A gossipy, entertaining novel about presidential politics—and if this roman à clef got any more clef, it’d have to be printed on newsprint.
Who is the O of the title? Let’s see: a sitting president who speaks of hope and change, surrounded by Chicagoans, beset by “a disorganized mob of conspiracy nuts, immigrant haters, vengeful Old Testament types, publicity hustlers, and people who just have way too much time on their hands”—to say nothing of a nastily reactionary Republican-dominated House on one side and disappointed progressives on the other. Fill in the blanks on who you think O ought to be; it’s not important, and we might just as well steal a page from Bogart and call him Doghouse O’Reilly. Whatever the case, this worm’s-eye view of extreme politics is a slightly sharper-edged version of The West Wing, dominated by world-weary but once idealistic operatives who dislike being thought of as operatives and who are loyal to a president who’s got just a touch too much on his plate: health care, climate change, war, terrorism and “a big, fat, catastrophic, global recession, courtesy of [O’s] predecessor.” Much of the action centers on wheeler-dealer Cal Regan, who understands politics for the bloodbath it is, though plenty of other people wander by with recognizable name plates (care to guess at the real-world counterpart of Avi Samuelson, “the president’s closest advisor”?). Happily for the nation, things work out OK for most of those concerned—even if O gets dinged up playing hard games of basketball. Did we mention that the president plays basketball? Well, he does, and if that’s not a giveaway... But no matter. It’s a shame that the book is surrounded by the cynical attention-getting ploy of a secret author, who will likely be outed as quickly as was Joe Klein when he published Primary Colors (1996), for the novel stands capably on its own two feet, and it really doesn’t need the extra layer of glitz its handlers layered on. Still, it probably won’t hurt sales.
So who’s Anonymous? Who cares? O is a worthy read, no matter who the author.