The Watcher, by Kay Nolte Smith, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980, 327 pp., $10.95.
For 20 years following the reading of Ayn Rand's novels, I have witnessed efforts by admirers of Rand to write some kind of fiction that will touch some of the spots in the reader that Rand's works have touched so effectively. Nothing but cheap imitation. By now I have grown callous, and if I learn of some author's admiration for Rand, I avoid any resulting fiction on principle. Why put myself through yet another strained effort? Why witness the waste of someone's time, some valuable paper, and my own energy?
Now and then, however, I find that admirers of Rand do work that merits praise and study. In philosophy there are now quite a few such individuals. In other academic fields this is beginning to be true as well. But in the arts I really haven't found any of the admirers to come up with something that hit home until I read this book.
Smith has written a gripping mystery that contains what one wants from a good mystery novel—suspense, plot, characterization, action, dialogue, and climax. And the framework of ideas that forms the intellectual, spiritual, psychological, and political climate of the work is a refreshing relief from what one usually gets these days in any novels with serious overtones.
Let me not tell you very much about the story except that it revolves around the death of a noted intellectual/scientist whose ideas are just a bit more extreme than, say, those of the philosopher John Rawls, and whose character is probably more despicable, by being more vulgar, than that of The Fountainhead's Ellsworth Toohey. From very early on the novel gains the reader's full attention, although in my own case it took a bit of time to overcome the distrust I had developed about anyone I knew to admire Rand. Since this issue is important to me, and since I am very conscious of the problem of taking some of the moral, political, and psychological ideas Rand has developed and making them work in fiction without Rand being the artist to do it, I was a bit less able to sink into the flow of the book than I am sure others will be. But not long after I started, the hesitation disappeared. In its place entered a sense of welcome. What a pleasure it is to read a book with good ideas, with some characters one can like, with themes other than that of power, lust, greed, and selfishness—the stuff of which the Harold Robbins and all the other pulp novels targeted for movie-of-the-week are made in our time.
Some of the writing in the book could have a bit more finesse. But for a first novel it is amazing how Smith has managed to craft a work that proceeds with as much self-assurance as many a veteran's mature efforts. If there is one author who comes to mind when I read The Watcher it is David Karp, who wrote One, All Honorable Men, and The Last Believer. Karp's concern with the problem of integrity in various areas of human life is matched by Smith's concern with having a purpose in life, a trait that threatens anyone convinced that achievement is a vice and humility, self-abasement, a virtue.
If you like to sit curled up, rushing from one wave of intense emotion to the next, and if you are tired of being aware of either the reality of Jimmy Carter once again announcing some bonehead program not to fight inflation but to seem like he's fighting it or the fiction of The China Syndrome or Fun with Dick and Jane, then I recommend this book very strongly. And if you are only interested in how heroes with ideals of personal integrity and courage could fare against villains with the most venomous yet benign-sounding egalitarianism to motivate their lives, this book is for you as well. There are some scenes—in particular, where one key character comes to terms with what it means to be turned against one's talent because "one did not deserve it"—which are overwhelming. I hope that no one will miss out on the catharsis.
Tibor Machan is a senior editor of REASON.