The time is the late 1980s. The Soviets have nearly achieved their goal of world domination. They have overrun Iran, and they dominate the Persian Gulf. Most of the emerging African countries are in their pocket. The Caribbean, once an American lake, now belongs to the Russians, with Nicaragua a special sanctuary for their submarines. Their ongoing military maneuvers all over the world can be countered only in a very limited way by US forces, which are "outnumbered, outgunned and out-missiled."
Such is the situation, as Allen Drury's best novel since the memorable "Advise and Consent" gets under way. We are quickly caught up in the steerageway of his narrative, soon to become undertow.
The heart of the matter is a series of confrontations between the brash new Soviet leader, Yuri Serapin, and American President Hamilton Delbacher -- confrontations which take place both in private meetings and in the arena of the UN Security Council.
Logically, chillingly, the story unfolds. Because the basic themes are the "Nature of the Threat" and the survival of the Free World, the author's passionate concern for the US Senate, displayed so successfully in his earlier novel, pales a little by comparison.
In Drury's portrayal, the Soviets are convinced their ultimate goal is a moral one: USSR-induced world peace along Soviet lines, with the abrogation of the liberties free men crave. Therefore, any means, however brutal or devious, are moral too.
Good, steady President Ham Delbacher is aware of the danger. "The story of what has weakened United States policy for the past 30 years," he tells Secretary of State Chauncey Baron, "ought to be on the currency: we cannot believe."m
We cannot believe, Baron reflects, because we do not want to believe. "Belief would be too terrifying."
Taking advantage of America's unbelief, Yuri Serapin, consummate actor and fanatic believer in his own star, carries the world to the brink of the abyss.
In unfolding his cautionary tale, Drury uses such familiar props such as UN roll calls, sketched with a sort of barebones style. Here is the Secretary-General asking for a vote on a vital point of order:
"Cameroon!" the S-G said in his grave, old man's voice.
"Oui," Cameroon said promptly.
"Ummmm," Eire said slowly, tapping his pipe. "Y--es."m
"Eire" is never more than a place name with a pipe. By the same token, the working press, which functions as a kind of Greek chorus, is simply identified by publication names. The Los Angeles Times is cynical: The Christian Science Monitor has a nice understated humor. And so on.
Local color is at a minimum, supplied mostly by the reader himself. The Washington Monument is a "pure, pristine needle," and a Cyrus Eaton-like American industrialist has a New York apartment with "original Picassos."
Sometimes, it must be said, our credulity is strained to the limit. The Soviet defector -- or is he a plant? -- who plays a key role in the plot makes his getaway with only the clothes on his back, but then turns up at a secret meeting with President Delbacher in full Soviet military uniform!
Despite such lapses, the novel comes off stunningly well. The mild title is from A. E. Housman: On the idle hill of summer, Sleepy with the flow of streams, Far I hear the steady drummer Drumming like a noise in dream. . . .m
In Allen Drury's lexicon, the "hill of summer" symbolizes the American state only a few years hence, when we have grown t oo torpid to heed the harsh tocsin sounded by the enemy.