A God in Ruins

by Leon Uris

Published by HarperCollins

483 pages, 1999

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A Story in Ruins

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


About midway through Leon Uris' 12th novel, A God in Ruins, a husband considers when he's asked to critique his wife's writing.

Some of her earlier poetry had danced and leapt and was filled with cunning and grace and metaphors. Down through the years, as each new piece of non-poetry grew longer, it strayed. She was unable to organize her work, keep it under the central command of the writer. The dialogue came from pickled talking heads, not people of wit and observation.

This paragraph so neatly sums up this particular book, it's almost eerie. Uris, himself once a wordsmith of cunning and grace, seems to have spent his time working on A God in Ruins with his writing hand wrapped in gauze and his brain on a different planet altogether. The master storyteller that brought us such memorable works as Trinity, Exodus and Redemption seems utterly absent from this latest book. The writing is labored and stilted, the story rambles confusingly and the dialog is childish and -- sometimes -- even ridiculous. The result is a disappointment, at best. At worst, it's an embarrassment and leaves the reader wondering what this well-loved and wildly successful writer could have been thinking to produce this dreadful mess.

The plot itself is sound enough, if not up to what keen observers have come to expect from Leon Uris. The story meanders painfully between World War II and the early 21st century. Painfully because the reader is often dragged from one decade to the next without a clear explanation of how the transition happened.

In the post-war years, a child of uncertain parentage is adopted by a ranching Catholic family in Colorado. The child grows to be Quinn Patrick O'Connoll, a man of strong moral fiber. He does a distinguished tour with the Marines, and even sees some interesting and secret action in the Far East in the 1970s. These all too brief interludes with the Marines represent some of the strongest writing in the book and much too soon we're plodding through O'Connoll's life and loves and his ultimate bid for the American presidency.

Woven into the story is that of the anti-hero, Thornton Tomtree, the brilliant and successful geek-turned-politician who O'Connoll must unseat to become president. Almost on the eve of what looks like it will be O'Connoll's successful campaign, he discovers a secret about himself that even he didn't know. On the first page of the book, O'Connoll muses:

All things being equal, it appeared that I would be the second Roman Catholic president in the American history. Unknown to me until earlier this day, I would be the first Jewish president as well.

This first chapter is told in the first person and in the "present" day (the year is 2008), but most of the story is not told by O'Connoll. Even this is irritating. There have been writers who could handle great leaps of perspective and tense. In this year's Hollywood and Hardwood, Tricia Bauer did it as well as anyone I've ever seen. But that degree of virtuosity is strikingly absent in this work.

What appalls me most about A God in Ruins is the fact that it saw publication in this form at all. Where were the cadre of people that are involved in every book's publication? The editors, agents and publishers? Did no one actually read this book before it was published? It seems tragic to me that a writer of Uris' stature should have this blemish on his otherwise sterling record. A God in Ruins is a poorly executed half-thought that often reads more like a screenplay than a novel. It even seems possible that the pumped-up screenplay theory may be the best possibility: much of the plot exposition feels like set direction, and the dialog seems just as trite and just as predictable as the more successful Hollywood films.

Typically, Uris has been five to seven years between novels. Now 74, we can only hope he doesn't take as long to redeem himself from A God in Ruins. This would be a very sad book with which to end an otherwise wonderful career. | June 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.