A debut political novel explores the cultural ramifications of the first black U.S. president.
Al Carpenter, about to graduate from Harvard Law School, confronts a potentially life-altering decision: he can accept a position waiting for him at the firm Sullivan & Katz or join the campaign to elect African-American attorney Ron Johnson to the U.S. Senate. Al commits to working for Johnson, but the candidate’s a political neophyte, and his prospects for success are considered slim even among his admirers. It’s not clear that he can get the Democrat Party machine’s backing, and he’ll be perpetually light on funds without the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Johnson also desperately needs endorsements from a startup company—North Carolina Sustainable Energy Partners—and veteran political Congressman Branford Darling, who is reluctant to alienate his own constituents in an election year by backing a black candidate. As a matter of implausible coincidence, Darling’s first congressional campaign was generously funded by a racist billionaire, whose son is the CEO of NCSEP. Al audaciously decides to use this information to bully a quick and badly needed endorsement from Darling, who is influential but politically vulnerable. The plot is situated within the historical horizon of President Barack Obama’s momentous election victory, which is treated as both a triumph and a bellwether of future racial progress. Al, warily optimistic, tends to view Johnson’s success or failure as a test of America’s openness to electing other black leaders: “The true value of Obama’s election—and we can unlock it right now—is the potential it has to drive momentum for progress going forward.” In his astute tale, Mitchell knowledgeably captures not only the internecine conflict that occurs within a party, but also the volatile mix of excitement and skepticism that followed Obama’s election victory. In addition, while this novel is driven more by political ideas than concrete characters, Al’s romantic aspirations and failures give his persona some depth (he regularly looks at a framed picture of Martin van Buren, “hoping that something of his talent for king-making might rub off on me”). This is a cerebral work of fiction largely driven by sharply composed dialogue—though it occasionally turns didactic and preachy—and is clearly meant to provocatively instigate political discussion. It succeeds at this, and even a bit more.
An intelligent and bracingly honest look at the possibility of a post-racial America.