The problem, as usual, is Donald Trump.
What satirist can keep pace with his exponentially rising outrageousness? The mocking of a disabled reporter, the demonization of religious minorities, the boasting about his genitals, the bragging about his wealth: A literary form based on exaggerating a subject’s foibles for comic effect must finally collapse in exhausted awe at The Donald’s (very large) feet.
This, alas, is where we find ourselves in Stuart Stevens’s new novel, “The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear.” A longtime political consultant — he was a strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign — Stevens sets his story in the middle of a contested Republican convention in sweltering New Orleans. The GOP delegates must choose between a fire breather named Armstrong George, who wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, and Vice President Hilda Smith, “a squeaky-clean Republican of the old school.” But with the economy in free-fall, xenophobia soaring and the voters terrified, nobody’s in the mood for the vice president’s “fervent reasonableness.”
Our narrator, J.D. Callahan, is the vice president’s savvy campaign manager and shares a passing resemblance to the author, which suggests we’re getting the inside scoop on the kooky backstory of American politics. “I win elections,” J.D. claims. “Beyond that, I have no socially redeeming purpose.” But in fact, J.D. is a lot more humane than that, even if he sports an engagingly cynical tone. Early on, he lays out the facts about the GOP convention unraveling in the Big Easy: “Leaving a decision as important as selecting a party’s nominee to the collection of hungover party hacks, weirdo activists, political groupies and small-timers who comprised the delegates at any convention was an affront to the very concept of modern politics, a process designed to ensure that a powerful few would manipulate a disinterested many.”
Stevens keeps “The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear” focused on that furtive manipulation while the campaign staff members feint and pivot to respond to each other and the day’s chaos. As only the most naive voters will be shocked to learn, these political operatives and the journalists covering them maintain a symbiotic — and sometimes sexually charged — relationship. This is, after all, a special kind of manufactured public entertainment, a world of engineered leaks and staged surprises. Speaking of one particularly aggressive journalist, J.D. says, “If you told a reporter like Sandra that it would cost her one of her kids for an exclusive, her reaction would be, ‘Can I pick the kid?’ ”
The plot is driven by the rapidly approaching floor vote, which the vice president seems destined to lose. But even as J.D. struggles to pull off a convention miracle for his distressingly principled candidate, he must contend with a series of potential disasters in his personal life. And then a little bomb goes off in the French Quarter, spraying the area with red dye and scaring some of the fickle delegates into going home.
Clearly, Stevens (also the author of several travel books and last year’s “The Last Season”) has assembled all the accoutrements for a crazy political novel, but it suffers from a disappointing lack of satiric courage. Early on, J.D. warns us: “That’s how campaigns work. You start out trying to win in the right way and end up trying to survive in the worst way.” But that judgment is so commonplace in books and movies and TV shows about politics that “the worst way” had better be pretty darn hilariously awful to keep our attention.
Everything here, though, like that dye bomb, fails to pack much explosive power or score any kills. The most exotic New Orleans locale we visit is a sleepy strip club filled with exactly the characters you would expect. And with his “Protect the Homeland” message, Armstrong George might have seemed grotesque last year, but in the current climate, he sounds almost diplomatic. Pining for a satire fit for our times, we get instead a perfectly reasonable Romneyesque comedy that probably has binders full of uproarious incidents stuffed away in a drawer somewhere.
If only Stevens had imbibed the intoxicating humor of novelist Terry Pratchett, who once noted that “the innocent had everything to fear, mostly from the guilty but in the longer term even more from those who say things like ‘The innocent have nothing to fear.’ ”
Congressman Steve Israel doesn’t have Stevens’s narrative finesse, but last year his novel “The Global War on Morris ” delivered more zaniness per page. Which is surprising, because Stevens knows this territory so well and understands the importance of maintaining relentless energy. In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, he said, “To win, you hit harder and faster and look for any opening to land more punches.” And yet his novel is a little soft and a little slow, repeatedly drifting away from a bombing at the Republican National Convention to fill us in on the narrator’s personal life.
J.D. complains that his colleagues on the campaign “never learned to embrace the whole sick joy of the total American strangeness in politics. You needed to love the weird, the deformed, the deranged.” He’s right, and that’s exactly what we need to see more of in this well-groomed political novel.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Stuart Stevens
Knopf. 272 pp. $24.95