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Thursday, July 1, 2010

"The Overton Window," A Visit From the Good Squad," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Friday July 2, 2010
Glenn Beck
ISBN 978-1439184301
321 pages

Reviewed by Steven Levingston, a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World
The success of Glenn Beck's novel, "The Overton Window," will be measured not by its literary value (none), or its contribution to the thriller genre (small), or the money it rakes in (considerable), but rather by the rebelliousness it incites among anti-government extremists. If the book is found tucked into the ammo boxes of self-proclaimed patriots and recited at "tea party" assemblies, then Beck will have achieved his goal.
The story line, which fictionalizes Beck's well-known paranoia about a secret Big Government plan to crush the liberties of well-meaning citizens, is an extended call to arms, a rallying cry to his angry foot soldiers long stirred by his rantings on Fox News. As the last line of the book warns, "We're everywhere. ... The fight starts tomorrow."
The novel's evil mastermind is Arthur Gardner, a public relations genius who devised the Pet Rock fad, turned Mao and Che into counterculture fashion statements, created faux ailments such as restless leg syndrome for the drug industry and lifted several presidents to the White House regardless of party affiliation -- "ideology was just another interchangeable means to an end." Now he believes the American experiment in self-government has failed, and with the secret consent of the power elite, he is poised to manipulate the public to welcome his ultimate coup -- literally, the takeover of the nation, a "new beginning" as he puts it, "one world, ruled by the wise and the fittest and the strong, with no naive illusions of equality or the squandered promises of freedom for all."
With his PR brilliance, Gardner has succeeded in selling this destructive vision to the highest echelons of government. In public policy speak, he has pushed his outrageous scenario into the window of acceptability -- and provided Beck with his title. Beck has been exercised for some time over a concept called the Overton Window. Under this theory, put forward by public policy expert Joseph Overton, the public is willing to consider only a few ideas or scenarios as reasonable -- those are the ones that reside within the window. Radical notions remain outside the window, unfit for serious debate. However, in some cases, powerful forces can move the window, allowing for consideration of extreme ideas. And this is why Beck picked up his pen -- to warn readers that disregard for the Constitution is becoming acceptable, is creeping into the window, and must be resisted.
In a foreword, Beck notes that his thriller belongs in a category called "'faction' -- completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact." He attaches an afterword of nearly 30 pages that contains citations to references in the story: information on the financial bailout, unemployment, measures to ensure government operation after a disaster and the like. He laces his plot with these facts in the same manner he employs them on his TV show, to lend credence to his fantasy of a nefarious government scheme to subvert the Constitution.
But enough seriousness -- this is a thriller! Anyone who has tuned in to Beck's show knows that he is sometimes joined on-screen by best-selling thriller writers such as Vince Flynn and James Rollins. In his foreword, Beck notes his love of the genre and acknowledges that "the goal of most thrillers is to entertain." Sadly, he seems to have learned little from his thriller-writing friends.
Thrillers often are marred by laughable prose, but few have stumbled along with language as silly as this one. When Gardner's son, Noah, meets patriot Molly Ross early in the novel, Beck writes: "Something about this woman defied a traditional chick-at-a-glance inventory." It gets worse: When Noah notices that a few strands of Molly's hair have fallen out of place, Beck tells us, "these liberated chestnut curls framed a handsome face made twice as radiant by the mysteries surely waiting just behind those light green eyes."
The suspense of "The Overton Window" comes largely from wondering when the thrills will begin. There's the obligatory prologue murder, but then the pulse of this novel flatlines. In place of thrills, we get entire chapters in which characters lecture on the rightness of their viewpoints. A moment of cliche action erupts when a New York City taxi with Noah inside jumps a curb and nearly hits a hot dog stand. Later an atomic bomb goes off, but the mushroom cloud settles without so much as a dusty throat for anyone.
Far more entertaining is the cameo appearance by former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who leers at Molly in an elevator and then gives Noah "a man-to-man stamp of approval indicating their shared good taste in fine feminine company," after which Noah helpfully explains to Molly: Spitzer's "a total horndog."
A sure-fire killer of a thriller is predictability. Yet from the moment Noah lusts after Molly on page 9, we know he will have his epiphany, defy his terrible father and come over to the cause. It takes a while, but Noah finally makes the leap in his last utterance before the epilogue. His conversion is meant to rouse dormant patriots among Beck's readers and bring them onto the battlefield: "We have it in our power," Noah proclaims, "to begin the world over again."
