campus Daily and the ever-sycophantic pro-Renny newspapers of San Francisco, always ready to publicize anything that might embarrass the University, Duke and/or Willie.
Randy Carrero's prompt response in the next mail takes away much of the bad taste of Renny's response. Randy, twenty years a cardinal, writes from the Vatican, where he has been stationed in the Holy See's diplomatic office for the past decade.
"Imagine my surprise," he writes, "to open my mail today and find — guess who? Old Willie! Of course I've known that you were still very active — who could follow the news and not know that? — but I'd forgotten what a sentimental soul you are, at heart. Washington hasn't changed that, I'm glad to see. You can put me down as a positive, I think. It's been a while since the Holy See stroked the egos in the State Department; I need to come over and have an intimate chat with the Secretary. I'll arrange to be there four or five days before you leave for the Coast. Maybe we can fly out together. More on this when we get nearer the time."
That, Willie thinks, is more like it; and is pleased that Randy, whom he has not seen since an international conference on crime held in Rome ten years ago, is definitely planning to attend.
Guy Unruh, writing from Hawaii, is equally enthusiastic if, characteristically, a trifle caustic.
"Dear Statesman," he writes, "if you aren't the damnedest. Just as we were preparing to attend your state funeral in Washington, you leap off your (political) deathbed and surprise us all with a sentimental gesture like a reunion. I'm dubious you'll get much of a response from the guys, most of whom are beginning to drop by the trail as they head for the old corral in the sky, but you can count us in. Maggie wants to see a couple of sorority sisters and do some shopping in the City, and I want to make book on who's left and how soon they'll kick off. If nobody else comes, we can always drink a cyanide cocktail with Renny.
"Seriously, it will be great to see you again. It's been too long. I hope you still have your hair."
Two days later their other representative in Rome reports in.
Hack Haggerty discloses that he is well and flourishing, "at work on another symphony. Still working, at almost eighty-two!
"As are you, Willie," he goes on. "The whole country is going to miss you when you retire. But in your business, it's probably time — if you can bring yourself to let go of politics. With me, I can keep scribbling music 'til I drop, but I know your job demands a lot more than mine does. You not only have to stay alert mentally, about which no one has any doubts, but there's all the physical wear and tear of campaigning and keeping in touch with the constituency. I just sit on my terrace on the Janiculum and look out over Rome and follow the inspiration when it comes. (Well, maybe it's not that simple, but I must say the view of Rome is a great help. I've lived here forty years and I love it more every day.) I'm aided by the kids, both of whom are married and live nearby; they keep a close eye on me now that Flavia's gone; and four grandchildren. A long way from the University, Willie! I'll try my damnedest to get there. It's time to say hello again — most likely for the last time. Hope to see you soon."
Hack has put his finger on it, Willie thinks — "most likely for the last time" — though he himself has not expressed it that candidly in his invitation. The "old hype" has been there, as Guy said. Willie wrote:
"It will give us the chance to get caught up on everybody and find out what we all have planned for those famous `golden years.'"
What he really meant was:
We're all going to drop dead tomorrow morning, so let's get the hell to it before it's too late.
But of course he didn't have to spell it out. They all knew it well enough, though few would be as forthright as Hack, who had always pretty much cut to the heart of things.
"Willie!" Diana Musavich writes from the comfortable old house she and Moose have occupied in the University's neighboring town for the past fifty years. "What a grand idea! Moose and I are agreed that it couldn't be more fun. He'd write you himself except that he's pretty busy over at school, acting as `adviser' to the football team. He can't sit on the sidelines; even at eighty-plus, he still has to be in the thick of it! So he asked me to do the honors and say it will be grand to see you again. We can't wait!"
The thought crosses Willie's mind that this is a bit odd. There hasn't been any news about Moose in the alumni magazine since his retirement as head coach fifteen years ago, except that he would be acting as special adviser from time to time, "just to keep my hand in."
