Friday, February 3, 2012

Walter Stovall

My uncle's name has shown up a few times recently in the list of search terms that have brought people to this blog. Until now, though, his name had only appeared in a 2008 post about my grandparents; that's because my grandfather's full name was George Walter Stovall.

Walter wrote two novels in the late '70s after spending nine years as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press alongside colleagues like Nicholas Pileggi (Wiseguy) and Thomas Harris (The Silence of the Lambs). (I also discovered last year that Walter has a decades-old connection to American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar.) Both novels are out of print, but with any luck the rapid rise of e-book technology will make them available once again.

Walter's debut, Presidential Emergency—it was originally called "A Grasshopper's Tale," I believe, but the publisher, Dutton, wanted a more commercial title—came out in 1978 and was hailed as "a riveting thriller" by The New York Times Book Review. In the following excerpt Thack Forbes, an adviser to U.S. president Joseph Hamilton, has been handed a letter by the vice president, Lawrence Melville, in which the commander in chief appears to confess his future plans to a judge.

It took Forbes several minutes to read the letter. Many of the words were nearly illegible, so cramped was the handwriting. He was amazed that so much could be crowded onto a single page.

Forbes stared at it. He noticed that it hadn't been folded. He was appalled at the self-pity, the grandiose delusions, the bizarre conceptions of history. He felt hurt, as if he had read a letter to another man from a woman he was secretly in love with.

He read the letter again quickly. A fist behind his navel squeezed shut.

For the first time in many years Forbes was surprised.

"What should we do, Thack?" Melville's voice was subdued. He looked earnestly at Forbes.

Forbes walked to the desk and took another cigarette. He lit it with his gold presidential lighter. He realized he was smoking more than usual.

"The obvious thing is to get to Roundtree," said Forbes. "Have a talk with him. It's clear Hamilton respects him. I didn't know they were so close, but it seems they are." He described his earlier conversation with Roundtree, adding the details of his unusual introduction to Vest. Melville and Hibbitt listened tolerantly; their expressions conveyed that they found the story interesting but not really consequential. Hibbitt cut him short by saying that Vest had a reputation for eccentric behavior.

"Roundtree has tried to talk to him," Melville put in quickly. "I was told this by a good source, a very good source. My source said Roundtree didn't think it did any good." He was on his feet; he picked up a glass swan and examined it; the swans were his favorites. "According to my source, Roundtree said Hamilton thinks only of the treaty and doesn't seem to comprehend the gravity of ... the other contingency."

"Maybe there's nothing to it," said Forbes. "Maybe he was just rambling on. Maybe it's just carelessness. He's capable of talking very carelessly, believe me."

"Good God, man!" Melville exploded. "Can't you see what we're faced with? We're talking about the possibility of the president of the United States defecting to Red China!"

In 1980 Wyndham published Walter's second novel, The Minus Pool, a tale of high-stakes gambling on a global scale. Kirkus Reviews called it "lively nonsense" but, more importantly, "a lot of fun."

Katz scowled. Then he put his hands together and touched his chin. "Let's get down to business, Mr. Leitstein, if you don't mind," he said somewhat irascibly. "We wasted quite a bit of time with your colleague McManus. We don't intend to waste any more. You have something we need. We have something you want."

The waitress brought his brandy. He tilted the balloon and sniffed it and took a sip. He had first tasted Armagnac in Havana before the war. There had been a bar where they knew he was an ex-fighter; he stopped in whenever it was raining and the track was sloppy at Oriental Park. One of the regulars, whose name he never caught, was a big, loud American with a mustache and a sunburn; the guy got a load on every afternoon and talked about boxing and whores—Kansas City whores, not Havana whores. Everybody seemed engrossed by the guy's monologues; everybody except Nathan Leitstein, who disregarded noisy drunks; and the fact that even one customer wasn't paying attention to him drove the guy to talk at the top of his lungs. One day the guy cornered him at the bar and mumbled in his face that it would be a noble and glorious thing if they stepped outside and found out who had the best left hook. Without looking up, he placed his thick-knuckled left hand on the bar, palm down so the guy could see, and said quietly, "Thanks, pal, but amateurs don't always get up healthy from left hooks." The guy looked as if he were about to say, this isn't the way it was supposed to happen; then his face constricted in pain like a sudden toothache and he walked unsteadily out. The bartender, who had been watching, poured him a drink from a round, flat bottle. "Algo especial, Señor Leitstein," he said with a modest smile of relief, "Armagnac. Salud," and added, shaking his head, "Ernesto es un buche y pluma." He never saw the guy again.

He took another sip and considered Katz's gambit. He guessed that Katz and the others had heard that their $115 million would not be welcome at the Commercial and Claims Bank. He thought of his return call to Jerusalem; the retired general had been called out of the country, he was told, and could not be reached; he had left the message with the woman who answered.

"Okay, pal. Let's start with what I got that you need."

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