Beck portrays his do-gooders as peaceful to the point of sappiness -- they live in simply furnished cabins with handmade quilts and "things (that) ... had been built and woven and carved and finished by skilled, loving hands." But this earthiness is grounded in a fervor, an obsession, to save America at any cost. Molly and her crowd assert their Second Amendment right to bear arms and are well stocked with weapons. They even make their own ammunition. Their insistence on nonviolence appears as disingenuous as anything out of the mouth of their nemesis, the insidious manipulator of reality Arthur Gardner. "There's nothing I wouldn't give up to defend my country," Molly says. "No matter how hard it might be, there's nothing that's in my power that I wouldn't do."
The danger of books like this is that radical readers may take the story's fiction for fact, or interpret the fiction -- which Beck encourages -- as a reflection of a reality that they must fend off by any means necessary. "The Overton Window" risks falling into the tradition of other anti-government novels such as "The Turner Diaries" by William L. Pierce, which became a handbook of extremists and inspired Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. As Beck tells his soldiers in the voice of Noah: "Put up or shut up ... go hard or go home. Freedom is the rare exception ... not the rule, and if you want it you've got to do your part to keep it."
Steven Levingston can be reached at levingstons(at symbol)

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Jennifer Egan
ISBN 978 0 307 59283 5
274 pages

Reviewed by Ron Charles, the fiction editor of The Washington Post Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)
If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile. Her new novel, "A Visit From the Goon Squad," is a medley of voices -- in first, second and third person -- scrambled through time and across the globe with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation reproduced toward the end.
I know that sounds like the headache-inducing, aren't-I-brilliant tedium that sends readers running to nonfiction, but Egan uses all these stylistic and formal shenanigans to produce a deeply humane story about growing up and growing old in a culture corroded by technology and marketing. And what's best, every movement of this symphony of boomer life plays out through the modern music scene, a white-knuckle trajectory of cool, from punk to junk to whatever might lie beyond. My only complaint is that "A Visit From the Goon Squad" doesn't come with a CD.
The novel is really a collection of de-linked short stories, almost all of them triumphs of technical bravado and tender sympathy. Each relates in some way to Bennie Salazar, a teenage bass player in San Francisco who falls hard for punk groups like the Dead Kennedys and the Sleepers. He's not a particularly talented musician, but he has the passion, and he holds together a ragtag band of desperate friends who run through names: "the Crabs, the Croks, the Crimps, the Crunch, the Scrunch, the Gawks, the Gobs." They play for drinks in underground bars where the patrons throw garbage at them before storming the stage. No matter the injuries and destruction, afterward "everyone agrees the gig went well."
One of the most heartbreaking stories, "Ask Me If I Care," is told by a homely girl who hangs out with the band, adoring Bennie but settling for his pimply friend. "I understand how this is supposed to work," she says. "I'm the dog, so I get Marty." Egan's fidelity to the raw longing of adolescence scrapes away any romanticism about the ease of youth. These kids are hopelessly adrift, convinced that everyone else around them can hear the beat they can't.
A scarifying story called "Out of Body" may be the only really successful piece I've read in the second person. Tragic and headlong, this chapter about a young man who's tired of pretending accelerates like a falling weight, and the garbage dump he dives into along the East River is a graphic symbol of the putrid moral waste these kids swim through.
The book's mixed structure is a challenge but a profitable one that repeatedly places the kids' hopes and fears in ironic juxtaposition with their adult selves. It's nothing so simple as the cool kids turning into dumpy adults while the dweebs win the yuppie rat race, but as you may have noticed at the last college reunion, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Again and again in these stories, characters wonder and ask one another, What happened? How did time, that punishing goon squad, creep over us and leave us with these flabby bodies, these remote spouses, these children we love but can't reach? And why, among everything we've lost -- talent, potency, hair -- do we still retain that desperate thirst for belonging?
Egan explores this painful theme in several stories that show us Bennie Salazar's adult life from different points of view. Scott Hausmann, once the band's handsome teenage star, delivers a pained, manic monologue 20 years later when disappointment and envy have driven him mad. A Cheever-like story about Bennie's aspirational wife shows the couple anxious to hobnob with the country-club set that won't have them. But the very first time we see Bennie his career as the legendary founder of Sow's Ear records is already fading. Divorced and full of shame, sprinkling gold in coffee and spraying his underarms with OFF!, he manages a dwindling collection of mediocre songwriters. He hates the "bloodless constructions" of contemporary pop, "husks of music, lifeless and cold as the squares of office neon cutting the blue twilight." He knows "nostalgia is death in this business," but he can't help pining for the past.
