Dante Plays Prometheus


Catching Fire, by Kay Nolte Smith, New York: Coward, McCann and Goehegan, 1982, 272 pp., $13.95

"The problem with the right," John Denver once sniffed, "is that it doesn't have any great poets or writers, artists or composers." Like the left has in John Denver?

The statement, of course, is absurd, especially in view of the "artistic" merit of the Denver oeuvre. Consider, for example, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, Haydn and Bach, Yeats and Eliot; not a bad list. Even so, Denver isn't totally off base. For many who stand in opposition to the left, the rational and the practical have generally taken precedence over the artistic and abstract. Investment strategies have found more favor than short stories, and political tracts have been preferred to poetry or plays.

Which isn't to say that there aren't good fiction writers on the other side of the great divide. There are Taylor Caldwell, Bill Buckley, and Allen Drury in bestsellerdom, and Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and Jerry Pournelle in the science-fiction field, to name a few. Probably the best-known, and certainly the most influential, literary individualist was the late Ayn Rand.

Generally speaking, Rand's influence has primarily extended to political and philosophical thinkers, rather than to other novelists. But now a new writer has appeared who's demonstrating once again that there's a role for Rand's philosophy in fiction—which, after all, is the place where it was born.

Kay Nolte Smith is a Randian. She wrote for the Objectivist way back when. She's also a novelist. Her first book, The Watcher, won the Edgar Award for best first mystery novel of 1981. In Catching Fire, her second, Smith tries to integrate her individualist philosophy into a novel of romance and murder set in New York's theatre world. It's an interesting, if only partly successful, project.

Erik Dante, the lead in Catching Fire, is an actor with a dream. Born in an Italian ghetto in Brooklyn (his real name is Arrigo Dantino), he works his way up in the stage to a position as the producer and artistic director of the Poets and Paupers Theatre, a group dedicated to reviving lost romances by writers like Hugo and Yeats. The company's financial backing is provided by Maeve Jerrold, Dante's wealthy and vulnerable older lover.

At opening, Erik Dante is rehearsing a new play by Jerrold, in which he plays the lead part of—are you ready for this?—Prometheus. So we won't miss the point, Smith has Dante explain, "But in this version, after he's given it (fire) to mankind, he decides they didn't deserve it, so he tries to take it back." In other words, it's Atlas Shrugged revisited, same myth, different god. Or, if you like, "John Galt Goes Latin."

The dramatic action of Catching Fire is initiated by union leader Morty Codd's attempt to organize Dante's small company. As Dante resists, the dispute goes public, mainly through the medium of Jacqueline Sanda's popular TV talk show. People throughout New York take sides, picketing occurs, and a murder takes place while politicians and pundits blast each other in torrents of rhetorical abuse. If you've read The Fountainhead, this will all be familiar territory. Finally, factions of the mob get involved, as they determine that Dante must be brought down at any cost.

In essence, Catching Fire is two stories. The first concerns the union's and later the mob's attempts to destroy the main character, and his triumph over them. It's pretty standard stuff, really, bringing into play the usual Randian themes of the superior man versus the mob and coercion versus choice, without adding fresh insights into either. All of this is related in a clipped, cinematic way that deviates considerably, at least until the overwritten climatic scene, from Rand's own Grand Opera style.

Dante's love affairs with Jerrold and talk-show host Sanda are the most interesting part of the tale. Dante feels grateful to Jerrold and did once love her. Sanda, however, is his match, someone with whom he can feel "equal." He has to choose between the two. In so doing, he has to make some critical ethical evaluations. This conflict, moreover, is subtly and effectively mirrored throughout the action in the unequal, guilt-ridden, and thus flawed relations between Sanda and her ex-husband, between Dante and his crazed brother, between the gangster Shaw and his fundamentalist parents. The resolution of this conflict, which is well done, is echoed in the grudging respect that Codd and Dante develop for each other at the story's end. It's one of the novel's nicer touches.

Catching Fire isn t a great novel. But if you like a suspense story reasonably well told, with some political and ethical meat on its bones, Catching Fire might light yours.

Dan Dickinson is a free-lance writer.