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Hot on the Trail

The Incumbent
Brian McGrory
Pocket Books, $24.05 (cloth)

Write Letter to Billy
Toby Olson
Coffee House Press, $15.05 (cloth)

by Roger Boylan

After John Hinckley shot President Reagan in March 1981, and Hinckley’s story came out in all its sad and crazy detail, it transpired that his crusade had been nothing personal against Ronald Reagan: he’d been after the big news value of shooting a president, any president, to win Jodie Foster’s undying love. In fact, it emerged that Hinckley had been laying the groundwork for a year or more already: he’d had President Jimmy Carter in his sights right up to Election Day in November 1980. After the election, and Reagan’s landslide trouncing of Carter, there may have been more than a few distraught ex-Carter supporters who found themselves wishing that Hinckley had pulled the trigger on their man–not with fatal results, of course, just inflicting enough of a flesh wound to win a few hundred thousand sympathy votes and put Jimmy ahead on Election Day. (If this sounds demented, it’s worth remembering the bitterly partisan climate of that Iran-hostage-driven election, when their opponents viewed Reagan and Carter as a gaga loon and a craven incompetent, respectively.)

Which brings us to Brian McGrory’s enjoyable new Washington thriller, The Incumbent. Its premise is not unlike the foregoing. President Clayton Hutchins, like Gerald Ford an unelected incumbent (his predecessor had keeled over of a coronary on the South Lawn), is sagging in the polls. Shortly before the national election that will make or break his presidency, Hutchins unexpectedly invites Jack Flynn, White House correspondent of the Boston Record–whom he has never met before, nor shown any interest in–to play a round of golf at a swank DC country club. As the two men hit out of a sand trap, shots ring out and both fall, wounded, Jack slightly worse than the president, who returns to the hustings almost immediately and benefits from a sympathy surge in the polls.

As Jack is recovering, he is visited in the hospital (Bethesda Naval, of course) by a pair of mysterious FBI agents, a man and a woman, who seem more interested in knowing why Jack was playing golf with the president than in anything Jack might have seen or heard. While the agents are in his hospital room, Jack receives the first of several phone calls from an anonymous informant who warns him that things are not what they seem. When he is released, Jack tries to connect these facts to everything else that has been going on–or appears to have been going on–and sets out, with all the doggedness of the old newshound he is, to find the truth behind the assassination attempt. He undertakes this task in the face of formidable odds, for not only is there (as slowly becomes clear) a dastardly conspiracy afoot, but Jack’s own superiors tend to be circumspect to a fault:

[T]here is a tendency in this business for the editors back at the main office to think that [the] overpaid layabouts in the Washington bureau are doing little more than waddling over to the Palm for lunch and Morton’s for dinner…. Well, Washington reporting is hard work, and what we needed now was persistence and patience….

Fortunately, persistence and patience are what Jack Flynn has in spades; and, one suspects, so does his creator. As a veteran Boston Globe reporter and former White House correspondent, Brian McGrory knows whereof he speaks. One of the many strengths of the novel, McGrory’s first, is the feel for the reporter’s job that McGrory gives the reader, the sense that, as with law enforcement or military service, reporting the news clearly and fairly is a job whose importance is somewhat unappreciated; a job in which adrenaline-pumping urgency alternates with mind-numbing drudgery; that it is, when all is said and done, a profession without which our democracy would be much the poorer. And although deadlines matter, and good copy is good copy, there is a transcendent professionalism that keeps a good reporter on the job.

Jack Flynn is a good reporter first and last. When he gets started his mission is, or seems to be, to answer the simple question: Who shot the president? But, as his anonymous informant tells him, nothing is as it seems, so the question soon becomes: Was the shooter really aiming at the president? Which gives rise to a host of other questions, notably: Why shoot Jack Flynn? With his reportorial zeal married to a natural desire to catch the bastard who shot him, Jack follows up every lead, including one that takes him to the Idaho lair of a bunch of acne-spotted pretend-Nazis whose sinister buffoon of a leader "looked like a cross between the Pillsbury Doughboy and The Skipper on ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ minus their … charisma and good cheer." This pipsqueak führer parries and ducks and says little, but Jack, through some strong-arm tactics down at a local roadhouse, elicits the startling news that the selfsame mini-führer had been powwowing in secret with Assistant FBI Director Kent Drinker, the male half of the FBI duo who visited Jack in his hospital room. (The female half, stunning Samantha Stevens, plays an altogether different, wish-fulfillment role in widower Flynn’s lonely life.) Now the questions proliferate. Are the Feds in cahoots with the Himmler Lake crowd? Are the Nazis paid federal informants? And, most importantly: What did Assistant Director Drinker know, and when did he know it?"

This is where the novel takes off, and it doesn’t let up for most of its three hundred or more pages. It’s a thrilling ride. McGrory knows his stuff as a reporter; he also shows a real flair for suspense fiction. One or two of his slam-bang plot shockers (which, I confess, I never saw coming) struck me as teetering on the verge of silliness–but they never topple over, and McGrory is otherwise in total control of his material, even slackening the pace now and then for a sage and melancholy Boston-Irish reflection from Jack Flynn, the Southie Socrates:

Everyone is waiting for something: waiting to graduate from school, waiting for a better job, waiting for the holidays to come or to pass, for vacations to arrive, waiting for true love, for wedding days or divorce hearings, waiting for injuries to heal or diseases to be cured, waiting and hoping for mercy in the dying days of life.

Amen.

