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Patriots or: How I Learned To Start Worrying And Love America
, May 10, 2012
[EDIT: an alternative version of this review can now be found at Huffington Post UK: [...]]
"Patriots", David Frum's debut novel, purports to be an unsparing exposé of modern American politics - and, indeed, it is. In methodical and devastating fashion, the author dissects each and every dyspeptic, jaundiced organ of the body politic, or more specifically the conservative parts of same. The book's true and lasting impact, however, may lie elsewhere. Frum, an unabashed free-marketeer and longtime Republican footsoldier, has written a novel of class warfare.
Do I exaggerate? Very little, I think. Consider the following extracts, all taken from the same brief chapter:
"But step inside, help yourself to a glass of champagne from a waiter, then walk toward the wall of glass at the back of the marble-floored reception room: first you stared out toward the frozen rocky Potomac River and across to the cliffs of the Maryland shore. Then the eye was drawn downward, toward the rest of the house: three stories of living space cantilevered from the cliff face."
"The guest list sparkled as brightly as the vermeil electric candlestick sconces."
"As the waiters removed the gold-rimmed plates, Forrest rose to his feet to propose his own toast - not in diet Coke, but in the latest of the evening's succession of costly wines."
On and on it goes throughout, with every opulent detail of this barely-fictional universe described in pornographic detail amid a flurry of designer brand names. Meanwhile, there is a constant, distant-but-menacing backdrop of economic deprivation and misery in America at large. The streets are crowded with the homeless and desperate, but to the novel's privileged characters, these people barely register as an annoyance. Something clearly has to give, which is where our protagonist and narrator comes in.
Walter Schotzke is the aimless scion to a celebrated mustard dynasty, quietly drifting through his twenties with no career, no animating principles and no plan save waiting for his inheritance. Having exhausted the patience of his domineering grandmother and doting girlfriend, young Walter finds himself railroaded into a job in the office of a U.S. Senator, a friend of the family.
His arrival in Washington comes at a propitious time - for him, anyway. The nation's first black president has just lost re-election to a popular, Eisenhower-esque former general and war hero. On assuming office, the new president, a Thomas Friedman column come to life, declares his determination to solve the nation's many problems by working across party lines. This outrages the hardline conservatives in his own party, who immediately stage a mutiny. Through a complex series of events, Walter becomes an integral part of this conspiracy, largely against his own (negligible) will.
"Patriots" takes place in a universe closely adjacent to our own. The two parties have different names, the economic crisis has different, if vaguely-defined, causes and no real-life political figures appear. Perhaps most significantly, America is trapped in a military quagmire - in Mexico, not the Middle East. Frum, a man forlornly resigned to having "former speechwriter for George W. Bush" as a semi-official first name, may have made the latter change to keep his own baggage out of the reader's mind.
In any case, the conceit works, with anti-Mexican paranoia becoming a substitute for the anti-Muslim demagoguery that is the bread and butter of so much conservative discourse. When a military scandal brings the loyalty of Mexican-American soldiers into question, the "Constitutionalist" mutineers seize on the opportunity. An angry populist movement is brought into existence to apply pressure on the White House, cheered on by talk radio, Patriot (aka Fox) News and other thinly-disguised mainstays of the conservative movement. As Walter bears witness to and participates in these machinations, his conscience begins to rebel.
Here, the class-warfare angle becomes crucial. Frum draws the rank-and-file of the Tea Party analogue (the "Trucker Protests") with a great deal of sympathy, as people struggling through hard times, angry, confused and manipulated by elites. It is the latter for whom he reserves his deepest contempt. The central point here is unmistakable: these are people with nothing at stake. As the book's Rush Limbaugh/Mark Levin equivalent puts it:
"Monroe Williams was the greatest thing ever to happen to talk radio. Galvanized our audience. Winning this election has put them to sleep. Now I can wake them up again."
In other words: it's a mortgage to you, to me it's just business. Frum depicts a world where the exercise of power takes place entirely in a gilded bubble of penthouses and champagne receptions, a place where "recession" is a completely abstract concept. I was reminded of the scenes in Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall" where Eva Braun desperately organises wild bacchanals in the Führerbunker as Berlin collapses around her ears.
To be clear, these are not Nazis and the Red Army is not yet at the gates. Nevertheless, the extremes of social stratification and elite indifference depicted here would not disgrace a Marxist pamphlet - I mean that as a compliment - and the author's righteous anger crackles through every page. If you want to know how the United States government ended up spending most of 2011 arguing fruitlessly over the budget deficit while millions of Americans continued to lose jobs, money and hope, look no further.
All this might give you the impression that "Patriots" is a dour and self-serious political tract. Nothing could be further from the truth. The novel is animated by a wry, understated wit and a rich sense of absurdity, the latter probably a necessity to stave off the author's despair in the reality he is depicting. Beltway junkies will also have fun spotting the real-life figures whose fictional counterparts are subjected to brutal satirical demolition jobs. I didn't think my opinion of the late and little-lamented Andrew Breitbart could be any lower than it already was. I was wrong.
Inevitably for a first novel, there are imperfections. The author has set himself a prohibitively difficult balancing act: Walter Schotzke must simultaneously be a clueless young wastrel carried along on the tide AND the vehicle for Frum's acid, well-informed satirical observations. Occasionally this results in the narrator displaying an incongruent self-awareness, as though temporarily possessed by the soul of, say, a jaded, fifty-something Canadian-American pundit.
I would also have appreciated a deeper examination of racial issues, though I appreciate a novel can only focus on so many things at once. In fact, there is one very subtle and telling moment that says more than any ten-thousand-word polemic on the subject ever could. At the luxurious gathering depicted in the extracts above, the host, in a flourish of anti-immigrant chauvinism, informs his guests that every member of the serving staff that evening is a natural-born American. The narrator confirms this visually, while glancing over a secondary detail: every single server is black.
As "Patriots" drew to its surprisingly optimistic conclusion, I was reminded of George Orwell's comment on Dickens; that his work displayed "generous anger". As those of us who have followed his writing in recent years can testify, that description fits David Frum elegantly. This book is the work of that rare thing: a member of the elite with full awareness of his own privilege, desperately trying to shake some sense into his peers. For all our sakes, we must hope he succeeds.