Glenn Beck's paranoid thriller, "The Overton Window"

By Steven Levingston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010


by Glenn Beck

Threshold. 321 pp. $26

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."

Levingston is a senior editor of Book World.

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