Howard Hunt's "Dark Encounter"
2135. "review of Howard Hunt's "Dark Encounter""
- the complete version of my review
- credited to: tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
- publihsed on my "Critic" website December 31, 2022
Howard Hunt's "Dark Encounter"
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - December 30-31, 2022
E. Howard Hunt is probably best known as one of the Watergate burglars. He might also be known as the CIA guy who was in charge of the invasion of Cuba in 1961. Long ago I read him described as the 'brains' behind the massacre of 100,000 peasants in Guatemala - a crime that President Bill Clinton apologized for. I'm sure that did alotof good (NOT) - at least he acknowledged that it happened. However, Hunt's alleged participation in that atrocity isn't mentioned in Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" so I looked for it in the more recent "The Many Headed Hydra" (Linebaugh & Rediker). That's a bit outside of that bk's range so it's not surprising I didn't find it there either. I'd already done searches online & not been satisfied w/ the results but today I tried "e howard hunt & guatemala" & went to an article entitled "E. Howard Hunt's Final Confession The monstrous spymaster gloats over his crimes." BY ANN LOUISE BARDACH (JAN 24, 2007). Here are some relevant excerpts:
"By his account, he was the architect of the 1954 U.S.-backed coup ("Operation Success") in Guatemala that deposed democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz."
In the interview that the majority of the article consists of, Hunt doesn't 'take credit' for the deaths in Guatemala that followed the overthrow he orchestrated:
"Slate: Some 200,000 civilians were killed in the civil war following the coup, which lasted for the next 40 years. Were all those deaths unforeseen?
Hunt: Deaths? What deaths?
Slate: Well, the civil war that ensued for the next 40 years after the coup.
Hunt: Well, we should have done something we never do-we should have maintained a constant presence in Guatemala after getting rid of Arbenz."
So what do I make of that? Hunt's overthrow precipitated the following internal strife, he deserves at least partial blame for the deaths. That's enuf to make me completely contemptuous of him. Nonetheless, I decided to read one of his novels. I was curious about what I'd make of it. It's common for spies to write novels & other bks. I read them from time-to-time, they're bound to be propaganda but they're also likely to contain something of value to me to be ferreted out.
I was expecting "Dark Encounter" to be gritty crime fiction. As it turned out it's more of a human drama w/ the emphasis more on the characters than on the overarching crime & punishment aspects of it.
The novel's from 1948. The author's bio on the back says: "out of his war-time experiences produced two widely-hailed novels: East of Farewell (Knopf: 1942) and Limit of Darkness (Random House: 1944). This experience included service in both the Navy (destroyer duty) and the Army Air Force, as a Life correspondent on Guadalcanal and a member of the OSS in China. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Writing in 1946. His most recent novel, Bimini Run, was published in 1949 by Farrar, Straus." "Dark Encounter"'s original title was "Maelstrom". The edition I read was published by Signet Books. The blurb that appears on the 1st page includes this:
"There were three very different people. Alison was spoiled, lovely and so sick of the men of her set that she was willing to risk an affair with Harry-whose he-man approach to love included such subtleties as flagellation." - p 1
Like all sensationalist novel hype this is more than a bit misleading. It implies a type of relationship between Alison & Harry that's far from accurate. The front cover has Harry ripping off Alison's blouse to expose her bra. Since this was the 1940s she doesn't have a cell-phone tucked in there.
Interestingly, to me at least, some of the others bks published by Signet at the time & advertised near the beginning are Thoreau's "Walden", Van Tilburg Clark's "The Ox-Bow Incident", & Faulker's "Intruder in the Dust" so Signet must've felt like Hunt belonged somehow in this company.
Not only was this originally titled "Maelstrom" but the author abridged it for "Its publication in this form" (p 4) - "this form" presumably meaning a short tawdry paperback.
At the beginning, the reader is presented w/ what's to become the divorce tiff between Allison & her husband Chico.
"When the war began, Chico went to see an old family friend one afternoon and came back with a stripe and a half. During the war he had never gotten any closer to the water than the Ketchaboneck Club or the bar at Sewanhaka.
"When the war ended, Chico took off his summer grays, put on a Palm Beach suit and flew with Alison to Montego Bay, Jamaica, for a month, before going back to his father's brokerage office. There had been no problems in Chico's life, no decisions more difficult than choosing between Brooks and J. Press; between Fence and Zete; between Cadillac and Lincoln-until this afternoon. And even then, liquor had seen him through." - p 14
To an unexpected extent, this novel addresses class.
