The Eighth Wonder of the World
No, it's not King Kong, or any other species of enormous animal. Instead, the eponymous spectacle of Leslie Epstein's novel is the somewhat unimpressive La Vittoria: a one-mile-high office building that will hold the entire apparatus of the Fascist state and whose golden-leaf pinnacle will be seen from three continents. Sounds like someone is compensating for something, which might not be far from the truth considering that the proposed office building-cum-monument is in honor of the dictator Benito Mussolini. The structure's architect is the renowned Amos Prince, a feisty American exile who, while fleeing from murder charges, finds himself in Mussolini's good graces and wins a worldwide competition to construct a monument to the dictator's power.
Everyone is ego-tripping in The Eighth Wonder of the World: Mussolini, whose bloated proclamations make him nothing more than a one-dimensional caricature; Prince, maddeningly confident in his skill to the point of self-destruction; and Epstein's protagonist, Maximilian Shabalian. Max, a pre-eminent scholar, travels to Rome in search of Prince and winds up in Mussolini's inner circle. It's a position that allows for some interesting observations on the decadent madness of the totalitarian regime--especially during an evening soirée with Fascists and Nazis on the Hindenburg--but such scenes aren't enough for Epstein.
Instead we're drawn into an even grander humanitarian effort by Max to save his fellow Jews from the concentration camps: using them as cheap and easy labor for the proposed monument while saving them from exile and extermination. Sure, it's a noble mission, but a clichéd mission nonetheless; we've seen and read stories like this before, and it's a shame we can't spend more time with the regime, constantly tottering on the brink of ridiculousness with its bloated pomp and circumstance.
More awkward still is that you never really understand why Max would find himself so attached to Prince and Co., especially while the Italian state grows increasingly hostile toward its Jewish population. Max does have a scholarly passion and an obsessive pining for one of Prince's daughters, but the architect himself is such an obnoxious character that he becomes just another cardboard cutout, much like Epstein's Mussolini. Both characters speak in annoyingly artificial dialects: Prince's journal is littered with country-twang wordplay that stops being cute after the fourth appearance ("horse-pit-ality"), and Mussolini, when speaking in English, sounds like the boss of the corner pizza place: "Amos-a. Dear Prince. I'mma the fool. Always the fool. Why I no listen what you say? Now I'mma going to die."
Fantastical a conceit as it is, The Eighth Wonder of the World isn't grounded by true characters--real or historical--but rather elaborate footnotes. Like Prince's shimmering tower, it's a grand conceit that is never fully realized.