Egan spins this out in stories driven by empathy and wit, and some of the unique pleasure of her novel comes from those initial moments of dislocation at the start of each episode. She darts off unpredictably, reorienting the perspective by making a tangential character of a previous chapter the center of a new one, some fresh angle we couldn't possibly anticipate -- to Italy, to Africa, to New York, to wherever the vast web of relations leads.
Not every leap lands with equal precision, of course. A madcap comedy involving a genocidal dictator who's eager to improve his public image strains against Egan's sophisticated wit. And a chapter of fatuous celebrity gossip fits the theme well, but it's self-consciously clever, a bit too wink-wink.
The novel's most radical element, that long PowerPoint presentation near the end, is touching and effective in the kind of poignant way one wouldn't expect from such a po-mo stunt. (Don't bother flipping through it in the bookstore; it gains its considerable resonance only after you've read the stories that precede it.) Graphics like this have always struck me as a bit gimmicky, but in Egan's shape-shifting novel, the slides of a precocious girl's PowerPoint journal serve as a weirdly believable expression of the way modern technology mediates even our deepest yearnings.
And how exhilarating to see this loose confederation of stories coalesce in a final chapter set in 2020, in a world remade by the war on terror. Egan's turn to social satire in the guise of speculative fiction is not just one more arresting track on her brilliant album. Here, in ways that surprise and delight again, she transcends slick boomer nostalgia and offers a testament to the redemptive power of raw emotion in an age of synthetic sound and glossy avatars. Turn up the music, skip the college reunion and curl up with "The Goon Squad" instead.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Joshilyn Jackson
Grand Central
ISBN 978 0 446 58234 6
344 pages

Reviewed by Carolyn See, who regularly reviews books for The Washington Post
The subject of Joshilyn Jackson's powerful new novel is wife-beating. The beatings are rendered so graphically and mercilessly that you can't help being both sickened and mesmerized, and the story line is set up so that either the husband or the wife will have to die if their awful conflict is to end. This isn't a Gothic tale, but an ultrarealistic domestic drama narrated by a Southern housewife who spends her time between beatings making meatloaf and sweet tea.
Rose Mae Lolley was the prettiest girl in high school, originally from the little Alabama town of Fruiton. She dropped out, though, because of a terrible childhood; her mother ran off when Rose was only 8, leaving her in the care of a father who routinely beat her. When circumstances dictated that she run away, too, she waitressed her way around the South until she fetched up in Amarillo, Tex., where she married Thom, a bully whose father runs a chain of gun stores. Until now, Rose has made every effort to act the part of a good girl, and Thom actually tries once in a while to be a good husband, but not very hard.
To cope with being married to a creep like Thom, Rose invents an alter ego, Ro -- in fact, that is what her spouse calls her, too. Ro wears full skirts and ballerina flats and lives with awful Thom in a little brick starter house painted mint green. She works in her father-in-law's stores for minimum wage and faces an endless sea of shirts to be ironed, meals to be made, conjugal acts to be performed: "An hour before the sex, he'd held my head sideways in his big hand, my other cheek pressed into the cool plaster of the wall. I'd been pinned, limbs flailing helplessly sideways, while he ran four fast punches down one side of my back. Then he'd let me go and I'd slid down the wall into a heap and he'd said, 'Lord, Ro, why do you push me like that?'" (This occurs at the very beginning of the book; Thom is just getting started.)
Ro and Rose share a problem: Though they both inhabit the same body, one is good, one is bad. Ro is limitlessly perky and acts just the way (she thinks) her husband wants her to be. Her "bad" side, Rose, is a little more complex: She doesn't cheat on Thom, although he is obsessed with the idea; she doesn't drink or smoke; she rarely even fights back. Her "badness" consists of goading her husband into more and more brutality. Thom is portrayed as a one-dimensional monster here. His one weak excuse is that from time to time he must endure humiliating lectures from his own oafish dad.
Thom and Rose have come to a terrible impasse. It's kill or be killed. Neither of them is terribly bright; it never occurs to them that there's another way to live. But then Rose gets a literal Gypsy's warning. That is, someone who looks like a Gypsy does a tarot reading, telling her that it's a fight to the finish.
