Once the president’s porn-star lover has compared his anatomy to a toadstool, is there anything left to reveal?
That, in a nutshell, is the great challenge facing anyone hoping to disclose some new detail about Donald Trump. Despite the president’s relentless efforts to silence and discredit his former cronies and paramours, overexposure has worked entirely to his advantage. Every damning, humiliating and incriminating revelation simply blurs into the ever-rising din of ignominy. Sexual assault? Collusion with dictators? Tax evasion? Milk stays fresh longer than a Donald Trump scandal nowadays. This is political victory not through vindication but through exhaustion.
One indication of how tired we’ve grown is marked by the sheer irrelevance of the anonymous roman à clef. In 1996, when “Primary Colors” lampooned Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, the novel set off a wit-hunt in Washington. Who, we all wondered, could know such hilarious details about the inner workings of the tightly controlled Clinton machine? (Answer: Joe Klein.)
Two decades later, here comes “The Kingfisher Secret,” an anonymous novel about how the KGB engineered Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House. The publisher claims the author is “a respected writer and former journalist,” whose “identity is being kept secret in order to protect the source of the ideas that inspired this novel.”
That’s a Trump-worthy fib. This author’s identity is being kept secret only to create a ripple of interest in an anemic thriller that can’t compete with the news we’ve been reading about Donald Trump for the past three years.
According to “The Kingfisher Secret,” Russia’s efforts to disrupt American democracy at the highest levels began in the late 1960s when a pretty athlete named Elena was plucked from Czechoslovakia for an elite spy program. To ensnare “the proudest, most ambitious, most aggressive men in the Western world,” Elena and her attractive classmates were trained in “etiquette and music, fashion, movies, how to walk and how to eat and — this had shocked her — how to make love.” (Note: When that’s the raciest line in your sexpionage thriller, you need to get out more.) “The goal of the program was achingly simple,” the narrator explains with aching simplicity: “to encourage and create agents of disorder and chaos in America, to use democracy as a weapon against itself.”
Over the years, Elena’s KGB handler moved her from one promising man to another until she finally caught the eye of an egotistical car manufacturer named Anthony Craig. “She had never met a man more confident yet so lacking in confidence,” the narrator says. Despite infusions of cash from his father, Craig still managed to drive his business toward bankruptcy, at which time Elena helped facilitate a crucial foreign investment.
If you’re having any trouble figuring out who Craig is supposed to be, the author tells us that he’s a poor businessman but a brilliant marketer. When he turns to politics, he knows how to appeal to “white, resentful, disenfranchised, and indebted” Americans. So much winning!
In alternating chapters, whiffs of this dastardly plot come to the attention of Grace Elliott just weeks before the 2016 presidential election that could put Craig in the White House. Grace is a reporter for the National Flash, a tabloid newspaper that’s already bought and buried her story about one of Craig’s porn-star lovers. Undaunted, Grace becomes convinced that her next exposé — about Craig’s ex-wife, Elena — could turn the election, but only if she can publish the truth before Russian agents kill her.
There’s a wee bit of fun in the way various real-life characters are recast in “The Kingfisher Secret.” Stormy Daniels becomes Violet Rain, for instance, and Ivana Trump is obviously the reluctant agent Elena. We don’t see much of Anthony Craig, but when he appears, “struggling to keep his mop of hair in place,” the author mimics Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetoric with uncanny accuracy. “We invented luxury,” he tells a crowd in New York. “We did that. It never existed before us.”
In general, though, “The Kingfisher Secret” is a silly confection about Russian scheming spun within the broad outlines of Ivana’s life. Aside from a few car chases and thuggish murders, the author demonstrates neither the narrative ingenuity nor the stylistic vitality to make the story engaging. Admittedly, the confirmed and speculative details of the president’s malfeasant career are hard for fiction to match, but this plot doesn’t exert itself any more than Donald Trump lumbering around his golf course.
Whoever Anonymous might be, he is in good company. Some of the greatest fiction writers in the world have tried to satirize the man who describes himself as “more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.” Even Booker winners Salman Rushdie and Howard Jacobson attempted to scale this mountain of egotism, but so far no one seems capable of capturing the man in full.
That’s fine. The extraordinary work of investigative journalists and nonfiction writers continues to pile up about Donald Trump. Someday, we’ll get a great novel about this era, and when it comes, it won’t need anonymity to grab our attention.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
McClelland & Stewart. 319 pp. $26