How can someone who writes compelling nonfiction be so terrible at fiction? I’ve just read the first few chapters of David Frum’s new novel, “Patriots.” It is bloody awful. It also defeats the purpose that Frum claims he intended for it, which was to write a novel that tells deeper truths than journalism. In fact it retreads ground Frum the journalist has gone over many times before, most notably his increasingly shrill belief that conservatives are nuts.
Frum is a former conservative who is now trending liberal and may in fact be headed for the netherworld of Andrew Sullivanville; he has written many good nonfiction books about politics and culture, including my favorite, “How We Got Here: The 70s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life — for Better or Worse.” The man knows how to write. But “Patriots” is a stinker. The thing is so filled with clichés, bad dialogue and obvious plotting that I’m not sure where to start.
Why not at the beginning? Here is the opening of “Patriots”:
I didn’t get the job through merit, my girlfriend said. But then, I didn’t get my girlfriend through merit either.
I got her the way I get everything.
“What’s your name?” she shouted over the party noise.
“Like the mustard?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Kind of funny to be named after a mustard.”
“The mustard’s named after me.”
It’s not good to confuse your reader right from the beginning. My first thought was that Schotzke was kidding about the mustard — that he was being sarcastic to impress a girl. But it turns out he really is named after the mustard (I think). Walter Schotzke is a trust fund baby who goes through girlfriends and plays Xbox and doesn’t care about anything else. He gets a job in Washington after the first black president is defeated by a Republican moderate. The far right tries to turn Schotzke into one of them, but he resists, finding his character and saving the country.
In short, “Patriots” is an alternate take on The David Frum Story. It tells the story of a clueless rich guy who comes to Washington (although Frum was never stupid), is mentored by the conservative movement, and then rebels against that same movement. A good novelist could have used many different styles to tell the same story. For instance, a good novelist could have used science fiction, creating political metaphors like Ursula K. Le Guin or Neal Stephenson. Or they could have made it a fantasy like “Game of Thrones,” or a dystopia, like Walker Percy’s “The Thanatos Syndrome” or even “The Hunger Games.”
Frum could also have written an autobiographical novel that had insight and originality. He could have attempted a novel not about a neophyte neocon but about a middle-aged man whose world begins to unravel when his ideological foundations start to crumble. You could make things truly fall apart for him, having him lose his job, his wife and his money. (Even “Bright Lights, Big City” managed that.) Introduce some real stakes, some genuine drama. Have somebody get sick, or go to war or get divorced. The irony here is that Frum has been living a pampered existence of Georgetown cocktail parties and Senior Fellow at Fill-in-the-Blank for so long that for him a major crisis is Jon Huntsman not being president. Walter Schotzke faces no real crisis; he’s only an avatar for Frum to continue his tantrum against the conservative movement that bought his house.