I have to admit, I was shocked to find out that National Review editor Rich Lowry had co-written a novel. I just didn’t picture him as the novel writing type. Of course, he had the help of literary agent Keith Korman. But still a surprising project. For thos unfamiliar with the book here is the PW set up:
Unlikely hero Peter Johnson, a mildly buffoonish writer working for the Crusader, a left-wing magazine, is recruited by CIA agent Stewart Banquo for the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist. Banquo figures no one would ever suspect Johnson, known for his drunkenness and willingness to take a bribe, to be working for the CIA. Johnson, who accepts the job for a variety of reasons, heads off to Iran. A series of double crosses lands Johnson in the hands of the Iranians and sets up the rest of the plot involving a chillingly plausible terrorist attack.
And so my curiosity piqued, I decided to give it a read. Banquo’s Ghosts turned out to be a entertaining thriller with a distinct political style to it. This part is not surprising. In many ways Lowry is following in the footsteps of the man he succeeded at NR: William F. Buckley; who wrote a number of espionage thrillers with strong contemporary political undercurrents.
For more see below.
The political aspect of the novel is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is what one reviewer labeled the works “moral clarity” (the NR review noted the “clarity of vision” as well). Lowry and Korman have a clear point of view and this gives the book a certain confidence and voice. And conservatives will of course like the lack of moral ambivalence involved. But it also means that, at times, the story can get lost a little in the book’s didacticism.
At points the authors stop the story to make a point. Whether they pull this off probably depends on your political compass to some degree. Like this comment clearly aimed at the security lapses connected to lax immigration enforcement. After noting the ease with which drug runners cross the border, thus making tracking nuclear material very difficult, a mini-rant:
What no one ascertained for certain was the identity of these Mexican drug runners or where they were headed. No matter. The next day politicians of every stripe continued to celebrate themselves in their particular ways. Some postured on the cable shows about the dangers of transfats in corn chips, while others called for safer kiddy-kar kid seats. In a fit of statesmanship, Bangor, Maine, banned smoking in privately owned cars with children in them. Finally: kids in Bangor, Maine, were safe from second-hand smoke.
This would bring a chuckle – or a sad shake of the head – to those who are furstrated by the lack of border security in this country. Others may find it bland anti-pc rhetoric. But it is clearly editorial commentary not an integral part of the story. This type of commentary is threaded throughout the novel.
For the most part, however, the commentary doesn’t derail the story nor is it jarring or out of place. The book has a clear political perspective so the commentary comes with the territory. (I would imagine, however, if you are the type of person who uses the words “neocon” and “cabal” in the same sentence you might find yourself frequently arguing with Lowry and Korman’s portrayal of Iran, progressive journalists, and much more.)
If there is a problem with tone and style it has more to do with balancing satire and thriller not political opinion with plot. Lowry and Korman clearly set out to mock a number of elite institutions from the CIA and the State Department to the liberal media establisment. But at its root the book is a thriller and the satirical aspects don’t always mesh with thriller aspects (for more see this Forbes review).
But these critiques don’t really make much of an impact if you find the novel an entertaining read. Sure, the book strains plausibility at times, and its political commentary is rather run of the mill War on Terror supporting anti-liberal media conservatism, but the plot is nevertheless well done and the pacing brisk. And as noted above, it has a certain voice or tone that works well for this genre.
Conservatives looking for a fun read that takes their perspective seriously, and pokes fun of liberals, will clearly enjoy this one. But I think the partisian jibes are low key enough that most readers from whatever side of the political spectrum will enjoy it for what it is. With summer coming this makes for a nice beach/airplane read for political junkies of every stripe.