Willie wonders if something is wrong and then concludes that he won't press it, he'll find out soon enough. He sincerely hopes not. Old Mooser deserves better than to have life sneak up and land a haymaker just when he should be enjoying to the full his semi-retirement with his beloved team.
North McAllister is the last surviving member of the class of '39 to check in, writing from Salt Lake City, where he is long since retired from a very successful medical practice.
"Dear Willie," he writes, "your idea of a `last reunion' strikes me as an excellent one. You catch me feeling a little sentimental anyway, and this puts the cap on it. I'm retired, surrounded by grandchildren. (Eileen's. Jason has never married, though he seems to be content.) The idea of one more trip back to campus is nice. I've tried to get there fairly often over the years, as Duke can attest, but lately my travels have been narrowing down a little, thanks to bad arthritis in both hips. It takes Willie, as always, to liven things up for us and get us off our duffs. I only wish B.J. were still with us, she would have enjoyed it so. Gone twenty years this October, but I still miss her as much every day as I did right then.
"It will be good to walk the Quad again, even though the rest of campus is almost unrecognizable, there are so many new buildings (as of course you know from being a trustee for so long). They've done a good job of keeping most of the new structures consistent and in proportion, I think. It's still beautiful. See you soon."
And below his signature, almost as an afterthought, though Willie didn't think so, "We'll have a good talk."
Yes, Willie thinks with a certain apprehension, that we will — if you really want to. North must have something on his mind, to volunteer the idea. Willie had thought all that must be over by now, but maybe it wasn't. He sighs and stares out his office window at the bare trees, whipped in the first heavy snowstorm of Washington winter. He wishes again, as he does so often, that his younger brother, Billy, were still around. He could perhaps reinforce Willie's determined belief that they had done the right thing in counseling North to marry Betty June Letterman so long, long ago.
Well, Billy wasn't. Not Janie. "The perfect marriage" of house legend had ended on a two-lane country road near the ranch thirty years ago when a drunken Mexican in a battered old truck had roared out of nowhere on a Saturday night and caught them head-on just as they were almost home from a party in nearby Porterville. All three had been killed instantly. Willie still misses Billy and Janie as sharply today as he had when the phone rang at almost midnight and he had to drive headlong down the ranch road to confirm things, and then return to the house to bring the news to his parents and to Billy's kids, Leslie and Tom. Both were now grown and married long since, but still able to be unnerved, as he often was, by sudden memories of that awful night.
In the same mail with North's letter, brightening things as he always seemed to be able to do whatever his own problems, comes a cheery screed from Tony Andrade, still sitting atop his beautiful hill in Napa Valley and now a much-liked and much-respected elder statesman of the wine industry.
"Hey, Willie!" he writes, and Willie can hear his lively, still youthful, still upbeat voice behind the hastily scrawled words on a Collina Bella Winery letterhead. "You old son of a gun! You do pop up in one's life at the damnedest times!" (How like Tony, Willie thinks with a wry fondness, to fly right into the face of it and deliberately rouse memories.) "And always with something helpful and interesting to contribute!" (Not "supportive"? Willie thinks, and smiles. Not even Tony would go that far. But of course he would.) "And very supportive, too," he goes on cheerfully. "I can't think of anything that would take us into the twilight more happily than a reunion of whoever's left. Who is, by the way? I haven't counted lately, or heard from anybody except Lor, so I don't know.
"Lor's not doing very well, as you may have heard, or may have found out with your call to the troops. He won't be there, but I'll let Angle tell you about that if she wants to. It's all very sad, but that's life, I guess. Life!" (He underlines it heavily.) "God damned life! A guy's your best buddy forever, and then suddenly he just isn't — there — anymore. Only he is, which makes it all the more difficult.
"Well, anyway, enough of that. Louise joins in sending love. We'll both be happy to join you. Maybe we can have a party up here one afternoon, like we did last time. Or if the weather's bad, we'll plan to stay on or near campus, along with you and whoever does come. I'm sure we'll find plenty to do to pass the time. And talk about, right?"
