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To Kill the President: The Novel

Cover of UK edition
Sounds like an interesting premise for a thriller, doesn’t it, once you get over your moral hang-ups? Especially easy to do when the president in question is an over-the-top caricature of the current White House resident. Bad enough this fictional blowhard and bimbo connoisseur is distracted from his apoplectic Situation Room rant by the opportunity to grab a tempting piece of you-know-what. (Spoiler alert: he’s intent on launching a first-strike nuclear attack on North Korea and China in response to an imagined insult from a Little Rocket Man doppelganger.) When his raging hormones settle down, a top priority is the design of a uniform that he can wear on public occasions to better reflect his role as Commander in Chief.

Written by Sam Bourne (get it?), the pseudonym for Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, To Kill the President was published by Harper-Collins in Britain in July. But so far, this Amazon UK and Germany best seller has failed to find an American publisher. Bourne’s agent explained to the New York Times that, “The commercial view among publishers seems to be that people are living it and haven’t got the head space for reading it. It is a lack of courage and imagination.”

That statement got my attention. My belief is that novelists, as well as all other creative artists, should strive for a louder voice in the public square, to push back against the current insanity and dysfunction in Washington. Was the lit biz chickening out? Or was it just a lousy book? I immediately ordered a used copy from Amazon (that’s the only way to buy it in the US).

Full disclosure: I’m not a thriller reader. Nonetheless, I think I can make an informed judgment that despite Freedland's heroic attempt to touch all the bases,To Kill the President is indeed a lousy thriller. But I doubt that’s the reason it’s languishing unpublished.

The characters are unbearably cartoonish. The foul-mouthed, sexist Bannon stand-in wears cargo shorts around the White House and posts Playboy-style calendars in every office. The Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Staff, who hatch the assassination scheme, were Black Ops buddies in the Middle East. There’s even a Rock Creek Park suicide-cum-murder that reads like it’s ripped off a Vince Foster/Clinton conspiracy site.

The plot isn’t much better. We never get to observe the president first hand, and most of the real action happens off stage. The focus of the story is the plucky and principled White House female staffer with a boyfriend-problem who, all by her lonesome, helps foil the assassination. She’s a holdover from the previous administration, and is racked by guilt that she enabled the current president’s election by revealing that his glass-ceiling-challenged opponent, the former Secretary of State, customarily used an unsecured phone to conduct official business. (Get it?) When, after a series of perils that Pauline could never ever contemplate, she finally unravels the whodunit, it’s with the help of her African-American, kaffee-klatsch secretarial friend whose son just happens to be a newly hired IT expert with access to the state-of-the-art, Nixon-style White House taping system.

Nonetheless, cartoonish characters and a not-very-suspenseful plot never stopped the publishing industry, not if they thought they could make a buck. And why couldn’t they, considering it sold well across the pond? Plus, they could always rebrand it as satire. So why won’t they touch it?

Do they think that all those European book-buyers can simply laugh off the doings of the current administration, as if they were indulging in some good-natured schadenfreude? Do they really believe that they’re not as frightened as we are, here in America?

Does the lit biz have moral qualms? Why should they when the ending is predictably upbeat? Instead of getting killed, the president’s about to be impeached and indicted for gross greed, running the Oval Office like a Mafia-owned mom and pop grocery store. A fitting and perhaps prescient fate for the present occupant.

Are they afraid of political repercussions? Unlike broadcasters, there are no federal licenses to threaten to revoke.

Are they worried that publishing a book like this would besmirch their good name, and therefore sales, with serious readers from the other side of the political aisle? Really, are there very many?

My conclusion is that, sadly, Freedland’s agent is correct. The lords of the lit biz have decided that reality outstrips anything that fiction can devise, as if that were enough reason for readers to become literary ostriches. They seem to have forgotten not only the post-election surge in sales for 1984, number one on Amazon, but also their Aristotle.

Catharsis is the spiritual renewal or satisfying release from tension that art can deliver. It’s worked from Aeschylus to Steinbeck to Orwell, just to name a few. I submit it could work now, given a reasonable measure of the aforementioned courage and imagination. I’d recommend The Piketty Problem rather than To Kill the President, but I think there’s room for both. The more writers and artists use their imagination to confront our current state of disunion in new and engaging ways, the sooner catharsis will help us begin to heal and look to the future.

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