A Conspiracy of Tall Men

David Bowman reviews 'A Conspiracy of Tall Men' by Noah Hawley.

Published July 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"A Conspiracy of Tall Men" starts with a hip premise: Protagonist Linus Owen is a professor of "conspiracy theory" at a California college -- shades of the "Hitler Studies" guru in Don DeLillo's "White Noise." Linus teaches "a graduate-level class on JFK, gives seminars on magic bullet theory and the hidden etymological meaning of the words 'Dealey Plaza.'" He also shows "slides meant to prove the faking of the 1967 Apollo moon landing." When Linus' wife mysteriously ends up dead next to her apparent lover on a Brazil-bound flight that explodes and crashes outside Orlando, Fla., the prof shows up at the site demanding a roster of passengers. Why? "When Pan Am flight 103 went down over Lockerbie there were five CIA agents aboard," Linus explains. He's convinced that his wife's plane, like Pan Am 103, may have had rogue CIA operatives on board -- operatives that others in the CIA wanted rubbed out.

Hawley's plot, about a conspiracy freak caught up in his own apparent national intrigue, seems perfect for our times. Why hasn't anyone thought of it before? Actually, they have. When Linus teams with two fellow conspiracy buffs to try to crack the mystery, it's goodbye DeLillo references, hello "X-Files" -- this trio are stand-ins for the Lone Gunmen, the three hacker nerds from the TV show. Hawley's story even veers into UFO sightings and abductions. With its competent but meat-and-potatoes prose, "A Conspiracy of Tall Men" reads like a hip and enjoyable novelization of a lost "X-Files" episode.

While Hawley's novel isn't in DeLillo's league (what is?), "A Conspiracy of Tall Men" is what's known in the trade as a "swell beach read." Hawley also makes cool speculations on the nature of conspiracy: "A conspiracy is the reason we are here, in this room and on this earth. The trick is to ignore the smoke and mirrors. The trick is to always ask questions. If the clue seems too obvious or the evidence too conclusive, you must ask yourself, Is this what I am to believe or what they want me to believe?"

For all Hawley's musings, the ultimate conspiracy he invents for the book's conclusion is straight from the domain of "The X-Files." Been there, done that. If Hawley's plot had pushed the envelope somehow, his book might have made American readers reexamine their own feelings toward conspiracies. Finally, one might ask: "Just who is Noah Hawley really?" I suspect that he is either the son of Watergate's Deep Throat or else one of the pseudonyms that the alien visitors use when they want to try their hands at pulp fiction.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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