And you, too, want to talk, Willie thinks. What's this all about, anyway? I hope this isn't going to turn into a confessional, you in one ear and North in the other.
From the office of Davis Oil in Long Beach, California, he receives a day or two later a note from Angelina D'Alessandro Davis, Lor's wife of fifty-five years. Although prepared by Tony's letter, he finds hers touching and a heavy burden. God damned life is right, he thinks with some bitterness; not eased when two similar letters arrive, one from Hollywood and the other, most hurtful of the three, from South Carolina.
"Dear, dear Willie," Angie writes. "Thank you so much for thinking of us in connection with your idea for a `last reunion' of the house. I do so hope you get a good response, and that everybody who can possibly be there does come. This will not, alas, include Loren and me.
"As you may already have heard from Tony, Lor is with us but he isn't. He looks much the same, still handsome — beautiful, really, as he has always been — still gentle and good-hearted, as he has always been — but with nothing inside. He was diagnosed about three years ago with Alzheimer's, and since then it's been steadily downhill. Fortunately there's enough money so we can keep him at home with around-the-clock nurses, but be might as well be anywhere, for all he knows. I'm sure we're just unknown faces that come and go, and meaningless voices he can't recognize. It's really terrible, but what can you do? Just go on — keep him comfortable — pray, if that does any good — and just keep going. So that's what I do. How much longer, who knows?
"But, dear Willie, enough of that. I'll be thinking of you all. And you all think of us. I'll be with you in spirit. And so would be, if he could. Much love, Angie."
The day he receives her letter is another stormy day in Washington, D.C., but for a few minutes Willie does not see the trees bending in the wind or the sleet racing down. His eyes are filled with tears. Poor Lor! So handsome. So dumb. Such a nice guy. Belonging to Tony so faithfully for a half-century and more. And now — nothing. God damned life, indeed.
His mood rebounds, as moods do, particularly as one gets older and must accept with a sad philosophy the increasing acceleration with which old friends and family deteriorate and drop away. The next couple of letters dash him down again.
Mary Dell Barnett writes with equal courage and equal sadness. Bright and lively Jefferson Davis Barnett — "Jeff" — "Reb" — "Don't y'all go callin' me a damned Suthunnuh, you damned Yankees!" — with his ever-ready smile and an endless fund of good nature — Jeff is gone into the same twilight, though as Mary Dell writes, "Once in a while there's a gleam of — something. But it isn't really Jeff, and it doesn't stay long enough to do more than tear your heart out for what was, and might have been."
Jeff's diagnosis had also come approximately three years ago and, as with Lor, family funds are more than sufficient to keep him at home. But that, as Mary Dell observes, is small comfort compared with the overall picture.
"Very docile," she writes. "Very placid. Very gone. Not the Jeff we knew at all. At all.
"All three kids live nearby. Jeff Jr. is head of the business. Bryant is second in command, and Mary Helen is married to a nice boy — `boy'! more like fifty now, with four kids, who is one of the top lawyers in the Carolinas and handles all our affairs. A real Southern clan operation. The only difference is, Big Daddy doesn't live here anymore. Or he does, but he doesn't know it.
"But we manage. And life goes on. I'll be thinking of you all, as I'm sure, in some dim recess nobody can reach, he perhaps will be too. Fond love to everybody and particularly to you, dear Willie, who has held us all together so gracefully over so many tumultuous years. Thanks for all you did for Jeff in the house. You helped him come to terms with By Johnson, and with his heritage, and made a fine and worthy citizen of him. I will always love you for that. Mary Dell."
And that, too, makes Willie cry.
Twenty-four hours later comes a letter bearing a Santa Monica postmark he does not recognize. It turns out to be not a constituent seeking help but a name of vague but nagging familiarity — a "Patti D'Arcy," who signs herself "Niece of Dr. Galen Bryce." She recites Gale's story tersely without much detail. But enough.
