Review: Jake Tapper’s thrilling, uneven McCarthy-era Washington drama, ‘The Hellfire Club’
Jake Tapper, the tenacious anchor of CNN, the merciless slayer of alternative facts, the dogged deflator of political egos, has written a novel about corruption in Washington. In the scandal-a-day era of President Trump, the news doesn’t leave much room for fiction about our government’s debauchery, but Tapper still heaps plenty of scorn on the king of chaos:
“He’s impossible to ignore. He’s become this . . . planet . . . blocking the sun. And whatever points he makes that have validity are blotted out by his indecency and his lies and his predilection to smear.”
I’m not sure whom you’re thinking of, but that’s Tapper’s description of Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. senator from Wisconsin whose pyrotechnics fueled the flames of communist paranoia in the 1950s. McCarthy is the dark lord of “The Hellfire Club,” Tapper’s debut political thriller, which reminds us that our republic has survived leadership crises just as dire as today’s.
The novel opens in 1954 with an echo of the Chappaquiddick incident reset in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. A handsome new congressman named Charlie Marder wakes up from a drunken stupor after a car accident. The body of a young woman lies nearby in a ditch. Before he can figure out what happened, a quick-thinking lobbyist pulls up, burns the evidence and whisks Charlie away. His family, his career, his life have been saved — but at what cost?
As openings go, this is terrific — a handful of taut pages steamed with confusion, sex and dread. But no sooner does Charlie climb out of that ditch than this novel careens into another one and stays there, spinning its wheels for 150 pages of leaden back story before we finally arrive again at that fateful morning crash. The only Red threat here is the danger of running out of Red Bull.
Perhaps all this exposition stems from the good journalist’s determination to provide context, but the whole enterprise labors under a heavy burden of explainism, accentuated by the novel’s flat, irony-free prose. Every senator, representative, lobbyist and aide — including many historical figures — arrives with a résumé that gets dutifully unfurled over the ever-dwindling action, mostly meetings, hearings and poker games. All historical references are carefully elucidated in the same teacherly tone, from the House Un-American Activities Committee to the Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency to the development of photocopies and pesticides.
But there is actually a thriller gestating in this husk of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Tapper’s 33-year-old protagonist, Charlie, is a World War II hero as attractive and flavor-free as a genetically engineered tomato. “Tall and broad-shouldered with piercing blue eyes” — the best kind — Charlie is a former Columbia University professor who published a bestselling work of history before being appointed by the governor of New York to fill an empty congressional seat. (That would require changing the U.S. Constitution, but if we get bogged down in technicalities like that, we’ll never finish.) His Brooks Bros. suit fits so well you can hardly see the Boy Scout uniform underneath. “You’re good,” his father tells him. “And even more than that, you believe in goodness.”
Nothing like a few months in Washington to test that mettle. Charlie barely finds his seat on the House floor before he crosses a powerful committee chairman and gets humiliated. He quickly learns that McCarthy and his henchman Roy Cohn (Donald Trump’s future lawyer) aren’t the only power-hungry creeps slithering around Washington. And what’s more ominous, there’s a shadowy network of secret societies where toxic information is swapped and important deals are cut. One of those nefarious groups may be a descendant of the lecherous Hellfire Club that Ben Franklin visited in London before the American Revolution. Its members “don’t play by the normal rules,” and they’ll stop at nothing — not even murder — to secure their aims.
Once all this cloak-and-dagger is methodically laid out, “The Hellfire Club” finally lurches into the crazy Dan Brownish adventure it was meant to be. Naturally, there are deathbed statements to ponder, enigmatic codes to decipher and shocking secrets to unearth in the bowels of the Library of Congress, where all the most shocking secrets are kept (Shhhhh). Soon, Charlie realizes — “Oh my God!” — that he’s not just trying to save his own skin, he’s fighting to save hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Americans.
As the country’s future hangs in the balance, Tapper dutifully attends to the clashing racial attitudes of the era. Charlie, precocious as ever, possesses all the enlightened attitudes of a Brooklyn barista in 2018. Ethnic slurs nauseate him. He knows those Confederate statues should come down. And if someone would knit him a pussyhat, he would wear it proudly. His pregnant wife is, of course, a gorgeous zoologist who studies ponies.
I’m not complaining. “The Hellfire Club” is most enjoyable when it’s most groan-worthy. There’s a particularly ludicrous scene in which political opponents confront each other with competing dossiers of compromising photos. The gun-toting thugs chuckle like Batman villains. In Charlie’s most valiant scene, he picks up his wife and the horse she rode in on! And did I mention that Charlie has an unusually acute sense of smell? Possibly the least sexy superpower ever. Throughout the novel, he identifies people’s perfumes and colognes as if it’s some kind of nasal parlor trick. By the end of “The Hellfire Club,” you can be sure he’ll sniff out a rat.
And everybody will catch the pungent scent of a sequel in the wind.
Charles is the editor of the Washington Post’s Book World.
“The Hellfire Club”
Little, Brown: 352 pp., $27
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