Doctor Cobb's Game: A Novel

Doctor Cobb's Game: A Novel

by R. V. Cassill

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497685147
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 12/16/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 534
Sales rank: 1,197,959
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

R. V. Cassill (1919­–2002) was a prolific and award-winning author and a highly regarded writing teacher. Among his best-known works are the novels Clem Anderson and Doctor Cobb’s Game and the short stories “The Father” and “The Prize,” the latter of which won him an O. Henry Award. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Purdue University, and Brown University, Cassill taught many acclaimed authors, including Joy Williams and Raymond Carver. He founded the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) in 1967 and after his retirement became the editor of TheNorton Anthology of Short Fiction, a position he held for nearly a quarter century. 

Read an Excerpt

Doctor Cobb's Game

A Novel

By R. V. Cassill


Copyright © 1970 R. V. Cassill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-8514-7



Hearsay: That Michael Cobb, working through Norman Scholes and C. A. Kugel, established espionage links with intelligence agencies of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That, after ensnaring Richard Derwent in an affair with Cecile Banner, he extracted secret information from the minister of war and put it at the disposal of Kugel and Scholes.

Fact: Extensive investigation by MI-5 has established to my complete satisfaction that neither Mr. Scholes nor Mr. Kugel were ever engaged in intelligence operations for any government. Mr. Kugel's interests were no doubt "shady" in the financial aspect and of questionable morality, but they were aimed at personal gain.


Lord Melamine is right about one thing, at least. I was never a spy.

I was never, literally, a spy, though many bright people must have been convinced I was. Even my radical son at Princeton is convinced that I'm a tool of the CIA, if nothing worse. His need to believe is one reason we don't write to each other any more. I might clear myself in his eyes by making sure he gets a copy of Melamine's Report. But then, I suppose, my sharp-eyed son would note that His Lordship never does get around to saying just what I am in all his 315 carefully indexed pages, nor just how far I got my hand in on things like the Derwent affair. My son is damn clever about picking up points like that. Since he's clever, he'd appreciate how clever His Lordship was in choosing what to put in and what to leave out of the report. He'd shrug it off, telling himself that the British Establishment picked the right man when they chose Melamine for the nasty job of cleaning up after the Derwent mess. "It's no better than the Warren Report in this country," my son would say. "If you'd swallow one, you'd swallow the other. They're both full of holes." And you won't catch my bright son swallowing anything that's full of holes.

So, let it go. My father had a son. I mocked my father. I had a son. Let him mock me. If he needs to believe I'm in the game for under-the-table money from the CIA, then God bless him.

As for me, I don't mock anybody any more. And I don't mean to start this out by sly digs at Lord Melamine. He did his duty in writing the report. As far as I know it doesn't contain a single untruth. It was his duty to put together a White Paper that would restore world confidence in British justice and security measures. He brought a great legal mind to bear on his task. He investigated the murkiest storm of rumors, press reports, and public testimony that ever swept the British Isles. He came up with answers that put a lid on the embarrassing and demoralizing mess. And now Britain can "get on with the job."

The Report is written in pretty stodgy language. It seems ponderous. But, damn it, really it's as nimble as an elephant toe-dancing on a high wire. If you're going to respect it—as I do—then you've got to respect that nimbleness, too. That great apparatus of British dignity, the British Establishment, spinning on one toe high in the air over a pit full of crocodiles....

I'm not a spy. I'm one of the top researchers for the Gath Corporation. We don't advertise for business, but it's my impression that everyone who reads the news magazines must know that General Gath (the Guadalcanal hero, USMC, Retired) founded and directed a private research corporation—one like the Rand Corporation or Herman Kahn's operation. Like them, we've got most of our contracts from the U.S. government, but very few of our jobs have been for the Pentagon. None with the CIA. We prepare reports—not for public consumption like Lord Melamine's—but for use by government bureaus or senatorial committees. Our specialties have been economics and the demography of undeveloped countries. One of the reasons I was in and out of England so often when the Derwent affair was coming to a head is that we had moved over to studying the relation between fiscal base and the arms-procurement programs in Africa and South America. The web of finance and also the arms trade obviously still have plenty of lines running to London from all those places that used to be the Empire. As a profitable sideline to the subsidized reports we prepare, the corporation helped develop Syncrotex, which is a system for the spontaneous manipulation of a huge quantity of information in superficially unrelated categories. It involves computers. What doesn't these days? It also involves preparing mathematical coding for demographic factors ranging from linguistics to how often and where the natives shit.

If you've got a comfortable mental picture of how Syncrotex works—"like an electronic chess game" we tell some of our clients—leave it alone and be thankful. The chances are very big that both you and I would get uncomfortably confused if I tried to explain it further. The general developed it and I only work for him.

