Baruth’s first full-length fiction (after linked stories and a novella, not reviewed) is an unsatisfying hybrid: a time-travel extravaganza that’s also a political novel featuring Bill Clinton.
It’s 2055, and the outlook for the US is dire. The Cigarette Wars have been going on for 30 years, the US is losing ground to the Sino-Russian Alliance, and whole swaths of the West are controlled by homegrown right-wing militias. The origins of the Wars lie in the Clinton Administration’s decision in the 1990s to push for NATO expansion (real) and the Anti-Tobacco Accords (invented). Go back in time, annul those decisions, and nip the Wars in the bud: the NSC in 2055 can do all that. The key figure is BC, still alive at 109 and working in Little Rock with narrator Sal Hayden, a female historian, his authorized biographer, and the world’s greatest expert on BC. The NSC needs Sal’s help as “script consultant,” so they lock down the Arkansas facility with a Clancyesque flourish and draft her, under protest. She has three handlers code-named James (for Carville), George (for Stephanopoulos), and Virginia, a “bodyist,” who will seduce—or kill—as directed. The four fly into 1963 Vegas to watch the Patterson-Liston fight (huh?) before their real assignment, recruiting/kidnapping the 16-year-old BC (yBC), who will then persuade his older 1995 self to scrap those decisions. It’s all baloney, of course, both as narrative (endless set-up, nonexistent payoff) and as geopolitics (Orwell’s 1984 with a high-tech gloss). What’s fresh, interestingly, is BC himself, whether as a teenager already demonstrating his formidable people skills, or as an immensely old man, still the same mix of charm, empathy, self-pity and tantrums; Baruth even gets mischievous fun out of a confrontation between Sal and a programmed BC at an interactive mock-up of a White House Coffee.
It’s a shame that Baruth’s real strength as a character-driven storyteller is too often eclipsed by arid think-tank scenarios.