So-called midstream fictions of international intrigue or of American politics—and of the filiations between them—have become almost as dependent as the movies themselves on certain formulae. There are no test-market audiences or focus groups for fiction (if one exempts Tom Wolfe’s repeated trial runs in the pages of Rolling Stone), but those who compose and confect thrillers often write as if there were. Conventions are, if not iron, at the very least inelastic. And the effect upon style is almost inescapably a flattening and also a sentimentalizing one. When I had put down two out of these three offerings, I found that they hadn’t contained a single adhesive or memorable line or passage. Nor had they exerted the least upward pressure on my sense of outrage or engagement. And the satirical or ironic element was absent altogether. Was this always so? It took gratifyingly little time to recall, and to locate, the following excerpts from those political classics which once aspired—as do the latest ones—to be a cut above the market for mere pulp:
Although you could do no more than “deplore” a number of slaughtered children, there was in existence means of preventing one particular aspect of the principle of expediency from doing too much damage. Most international crimi-nals were beyond the reach of man-made laws; Dimitrios happened to be within reach of one law. He had committed at least two murders and had therefore broken the law as surely as if he had been starving and had stolen a loaf of bread.
(Eric Ambler,A Coffin For Dimitrios)
“He’s ready to sell out,” thought Gorman in surprise. He was not surprised by the duplicity—he had known Camaratta for many years—but by its speed. The candidates had barely had time to declare themselves: it was a record in quick treachery, even for Camaratta. There were other possible interpretations of the clumsily circumspect phrases, but in these matters Gorman trusted absolutely in his instinct, and he had not the slightest doubt of what was happening: Camaratta was about to sell his candidate down the river. Nucatolla’s slight, swarthy, foolishly trusting body was even now on the slab, marked ready for delivery: to himself Gorman thoughtfully said: Enrico, me bucko, out you go. Precisely what had led up to this betrayal, he did not know; he had heard of no discontent in the Nucatolla camp. Still, there needed to be none; Nucatolla at best had no great strength, and the situation was ripe for the well-known Camaratta double cross. The bay was clogged with the bodies of innocents who had at one time or another put their faith in the laughing promises of this squat manipulator.
“When you come right down to it, there are only two points that really count.”
Skeffington held up two fingers. “One,” he said, ticking the first, “‘All Ireland must be free.’ Two,” he said, ticking the second, “‘Trieste belongs to Italy.’ They count. At the moment the first counts—more than the second, but that’s only because the Italians were a little slow in getting to the boats.”
(Edwin O’Connor,The Last Hurrah)
There is always something. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.
(Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men)
With admonitions and insights—and moments of wit—of that sort, much can be forgiven. Eric Ambler, who died recently aged eighty-nine, revolutionized the English traditional “thriller” by combining a knowledge of the technical and industrial world with a tough-minded attitude to the political one. (He wrote his first half-dozen novels as a conscious anti-Fascist and then, with Judgement on Deltchev in 1948, produced one of the earliest and finest of the anti-Stalinist genre.) There are some infelicities in Ambler’s sentences, and some implausibilities and contrivances in O’Connor’s plot, but the synapses are evidently crackling, and some risks are being taken, and words are made to count, or perhaps I should say tell.
Neil Gordon, author also of Sacrifice of Isaac, falls at the plausibility fence—and also makes the mistake of trying to be too up-to-date (than which, if you will allow the expression, nothing stales more rapidly). Here’s Martha Ohlinger, the more or less standard-issue investigative reporter who features in most such narratives:
Martha had been nearly estranged from her father since she’d told Clinton at a White House dinner that the only person in America fit to be president was Gore Vidal. Clinton, the way Martha told the story, had seemed rather to agree with her….
This is, for a number of reasons, some distance from the bull’s-eye. And even if the President and the author of Lincoln may have fortuitously moved closer together since this book was written, I don’t myself think that Vidal would credit a plot which has Clinton arresting a senior Israeli arms dealer, on the eve of a midterm election, for the crime of trying to smuggle arms to the martyred people of Bosnia. (As Ronald Reagan sweetly said, excusing himself from starring in Bonzo Goes to College—sequel to the finer Bedtime for Bonzo—“A chimp goes to university? Not believable.”)
