James Patterson’s new thriller, “Blowback,” asks us to imagine what would happen if a narcissistic psychopath were elected to the White House.
Americans could be forgiven for thinking they already have a pretty good idea of what that would be like.
If “Blowback” is feedback on Donald Trump’s raging years in office, it’s only a glancing shot.
That figures. After all, Patterson has long maintained an indulgent detente with his friend and fellow Floridian. Unlike Stephen King, who regularly unleashes the hounds of hell upon Trump, Patterson has largely restricted himself to sighs of disappointment. Even in his two immensely popular presidential thrillers written with Bill Clinton, Patterson has avoided any harsh criticism of the Very Stable Genius.
That attitude of restraint paid off when Trump awarded Patterson a National Humanities Medal, the only one conferred on a novelist during Trump’s time in office. At a White House ceremony in 2019, the president told Patterson, “You’ve sold a lot more books than me, and I guess you’ve sold a lot more books than anyone but maybe one: the Bible.” It was a weird moment that inadvertently called attention to the fact that Trump, Patterson and God rely on other people to help write their books.
But never mind: “Blowback” will certainly prick liberals’ anxieties. Keegan Barrett, the newly elected president at the center of the story, is “operating the government like it was his personal fiefdom. … He is maddeningly inconsistent, loudly making threats and making confidential messages of goodwill at the same time, rocketing from one position or crisis to another.”
And yet despite those nostalgic allusions, Patterson makes clear that this leader is no Trump. Indeed, the president in “Blowback” is a man of fearsome skill. He has a reputation for monklike celibacy. He’s a former Army general and CIA director. And he stays off Twitter. In short, this is a thriller that poses the terrifying question: What if we had a president who was like Trump but competent?
Early in the novel, President Barrett outlines a clandestine policy shift to strike America’s enemies with shocking and devastating force: “After decades of our being the world’s punching bag, I’ve decided this Administration isn’t going to be reactive anymore. We’re going to be proactive, go after our enemies before they strike. We’re no longer going to be the victim.”
To implement this scheme, President Barrett enlists the help of two special agents, Noa Himel and Liam Grey, who have “intelligence, toughness, experience.” Acting under the authority of a classified presidential finding, Noa and her team track down foreign spies on U.S. soil and make them “disappear.” Liam, meanwhile, is told to assemble an elite gang of warriors and rove around the globe. “You know what Rome did to Carthage?” the president asks.
“Let’s go hunting,” Liam says.
The situation is ideal for a paranoid leader hearing voices urging him to fulfill his messianic destiny. President Barrett has cleverly dissolved all checks and balances: His vice president is lingering in a mysterious coma, the speaker of the House is swamped in a fresh scandal, and the nomination for the director of the CIA is being held up in the Senate.
Unimpeded by any stodgy political and legal constraints, Noa and Liam start raining vengeance on bad guys foreign and domestic. These are characters who “don’t play by any rules, except getting the job done.” They’re thrilled! We’re thrilled! But then Noa and Liam realize they’re being used as personal mercenaries by a president so determined to crush America’s opponents that he could destroy the whole world.
One hesitates to attribute too educational a motive to Patterson, but this is essentially a lesson in the dangers of abrogating all those encrusted diplomatic rules and international laws that, some claim, let other nations walk all over us. What seems at first like a long overdue policy of maximum offense eventually risks inciting World War III. Suddenly, Noa and Liam must work against the president – and the clock! – to undo what they’ve unwittingly helped set in motion. (Don’t worry: They’re being helped by an investigative reporter for The Washington Post.)
It’s pure Patterson, writing with Brendan DuBois, who has collaborated with him on half a dozen previous novels. (Another one’s coming in January.) DuBois may not have the marketing glamour of Bill Clinton, but at least he doesn’t gunk up Patterson’s presidential plots with boring lectures about How Government Works.
In fact, “Blowback” rarely tolerates any unnecessary diversions at all. This is narrative stripped down to the studs, in every sense. The scenes are so short they could be written on napkins. Several times the chapters break during conversations, as though somebody forgot to put a dime in the pay phone. Little cliffhangers are arranged in such regular, predictable order that reading the novel feels like running down the stairs. And the dialogue is so corny it’s not delivered, it’s shucked. One senior agent discovers that the president has “put a cherry on top of this bloody mess that’s going to make Iran-Contra look like an overdue library book scandal.” They’ve got to stop that mad man – and that metaphor.
But we didn’t wander in here expecting Proust. We want gee-whiz technology and bloodless mayhem. Check, check. And of course, we want to experience the terror of the world hanging in the balance at a moment when only a handful of determined patriots can save us.
Alas, avoiding Armageddon isn’t the only challenge in this story. What if the president refuses to leave office?
Yeah, what would that be like?
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