"Dear Senator Wilson," she writes, "With reference to your kind invitation to my uncle, Dr. Galen Bryce, to attend a reunion of your joint fraternity at the University in September 2000, I regret to inform you that Dr. Bryce suffered a series of severe strokes some six months ago and recently had another. His condition is deteriorating drastically. His permanent residence is now the Shady Oaks rest home in Hollywood. You may transmit messages to him through me at Miramax Studios, if you so desire. Sincerely, Patti D'Arcy." And a secretary's initials and a wandering childlike signature.
Then the name clicks. A new young star, appearing near-naked during the last year in a dozen publications, a rising white hope — (Ooops! Willie corrects himself. Just "rising," please! Strike that "white"! No racism, now!) — all right, then, a rising young star, already featured in three major films of the 3-G genre (grunt, groan, grunge) so beloved of present-day Hollywood, so deplored by stodgy old types like Tim Bates. One of Tim's "scum" and doing very nicely at it, thank you — apparently concerned for her uncle, which is worthy and for which she deserves credit.
So Gale is out of it, after all those years of arch, superior "fucking about with other people's lives," as Tony put it disgustedly back in undergraduate days when Gale was loudly and obnoxious]y analyzing everyone in the house. How many personalities had he arranged, rearranged and deranged in all his famous years as "psychiatrist to the stars"! Enough to give him a very substantial reputation in the movie colony and a very substantial bachelor living — but never the lasting love of anyone except possibly Patti D'Arcy and other members of his family; and how disinterested are they? Willie tells himself this is a very ungenerous thought, but for the moment indulges it. Gale has always belonged to the "politically correct," insufferably smug Hollywood group that bas opposed Willie throughout his public career. So why bother?
Later he thinks better of it, decides such a vengeful dismissal isn't worthy of him, calls the studio and speaks briefly to Patti. She sounds surprisingly young and shy for one so casual with her body and so crude and half-literate in her published statements on all the aspects of life and politics that a rising Hollywood hope is expected — and of course is fully qualified — to comment upon. She will carry his greetings to Gale, she promises; thanks him quite sincerely; and concludes, with a sudden nervous, self-conscious little laugh, "Come see my pictures, now!" He promises to do so, and they part with mutual, and politely suppressed, skepticism.
Rodge Leighton is still active as a senior adviser to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. His letter, as always, sounds calm, steady, judicious and reliable; concerned, as always, with his lifelong interest and obsession, the fearsome force whose potential for world destruction he grasped instantly in 1945 when he was flown over the ruins of Hiroshima two days after the first bomb fell. Rodge has always been a fine world citizen, even though as he reaches the final stages of his life he finds himself less and less optimistic about humanity's collective ability to save itself from suicide in some last, awful, insane cataclysm. To his constant worries about nuclear destruction have recently been added the awful potentials of biological and chemical weapons.
"Dear Willie," he writes, "how did you know I was planning to be at our house in Santa Barbara with the kids in September? It won't be difficult to join you and the others for the reunion. How many of us are still around, anyway? I've lost track, except when once in a while you surface in the media for some stroke of genius in the Senate (which needs a few, nowadays) or old Renny grabs the headlines with some scathing attack on you or Timmy or Duke or me, or some other of his endless string of hates. I guess spite is what fuels his perpetual-motion machine. It doesn't run on love for his fellowman, that's for sure. He certainly shows no signs of slowing down, does he?
"Neither do I, thank heaven. I manage to stay reasonably busy, too, though now about to hit seventy-eight, as you perhaps remember. I'm still active over here, and on the lecture trail over there. There's always a place for a cautionary voice, even though caution, while needed more than ever, no longer seems to have the audience that it did before the Soviet Union collapsed. That damnable trait of the American people, to dismiss a threat the moment there's the slightest hint of the relaxing of it! There's no relaxing, in reality. All the tensions and the terrible possibilities of nuclear war are still there — plus, now, biological and chemical horrors. All that's changed is the American sense of urgency. Who in America wants urgency? In America, it's so much more comfortable to forget all about it, and relax.