Could this woman possibly be the mother who abandoned her years ago? Does Rose (or Ro) have the guts to kill the wretched Thom? If Thom does make up his mind to kill his wife, will she be able to escape? Whom can she turn to, she who has scorned girls and women all her life and has only bully-men for friends? Questions like these keep the pages turning: The author is an expert at manipulating intricacies of plot.
All the way through, Joshilyn Jackson makes it seem as if the only way to stop a battering husband is to shoot his head off (not much comfort for women in the real world making meatloaf and enduring their own beatings). Wife-beating is still often condoned or ignored in this country, and shooting husbands is still against the law. But the author gives the reader no real solution at all in this otherwise interesting book.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Craig Nova
Shaye Areheart
ISBN 978 0 307 23693 7
306 pages

Reviewed by Stephen Amidon, whose most recent novel is "Security"
It is almost impossible to think about Weimar Berlin without a sense of impending doom. If ever a city was about to be plunged into historical darkness, it was the German capital circa 1930. This ill-fated metropolis is the setting for Craig Nova's powerfully atmospheric literary thriller "The Informer."
For Nova, Berlin is a place where corruption, betrayal and spasmodic violence run through the streets as regularly as the city's S-Bahn trains. The heroine of his story is Gaelle, a young prostitute with a badly scarred face who uses her profession to serve as a spy for several of Berlin's political and criminal organizations. It is a perilous life, made riskier by the fact that the city's prostitutes are being murdered at an alarming rate. Her only confidant is Felix, a 16-year-old pimp whose youth and frailty mask a lethal cunning.
Gaelle's life grows even more complicated when she is approached by Bruno Hauptmann, a well-tailored, champagne-sipping Nazi who asks her to be his informant. She agrees, though she soon decides to play one side of the city's political divide against the other by peddling the same bit of information to both Hauptmann and Mani Carlson, the leader of a violent communist faction known as the Red Front Fighters. Although Mani is initially dubious of Gaelle, he soon sees her as a means of scoring points with his Moscow bosses, who are threatening him with a one-way ticket to the interrogation room over his accounting irregularities.
Meanwhile, Gaelle comes to the attention of Armina Treffen, a female detective charged with investigating the prostitute killings. In the course of her investigation, Armina is discovering the limits of everyday policing in a city where there is little separation between the personal and the political. Gaelle also attracts Karl, a hulking enforcer for Mani's faction, who believes the damaged young woman to be his salvation. Whether Armina and Karl can keep Gaelle from drowning in the city's various lethal tides forms the story's dramatic crux.
While never quite reaching the giddy heights of Graham Greene or John le Carre, Nova admirably combines the virtues of serious literature with a gripping, thriller-like account of sexual and political treachery. His spare prose keeps the reader's eyes locked on the story, even as it occasionally erupts into striking elegance. After Felix washes Gaelle's stockings, he stares down into the tub, where the "soap bubbles broke and reminded him of the slight tick of wet lips as they opened to give a kiss." In the novel's unexpected but apt coda, set in 1945, a swarm of dragonflies unexpectedly descends, looking like "someone was tossing bits of a broken mirror into the air."
Although "The Informer" contains enough suspense to keep the pages turning as if they have been caught in a stiff breeze, its central characters never feel shallow or mechanical. Armina is a particularly fine creation, a woman whose loneliness finds an eerie echo in the fate of the prostitutes whose murders she investigates. As for the disfigured Gaelle, she may at first appear to be the hooker with the proverbial golden heart, but her pain remains too vivid for her to slip into the commonplace. Only Hauptmann, the champagne-swilling Nazi dandy, lacks dimension.
In the end, it is Berlin itself that is the novel's most memorable character. While there is no shortage of violence and dead bodies in "The Informer," Nova mostly sculpts his story with a fine chisel, not a sledgehammer. For instance, during a street fight between communists and fascists, the weapon of choice turns out not to be guns or knives, but potatoes studded with nails.
Most memorably, the impending atrocities of war are prefigured when Armina recalls how, in the worst days of the republic's inflationary crisis, lines formed at a veterinarian's office as dog owners, unable to feed their pets, brought them to be killed. "It seemed to be such a poor solution," she thinks, "killing the animals, as though everything could be solved by death." She has no idea what other sort of final solution is about to come.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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