SALTMAKER by Bob Reiss


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Reiss (Summer Fires, 1980: The Casco Deception, 1983; Divine Assassin, 1985) tackles the ethics of the Bomb with more moral fervor than skill in this theatrical thriller about a President who surrenders to a perceived Soviet nuclear attack rather than retaliate. Pres. William Madden is awakened one night to be told that the Russians have launched. Over the hot line, the Soviets deny any attack; as notice of a hit comes in and his aides urge him to strike back, Madden tells the Soviets that the US won't fight --only to learn moments later that a computer glitch caused the false attack signals. Madden resigns, plunging the country into two camps: those who say his surrender saved the world and those who call him a traitor. With that solid premise, Reiss sets the stage for a bold look at nuclear morals and at one man's sacrifice for the survival of the species. But rather than hew cleanly to this high drama and its centerpiece--the trial of Madden for treason--Reiss clutters his story with tacked-up subplots: a murder attempt on a Madden-sponsored peace envoy; a romance between the daughter of James Henry (the ambitious prosecutor who tries Madden) and a reporter; that reporter's discovery that one general dangerously disobeyed Madden's surrender orders; superpower jockeying following Madden's act. And as this busyness slows his narrative thrust (which flares again only during the trial, particularly when a soul-searching Madden takes the stand), Reiss further whittles the weight of his tale by elevating Madden to sainthood and lowering Henry to deviltry: while Henry connives and cheats in his frenzy to persecute, Madden, in drought-stricken Africa to show the world the face of nuclear disaster, gets caught in a skirmish between American and Soviet troops and risks his life to save those of innocent children. When Reiss sticks to Madden and his fateful choice, this novel blazes; but that moral, compassionate fire is quenched time and again by careless overplotting. A good idea handled awkwardly, then, and a case where less would have been much, much more.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1988
Publisher: Viking