"Well, enough soapbox. No doubt I'll get on it again when we're all together. One last debate between Renny and me about my contributions to world disaster because of my continuing suspicions of many of out more noble and `honest' world leaders. How can I be so suspicious and irresponsible? he'll ask. Easy! I'll reply.
"Take care, Willie. I'll see you in September."
And from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from the hushed executive offices and bumming plants of Taylorite Corporation, the one Willie thinks of as "our last functioning millionaire" also surfaces. He still sounds shy and reticent after all these years and all his great success in running the company his father left him. Marc Taylor is also pushing seventy-eight, and still sounds as tentative as he did when he tried to commit suicide in the house sixty years ago.
"Dear Willie," he writes, "imagine my surprise and delight when I got your very nice letter setting forth your ideas for a `last reunion' of the house. It's been so long since I heard from any of you (although I've of course followed your career, and have supported it wholeheartedly, as you know, on the national scene) that I was quite startled, and greatly pleased, to receive your communication.
"Of course you can count me in. I usually get to the Coast four or five times a year (less, now that Marc III is moving into full control of the company). We have plants in Southern California, Oregon and Washington State. I'll just time my next trip to California to coincide with the reunion. This will probably be my last trip, anyway — last trip, for the last reunion! I'm almost seventy-eight, as you may recall; and while my children think it's great for me to keep busy, I think maybe I can keep busy with a few hobbies, some books and some civic activities, and leave the business in Marc's capable hands, where it's been for all practical purposes for almost the last ten years. He'll be pleased, I know!
"I don't know how many of our remaining brothers will be glad to see me, but I'll be glad to see them. Fond fraternal greetings, as always."
Oh, Marc, Willie thinks. For God's sake, stop humbling yourself! Of course we'll be glad to see you. Why wouldn't we be glad to see you?
But then he stops the argument in his mind. Marc has had a lifelong inferiority complex and nothing is going to change it now. Willie makes mental note to be extra cordial, extra welcoming, extra fraternal — the burden the shy put upon the sensitive and sympathetic. Willie sighs, but it is more a sigh of exasperated affection than one of real annoyance. When they took Marc into the house so long ago they took on a lifelong obligation, though they did not recognize it then, to protect a fragile personality. They had obviously succeeded, for Marc had succeeded; but it had apparently not changed the obligation, or the personality.
The last response, completing the roster, arrived next day from Dr. Alan Frederick Offenberg — Duke — at the University. It was exactly what Willie had expected — pleased, and offering to help.
"Willie!" Duke writes. "What a great idea! We only hope you get enough favorable answers to make it feasible. If so, don't hesitate to call on us for anything we can do that will contribute to its success. I still have enough (friendly) contacts in the school administration so I can arrange a lot of things, including a private dining room in the Faculty Club that we can use for a formal dinner, if you like.
"(You remember, of course, that the dear old Alpha Zeta house fell to the inexorable ax of `progress' almost fifteen years ago — membership `way down — no real interest in keeping it going aside from a few sentimental old alums like you and me — a prize piece of property five minutes' walk to the Quad, that the University wanted to turn into a cash cow. Now a much sought-after eight-suite rental property for thirty-five or younger faculty, limited to one child, after which they have to move on and make room for the next generation. Sentimentally bad for us, hut a moneymaker for the University and a great convenience for young faculty, so I guess it's probably for the best.)
"Anyway, keep us involved in the planning. I checked with the alumni office the other day and find that we now have fifteen members remaining, not a bad record for century's end. The Delts have fifteen also, the Zetes ten, the Betas eleven. The Kappas are triumphantly outliving us all with seventeen — all, no doubt, gray-haired little old widow-ladies presently on a cruise ship somewhere in Antarctica. So we're holding our own pretty well.
