Summertime is underway — unofficially, anyway — which means that if you haven’t begun compiling your summer reading list, you’d better get a move on. What’s on your agenda? Breezy celebrity tell-alls? Romance? Mysteries? Westerns? (Yep, people still write them.)
Thrillers, of course, are another staple of the season. Recently I had a look at two titles in the spotlight. CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper sets his political thriller, The Hellfire Club, in the Eisenhower era, while Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here is a gritty contemporary noir novella: 97 pages of distilled action. (Ames’ book appeared originally in 2013, but was released this year in paperback as a tie-in to the recent film adaptation starring Joaquin Phoenix.) Both books have protagonists who are US veterans doing battle against mysterious and powerful underground organizations rife with depravity. In terms of style and attitude, though, the two works are miles apart.
Marder, He Wrote
Tapper’s book — set in and around Washington, DC, in 1954 — is a popcorn-y romp, full of twists, turns and big reveals: some plausible, some outlandish.
The protagonist is Charlie Marder, a World War II vet and best-selling pop historian who suddenly finds himself filling a vacant Congressional seat. Charlie has acquitted himself both in battle and in the world of letters, but he quickly learns that he’s out of his depth in the high-powered, hard-drinking upper echelons of DC. He’s more than a bit naïve. And he definitely needs to work on his poker face. (As his zoologist wife, Margaret, observes early on, Charlie is “as easy to read as the top line of an eye chart.”) We find him in trouble in the very first chapter, in which he awakens in Rock Creek Park, not far from the corpse of a young woman, apparently the victim of his drunken driving. Charlie has no idea how he (or she) wound up there.
In chapter 2, the novel flashes back and suggests how Charlie might have fallen into this predicament. Using his newly bestowed political power, he tried to punish the manufacturer of gas masks, the defects of which caused the death of a soldier under his command during the war. Gradually, Charlie pushes ajar the door to a sinister world, full of unholy alliances. Tapper builds on the woo-woo premise that the Hellfire Club, a scandalous secret society that flourished in 18th century Britain and was frequented occasionally by Benjamin Franklin, is what’s steering 1950s US politics. To say this is far-fetched seems right. Then again, in our own era, some initially far-fetched things seem plausible. (Can you say “Steele dossier“?)
The Hellfire Club sometimes comes off as a formulaic thriller, with setups placed rather obtrusively. We can guess from the outset, for instance, that Charlie’s keen, oft-referenced sense of smell will figure in a significant story turn late in the book. (That said, this plot device is credible as Tapper is himself is blessed/cursed with this enhanced olfactory power — something he proved while promoting his novel on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.) The book’s contrivances and coincidences rise to Dickensian levels at points. For example, I dare you not to roll your eyes at the deus ex machina Tapper employs in a scene in which a wild pony is in danger of being swept out to sea by a rip current.
What works is the cleverness with which Tapper brings real-life politicians into his fiction. Lyndon Johnson, Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn all parade by, along with less well-remembered figures, including Estes Kefauver and Margaret Chase Smith. Tapper sketches these historical characters with swift, descriptive brush strokes: John F. and Robert Kennedy are “a blur of hair and teeth”; Eisenhower’s voice is “as flat as the Kansas plains where he’d been raised.” Tapper provides fascinating source notes in the back of the book, detailing real-life material used in his plot, such as a March 1954 shooting in the House chamber of the US Capitol.
Tapper also seems to slyly comment on 2018 politics. That 1954 shooting scene is set against the backdrop of a hearing on an actual House bill aimed at allowing more Mexican migrant workers to cross the border — a bill that was, at the time, largely supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. Especially pointed are scenes involving McCarthy and Cohn, whose troubling presence has a lineage that extends to the current POTUS:
[McCarthy] remained popular with a strong segment of the public, whose support of him seemed impervious to obvious moments of indecency and prevarication. Those who feared McCarthy might never actually go away and that the fever of McCarthyism might never break were growing despondent.
I’ve admired Ames’ writing for several years. I’ve enjoyed his personal essays, comic novels (The Extra Man, Wake Up, Sir) and the wry comedies he’s created for TV (Bored to Death, Blunt Talk). You Were Never Really Here is darker than any of these and it’s not a story for the squeamish. Spoiler alert: the first and last moment involves a blow by a blunt instrument aimed at a human skull.
The story focuses on a haunted, suicidal ex-Marine known simply as Joe, who has devoted years to working undercover to free children from the sex-trafficking trade. He claims to have done this earlier, above board, as a member of the FBI. But as the novel begins, he is freelancing in NYC, working through below-board, non-governmental channels. Within the first few pages, Joe is hired to rescue the young daughter of a state senator from a brothel in midtown Manhattan.
The book is like a quick spin on an amusement park ride that may topple at any minute. Ames’ language is plainspoken and direct; he neither minces words nor over-adorns. This physical description of Joe from early on is a good representation of his straightforward style:
[H]is hands were weapons, his whole body was a weapon, cruel like a baseball bat. Six-two, 190, no fat. He was forty-eight, but his olive-colored skin was still smooth, which made him appear younger than he was. His jet-black hair had receded at the temples, leaving a little wedge, like the point of a knife, at the front. He kept his hair at the length of a marine on leave.
Ames’ graceful, detective-story-like prose is a deep pleasure to read, even when (or maybe especially when) he describes florid violence and depravity. His narrative voice is absolutely sure-footed throughout. Even when he suddenly, near to the book’s end, shifts from Joe’s point of view to that of the senator, it’s done with steady assurance. It doesn’t seem like a stunt — unlike The Hellfire Club, when Tapper abruptly and unexpectedly sets a chapter in 1772. Ames is a polished stylist.
I zipped through The Hellfire Club with enjoyment, but You Were Never Really Here is something else again: the work of a writer who knows exactly what he needs to do to tell a gripping tale and exactly where and how he should end it. I’d happily pass Tapper’s novel to another reader and not fret about getting it back. But I’d be inclined to pester whoever borrows my copy of Ames’ book because, eventually, I’d want it back on my shelf.