Memos are the coin of the realm in politics, if "Dark Horse," the debut novel by Ralph Reed, former Georgia Republican Party chairman and senior campaign advisor to President George W. Bush, is to be believed.
People are always dashing them off, whether it's Jay Noble, the brash campaign strategist for the Independent candidate in a tumultuous presidential race, or the lawyer combating election fraud charges against the Democratic nominee. (Only terrorist Rassem el Zafarshan is too smart to put anything in writing; he uses disposable cellphones as he plots to kill the sitting vice president.)
Reed, a Duluth resident, probably got his share of memos over the years. Here's one more:
To: Ralph Reed
Subject: Your Campaign to Become a Successful Novelist
Great instincts, sir! Just when it appeared you might be losing your touch —- Casey Cagle upset you in the 2006 Republican lieutenant governor's race, you're not exactly a McCain guy —- you roar back with a book whose ink would still be wet if its plot points were any timelier:
> Set in the near future, the story begins with two Democrats duking it out at the convention. A dispute over one state delegation's credentials (hmm . . . where have we heard that before?) ultimately decides the nominee.
> The arrest of the D.C. Mad —- er, the McLean Madam, threatens to derail another seemingly clean-as-a-whistle politico's career.
> The current Oval Office occupant may or may not be contemplating military action against Iran, which may or may not have nuclear weapons.
All that's missing is Dick Cheney gleefully twirling his moustache while tying liberal bloggers to the train tracks. But fear not. Between a candidate who finds God in a hospital maternity ward; terrorists running around Miami with missile launchers; and a cloak-and-dagger phone call received in Bone's (yes, the restaurant in Buckhead!), your "Dark Horse" favorable rating is very high when it comes to making readers want to see what happens next.
You also poll well when the subject is the rarely seen, somewhat seamy side of running major campaigns. For instance, that scene detailing some operatives' enormous financial rewards. Or the embarrassing hot-tub video that "somehow" gets out. You write with the cool assurance of someone who's been there, done something at least in the vicinity of that.
There's a danger being too close to your subject, though. While the occasional insider-jargon lapse is forgivable —- "socos" must refer to social conservatives, but what the heck is a "ring-knocker"? —- your negative ratings rise the more you expose us to the swaggeringly violent way your characters talk and think.
A critical ad is a "head shot" taken at the other guy. A damaging story fed to the press is "a grenade [rolled] into their tea party." Even a friendly phone call to an influential House member is a "love bomb."
It smacks of little boys playing war, and at a time of real, prolonged war, gives a citizen-reader pause.
But your biggest "unfavorable" concerns several gaping storyline holes. Campaign strategist Noble, a hardnosed cynic who'd probably run a background check on Gandhi, harms his candidate by unquestioningly accepting everything one (admittedly sexy) character tells him. That candidate, California Gov. Robert Long, turns his life over to God in a way that seems sincere —- but nobody really questions its timing, coming on the heels of his losing the Democratic nomination and the Republicans choosing a candidate social conservatives loathe. In the real world, people would paw through Long's church attendance records back to kindergarten faster than you can say "Swiftboat."
And then there's your ending . . . such as it is. At the risk of taking a cheap "head shot," it's pretty flat. After everything that's happened —- did I forget to mention the female vice-presidential candidate who goes on the lam on her campaign plane midbook? —- I expected real fireworks.
War, rioting in the streets over the results of this controversial three-party election. Instead, your characters mostly appear to be biding their time before moving into the White House or on to their next adventures.
Why, it's almost a perfect set-up for a sequel!
Somebody should work up a memo on that. . . .
"Dark Horse" by Ralph Reed. Howard Books. 435 pages. $19.99
Bottom line: "Aye" for the page-turning suspense and backstabbing nuts-and-bolts of presidential politics; "nay" to some of the less believable plot developments and rather desultory ending.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Ralph Reed discusses "Dark Horse" 6 p.m. Signing followed by Q&A at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Commerce Club, 34 Broad St. Atlanta. 404-577-7377. Hosted by the Atlanta Press Club. www.atlantapressclub.org.
2 p.m. June 21. Barnes & Noble, 2205 Pleasant Hill Rd., Duluth. 770-495-7200, www.barnesandnoble.com.
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