""I'm at the Plaza, Mr. Prentice. Chico and I have just separated."
""I'm sorry to hear that, my dear." The voice was like a talking book. Correct. Impartial. Judicial. "Is it a question of divorce?"
""Chico wants one."
""I'd rather not talk about it just now, Mr. Prentice. This afternoon has been quite a shock. Could you see me tomorrow?"
""Of course. Would two o'clock be convenient?"
""Before then would you like me to talk to Charles?" No nicknames for Prentice. Correct titles of address. Precision. Black or white. Right or wrong. No human variable like[s] love or satiety, envy or hate." - p 16
"Wealth, grace, and elegance-all inherited. It was easy to be genteel if the props were passed around when you were a kid; no strain to speak without a foreign accent if her folks could send her to a private school; easy to be gracious if she were to inherit a Long Island estate." - p 84
""My folks came from Germany, near Bensdorf, three years before I was born. My old man was a Rhineland miller and someone told him America was a land of opportunity-a place where class didn't matter-a place where a man could make as much money as he wanted if he didn't mind work."
""What happened after they came to America?"
""They were dumped off a boat at Ellis Island and deloused like cattle. Then my old man got a job in a brewery because there was good pay and he could see grain now and then. But the war started in Europe and, when the Lusitania was sunk, the brewery gave my old man a pink slip in his pay envelope. People chalked Maltese crosses on our door and called us Huns and spat on the street when they saw any of us.["]" - pp 87-88
I suppose Harry's life is a different type of stereotype - the kid who had it rough who fought his way to prosperity by killing people & running rackets.
"Harry looked at the gold Swiss watch around his wrist: one o'clock. The boy should be coming back with the ticket soon-unless he had drifted off with the three centuries. Not likely. It was an even fifty plus. Plus what he would say he had to pay the ticket clerk for the reservation. About seventy bucks for a half an hour's work. Thirty-five weeks' pay working for old Abe. I could still be there, getting maybe four bucks a week now, if Abe's still alive." - p 24
Alas for Harry, the heat starts to move in.
"All day yesterday in the Hearing Room. Then this morning listening to the same questions over and over again. Where are your records, Mr. Metz? Your books? How much did you pay Senator Robinson to influence purchase of your land? How were you able to oftain such advantageous bargains from the War Assets Administration without prior knowledge of the sealed bids? To what extent were your manipulations aided by Senator Robinson?" - p 42
But Harry manages to wriggle away to Mexico.
"A sign said Money Exchange. Harry walked toward it and took a bill from his pocket. He pushed it across the counter and the man counted out a bundle of dirty tattered bank notes. "Cuatrocientos sententa y cinco."
""Four hundred and seventy-five pesos, Señor. In exchange for one hundred dollars."" - pp 45-46
Harry takes a woman home from the bar.
"When she came back she held out toward him the butt of a black leather whip. He took it from her, looking at her eyes. The crescents were darker now, almost purple in the half-light of the room; her nostrils broad and quivering. The yard-long whip was heavy in his hand. Her eyes looked at the tip and she touched the light leather fringe dangling sinuously at the end.
""I'm wicked to want you to do this," she said. "Before, it was always my husband." She put her hands against the back of the couch, and leaned forward, legs apart. Then she turned and looked at him wolfishly. "You know what to do," she said. "Do it!"
"In a quarter of an hour she was lying over the back of the couch limp and exhausted. Harry had stopped to rest. He saw her reach into an ebony box beside the couch and take out a brown cigarette. She held it toward Harry, and he leaned forward to take it from her. He lit it, and she said hoarsely, "Only a little. If you smoke much, you will kill me."" - p 51
This is where I start to feel like the story is veering a bit from realism to Reefer Madness (1936) territory. The cigarette is pot & Harry does, apparently, go a bit berserk. Did the woman die? That's not immediately clear one way or another.
Hunt does go to the trouble of establishing the characters's backstories. In this case, the story of Alison's mother planning her life for her, wch then goes sour.
"So it had come to this; the cygnet had left her nest and joined her life with Chico Courtney's because that was the way mother had planned it. Once when you had asked father about the boy from Wells Beach, he had patted your head and said the boy sounded like a fine type for you to know and he hoped you wouldn't stop seeing him just because Mother was jealous of your beauty and had other ideas.