Other real-life characters, mainly reporters, also feature under their own names, and there is a running presumption that the American press is obsessed with exposing the milieu of the military-industrial complex. (As Joan Didion nearly did say in a more intensely actualized recent fiction, this is the last thing they want.) Such lapses from realism marry well with another, equally ill suited to an idiom which emphasizes the ruthless and the hard-nosed. Nobody acts with any regard for his or her own well-being or self-interest. And for some reason—this occurs in more than one such book—the favorite location for a holiday from self-preservation is Martha’s Vineyard. It is on the Vineyard that Allison Rosenthal, daughter of the above- mentioned Israeli gun runner, decides to have a suicidal fling with the one man who can do her cause most harm, and also to put herself in multiple jeopardy by fooling about with the titles to some near-oceanfront property (the latter described with every evidence of on-the-spot research). In this setting, too, she broods on the sinister Colonel Greg Eastbrook, right-wing thug and military man. Helpfully for us, she reminds herself:
Colonel Eastbrook was running in the November midterm elections for a Senate seat in California. Like most people she knew, she had followed the campaign with interest. Eastbrook had been in the NSC during Iran-contra, and his campaign was modeled closely on North’s in Virginia.
“Modeled” how “closely”? Though this plainly isn’t the author’s intention, it doesn’t sound as if Colonel Eastbrook has much concept of self-preservation, either. People often don’t quite notice what they are saying (I recall James Hoffa, Jr., declaring that his ambition was “to follow in my father’s footsteps”), but they should take more care when they write. This would also have saved Gordon from letting Martha Ohlinger announce: “I got an example for every decade since the war of an administration abrogating [sic] to itself the tools of the Justice Department, Alley girl.”
There’s a very slight adolescent reminiscence—it’s Allison who’s being addressed—of Holden Caulfield’s habit of ending his remarks by saying “Ackley, kid,” and the trick is repeated almost as often. By accident—or so I think—Martha becomes a Miss Malaprop to whose appearances I began to look forward:
“I tell you what, though. I’m not leaving you for a second till this house of yours is closed and you’re back in the city. Something changes, you’ll need Governor Weld to get the national guard to protect you from the press out here. In New York, you can hide. Know who taught me that? Kathy Boudin. So let’s hop to it, doll. This fucking island’s starting to feel like Auschwitz to me, and we got arbeit that’ll macht us the fuck frei.”
And so the girls say farewell to Martha’s Vineyard. Once back in the big city, however, Allison perhaps wisely does not hide in the manner popularized by Kathy Boudin. She hangs out her shingle above a downtown bar, thus inviting potential assassins who must be fended off by her personal bodyguard of humorous and resourceful Meir Kahane supporters from not-very-nearby Brooklyn. She also lures to her side full-time the one prosecutor who has the most to lose by being seen, however fleetingly, in her company. (“And then he saw that she was removing, one by one, her jacket, then her sweater; then her bra; her sneakers, then her pants, then her underwear.” The old one-by-one trick, eh? Lucky for him she didn’t try to discard them all at once.) By this wile, she inflicts a reversal of fortune on the forces of evil which she secretly thinks are good, and confounds the forces of good which she privately thinks are evil. (The latter, by the way, are her surviving male family members. There was an adored and brilliant gay brother, who ended badly, in an apparent suicide, which oddly, in view of the nature of his father’s business, nobody thought to investigate.)
I note in passing that Hutu are confused with Tutsi, which may help to explain the bizarre realization, given to Allison Rosenthal in the closing sequence, that “only the innocent, she knew, wake unafraid.” I should have thought it was rather to the contrary, especially in a world where the ruthless always win. But this illustrates the way in which sentimentality has come to dominate even the gritty narratives of the supposed tough guys.
