on May 4, 2012
In this review, I'm going to briefly compare and contrast two Davids who have each "crossed paths", one by moving to the right; the other, to the left. I'll then discuss Patriots in more detail.
Frum's Patriots is an over-the-top satire of Frum's views of the contemporary US Republican (and Conservative) movement. Just as talented playwright David Mamet has lurched to the right in recent years, Frum, a former speech-writer for George W. Bush, has lurched to the left.
The Mamet/Frum comparison is, I think, not entirely inapt. Both have chosen to examine what they each have viewed as the unravelling of American Culture. Mamet is unquestionably a better writer, though I tend to think Frum has a little more gravitas as a popular intellectual. Indeed, Frum's awkwardly titled (2000) book, How We Got Here: The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life -- For Better or Worse, is a clever and thoughtful look at the damaging [in Frum's view at the time] effects of the 1970's on America.
Mamet's first work of political non-fiction, The Secret Knowledge (2011) comes off as far more anecdotal, and somewhat angrier than Frum's best work (How We Got Here). This isn't to disparage Mamet's The Secret Knowledge (2011), but if I had to pick one book about the unravelling of American Culture from an intelligent conservative perspective, I'd probably pick Frum's 2000 work.
On fiction? No contest. Mamet, whether as a liberal or conservative, beats Frum hands down. Is that a fair comparison, though? Perhaps not. Some context though, for anyone who wishes to judge what my own biases and thoughts might be.
So: Patriots. An engaging book? Surprisingly, yes. Frum is a reasonably talented writer, and though Patriots falls short of his best work, he does have the excuse that his narrator is introduced as a lazy and unreliable scion of great wealth. There are one or two moments in editing, but no more (and perhaps fewer) than the typical well-produced book of today from a major publisher, and nothing indefensible.
Endless observations of food, wine and clothing come off as tiresome and superficial, but to give Frum credit, I think that is exactly his intent, though at times this is used as a tedious weapon to excoriate other characters, almost invariably conservatives.
Ignoring the political context, it's a passable, though unexceptional novel featuring an arc (or several) of failure, and one of redemption. Nothing revolutionary here, and certainly not as interesting as the 1959 Washington political novel, Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury.
And here we have a problem. If we snip out the politics, this is fairly dull stuff.
What of the politics? Frum, wisely, possibly on the advice of libel lawyers, or as a Harvard (1987) J.D., has veiled everyone in thinly disguised pseudonyms. It's not difficult to tell who Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Andrew Breitbart and James Taranto are, but, yes, technically, they have different names. On that point, Taranto needs to get a better agent; he seems to come off as repetitive and hackish rather than (like the rest) frothingly vile in Frum's view.
And indeed these characters are uniformly frothing-at-the-mouth tiresome lunatics. "Ah!" I hear a liberal reader saying. "But that's exactly what those people are". Let's assume that's true for just a moment (I don't believe it is, but let's assume it). A book about such thinly sketched characters, unless you're buying it to feed into your own ideological pre-judgements, is... well... awfully tiresome.
A good character, especially the villain of the piece, should be well sketched. There should be a reason why the character is malign. We should be able to sympathize with the character and see him, or her as a human being, a man in full, with all the complexities that entails. Indeed, it's often best that unless the villain is a sociopath, he or she should convincingly believe that he or she is fighting for a righteous cause.
Frum executes this almost not at all. He has a brief revealing moment from a later employer of the protagonist that what the "Constitutionalist" (aka Republican) party is doing is just fine because it's what the "Nationalist" (i.e., Democratic) party used to do to them.
Apart from this rather jejune playground rationale, virtually all of Frum's conservative characters are cardboard caricatures, tiresome in their similarity. They love fancy food, free booze, surround themselves with token minorities, love trashing anyone in their way, and seem to have no other interests in life.
It's possible all of Frum's former friends and coworkers are like this. I think it highly unlikely, but even if it's true, it makes for terribly dull reading.
It also says something about Frum, if true.
Ultimately I admit to some bias. Frum loses a star in his astonishingly cruel and petty portrayal of conservative women, minorities, and the recently deceased.
It's not just lazy writing, it's cruel, and in enjoying other aspects of his first novel I feel sadly diminished given that cruelty and that pettiness.
Do I recommend you buy this? No. If you want to buy a Frum book, buy his work on the 1970's. Or go read anything -- anything at all -- by David Mamet.
Full disclosure: I do not and have not worked in government, politics, lobbying or any connected field, and I've never worked with Frum. I have exchanged one or two polite emails with him in the past -- when he worked for National Review -- and I think he is an insightful and intelligent man. I once, bizarrely, had lunch with his sister, a Canadian Senator (there were six others at the table though).