But if your picture of me as a "researcher" is of a man in a white laboratory coat, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and carrying a pocketful of neatly sharpened pencils, I'll correct that impression as I go along. My usefulness to the corporation never depended on being a keypuncher to a computer. I'm the nose man. I sniff along behind the natives—kings, presidents, businessmen, peasants, dictators—to see where they drop the stuff, and the white-coat technicians do the processing thereafter.

The corporation doesn't retail its product or advertise it with commercials on TV, but over the years when we were trying harder so we'd become number one, General Gath had to sell the whole concept of research to Washington strong boys with mentalities like that of Engine Charlie Wilson in the Eisenhower Cabinet. Gath was a great salesman, too.

His speech went like this: "Life on our planet exists within a constant and incessant network of signals. We might as well say that life and meaning—the meaning encoded in signals—are synonymous. No signal, no life. Bees dance out messages to each other about the exact location and amount of honey they have found. Vegetables signal by their color when their seeds are ripe and ready for distribution through the digestive tracts of birds. The scent of the female otter signals readiness. Men ... men also share that endless web of signals closely identified with life and the life force...."

After I'd listened to it a few times I said, "General, it's that bit about the female otter that really zaps the bureaucratic mind. They lie down for you when they hear that."

"Well, Nawman. Well, Nawman," he would say testily. "I'm trying to spell it out in language any cat and dog can read."

I mocked like that just because I respected so much what the general was trying to get over in his simplified spiel. He couldn't very well do his job by quoting Goethe to them. His reading of Goethe was just for himself, and whatever he got out of it the rest of us had to have secondhand.

He made the corporation into a great center for receiving and sending signals. He made it out of some odd fractions—me on the one extreme and the computer technicians on the other. I have my function in the whole operation and so do the electronic memory banks in the handsome new building among the pines on the slope below the mansion at Falcon Wing.

From where I sit now in a library room of the mansion I can see the glass, aluminum, and pink concrete corner of the new building. It's right here, but I doubt if I've been inside it more than half a dozen times since General Gath had it built in '65 so the whole mansion could be used by the Think Tank. (Does that journalistic label—"Think Tank"—start to form another mental picture for you, citizen? You've read about some of the technicians and scholars the general hired for his tank. So maybe you see us who belong in it as blobs of brain floating like dumplings among other brains in a vat stirred by General Gath himself? Please ...! I'll get around to clearing up that picture, too.)

Falcon Wing is in upstate New York. When I come back from England, Madagascar, Chile, or wherever the hell else, I land at the local airport and drive up the mountain in one of the corporation cars always ready for our use there at the airport. I park it in the gravel lot under that corner of the mansion where the general had his office and living quarters. It's the gravel crunching under my feet as I step from the car and the keen, thin, piney smell of mountain air that gives me the queer notion I'm home. (Queerer than hell for a man who never felt at home anywhere on the planet and has admitted that to himself since he was a freshman in college.)

I come back and even accidental tiny things hit my eye as unchanged. The custodian's children and their cowardly Airedale are up on a slope of the forest pretending I'm Kennedy and they're Oswald. I can see the dog and a couple of toy gun barrels welcoming me. Of course the kids don't recognize me, except as one of the corporation's "guests," though I've been based here since 1954 and have come and gone at irregular intervals for more than fifteen years.

Tim does, though. He's the half-witted Irishman who thinks he's the guard at the front door and acts as if he knew all your foul motives for wanting to get past him. All these years he's wanted to pull his gun on somebody, and grown sour from missing this privilege. Tim's another one the general took an unexplained fancy to and kept on in spite of nearly everyone's distaste. He's like me in that respect.

"Any Communists trying to penetrate?"

He gives me the sourest of smiles and says only, "Morning, Mr. Scholes." Just because no one else likes us doesn't mean that we like each other.

I pause a moment to grin at him and say, "I'm surprised you stayed on." He knows what I mean. General Gath has been dead several months. I mean that the new management's new broom should have swept out the trash by now and made the corporation into the model of efficiency it is supposed to be. Tim is not quick- witted enough to say, "Same to you Scholes."

He hitches his gun belt and says, "Loyalty's a strong thing, Mr. Scholes." He may be right in spite of himself.

In the main lobby I meet none other than Frank Niles. He's hurrying and the smoke from his pipe whisking back past his distinguished gray curls makes him look like a river steamboat rushing cotton up to St. Looey. Niles always hurries. The smartest, coldest economist to graduate from Harvard in two whole decades, always darting as if he was afraid his pay might be docked if he came to a Think Tank meeting twelve seconds late. Now the general's heirs have made him acting director. He better touch all the bases in jig time if he wants the appointment made permanent.

