Saturday, May 16, 2009

An Instrument of the People's Will

After thinking about it a while, I'd decided not to read any more of Charles McCarry's novels. But one day I was at the library, and this big thick book caught my eye: Shelley's Heart by Charles McGarry. It looked new, and indeed had just been published by Overlook Press. So I sat down with it for a few minutes.

The premise had possibilities -- a very close Presidential election is stolen by tampering with the vote in a few key states. The loser, however, has Hard Evidence of the shenanigans, and confronts the victor on the eve of his inauguration. I thought, what the hell, and checked it out.

I hadn't looked closely enough, though: Shelley's Heart was first published in 1995; the Overlook Press edition is a reissue. In some ways that made it more interesting, not just a roman à clef cobbled together in the wake of the 2000 elections. As I began reading, from the first page I found some stray digs at the Sixties, but they were put into the mind of Franklin Mallory, the right-wing candidate from whom the election had been stolen. The narrator remarks as Mallory encounters the dean of the National Cathedral, a radical leftist who hates Mallory cordially, "In short, each believed that the other was an enemy of the people." That was a hopeful sign that McCarry had some sense of irony, so I continued reading.

On page 22, Mallory ruminates:
By saying things about the nature of American life that middle-class voters regarded as home truths but the intelligentsia could not bear to hear, he made enemies. But as the desperate effort to deprive him of power by stealing the election had shown, a plurality of Americans wanted him to run the country. Having sought election, he had no choice but to do as they wished.
What a noble fellow! Mallory is simply an instrument of the people's will, or at least of a plurality of the people, and who could ask for more? On the next page, we are told:
The radicals, Mallory believed, were a herd of demagogues driven by some primal instinct that had little to do with the mind. They were the Puritans of the present age, oppressing mankind in the name of their own moral superiority. How like they were to the earlier crowd (what, after all, was the difference between an Elite and an Elect?), except that they had not yet found their Cromwell.
The "radicals" here are, of course, the radicals of the left, like the Dean of the National Cathedral; Mallory does not seem to have in mind the radicals of the Christian right, who might just as fruitfully be compared to Puritans. Mallory, by contrast, only tells the "middle class" what they want to hear, which according to Webster is the defining trait of a demagogue: "a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power." (Hitler had a lot of appeal to German middle-class voters too, telling them what they "regarded as home truths but [what] the intelligentsia could not bear to hear, [so] he made enemies.")

So there I sat, on page 23 of a 558-page novel. I began to wonder if McCarry had noticed and intended this little irony, undercutting Mallory's view of himself and of American politics. I looked online for some reviews, to see if any mentioned a turn in the plot or a shift in the perspective. I didn't find anything very helpful, though I did learn that the novel proceeds to describe an attempted takeover of America by a cabal of left-wing rads who try to get a radical lawyer appointed to the Supreme Court.

I noticed that Christopher Hitchens reviewed the 1995 edition of Shelley's Heart in the New York Review of Books (only the first paragraph is available online, alas), back when Hitchens was still on the left himself. (I'd love to see Gore Vidal review it.) This blogger, who reviewed Shelley's Heart for Commentary, writes that “Although Christopher Hitchens sneered in the pages of the New York Review of Books that his fiction is written out of 'the self-pity of the American right,' McCarry is not himself a conservative. He describes himself, in fact, as a 'bleeding heart.'” Well, that's all right then.

The blogger also mentions that McCarry sees "the post-sixties journalists ... as the worst—because the most divorced from reality—of the ideological purists." (Which didn't keep post-sixties journalist Bob Woodward from writing a laudatory blurb that appears on the front cover of Shelley's Heart.) He goes on to report that in a later novel, McCarry "compared the Sixties counterculture to the Hitlerjugend, speculated that U.S. news media 'exercised many of the functions belonging to the secret police in totalitarian countries,' and described a 'politics of self-congratulation' whose partisans had merely to hear Richard Nixon speak to want to kill him." If this is at all accurate, then no, I don't think McCarry was aware of the irony in Franklin Mallory's view of American radicals. Back to the library with you, then, Shelley's Heart.