Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Contemporary Relevance of Jake Tapper's The Hellfire Club

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site since it explores the 1950s, a chapter in That Line of Darkness:The Gothic from Lenin to Bin Laden.

Jake Tapper signing copies of his new thriller, The Hellfire Club. (Photo: Harrison Jones/GW Today)

Jake Tapper's debut historical political thriller, The Hellfire Club (Little, Brown & Company 2018), opens at dawn on March 5, 1954 with an echo of the Chappaquiddick incident reset in Washington’s Rock Creek Park. A rookie congressman, Charlie Marder, wakes up from a drunken stupor after a car accident. The body of a young cocktail waitress lies nearby in a ditch. As he tries to make sense of what has happened, an influential lobbyist known to Marder passes by, incinerates the evidence and whisks Charlie away.

With this harrowing start, before Marder or the reader can figure out whether he has been set up, Tapper backtracks three months to when Marder, a Columbia University professor with a well-connected New York GOP lawyer for a father, is chosen to fill a seat left vacant by the mysterious death of a congressman. Initially, Marder appears to demonstrate the idealism of the eponymous character in the Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as he questions on the House floor whether an appropriation earmarked for a big tire company is ethical given that it manufactured defective gas masks that Charlie witnessed first-hand when he served in the war overseas. But he does not have the mettle, the will or, to be fair, the allies to resist a powerful committee chairman who humiliates him, forcing him into a series of compromises of backroom deals which lead to Marder's actually voting for a bill that will enable that company to produce something decidedly toxic.

Marder is invited to attend a celebration of the bill’s passage by a group called the Hellfire Club located in Washington whose roots which go back to the eighteenth century in England and Ireland. The Hellfire Club is an institution described by writer Jonathan Swift as "a brace of monsters, blasphemers and Bacchanalians." Benjamin Franklin visited the notorious club in England and, according to Tapper, was instrumental in importing it to America, although the historical source that he cites only speculates on that possibility. In the novel, Tapper conveys a seedy Bacchanalian ambiance that is a cross between the murderous cutthroat politics of House of Cards and the erotic masquerade ball scene in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), except in 1950s Washington it is an all-male society where the only women serve as objectified waitresses.

Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy. (Photo: Getty)
The Hellfire Club is a secret society, some of whose key players are elected while others wield positions of power and influence. Among the elected is Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose opportunistic demagoguery fueled the anti-Communist hysteria of the fifties. At the club, he exudes a creepy charm which Tapper describes as "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.” The author, better known as the chief Washington correspondent for CNN, is providing a non-too-subtle subtext, which is reinforced by the introduction of McCarthy's legal advisor, the un-elected and nasty Roy Cohn (Donald Trump’s future lawyer) and Cohn's friend, Bobby Kennedy, who worked on McCarthy's investigation committee. In the novel, Kennedy attempts to act as a peacemaker when a vicious argument erupts between Marder and Cohn. More importantly, in Tapper's rendering, club members “don’t play by the normal rules,” and they’ll stop at nothing  not even murder  to secure their aims.

The thriller elements of The Hellfire Club, although never dull, do suggest a potboiler that occasionally slips into the improbable, but the more compelling parts are Tapper's rendering of political life in Washington in the 1950s. This may be the first novel that I have ever read with detailed notes at the end rather than merely a list of books the author consulted. (One clue: if there are no notes at the end of a given chapter, the reader should be aware that he has likely entered into the thriller domain.) For example, when Tapper has Charlie attend the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, a.k.a. the comic book hearings, he relies for historical accuracy on David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague (2008). Apart from two historical characters (more about them later on) Tapper provides marvelous satirical and unflattering sketches of the real-life characters who populated political Washington in this period. They include an ingratiating Lyndon Johnson and a womanizing Jack Kennedy, Richard and Pat Nixon and an unsuccessful presidential candidate, Estes Kefauver, who frets about the insidious relationship between horror comic books and the corruption of young people, and pressures a reluctant Marder to sit on the committee established to investigate this issue. 

Tapper is also effective in illustrating how Congress institutionalized racial discrimination, some members openly opining the value of white supremacy. Charlie’s best friend is African American Congressman Isaiah Streets, a former Tuskegee Airman who is technically banned from even eating with his peers in the official dining room. With grace and supreme confidence, Isaiah blithely ignores this custom. But Tapper's purpose, along with the upcoming Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education  referenced several times in the book  that members fret about, is to underscore how retrograde Congress was on racial equality at this time. In the current political climate, one suspects that several real-life contemporary officeholders and large segments of the American public would share the same fear and aversion to the Court's decision to desegregate the public schools over sixty years ago. 

Donald Trump and Roy Cohn. (Photo: Getty)

The portrayal of the fictional Isaiah Streets does, however, present a problem. If Hellfire were a contemporary novel set in the twenty-first century, he would be a credible character. But as a 1950s Congressman who has an easy, relaxed relationship with a white colleague,  who is more savvy and endowed with a more ethical compass,and who even invites Marder to his house for dinner, Streets feels like an anachronism. It is true that Adam Clayton Powell, who is mentioned in the novel, served as a congressman representing Harlem for several years, but there is no evidence that he resembled Streets.

Similarly, Marder's pregnant wife, Margaret, who wants to have it all, seems out of place in the 1950s. She is a professional zoologist with a special interest in researching ponies. Above all, she is the moral conscience for her husband. She is strikingly unlike Tapper's representation of Jackie Kennedy, which feels far more typical for the times. Moreover, Margaret becomes involved with nefarious colleagues in a subplot that is downright silly.
Tapper's inclusion of historical characters is far more compelling. 

The two characters whom he does not portray chillingly or satirically are Senator Margaret Chase, a Republican, and the President, Dwight Eisenhower. The courageous and wise Chase appears twice and they are both memorable moments. Her willingness to challenge McCarthy in 1950 with her Declaration of Conscience speech, which is referenced in the novel, prompted President Truman (not mentioned) to write her to say that her speech was the finest moment of his time in public life. Yet in the novel she is considered little more than part of the scenery by her male colleagues, as Marder observes. (I wondered how many congressmen at that time would have possessed his gendered sensitivity.) On the second occasion, she meets Marder on the train, offering a veiled warning to him about how politicians can succumb to the dangerous allure of the secret clubs, cautionary advice he fails to heed. I suspect that Tapper incorporated Chase into the novel as a historical precedent to contemporary Republicans whose behavior might encourage them to acquire the spine to challenge the incumbent President. At this writing, only John McCain, who was dying at the time, and fellow senators retiring from public life have been willing to defy the president and challenge him on his mendacity and demagoguery.

Eisenhower and Marder appear together in the last chapter for reasons I cannot specify, as it would be giving too much of the plot away, and I must admit I found most of it riveting, if at times unconvincing. Yet I think Tapper's primary purpose in this chapter is to re-acquaint the reader with a decent president capable of humility. By drawing upon several historical sources, he reveals Eisenhower as admitting that he did not always possess the courage to challenge McCarthy because he feared the political consequences. These moving passages more than compensate for Tapper's sometimes clunky dialogue, his portrayal of fictional characters through a modern prism and his penchant for outlandish plotting that veers into Dan Brown territory, like leaving clues hidden in pictures and old documents. Perhaps the implicit resonance with our times wields more eloquence and power than a noirish thriller.

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