How long before somebody starts a Yuppie Defense League, dedicated to combating the cruel stereotyping of New York WASPs as status-mad emotional zombies? At first glance Jack Whitman, protagonist of Colin Harrison’s taut, engaging novel Bodies Electric, appears to be yet another of that too-familiar type in recent American fiction-a 35-year-old Ivy League executive with a $395,000-a-year salary who plays cutthroat business games all day and buys his Maalox by the barrel. But Whitman has also known tragedy, specifically the murder of his young wife and their unborn daughter in a drive-by shooting, leaving him to rattle around in their brownstone alone -unable to summon the strength even years later to give away her clothing.
Then he makes an impulsive gesture. Motivated by a murky blend of compassion and desire, Whitman offers his business card to a beautiful and clearly distressed Hispanic woman riding the subway with her 3-year-old daughter. A native of the Dominican Republic, Dolores Salcines has her suspicions and her pride. But she also has no money, scant job prospects, and a violent husband from whom she’s trying to hide. Before long, Jack’s and Dolores’ lives have become entwined. ”I’ll take care of you,” he assures her, ”meaning I’ll pay, within my ability, for food, necessary clothing-whatever is sensible. For how long, I don’t know.”
On the job, meanwhile, there’s no room for altruism. Jack inhabits the 39th-floor inner sanctum of a multibillion-dollar multimedia communications empire known as ”the Corporation.” He’s swept up in a power play involving a high-stakes corporate merger and his Machiavellian boss’ attempt to shove aside the firm’s aging chairman. Whitman’s task is to serve as a double agent, ostensibly briefing the chairman while setting him up for the fall. The fate of his own career, pending the outcome, remains a mystery.
Dubbed a ”corporate thriller” by the publisher, Bodies Electric is hardly that. For all the vicious infighting that Harrison—an editor at Harper‘s Magazine—portrays in knowing detail, the novel’s emotional power resides in his protagonist’s increasingly passionate relationship with Dolores, her child, and his less than honorable efforts to outmaneuver her husband, Hector. Neither Jack nor Dolores, it seems, has been entirely honest with the other. While he has concealed from her some of Hector’s increasingly frantic efforts to find his wife and child, Dolores has also given him a highly selective version of her marriage. Hector emerges as anything but the brute she allows Jack to imagine. The novel’s only flaw may be its over-determined, almost cinematic structure. But that may be a critic’s cavil. Were Theodore Dreiser alive, Bodies Electric is precisely the kind of novel he would write.