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- April 01, 1991
- Vol. 35
- No. 12
Picks and Pans: Pages
The late Danny Thomas built a major career on his skill at telling full-flavored, dialect-rich stories of Irish renegades, rabbis, elderly Jews, priests and traveling salesman with car trouble. This autobiography could use more of the spice and seasoning that made Thomas a toast of the town and a few continents, but it is a genial summation of his life.
A snowstorm kept the local doctor away, so the future comic was born with the aid of a veterinarian, in Michigan in 1912. He began life as Muzyad Yakhoob ("Muzzy" for short), but when his Lebanese father Americanized the names of the 10 Yakhoob children, Muzyad became Amos Jacobs. Later, when he began working Chicago nightclubs, it was as Danny Thomas. Close friends like Frank Sinatra called him Jake; when riled, his wife. Rose Marie, called him Amos.
Thomas writes amusingly and poignantly of his large, loving family, the aunt and uncle who helped raise him, the struggles indigenous to a showbiz career. On a Lone Ranger radio show in Detroit, he was hired to make the sound of horses' hooves by beating his chest with toilet plungers. The "speaking" part consisted of whinnying. He was down to his last 85 cents a week before his first child. Margaret Julia (Mario), was born. His wife kept suggesting the grocery business would be a better career path.
There are a few of Thomas's signature stories, anecdotes about Presidents and showbiz pals who tease him about his religious faith ("Danny gets stopped by the highway patrol because he has stained-glass windows in his car." says Bob Hope), but the book works best when it chronicles the push from rags to riches.
Once Danny makes it to Hollywood (and resists all entreaties to have a nose job) and rises to sitcom fame, things lake on an "and then I wrote"" quality. Some of Thomas's comments about his children are distracting too. He notes, for example, that Mario, indulging her overprotective dad. would stay at the family home when visiting California without husband Phil Donahue. But, he assures us, "Marlo is a strong, self-sufficient woman who would be perfectly safe at the Beverly Hills Hotel." Quite a claim to make for a 53-year-old.
Still, Thomas's death in February gives the book the tone of a pleasant farewell. He writes, for instance: "Who would have thought that my youngest child. Tony [a partner in an independent production company], creator of The Golden Girls, would have turned out to be as spectacularly successful as he did?" Same to you. Danny boy. (Putnam, $22.95)
by Jack Higgins
In this streamlined but silly sequel to Higgins's popular 1975 World War II thriller, The Eagle Has Landed, it turns out that Nazi assassin Kurt Steiner did not die after all in his daring raid to kill Churchill in 1943. Steiner has been captured and held for a time in the Tower of London. For reasons that are entirely implausible. SS chief Heinrich Himmler decides Steiner must be rescued, and IRA mercenary Liam Devlin is put on the case. (This colorful Irishman also appeared in The Eagle Has Landed, as well as another Higgins novel of espionage. Touch the Devil.) The British, specifically Brig. Dougal Munro—a character in Higgins's Cold Harbour—are waiting for him.
As this covert operation—and the festival of self-referential fiction—unfolds, everyone plots and counterplots like mad, but Higgins withholds just enough to keep you flipping pages. He spins the tale out in an economical fashion, one not freighted with either style or cumbersome details.
Higgins (a pseudonym for Harry Patterson) does get sloppy. At one point, for instance, the narrator complains that he's out of whiskey. Four pages later he pours himself a hefty Bushmills.
Mostly, though, this Eagle flaps along determinedly, even bringing Hitler onto the scene at the end. It was clearly supposed to be a slam-bang finish but ends up as only a quiet slam and a little bang. (Simon and Schuster. $21.95)
by Alice Adams
Caroline Carter, "eminently a realist, a practical, sensible woman," and her third husband, Ralph (Caroline is his fourth wife), are back home in San Francisco after five years abroad. But to judge by this absorbing if ultimately schematic novel, maybe they should have stayed away longer.
Things are going on with Caroline's five daughters that Caroline—distant, non-intrusive Caroline—would doubtless prefer not to know about. For example, she would not like to know about the troubled marriage of eldest daughter Sage, a ceramicist who has not yet found success, "a manic depressive on a very short cycle" and the wife of beautiful, faithless Noel, a carpenter.
Caroline would not want to know that the self-involved Fiona, who can't cook but owns the trendiest restaurant in town, is about to begin an affair with Roland Gallo. the married lawyer-politico who in pre-Noel days was Sage's lover.
She wouldn't want to know that Jill, a yuppie lawyer, has a sideline she calls the Game: turning $1.000-a-night tricks. And Caroline also wouldn't like to know about Jill's affair with Sage's husband, Noel.
Liza and youngest daughter Portia, who describes herself as the "non-achieving sister." aren't in such great shape either.
Like so many Alice Adams heroines. Caroline's daughters are hungry for change: They want to change jobs, mates, locations—their lives. How well and wisely they do it is the subject of this novel.
Adams repeatedly uses the smallness of San Francisco as a metaphor for her characters' braided lives. Jill, buying a sexy peignoir at I. Magnin's to please Noel, runs into Sage in the elevator. Portia, at lunch with Ralph, looks out the window and sees Jill and Noel pass by, clearly up to no good.
Adams seems to be using the sisters to make a statement about the profligate '80s and, come to think of it. using the '80s to make a statement about the sisters. Before the '87 market crash, for instance. Fiona and Jill are riding high professionally and personally; post-crash. Fiona loses her lover, and Jill is almost killed in a car accident.
It's all a bit pat. And Adams's wonderfully trenchant observations—she writes of a character who "like many profoundly vulgar people is a stickler for what he calls 'taste' "—can't quite keep the novel up to the high standards she has set for herself in her previous fiction. (Knopf. $22)
- Joanne Kaufman,
- David Hiltbrand.
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