Monday, February 21, 2005; Page C02/Washington Post
ENEMY OF MY ENEMY
For a Flight of Fancy
Washington's Allan Topol, another of the multitude of lawyers who have turned to fiction, has produced four novels while continuing his legal chores at Covington & Burling. His novels have been published as mass-market paperbacks and are what an editor of my acquaintance calls airplane novels -- books that weary businessmen pick up at the terminal newsstand to ease the long flight home. Airplane novels tend to be light on style, subtlety and logic, and heavy on sex, violence, intrigue, action and above all plot. Plotwise, Topol is up there with such masters of the labyrinthine as Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy.
He does not, like many lawyers turned novelist, deal in courtroom melodrama. Topol's turf is the old-fashioned novel of international intrigue. His scene shifts constantly from trendy clubs in Moscow to three-star restaurants in Paris to strip joints in Montreal to Cabinet-level confrontations in the Oval Office. "Enemy of My Enemy" starts with a young U.S. Air Force pilot being shot down, landing him in a most unfriendly Turkish jail. It develops that he is the son of the very rich, very obnoxious Terry McCallister, a major financial backer of the Republican president, Calvin Kendall. The focus of the story, however, is Jack Cole, an American whose wine business in Paris is a cover for his role as an assassin for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Cole becomes involved in the downed pilot's fate because his younger brother, Sam, is engaged to the pilot's sister. Sam begs Jack to help find the pilot, but Jack refuses because, among other things, he hates Terry McCallister, who stole his girlfriend back in college. This really does get complicated.
Back at the White House, the rich, obnoxious father demands that the dumb, spineless president bomb the Turks back to the Stone Age to win his son's freedom. The secretary of defense, "red-faced, with a large, veiny, bulbous nose," has no objections, the secretary of state is a wimp, and the only voices of reason in the Oval Office are two women -- the vice president and the director of central intelligence -- who amuse themselves by passing notes that say things like "C'mon, boys, get a grip." The president's other top adviser is his drinking buddy Jimmy Grange, who sneers a lot and is called "the odious Grange." Reason prevails, the bombing is postponed, and the Turks are given 10 days to surrender the pilot, which gives Jack Cole time to mount a rescue operation.
In another plot line, a rogue general in Moscow is peddling nuclear weapons, but fortunately the CIA has the handsomest spy in history ("curly black hair, a soft, winning smile, and sparkling dark eyes") -- he is sleeping with the general's secretary. It develops -- unsurprisingly, to students of the genre -- that all of this is connected, and a bloodthirsty rogue general in Syria wants to use the captive pilot as a bargaining chip even as he buys nuclear weapons from the rogue general in Moscow. The resolution somehow involves sexpots with names like Monique, Layla, Chava and Irina, who in their frequent moments of passion shout a lot -- mostly phrases that can't be repeated here, but sometimes just a demure "Yes, yes, oh God, yes!" Sex scenes are always welcome, of course, although I was troubled that Topol's fantasy of all those acrobatic, howling-with-pleasure, insatiable Irinas and Laylas might cause legions of weary businessmen, somewhere over Denver, to despair of their wasted lives.
Sex scenes aside, Topol's tale started me thinking -- strange are the ways of art -- about the nature of political reality and how we attempt to portray it. His novel falls in the tradition of fiction by Washington journalists, and now lawyers, who take a realistic, often entertaining but generally uninspired view of politics. If we want a glimpse of political reality in England in the 19th century, we turn to Trollope, but where do we go if we want insight into today's politics? Not to the complete works of Allen Drury, I would say, or to any other realistic novelist. Rather, I've come to think that if people a hundred years from now want a look at our political reality, they will do well to study the hundreds of hours of NBC's "The West Wing."
"The West Wing" has spent a lot of money to hire as writers and consultants people who have worked in the White House and who can help make the show ring true, both in its broad themes and its smallest details. The members of President Josiah Bartlet's staff are somewhat more high-minded than the people I've encountered during my own excursions into politics, and somewhat less interested in sex, but in general the show provides a realistic glimpse of political activists, at least those of the Democratic persuasion. Indeed, "The West Wing" is a kind of alternate universe for liberals, what they have instead of Clinton, Gore or Kerry in power. The show is certainly uneven, but it often offers moments of insight and beauty. Political scientists of the 22nd century might study its episodes and conclude that we were a better people than we are.
Despite my admiration for "The West Wing," however, I increasingly find myself thinking that the truest portrayers of political reality in our time are those who deal not in the real but the surreal: Hunter S. Thompson's inspired ravings on the Nixon era, Stanley Kubrick's vision of American leadership in "Dr. Strangelove," and the novels of Robert Littell, notably "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter," "The Sisters" and his forthcoming "Legends," which establishes once and for all, if doubt remained, that the world is mad. Still, a love of black comedy may simply be a refuge for those who cannot deal with political reality head-on. It is, God knows, not a pretty sight. For most of us, it is better to read airplane novels, far above the clouds, than to concede that things are going to hell down here on the ground.
(c) 2005 The Washington Post Company