"But the Chico she had chosen turned into a black swan while she drifted powerless to stop the change, and her friends had withdrawn from her and now there was no one to whom she could turn.
"She looked around slowly, sheltering herself with her arms from silence and emptiness. A frightening sensation of déjà vu came over her, smothering her mind like a dark questing fog. She stood the torture until her nerves grew dull, anesthetized. Then she drank the highball quickly, the liquor flowing through her veins almost at once, killing the fear she had known." - p 68
A pianist named Nick is introduced as another key character. What surprised me about Hunt's writing here is that he actually seems sensitive to music. Keep in mind that, for me, Hunt exemplifies the arrogance of the CIA: he was a person who felt entitled to set forces in motion that resulted in massive death b/c he was sure that he was right about what socio-political system was what they had to abide by - or else. Such a contemptible mindset is not one I'd expect to be sensitive to music. The fact that he is sensitive makes it difficult for me to completely hate him & even 'opens a door' in my mind where I'll consider that maybe he's not as responsible for the genocide in Guatemala as I'd previously taken for granted. That makes me feel uncomfortable.
"His music was full and compelling, throbbing with a rolling bass, decorated with intricate right-hand figures that went unnoticed by his audience."
"He ended the torch he had been playing, and laid a quietly swaying introduction to "Ill Wind," an old Cotton Club number that had never caught on. Nick had heard Cab Calloway play it back in New Orleans, when he was in High School." - p 77
As I recall, the Cotton Club was a club in Harlem where primarily black musicians played but only whites were allowed in the audience. Have I got that right? I'm not going to check. Cab Calloway was one of their stars & his conk haircut was criticized by Malcolm X as that of a black man trying to look more white. W/ that bit of history out of the way, I like Cab Calloway's music very much.
"For the people she was everything and there was nothing of you in it and you wove an unobstrusive counterpoint leading up to the final note that she held the way you knew she would, and you finished with chiming whole-tone progressions that died away until her lips were closed" - p 81
"Oh, love, say what you choose, I got a right to sing the blues, Nick thought. The real blues like Lu Watters' "Friendless Blues" and Bessie Smith's "Cemetery Blues"; Jelly Roll's "Beale Street" and Mary Lou Williams' "Roll 'Em."" - p 119
"First year Med had been five mornings of dissection a week with Neuroanatomy in the afternoons and on Saturday mornings. Then had come Histology-cell structure and fundamental tissues, and in the second semester, Gross Anatomy. Second year he had sweated through Physical Diagnosis, Psychiatry, Neurology, Pharmacology, and Bacteriology. That was between '40 and '41 when he had been playing nights at the Faisan d'Or, where Carol had come to him. The band had been a good one, and between sets people would gather around the piano to hear him-mostly undergraduates from Harvard and Princeton who subscribed to Metronome and Downbeat and collected records by Sidney Bechet and Art Tatum and Miff Mole-kids who knew good jazz from bad" - p 130
""Art Tatum's 'Liza.' Like it?"
""I should say so." She sat at one of the empty tables and lit a cigarette.
""No one can play it the way he can. Get this. . . ." He turned around and played a quick, complicated phrase that left her almost open-mouthed. "Sometimes I can do it, but most of the time I can't."" - p 135
Art Tatum is one of the only 28 pianists on my "Top 100 Pianists" webpage: http://idioideo.pleintekst.nl/Top100Pianists.html .
"To loosen his fingers, he played Bix's "In a Mist" and Jess Stacy's "Burnin' the Candle at Both Ends"; then Debussy's "Serenade à la Poupée." Nick thought about the chords in "Laura" and the light delicate way Errol Garner had recorded the song." - p 162
Maybe Hunt just did some research & wasn't really into the music. Still, dropping "In a Mist" & Debussy in the same sentence seems like something a real music enthusiast might do. I even had something musical verified for me:
"The band was playing its first number: "Pastelillos de Amor" in authentic samba rhythm. He could hear the scratching of the reco-reco and the methodical swishing of bean-gourds over the saxes and violins." - p 129
I bought a "Rico Rico" from Pete Engelhart Studios, Engelhart being a guy who makes metal percussion - but I wasn't sure whether what I bought was a "Rico" or a "Rico Rico" b/c the doubling of the word struck me as a possible website display glitch. Now I know.