The same difficulty, as well as some other ones, afflicts Richard North Patterson’s effort to produce melodrama on the stage of the American “campaign trail.” International arms dealers and mysterious electronic money transfers have indeed been known to play their part in this otherwise rather colorless process, but those activities belong to another genre and, again, there are those darned conventions, in the novelistic sense, to be observed. You need, in no special order, an idealistic candidate with a nerve-racking secret in his past (“There is always something”); a confrontation between high purposes and low, compromising pragmatism; a broth-of-a-boy Irish professional pol with a heart of gold; and the threat of a stalking assassin.
Don’t worry—none of these has been left out. Patterson even makes the charismatic candidate and the Irish boy into the same person, which requires no excess of imagination in view of the fact that the boy challenger is Senator Kerry Kilcannon, a feller haunted—as who would not be?—by the eerie fact that his adored brother (adored older brother, to be precise) was cut down by an assassin’s bullet while running for the presidency. The scene of both Kilcannons’ boyhood, which before you ask was close-knit, full of drunken cops and long-suffering wives, unswervingly Catholic and staunchly Democratic, strong on neighborhood values but yielding a bit to black and brown encroachment, is New Jersey. This must have taken some authorial daring: more daring, at any rate, than the suggestion that the book’s statutory incumbent suffers from “recurring allegations of adulterous affairs, one involving the President’s principal economic advisor and the break-up of her marriage.”This last might seem like bad news for Erik Tarloff, the screenwriter husband of Laura D’Andrea Tyson, until recently the chair of Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. But Tarloff has drawn the sting in his own forthcoming novel Face Time, wherein a Washington couple survives an adultery in which the—Imean a—President is the named third party. Do Idigress?
Apart from the New Jersey variation, the essentials of a Last Hurrah pastiche are preserved with pedantic exactitude. Will you welcome, please, Liam Dunn, the soft-spoken ward heeler who knows a thing or two and has a good word for everybody, and Kevin Loughery, the boy who learned his way out and up? The first was Kerry Kilcannon’s street mentor and moral tutor, a man equally at home in boxing gyms and parochial schools, and the second is his press secretary. Nor is Boston left off the map altogether. The brooding loner who shadows the favorite son is from that great cradle and is called Sean Burke, and commits his first murders while trying to shut down an abortion clinic there. He kills the physician, the nurse and then hesitates over the red-haired woman in the waiting room, as if to say: this will one day be a full-dress screenplay instead of a swiftly remaindered novel, and we must have ambivalence:
Sean felt the blood rush to his face. He stood, humiliated and confused, blood pounding like a trip-hammer in his temples. His finger squeezed the trigger.
“Please. I only came here for an IUD…”
Sean dropped his gun and ran from the building.
And Patterson drops the ball. Research-wise, I mean, not with the hopeless platitude about the blood pounding hammerlike in the temples. A true Operation Rescue fanatic knows full well that an IUD is an abortifacient device. And it’s easy to guess that the woman in question is not with child. Sean should have let her have it right in the thorax. As it is, he emulates Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver by attempting to worm his way into the affections of pretty young staffers on the Kilcannon campaign. Despite his near-leprous personal appearance, he succeeds in this without undue strain—except upon the reader.
Being platonically pro-choice is not the least of Senator Kilcannon’s dilemmas. But it has, like his other moral tortures, nothing in common with those experienced in the course of an actual campaign. For one thing, it is discussed with great solemnity, in public and private, as if it actually mattered rather than as if it mattered politically. Patterson doesn’t seem to have heard of the sound bite. But he has been to see Bulworth. Don’t go telling Kerry Kilcannon that he mustn’t do high-visibility events in black or Hispanic neighborhoods, because he will shame you with his courage. As he puts it to his handlers:
“I value all of your thoughts,” he said politely. “Sometimes hearing out an argument makes things clearer. And this is pretty clear to me. On Friday I’m going to the Latino section of San Francisco and then to South Central Los Angeles. Period.”