"Mrs. Klein told me you'd undoubtedly be here for lunch," says Frank. He waves the Manila folder in his hand, puffs up a head of smoke for the last dash upriver to the cotton warehouse, hoists his scholarly shoulders. "I have to be in Washington by five." All this to explain that I will miss his company in the big dining room. "Lantz and Bob Grenfell are here this week." He frowns an apology for offering me such company instead of his own.

"Don't give it a thought, Frank. I'm going to my room for a nap anyway. I'll see Lantz and Bob at Martini time."

Of course Mrs. Klein, the housekeeper (if not housemother) for the Falcon Wing crew, will have my room ready. Crisp cool sheets on the bed, the curtains drawn back for the magnificent view of the mountains, my mail on the bedside table, cut flowers in a big silver vase on the floor beside the floor-to-ceiling window. Mrs. Klein always gives us what General Gath wanted his top staff to have. He wanted us, always, to travel first-class. He wanted us to feel that Falcon Wing was home, that we should come there when we needed to, whether he needed us then or not.

He was a great joker. He knew there was no place like home any more. Only luxury inns on an endless journey.

And here I am in one of the small private rooms off the Falcon Wing library. I have the coded metal boxes from the library vault that for eighteen months have held the Michael Cobb papers, drawings, and tapes that I smuggled out of England and brought here because the general and I thought we must make something of them.

Make ...? Well, of course we were not going to make a story that would serve the old hash of newspaper scandal-mongering over to a sensation-hungry public. We weren't going to have fun sniping at Lord Melamine for the discreet omissions in his official report.

I guess we hoped to use the surviving remnants of the true record to help us see how power really works in the modern world. To see into the heart of what the professionals call history.

"Powah," General Gath said once, letting go with the Southern accent that only showed when he was really dead serious. "Nothing is worth a man's concern on this earth but to understand powah."

What he knew of Derwent and Michael Cobb came to him in odd fragments, as it had to me, too. So our talks were intermittent and irregular. Another time he said, "What the whole world has seen is a series of events that shook terribly one of the major powers of this earth. Only a fool supposes that they fell into place by accident. When a sensible man sees an effect like that, he assumes that it was caused by an equivalent force."

Weird and eerie—unthinkable—as it would appear for us to say it flatly, we guessed that the power sufficient to shake a mighty government and add its nudge to the power alignments of the globe had come from or through one strange man of genius, Michael Cobb.

"The ways we measure power may be insufficient," the general said. "And if some eccentric or fool or deviant or saint showed us how to think in new categories, we might read undecipherable messages the world is constantly beaming at us. Someone may be trying to get through to us...."

We knew nothing of Michael's Russian friends when General Gath said this. The general was always most fascinated by a search when he didn't know what he would find. Say this for him though: He was a sad, brave, frightened old man, and what he always listened hardest for was something that might change the heartbreaking world he had lived in so long. He had built Falcon Wing in the hope of learning what no one he had met could tell him.

In my hands is a drawing Michael made of Cecile Banner. He was an artist as well as a physician. He made, literally, thousands of drawings and an enormous number of paintings besides attending to a great many patients—many of them wealthy and therefore demanding not only of his time but of his personal concern and sympathy. Besides that, all the newspaper-reading world knew that his night life, social life, sex life had been lived on an epic scale. Playboy and cocksman. When I first began to catch up with him in London, all these activities had seemed to me at least a sign of an outsized restlessness. Totally untypical of modern Englishmen as I knew them.

In the drawing Cecile is leaning on the back of a chair. The drawing is sepia crayon on a pale blue paper. The long diagonal of her naked torso and right leg is supported by her rigid right arm continuing the line of the chairback. Her conical breasts look fragile as birds' eggs. Her pubic hair looks like a robber's mask comically and frighteningly misplaced between her gorgeous young legs. Her eyes are white flashes. She looks as if she is getting ready to utter a witch's incantation—but of course the real Cecile never spoke out with anything but cute Mod banalities. Someone—it would have been Cecile of course—had written in crayon across the bottom of the drawing DANGEROUS CURV**. This had been half rubbed out and overwritten—by Michael of course. DANGEROUS CUNT.

Did he know from the beginning how dangerous?

Outside the library window the custodian's children have come down from the shadows of the forest slope and are playing on the grass in the sun. The little girl has blonde hair bleached from her summer's play. It is as pale as Tammy Chandler's—Cecile's whorish friend and C. A. Kugel's girl. I hear her giggling as she mimics something she heard on a TV commercial. "That ain' frahd chicken. That's Shake 'n' Bake. Mama made it and I hehpped." The American Child.


Excerpted from Doctor Cobb's Game by R. V. Cassill. Copyright © 1970 R. V. Cassill. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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