Sunday, February 09, 2014

Suspense and Individualism

Executive Suite 
by Cameron Hawley

"There was no barrier of caution now.  He was beyond the last compromise, the last evasion, the last half-lie.  Words came out of nowhere, unpremeditated, fresh-spoken. "You asked for my point of view, Mrs. Prince, and I'll give it to you.  Avery Bullard was a great man and he built a great company.  Yes, he built it!  And he did it because he was strong and because he wasn't afraid!  He wasn't afraid of weaker men who called him a dictator, or a god-on-a-hill, or anything else."" (p 300)

The Tredway Tower: "Monument to a man". This is at the center of a suspenseful book about business. Yes, suspenseful as the novel opens with the sudden death of the President of the Tredway Corporation, Avery Bullard, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. It occurs in New York City where Bullard had been at a business meeting. The event leaves five corporate Vice-presidents, who make up most of the Board of Directors of the company, jockeying for the top position at the corporation. The story depicts the conflicts, the collaborations, and the jostling for power among these men while exploring the question: What type of person should be president of the company? The resolution of this question, in doubt until the final pages of the narrative, provides much of the suspense in this excellent novel.
Adding to the suspense is the unusual structure in which the author narrates the story literally minute by minute and hour by hour over the two days in which the events occur. Through brief glimpses into the lives of a few important characters, and in some cases their wives, the reader is provided context for the decision-making and corporate politics that are rapidly leading to the resolution of the fateful situation the death of the Corporate President has placed them.

Gradually the character of the main players in this business drama emerge through their actions both in the past (related through flashbacks) and in the moments of the two days that culminate in the choice of a successor to Avery Bullard. Loren Shaw, the comptroller, comes to the fore through his knowledge of the numbers behind the corporation and his ability to manipulate them; however, his ability to manipulate his peers seems to falter. The most senior of the Vice-presidents, Frederick Alderson lacks the will to take on the top job himself, but strives to manipulate others into the position. Most interesting of all the Vice-presidents is MacDonald (Don) Walling. His mind is described by his wife:
"Don's mind worked in such a different way from her own that she could never reconstruct the pattern of his thinking. Actually, as she often told herself, Don did not think--at least not in the sense that she thought of thinking. He disliked the orderly setting down of fact against fact, and seemed to instinctively side-step any answer that was dictated by logic and reason. . . the end result was often a brilliant flash of pure creative imagination" (p 201)
Don's "truly creative mind" had served him well in his move up the ladder to Corporate Vice-president and he exhibited an individualist view that set him apart from his peers. Even though he was not the closest to the former President, his understanding of Avery Bullard's mind was another of his many assets. Whether he would choose to seek the Presidency or others would coalesce around his leadership is one of the important questions that contributed to the uniqueness of this novel.  There are other important characters including an astute corporate secretary, an unlikely Italian-American elevator operator, and the granddaughter of the founder of the Company, Julia Tredway Prince. Ultimately she would play perhaps the most key role of all.

Cameron Hawley is impressive in his ability to develop characters through their actions which demonstrate, not just corporate "types", but individuals who have reasons, some good and others faulty or even bad, for their actions. They are people who are complex, like Don Walling and his wife who think very differently but appreciate each other. The result of this mix of character with the added speed and suspense of the novel's structure makes for both a great book about the nature of business and a great novel.

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Brian Joseph said...

I think that there is a history of writers looking at these little social ecosystems, be they business, military, religious, etc. and thus revealing something about people in general. I think that people make a mistake they dismiss something like this as just a novel about business.

I have not seen it, but there was a 1954 film based upon this novel that some hold in high esteem.

James said...

Thanks for mentioning the film which is very good and quite faithfully follows the book.