Patterson has told us that his fictional models are Allen Drury and James Gould Cozzens, and that his beau ideal of a campaign is the one waged by Robert Kennedy. Of course, when Kennedy ran in the California primary in 1968 he publicly accused Eugene McCarthy of wanting to move tens of thousands of blacks out of Watts and into Orange County. (McCarthy’s private response? “I don’t think they’ll want to go.”) The Drury and Cozzens style of pedantry, however, is followed with more fidelity. In the dialogue, and description, nothing is left to chance:
When they slid into bed, the sheets felt crisp and cool. And then she was against him, murmuring, “Kerry,” and he no longer felt alone.
Presumably not. In conversational terms, however, the senator pays a high price for his nights of bliss:
Lara gazed into her coffee cup. “I didn’t look for this. But we knew that sometime…” She shook her head. “I don’t expect you to do anything about this. I don’t even want you to. But our careers are getting all tangled up with us.”
These penis-shriveling words are spoken amid the unfashionable obscurities of—Martha’s Vineyard! Thither the fugitive lovers have repaired, in search of a place where nobody will notice a senator and a candidate taking his ease with a woman not his wife. “Lara,” you must know, is a fearless investigative reporter, conjured by the imagination of Patterson, who having been attached to Kilcannon also allows herself to become attached, for coverage purposes, to his campaign. This lapse in her judgment threatens to become a test of his, because here, surely, we have the making of a “conflict of interest.” On its own, such a confected dilemma might not be enough to derail an entire candidacy, let alone an entire novel, but there is always that reckless disregard to be deployed. It can first be noticed in a larger passage of sheer boilerplate, which describes the hiring of the team:
They had chosen Kit Pace, the quick-tongued press secretary, in part because a visible woman aide would help a candidate who had no wife; Frank Wells, the gifted media consultant, because the fact that no one wanted him working for Dick Mason outweighed his reputation for self-aggrandizement; and the campaign pollster Jack Sleeper, young and bearded and cocky, because Kerry liked people who defied conventional wisdom.
The last two advisers were Nat Schlesinger, the wealthy public relations executive, whose personal signature was the bow tie,…and Mick Lasker, the sharp-featured California campaign manager, a Los Angeles lawyer….
Well, as I may have said before, I think that’s everything, from the defiance of conventional wisdom to the Schlesinger with the bow tie and the lawyer with the sharp features. Wait, though. Go back, if you dare. Why should a visible woman aide (“quick-tongued” at that, as if a slow-tongued one would be feasible) help a candidate with no wife? It’s the old self-preservation problem again. More than three hundred pages later, this same Kit Pace is revealed to have a live-in lesbian lover. Kilcannon is represented as being so big and broad-minded about this that he didn’t even know about it. But he must at least have known she was unmarried, an even greater help to a bachelor candidate…
Patterson followed the Bush and Dole campaigns, but he still has reporters rushing to pay phones all the time and striving not to be overheard, as if laptops and cell phones and e-mail were in some distant future. As the crucial debate draws near, we are introduced to the campaign manager for the other team, Bill Finnerty, who proves to be “a shambling white-haired Irishman from the Boston school of bare-knuckle politics.” I think he would have turned up even if the novel had been set in Louisiana. The assassin gets off a shot but it’s not lethal, and in a hospital bed Kilcannon and Lara decide that a girl reporter can overcome even the appearance of a conflict of interest if she consents to become First Lady. They could, one feels, have resolved that in the first place.
William Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts who made a cameo appearance in The Gun Runner’s Daughter, is not tempted by anything other than the full-dress Boston politics melodrama, but (perhaps cleverly) eschews Martha’s Vineyard. He also compels his narrator to make a knight’s move into political combat, starting him off with the generic name Terence Mullally but casting him as a tough-minded DA. This is nothing but shrewd, since it is lawyers and courts, not politicians and elections, that really grip the public imagination. “Politics” is formulaic and consensual and largely fixed, whereas the courtroom is arranged for confrontation and quite often serves up unexpected verdicts. (Those who refer to “the honorable gentleman from Delaware” have largely lost the power to make the formality into a sarcasm, while those who utter the word “counselor” can still make the courtesy sting.) I won’t say that Weld avoids cliché altogether—the first set of cops we meet are called John Casey, Luis Garcia, and Rudy Solano, like some lost platoon from a World War II movie—but I will say that he makes the effort, even when he is demonstrating fealty to the O’Connor tradition. (Sometimes a little too much fealty, as in: “Our pollster, Snoopy Smullins, was quite a piece of work.”) At a St. Paddy’s day fiesta in the James Michael Curley Center, all potential candidates are compelled to pass the “standing mike” test, and make a speech extempore. The hidden echo, of the “standing mike” and the “falling down Mick,” may or may not be intentional. At any rate, Weld has a good ear:
“And it’s great to see the lieutenant governor, too,” O’Reilly went on, hitting the adjective so hard everyone forgot this was the second-ranking office in all of state government. “I saw him greet a voter at the door, and he said, ‘How do you do? I’m the lieutenant governor.’ And the fellow said, ‘Well, nice to meet you. What do you do?’ And the lieutenant governor replied, ‘I just did it.”‘
It’s clear that the Republican Weld profited from his observations of Democratic Party culture in its Bostonian heartland. His discussion of the abortion issue, for example, comes much closer to the knuckle than Patterson’s brow-furrowing solemnities. Here is the protagonist trying a familiar weasel tactic:
Here I broke in. “Lanny, how about we salami it on abortion, we’re actually prochoice, but troubled by taxpayer funding, that sort of thing?”
“Oh, that’s good, Terry. Very good idea, particularly given what we’ve already said. Terry, that would be like if England switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right side in stages—trucks this week, buses next week, then foreign cars, last but not least the few surviving Morris Minors….”
One can, at least, hear this being said by a real person, and also imagine it resulting from an actual strategy session. Weld tips his hand a few times in this manner, most revealingly by cashing in on local Anglophobia and mounting a staunch defense of the “new” Hong Kong as opposed to the stuffy old colonial one. Irish Republicanism and American Republicanism have few tropes in common, but this is certainly one of them (“Trieste belongs to Italy”).
Plausibility is not sacrificed so easily in this story, because in the past of a zealous prosecutor/candidate it is quite probable that a skeleton or two has undergone a hugger-mugger interment. On the whole, also, Terence Mullally does not despise his own self-interest. It’s true that he takes an amazingly long time to work out what line of business his own father was in (“Nobody buys that many tins of cranberry sauce. Or Frye boots. Or flatirons…”), but generally speaking he behaves in a sma43rt and calculating manner, and doesn’t exasperate the reader by committing suicidal stupidities. Alas, though, when we come to the door of the bedroom or the lip of the down sleeping bag, Weld is afflicted by the same archness as his rivals:
I held Emma for a long time. It was the most natural thing in the world for us to become intimate, as we did.
“You’re my thrush,” I whispered, when I was sure she was asleep.
A compliment she could not easily have returned in a waking state.
In an exchange between John Randolph and Robert Livingston, Randolph exclaimed, not without contrivance: “Your record, sir, resembles a rotting mackerel by moonlight: it shines and it stinks.” Weld, in other words, has some regard for tradition. His political asides are astute, and one of them—“You never know where your next coalition is coming from”—is a modern-day mantra for opportunists. Those who try to produce political fiction should remember that the “action” isn’t everything. O’Connor in The Last Hurrah didn’t have Mayor Frank Skeffington brought down by a scandal, however lurid, because if a scandal was enough he would have been brought down long before. Rather, he showed that bossmanship of the old school was dying anyway, and that the New Deal had deposed old-fashioned local patronage by deploying federal pork. O’Connor, also, was the first political novelist to realize the importance of television spots as against merely ward heeling. Robert Penn Warren made some equally deft points about populism in Louisiana with much more vivid and complex characterization. The reproach to the new crop of campaign thriller writers, then, is that they have studied Politics rather than politics, and that they can be so easily out-pointed by an actual practicing politician who writes in his spare time.
December 17, 1998