Box Of Paperbacks: The Mouse On Wall Street
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 42.)
When we last visited The Duchy Of Grand Fenwick in The Mouse That Roared, the tiny country had accidentally bested the world by declaring war on the U.S. in an attempt to enjoy the benefits traditionally bestowed by America on its bested enemies. In the process, Grand Fenwick inadvertently obtained a weapon of mass destruction, prompting a world-threatening stand-off that left everyone happier than before. Dry amusement ensued. Mouse's prolific, Irish born, California-based author Leonard Wibberley returned to Grand Fenwick again in 1962 with the space-race send-up The Mouse On The Moon. That's not in the box, so we're going to skip directly to Wibberley's final Grand Fenwick novel, 1969's The Mouse On Wall Street. I feel kind of bad skipping a chapter, but not that bad. I found the first Mouse diverting enough, kind of like a prose–and slightly prosaic–version of an Ealing Studios comedy. (It, of course, became a showcase for Ealing graduate Peter Sellers.) But I didn't feel compelled to seek out the next chapter. (Haven't seen the movie either, even though it's directed by Richard Lester, who's directed some of my favorite movies.) Then again, Wibberley seems to have forgotten it too. References to The Mouse That Roared abound in Wall Street but if any of the characters made it into space in the intervening years, you wouldn't know it from the book. Where Roared found Grand Fenwick fallen on hard times, Wall Street finds it facing the opposite problem. A settlement that provided for the country to continue to receive a fair market price for its coveted Pinot Grand Fenwick has allowed life to continue as before, but a provision allowing the manufacture of a pinot-flavored chewing gum has had unexpected consequences thanks to an American campaign against smoking. With so many former smokers turning to gum, Grand Fenwick now finds itself in possession of a million-dollar windfall. Great, right? Wrong. Well, wrong if you're Grand Fenwick's Count Of Montjoy, who sees it as a "dastardly invasion of our completely balanced economy." But his isn't the only opinion. The left-leaning politician David Bentner wants to apply it to tax relief and allow citizens to share in the windfall. Mildly comic debate ensues, in which Montjoy argues that a tax-free public will lose interest in government. Arguments like these go on for page after page but Wibberley keeps them engaging. He uses a light touch to ease readers into debates between competing economic theories and it's all far funnier than it really ought to be. These opening chapters reminded me of a novel by David Lodge, a writer who's able to have characters reel off primers in literary theory or cognitive studies or what have you without making them seem like sock puppets fro the ideas they endorse. That said, I'm not sure I follow his logic all the way. The novel's ultimately more on the side of Montjoy than Bentner and while I understand his concern that dumping a lot of new currency in the economy of Grand Fenwick will result in inflation, he also doesn't attempt to hide his belief that money is best kept amongst the class that knows what to do with it. New wealth just creates problems and people without money are generally off staying that way. Hey, you know who thinks that way? People who never have to worry about money. Still, Wibberley's opening chapters are pretty sharp in addressing the way wealth takes away as much as it gives. After being given a piece of the windfall, the citizens of Grand Fenwick seek a better life through material goods, bringing in electricity and washing machines and televisions and all the other luxuries 1969 has to offer. Wibberley doesn't explore the spoiling of his idyll for long and it might have been a better book if he did. There's a promising sub-plot about a bike shop owner that sets up his own bank that threatens to introduce further economic chaos that gets abandoned fairly quickly. Instead, the back half spends a lot of time on the On Wall Street part of the title. As Grand Fenwick's wealth gets compounded instead of dwindles, Grand Fenwick's reigning monarch, the Duchess Glorianna XII, is charged with dispensing of the excess wealth. Sensing the surest way to lose money is through reckless investment, Glorianna sinks her money into a failing company and accidentally gets even richer. Frustrated, she stars choosing stocks at random. This goes even better and, thus, worse. As Grand Fenwick builds up enough wealth to become a player on the world stage, Glorianna unwittingly develops a reputation as a Wall Street shark. She can't lose for winning. At this point, The Mouse On Wall Street becomes mostly a series of what-if? scenarios at the far reaches of economic probability. It's amusing enough, but forgets about Grand Fenwick for a bit too long and as the characters fade into the background, the book becomes something of a shrug, albeit a pleasant, breezy shrug. I got through it in just over two bus rides and while it never bored me as with the first Mouse book, I wanted more from it. I'm not sure that Wibberley's gentle satire works on a global scale, or even really on a national scale. He's a gentle laugh, and his Grand Fenwick sounds like a pleasant place, but the further he drags it into real-world issues, the less I believe in it. If you tried to live there it would probably just fade away beneath your feet.
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Next: Lord Of Thunder by Andre Norton
Then: Vanishing Ladies by Ed McBain