Unemployment is high in the United States and there are countless demonstrations because of the economic situation. The U.S is involved in a war in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, this time). The government has taken on an enormous amount of debt. This is the situation confronting Richard Bittenberg, in this first novel by political science professor and conservative thinker Claes Ryn.
Bittenberg is a noted history professor at a fictional Washington D.C. university, raised in South Carolina and Harvard educated. He is thoughtfully conservative in a non-partisan way and is appalled at the state of the government but also at the increasing vulgarity of American culture. While he regards the political leaders of the country as criminals, he thinks the problems confronting the country are ultimately due to a cultural degeneration. Bittenberg is a patriot who is increasingly desperate about the state of his country; so desperate, in fact, that he winds up joining a group planning a coup.
I have mixed reactions to the book. I think it is both a novel of ideas and a thriller. The book tells two related tales in alternating chapters: the disappearance of Bittenberg on a family vacation in Paris and the plotting of the coup. The early sections of the book describe the political sensibility of Bittenberg in almost essay-like form without successfully integrating this exposition into the plot. The tale eventually picks up steam and becomes more involving but even then there is more conversation than action. Another weakness is that, while we get to know the leading conspirators, their opponents–establishment figures–make almost no appearance and so remain vague. It is as if the coup is against cliches (e.g.”supporters of Israel”) rather than a real enemy. Even the establishment’s supposed crimes seem almost theoretical.
At the end of the day, I think the book is most successful neither as a novel of ideas nor as a thriller but rather as a character study of Bittenberg. Why does Bittenberg join the coup when he thinks the basic problems of the U.S. are too deep to be solved politically? Why is he tempted to abandon the coup even though he regards the politicians of both parties as corrupt and irresponsible, serving only themselves and plutocracy rather than the common good? The novel’s conclusion is not precisely a surprise ending but it certainly caused me to reflect on the character of Bittenberg in way and at a length I had not anticipated. It is too bad the entire novel is not as effective as its ending.