Two Summer Beach Reads…

East Hampton resident Edward Hannibal, ex-Madison Avenue creative director, ex-Army Intel officer and author of the award-winning novel Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks, writes on his website that lest we think him “dead & gone,” he’s delighted to announce that his 1982 novel, A Trace of Red (Dial) has just been reissued as an e-book. Though he describes it as a “cold war espionage thriller,” parts read like a memoir. The title, from “Mack the Knife”—“fancy gloves, though, wears Macheath, dear, so there’s not…a trace of red,” may be deliberately ambiguous: cover your tracks when you’re out to kill, and don’t let the “red” show if you’re a double agent, a CIA guy who started working with the Russians.

Hannibal crafts a complex world, though it’s not clear how the book’s seven sections evolve organically, why points of view shift when they do, and why some parts are so detailed, including sex scenes and insider advertising agency lore. Hannibal’s two main worlds—the military and Madison Avenue—don’t necessarily connect, though the Army surely needs a good PR account to help recruit career guys besides “goldbrickers and animals.” The prose, however, is solid, with terse, appropriate dialogue, and military and ad-agency lingo, generating a sense of authenticity. Some images are memorable: “Morning light was breaking through the tortoise bamboo blinds of [Deborah’s] east windows. It was like stepping into a huge page of sheet music, she thought, lined in sunshine.” Nice, but Deborah has nothing to do with music.

For sure, some of the subject matter is still timely: war games training that gets out of hand, the difficulty of Military Intelligence guys maintaining stable family lives, the conflict of wanting to serve one’s country—“the promises, the commitment, the ideals” – and acknowledging intra-department betrayals and cover ups. Like “Mack the Knife,” the protagonist sees flirting with danger as “sexy jazziness” but grows weary of the emotional cost, even as he feels the pull years later to go back to his former life when he’s approached by former buddies to consider coming back to intelligence work.

The story begins as Nick Burke receives a telephone call from his old and best army buddy, Joel Kelsie. It’s been 20 years since they served together in Germany in the late ’50s, along with an oddball but brilliant colleague, Brian Galgay, who also resurfaces. The story moves back and forth, adding a sexy woman pick up, and there is an exciting conclusion—who will kill whom in a stand-off confrontation? But it comes too late to redeem a narrative that seems too beholden to chance encounters and erratic characters who compel neither affection nor admiration.

Though Geoff Gehman’s deeply felt love letter to the East End is titled The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons (Excelsior Editions, SUNY UP), much about this memoir looks back not only to “a special place, a special time,” Wainscott, the Georgica Association, 1967-1972, when Gehman was a child living in a house his parents built, but to earlier times. That earlier history, however—fond memories of well-known hangouts and celebrated personalities who inhabited the Hamptons even before Gehman was even born—has already been widely written about, though Gehman effusively thanks sources and resources, many of them descendents of relatives and friends whom he interviewed. His personal remembrances, adulatory and detailed, tend to drift from their childhood moorings, such as chapters on cars, sex, sports and booze, and elegiac passages on family members, friends and local heroes, among them Carl Yastrzemski, Truman Capote and writers at The East Hampton Star, some of whom fell from grace.

A Pennsylvania resident and former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Gehman says he thinks about “the long-lost Hamptons every day.” He embraces the theme that you can go home again, in recollection, to a magical kingdom that formed your life—in his case, “A naturalist. A movie buff. A jock. A rock ’n’ roller. An architecture nut. A connoisseur of the feminine form. A lover of old social centers: general stores, penny candy shops, cemeteries, dead drive-ins. A journalist, a professional eavesdropper, a storytelling strategist of life’s corkscrew turns. A middle-class dude with a classless attitude…” Obviously, writing this memoir and reconnecting with his past was a moving experience: “One of the reasons I wrote this book was to really get to know the people who made my childhood special.” The most interesting sections, however, have to do less with private prompts than with general history, such as Gehman’s account of innovations wrought at The East Hampton Star by Ev Rattray. Full of heartfelt nostalgia for a relatively golden childhood—burnished no doubt by troubled times that followed and ended his South Fork idyll—Kingdom has charm but is likely to engage mainly the family album crowd seen in the numerous photos scattered throughout the book, and the locals he got to join him in trips down memory lane.

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