Alas, Nazis damaged one of Nick's hands during WWII.
"Cutting risers. Chute buckling. Blood on your face. Voices. Sound of running feet. Peasants kicking you, hitting you with clubs and hayrakes. An Unteroffizier crushing your hand under his heel when you tried to crawl. Kicking. Voices. Darkness. . . ." - p 83
Harry takes Alison out on a swanky date.. that includes a Diego Rivera mural!
"A captain escorted them to their table at the far[e] end of the ro[o]m, beyond the bar, and Alison turned around to look at the Rivera mural above the wall seats. It was a vinous bacchanal with lush female nudes reclining in near-Sapphic poses against a background of vivid jungle reds and greens." - p 93
"El Castilo was a spawling white stucco castle on Insurgentes, near Genova. Paul drove under the canopied entrance, and a gaudily uniformed attendant opened the door of the Cadillac. There were Royal Palms growing from the lawn, their high sculptured trunks reaching upward like leaf-topped columns. A hidden light illuminated a large marble goldfish pond in the garden, and as Alison walked up the steps she could see flashes of silver and gold darting beneath the surface of the clear water." - p 94
""That's enough," Harry said. "You wouldn't win again tonight."
"Alison rose from the table, returning the five bills she had originally gambled. "How do you know?"
""You won too easily. The banker palmed his third card to let you win. He was set to take you from then on."
"She pushed back her hair from the side of her face, "Thanks for telling me."
""You were smart enough to listen."" - p 96
Hunt IS a novelist - in some senses he's formulaic but he includes a dream, a touch that, for me, goes a bit beyond a formula.
"During the night Alison dreamed that she had floated over New England from Maine to Long Island, suspended between earth and sky like one of the tropical fish in the aquarium at El Castilo. She had watched calm lakes and peaceful rivers until, somewhere to the South, she was walking alone over a rough, treacherous mountain path, and suddenly the trail ended in mist and below her a torrent raged, carrying along uprooted Royal Palms, debris, and houses that splintered against rocks. As she had watched, shrinking against the side of the mountain, the earth gave way under her feet, slidingly, but she was powerless to move. She had felt herself slipping toward the madly surging current below. Slipping downward. . . ." - p 99
Their time at the casino turns violent as Harry revolts against getting robbed - but it's not until they go to a bullfight that Alison really gets a glimpse of his latent brutality.
"But Alison was watching the man in the last moment before the bull entered the ring. The matador seemed to withdraw into himself, his body becoming compact and taut, the rapier in his hand joining to his arm, the cloak of black and red spreading sinuously like the hood of a cobra. Then the bull had come into the ring and stood pawing the earth, its nostrils flared, its tail twitching nervously." - pp 104-105
I found Hunt's description of cliff divers to be sensitive.
""That cliff is awfully high," Alison said.
""They have to time their dives to hit the water at its highest. A strong gust of wind could hold back a wave or tip them after they've started falling. Then it's not pretty. The tide carries out the body and it's never seen again."
"Alison shuddered a little.
"Nick said, "Watch him start to dive when the bottom is still bare."" - p 153
"It would be the basilic vein that had been cut, Nick knew-the drainage was from the distal to the proximal extremity. He put his right hand into the boy's armpit, feeling for a pressure point in the axillary fossa, then forced his fingers into and watched the gash.
"Alison's voice said, "Can I help you?"
""Yes," he said without moving his eyes. "Tear off my left sleeve and swab away the blood so I can see if the bleeding's slowed."" - p 156
""I want us to do big things together, Nick. You'll make a fine doctor, darling. I know that. And the biggest thing for both of us would be to come back here where they need you.
""That takes money."
""I've always had money and nothing else. Let me do something really worth while with it."
""You mean you'd wait for me to finish Tulane?"
""That's exactly what I mean. Then if you wanted to, we could start a clinic here. I'll take courses, darling. I want to know how I can help you."
""Just keep on loving me," he said softly. "That's more than I deserve.["]" - p 170
I'm somewhat loathe to say this but this is a reasonably good dramatic novel. It seems that Hunt's international intriguing did teach him some worldliness. Of course, this was written in 1948, before the crimes he became known for - maybe he became more of a hardened criminal as his yrs w/ the CIA lengthened. Whatever the case, nothing can excuse the deadly arrogance of his activities against Guatemala & Cuba.
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