"Some of us, like Rodge Leighton, are pretty remote unless he's planning to be in the country anyway. And maybe Renny won't get out of his perpetual snit long enough to join us, which would be a blessing. But we should have an almost complete turnout, I should think, travel being as easy as it is nowadays. If you like, I can line up some housing on campus. People are often in and out, there are various condos and apartments that can be rented. Let me know and I'll get on it.
"Meantime, take care of yourself and give 'em hell in your last days in the Senate. It's been a long run for you and you've done it, I think, magnificently. Of course Renny doesn't agree, but the hell with him! As ever, old friend — Duke."
At the bottom Shahna had scribbled a brief PS.:
"Don't be too hard on old Renny, you guys. This is supposed to be a happy occasion. He's getting ancient, too, remember."
Shahna, Willie thinks, only someone of your infinite patience and compassion could be so Christian (if you'll forgive the word) toward someone like Renny. He is not a nice individual, damn it.
But, he reflects, how important has he made himself to some of our lives, and how much does he sum up in himself a certain dominant segment of the World War II generation — an "attitude," a "mind-set," an "establishment" of violent likes and dislikes, of wild, blindered enthusiasms and automatic, harsh, vindictive hatreds, still fighting old, tired "liberal" battles in a time-warped world that never changes? How ruthlessly have he and his fellows of "the interlocking directorate" tried to destroy everyone and everything that disagrees with their rigidly intolerant ideology!
How much has Renny, in and of himself, given body to Tim's argument, some of whose most searing indictments Willie can still remember to this day? How much has Renny, now and always, epitomized "the scum"?
And how determinedly, and with what unyielding character and determination, has he, Willie, withstood the scum's incessant and unrelenting attacks during his long, contentious public life.
It has indeed been "a long run," as Duke says, and while Willie would not himself describe it as "magnificent," he reflects with some satisfaction now that he has not done so badly with his public trust.
Offstage he can hear the mocking laughter of Renny and his think-alikes. He is sure they would consider such a statement fatuous, self-serving arrogance.
But he has never been deterred by their hoots and caterwauls.
And is not now.
So begins Public Men, the final novel of "the University trilogy" in which Pulitzer Prize winner Allen Drury concludes some fifty years in the lives of the members of the World War II generation whose stories he began on the eve of the war in the novel Toward What Bright Glory?
The second novel, Into What Far Harbor?, carries them on through the challenges, triumphs, and tragedies of the war and on to the years when they must worry about their world and the world of their children against the backdrop of the later Vietnam War.
Now in Public Men, set in the year 2000, when most are either about to embark upon, or have already entered, their eighties, the fifteen who remain of the original twenty-six meet for a last reunion on the beautiful campus where they shared a fondly remembered fraternity house and the hopes and dreams of youth confronted by history's most chaotic and ominously foreboding century.
Public Men concerns them all, but overshadowing their lives as in the two previous novels is the life of Richard Emmett Wilson -- "Willie," now and for many years a United States Senator from his native California; his legislative triumphs on Capitol Hill; the tragic death of his first wife, Donna; his second and third marriages; his political disagreements with, but ultimate pride in, his older son Latt as Latt follows in his footsteps into the House of Representatives and then into the Senate; and, finally, Willie's campaign for president, threatened by other personaltragedies, most devastatingly those of his gentle, vulnerable younger son, Amos.
Through it all, Willie, often in alliance with Tim Bates, does battle against what he sees as the "phony liberalism" of his famous fraternity brother Dr. René ("Renny") Suratt; and Renny and his powerful friends of academe and the media in turn do battle with what they see as the "reactionary conservatism" of Willie and his friends. Tim, wielder of a savage commentator's pen, refers to "Renny and his crew" as "the scum" he attacks. Renny responds with equally scathing pen and matching contempt. As with many of the public men in Public Men, these three fraternity brothers sum up what they regard as the major political and social issues of end-of-the-millennium twentieth century.
Allen Drury skillfully meshes the public and private lives of his characters against the Washington world that has formed the rich backdrop of many of his twenty-five books.