Book Review: 'Pipeline' by Peter Schechter

By Art Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 25, 2009

PIPELINE

By Peter Schechter

Morrow. 323 pp. $24.99

Peter Schechter's second novel accelerates quickly into a slam-bang start. On Page 1, we meet a young mother and daughter on a quest for ice cream to ease a sweltering California morning. By Page 5, the little girl's heart is broken when a power outage has left the ice cream parlor a sopping mess. By Page 9, rolling blackouts have become a "growing panic": a city in darkness, hospitals and nursing homes off the grid. By Page 19, there are hints of looting. By Page 23, a prison break has left guards dead and two men's eyes gouged out. Television, radio and the Internet are out; cellphones are silent; flights are canceled. California is plunged into chaos, and on the other side of the country, the White House goes into crisis mode. With domestic energy sources tapping out, dependence on foreign sources putting the country in a political stranglehold, and Americans wanting more, more, more, California's violent meltdown might soon go national, and no one seems ready.

This worst-case scenario might seem unreal if Schechter didn't ground those first scenes so convincingly in memories of the blackouts that plagued California in 2001. But the rising savagery of that opening soon gives way to more subtle forms of hostility, in Cabinet Room debates on the energy situation and backroom meetings around the globe to capitalize on the crisis. Eighteen months earlier, Russia began using its oil and gas supply as both a bargaining and a bullying tool, and now the country hopes to lure the United States into a lopsided partnership. Elsewhere, Peru and Bolivia are racing to capture some share of the market, too. And Washington must weigh short-range fixes against long-term solutions, balancing environmental concerns, national security issues, foreign relations and political expediency.

Unwittingly playing into Russian plans, the CIA director proposes laying a pipeline across the Bering Strait: "Now guess what is closer to the Kamchatka gas fields in Siberia than London or Paris," says the CIA director, urging the idea. "Still thinking? I'll tell you. Alaska." (Any humor here seems unintentional since the book was finished long before Gov. Sarah Palin's entry into last year's election.) Quickly, the proposal gains traction, and "Pipeline" becomes less a suspense novel than a cautionary tale about international politics and the dangers of underestimating an adversary.

Amid that, Schechter focuses on a few key players. Tony Ruiz, an ex-cop and, at 29, one of the youngest advisers to the president, accompanies a delegation to Moscow to gauge the potentially dangerous partnership. Daniel Uggin has moved from being a low-level manager at a Russian energy corporation to playing a key role in the company's maneuvers for international growth. Blaise Ryan is an environmental activist trotting the globe to fight "the blind greed of multinational corporations." She is also the longtime best friend of Daniel's wife, who finds her marriage crumbling and asks for Blaise's help.

Unfortunately, several characters are weak, with Schechter sometimes resorting to cliche. Blaise is not just smart and determined but also sexy: She's naked the first time she appears, and in a later scene, she flashes a pair of La Perla thong panties (orange, no less). Seeing her interviewed on CNN, Tony can't decide "if he was more enthralled by Blaise Ryan's incisive clarity or her down-to-earth good looks [and] nearly feline gray eyes."

Elsewhere, Schechter puts characters to clumsy service: "Wait a moment, Bob," says the U.S. attorney general in one briefing. "We've got environmental laws in this country. You may not like them, but a lot of people think that protecting our environment is a smart investment." Schechter has trouble concentrating on developing his people because he is so busy advancing his complicated plot.

Still, "Pipeline" succeeds on other terms. A D.C.-based political and communications consultant, Schechter seems to draw on insider scoops to explore the complex inner workings of global energy needs and limitations, and he puts present-day political decision making in a historical perspective. To its credit, "Pipeline" makes a strong case for considering these issues now.

Taylor, an assistant professor at George Mason University, regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.


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