Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Great political novels

Originated in a response to a post on Taegan Goddard's terrific Political Wire.

A few by my hero, Ross Thomas (public relations specialist, reporter, union spokesman, political consultant, eventually author of political thrillers: Wikipedia entry here):

The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967): fantastic novel, told from the perspective of an ex-reporter-turned-political-writer, who accompanies Democratic political consultant and New Orleans Creole Clinton Shartelle to a thinly-disguised Nigeria, where they are to honcho the election campaign of a candidate in the newly-independent nation's first elections. Fantastically cynical, very well-informed, Shartelle is the coolest political operative ever, and it turns out he's an ex-Wobbly.

The Fools in Town are on Our Side (1970): protagonist gets out of a Hong Kong jail after having been imprisoned without trial on a failed espionage charge and is recruited by a group of sociopathic political operatives who have been hired to so-far-destroy the infrastructure of an anonymous Mason-Dixon Line ciity (OK City, maybe) that the voters will hire the same sociopaths to build a political machine. Story cuts back-and-forth between this plot and the protagonist's recollections of growing up, the orphaned son of a Protestant Missionary, in a Shanghai whorehouse just after the Japanese occupation.

The Porkchoppers (1972): Very dark and pessimistic account of a campaign for union presidency between a very-long-in-office alcoholic president (and failed actor) and his psychopathic challenger. Wonderful collection of misfits and crippled personalities running the campaigns on each side.

Missionary Stew (1983): This, with "Seersucker Whipsaw", is my favorite Ross Thomas. Morgan Citron, a travel writer, is releaseed from a Central African (maybe Angolan?) dungeon by Amnesty International shortly after having discovered he may have unwittingly participated in cannibalism (when he and his cellmates were fed a stew of "mystery meat"). He is hired by the campaign fundraiser of a young, Jerry Brown-style California governor-elect, to follow up on rumors of a "private war" fought in a Central African republic, when agents of two different USA covert agencies mistakenly shot it out with each other over a failed drug deal.

This are only a few. Equally great are "Ah! Treachery" and "Twilight at Matt's Place", both starring Thomas's recurrent hero-duo of saloon owner Mac McCorkle and his partner, the ex-OSS assassin Michael Padillo, and the series of novels starring his con-men-with-a-heart-of-gold, Artie Wu (the Pretender to the throne of China) and Quincy Durant (who carries scars on his back from torture in a Cambodian prison): "Chinaman's Chance" (sleazeball Southern California politics), "Out on the Rim" (fantastic double-double-cross plot attempting to bribe an overage Filipino guerrila out of the hills and thus reinstate the Marcos regime), and "Voodoo Ltd" (more California skullduggery).

Thomas made his first authorial success writing Westerns and crime potboilers (not unlike another great American political writer, Elmore Leonard), but the best of his stuff is cynical, very well informed about Washington's nefariousness (hints that he had info on CIA misadventures around the world, including both El Salvador and the Kennedy assassination), and hilarious to boot.

My top four, and the first four I'd recommend, would be "Whipsaw," "Missionary Stew," (for their locales and colorful major and minor characters), and "Treachery" and "Out on the Rim" (for the great antiheros Edd Partain, and Wu/Durant).

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