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Menace, comedy to rival real-life politics

The Librarian: A Novel; Larry Beinhart; Nation Books: 434 pp., $15.95 paper

September 09, 2004|Tom Nolan | Special to The Times

If filmmaker Michael Moore were to collaborate with novelist Carl Hiaasen to write a paranoid-satirical political-thriller, the result might be much like Edgar Award-winning author Larry Beinhart's "The Librarian": a wildly inventive, often hilarious and more-than-occasionally over-the-top novel having to do with the perpetration of unspeakably dirty tricks in the final weeks and days of an American presidential-election campaign in an atmosphere not so very unlike ours now.

Beinhart, author of four earlier novels (including "American Hero," which was the basis for the movie "Wag the Dog") is no stranger to outrageous political imaginings. But he takes a quantum outward leap in "The Librarian," whose eponymous protagonist begins by moonlighting as an archivist in a private library and ends with the fate of the republic in his shaky hands.

University librarian David Goldberg helps a colleague by substituting for her in the employ of a rich, aging, conservative Virginia real-estate developer ("one of our national leaders in the creation of sprawl"). The employer is a member of a secret inner circle determined to secure the reelection of an incumbent Republican president at any cost.

Goldberg, a beleaguered left-winger in a post-Homeland Security climate, has been feigning an "indifference to politics" that he knows is "really resignation." His attitude is a "defense against a sense that all things liberal were failing and all the liberal spokesmen had tongues that rattled gibberish and the Limbaughs and Coulters were so high on their turn of the wheel that their gibberish was heard as eloquence." So he's unprepared for the prospects of Sen. Anne Lynn Murphy, the underdog Democratic candidate pitted against incumbent chief executive Augustus Winthrop Scott. But Goldberg becomes privy to his employer's crew's treacherous pre-election machinations, in part through the librarian's attraction to a beautiful and willful woman who's part of the manipulators' circle. Before long, he's in dangerously over his head and complaining, "I'm in the wrong movie.... I'd thought it was a Woody Allen film, a neurotic love story, but then it turned into a crazy thriller, with sadists chasing me."

Those sadists are trying to stop a fleeing Goldberg from telling what he's learned (or what they think he's learned) about their ingenious schemes to hijack the election, a wicked bag of tricks that includes provoking street riots, faking a terrorist attack and resorting to the super-secret "Plan One One Three": a political scheme so heinously plausible it's more frightening than all those sadists' mayhem.

"The Librarian" shifts between Goldberg's first-person voice and an omniscient third-person that tracks the bad guys. This keeps comedy and menace in balance and heightens the tension and suspense up to and beyond the story's ending. The book concludes (and it spoils nothing to say so) with Goldberg telling readers that a satisfactory resolution of all these events hinges on what they, "the people," decide to do or not do, once the conspiracy is made public: "Will they just want to get it over within twenty-six minutes, solved like the conflict in a sitcom? Or will they demand to get the facts clearly and in detail and sort the wheat from the chaff and the flash and the trash?" Rather than seeming a cop-out or a letdown, this open-ended finale cleverly exemplifies the novel's most serious point.

"The Librarian" is filled with biting caricatures of all sorts of political types: the sandlot bully who grows up to be head of Homeland Security; the reality-TV show producer who "evolves" into a McLuhan-esque campaign consultant; the media "commentators" who prattle banalities. Mocking right-wingers and left-leaners in (almost) equal measure, "The Librarian" gets the pulse racing, the mind reeling and the blood boiling. It stiffens the spine and firms the resolve. What more could one ask of a timely political thriller, two months before a national election?

Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography" and editor of the forthcoming "The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries by Margaret Millar."

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