Upfront I’ll tell you that David Adams Cleveland’s book is 917 pages long. Before you stop reading, consider why an author would write such a book and how it even got published in this era of instant information? Of itself, length isn’t an insuperable barrier for me. I gladly stick with Neal Stephenson’s door-stops, though twenty pages can be too many if they’re boring. But this book was heavy, even for a paperback. So I ripped off the cover and used a butcher knife to slice it into four 250-page sections. (Are you cringing?)
I read it. I liked it. If you’re wondering what justifies taking so much of a reader’s time?, I’d say “layers.”
At the heart of the story is the controversial 1950 trial of diplomat Alger Hiss, which divided the country for years. Liberals thought Hiss was a victim of red-baiting in the simmering anti-Communist climate; conservatives were convinced he got off lightly with his conviction and sentence on two counts of perjury. Spying was his real game, they believed. Documents that came to light after the collapse of the Soviet empire confirmed he was a spy (though not everyone believes it even yet).
These were not trivial suspicions. Hiss managed to get himself attached to the US delegation to the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin Yalta conference about the post-World War II world. Thus, he was in a position to influence the meeting’s significant pro-Soviet outcomes, such as handing Poland over to the Soviets and returning millions of Soviet citizens to their home country and almost certain death.
One of Hiss’s defense attorneys was Judge Edward Dimock who, when Cleveland’s book takes place in 2002, is in his 90s and wants his grandson George Altmann to handle his memoirs. George, whose other grandfather was a Depression-era artist, begins to doubt the manuscript. Gradually evidence accumulates that Dimock knew Hiss was a spy, but did he, really? It’s a bit like a visit to the optician. You believe you are seeing the picture clearly, but then some shift, some slightly new way of looking is introduced, and the picture snaps out of focus again.
In the 1930s, the suspicious deaths and convenient disappearances of five men who could have testified against Hiss occurred (in real life), and George Altmann’s artist grandfather made a sixth (fictional one). Young George and his girlfriend, a character I never warmed up to, try to sort out the truth of the mysterious deaths, but again, facts are hard to pin down.
On top of the questions of intrigue and murder is a thick layer of art and music. Young George runs an art gallery, and his girlfriend is an artist. They look at the world around them in a particular way. Judge Dimock’s wife was a concert pianist, and insisted her son and three daughters also play. The family home in the Catskills is itself like a work of art with one priceless feature—an ancient ceiling painted with frolicking gods and goddesses, who become silent family friends and bemused observers.
All these layers—the significance of Hiss and the trial; the long tail of violence; the law and its opposite, the creative arts; the perennially perturbed family relations—any of these could be a book in itself. And I haven’t even mentioned Young George’s mother’s scandalous involvement with the Woodstock concert and music scene. Cleveland’s intricate layering of these innately intriguing elements makes the experience of each more resonant.
Ultimately, one message of the book is that the Hisses of the world, determined liars and true believers, can create a climate of disinformation, a parallel reality it’s hard to break free of. Their deceptions can lead even the most intelligent people astray and down paths of destruction. This is certainly a message that should resonate in today’s world. Though I thought the book started slow, before long it drew me into their fractured world.