"It’s a long story." . So begins the first chapter of Toby Olson’s new novel, and never were truer words written. Write Letter to Billy–the title quotes an item on an unexplained "to-do" list the narrator’s father, a down-at-heels inventor, had left behind at his death–is overlong and plodding, although occasionally evocative, with one or two powerful scenes. But the payoff, when it finally comes, is an anticlimax, and should have come fifty pages sooner.

Billy is a recently retired Navy underwater repair specialist. Ah, I hear you say: a promising premise, indeed! Here we have a hero with expertise in an unusual and challenging field, as well as (no doubt) experience of the world–teeming seaports and a war front or two, a seasoned, worldly seaman who’s lived his life to the full! Forget it. The convolutions of the story Billy has to tell would baffle the Hardy Boys; problem is, he’s no Ancient Mariner. Despite his background, he’s as bland as a mayonnaise sandwich. In other novels, what the main character does–fire fighting, auto racing, journalism, shoe shining, whatever–usually leaves its mark on that character’s personality and shapes the outcome of the story for better or worse. In an especially well crafted novel, you actually get to learn something about the intricacies of that profession. Not here. Olson’s Billy might as well have spent all those Navy years as, say, an accountant in Lincoln, Neb.–as he cheerfully admits:

Time in New London and Corpus Christi, … Chicago, a brief stint in Seattle, those two tours in Philadelphia, and only a year at Guantanamo, and that in peace time.

Seattle! Philadelphia! Chicago! Guantanamo, yes? but only for a year, "and that in peace time." And that’s it. No back-alley brawls in Naples or Singapore in this man’s navy. No apparent interest in, or experience of, the outside world at all. Call me naive, but I was hoping for more. The reader learns nothing about the Navy, Billy’s world, or underwater ship repair, and Billy’s experience as a diver comes into play only much later in the novel, and in the most peripheral way.

Anyway, to kick things off, Billy retires at age forty, after all those boring years in the Navy, and travels to Wisconsin to meet Jennifer, the fifteen-year-old love child he never knew he had, fruit of a union with a Wave back in Corpus Christi. He and the Wave reunite frostily, although most of the frost seems to be on her side–inexplicably, as she was the one who’d kept him in the dark:

The idea was that I should be angry, the wronged father, but it made no difference to me just then, and though I’d thought of it before this, it was only the idea that was troublesome.

A truce follows. Billy takes Jennifer with him to California on a mission with a dual purpose: for father and daughter to get to know each other, and for Billy to research family mysteries that center on various items on that "to-do" list his father–actually his foster-father, a distinction that later becomes crucial–had left behind. As well as the titular "Write Letter to Billy?" (item nine), the list contains the enigmatic question "Rennert: Why Susan?" (item five), referring, as Billy soon finds out by dint of some cursory research in the local newspaper archives, to Susan Rennert, a chambermaid who had drowned fifteen years earlier. The shade of this dead, black-eyed Susan gradually obsesses Billy (there is a somewhat gratuitous sequence of Portnoyesque auto-eroticism in a motel bathroom with an old photograph of the deceased maid as stimulus) for psychological and atavistic reasons of which he knows nothing at first, but which slowly reveal themselves in the course of the novel. Billy’s obsession with the dead chambermaid, his corollary (although strictly fatherly, thank goodness) obsession with his newfound daughter (there’s a downright bizarre scene in which she has her menarche while sleepwalking), the search for the real nature of his foster-parents’ relationship, and the origin of some weird birth-scars he has on his side–these lead him to all manner of cans of worms, each of which he painstakingly opens as the reader (this reader, anyway) watches in disbelief. A Grand Guignol cast of doppelgangers, changelings, evil Siamese twins, and murderers parades before our eyes, and just for good measure Olson throws in purported treasures of ancient Polish nobility, a hard-to-swallow coincidence or three, and an eleventh-hour rescue by the forces of law and order. Franklin W. Dixon, where are you when we need you?

The novel’s deficiencies in plot and language are all the more disappointing in light of its real strengths, one of which is Olson’s evocation of place. In one of the book’s best scenes, Billy, in search of Susan Rennert’s roots (which, we discover, are deeply entangled with his own), goes to an obscure German-Polish enclave of embittered loners and aging eccentrics, somewhere in the Los Angeles hinterland. In this scene, Olson manages to craft a haunting, almost Transylvanian image of the smog-veiled hills of a forgotten immigrant community far from the sunny California of legend. The old people’s sense of abandonment and loneliness is unforgettable. Another of the book’s strong points–indeed, its unifying element–is the evolving love between father and daughter. As Billy’s bonds to Jennifer grow stronger, they grow deeper, as illustrated by his concern when she takes up with a California beach boy named Tod, with one "d" ("How California!" says Jennifer). Billy is determined, however, not to interfere with her happiness. Making this believable is a tall order, but Olson pulls it off with grace.

Olson, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner and the author of numerous works of fiction and poetry, seems to have written this novel in a trance. Ostensibly a mystery, it never quite gets up to mystery speed; instead, the author slows his pace, and undercuts the good parts, by laying on patches of hobbled prose ("and even in the dreamlike banality of the dream, I knew … what the dream was about"), and boring digressions (a page and a half devoted to describing a movie on television that in no way affects the story; four pages describing an underwater dive that leaves no narrative trace). Too bad. It’s flawed, but Write Letter to Billy sparkles here and there, and there’s nothing really wrong with it that a spot of ruthless editing wouldn’t fix.

Roger Boylan is the author of the novel Killoyle, An Irish Farce. His review of Larry Brown's Fayappeared in our April/May 2000 issue.

Originally published in the October/ November 2000 issue of Boston Review



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