Political junkies have been short-changed by American novelists. There are very few serious novels that really grapple with American politics and no great, classic Washington novel.
That’s in my opinion, of course. The great American Political Novel is supposed to be “Democracy” by Henry Adams. I’ve never enjoyed it, despite several tries. But try it, you might like it.
Below I’ve listed five novels that I have enjoyed and that I think have merit beyond entertainment. They aren’t all exactly classics and some look corny or dated today. They’re all good reads for the holiday season and any other time and have insight into the people who do politics in America.
“All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren. Writing about this beautiful book years ago, I admitted that calling “All the King’s Men” a novel about politics is like saying that “War and Peace” is about war and peace. But politics is part of it, Louisiana politics in the Depression. It is the story of the conniving but soulful populist, Willie Stark, a character based on Huey Long. It is told through the lens and life of Jack Burden, a recovering historian and reporter who is Stark’s top hand. Huey Long’s motto was, “Every man is a king.” Warren flips that around. This is the only true classic on my list.
“Being There” by Jerzy Kosinski. Published in 1970, this novella is hilarious, prophetic, Warhol-esque parody of celebrity and politics. The main character, named Chance, has spent his life in the care of a rich old man, whose garden in Washington he tends. Virtually all he knows about the world outside his yard comes from television. Today we would say that Chance is on the spectrum. When the old man dies, Chance is sent helplessly into the world. He comes to be adopted by a rich lady, who thinks his name is Chauncey Gardiner and mistakes his simple utterances for profundities. Soon, the whole country is doing the same and Chance is a political celebrity and an adviser to a dim-witted president. There is a wonderful movie adaptation with Peter Sellers as Chance.
“Advise and Consent” by Allen Drury. This is a Cold War, McCarthy-era thriller built around a confirmation battle and its dirty politics. Published in 1959, the writing is hardly timeless, but this is a page-turner and a fine caricature of the personalities bred by the U.S. Senate. The novel also sets the table for the spectacular confirmations drama of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas that would come 30 year later. The 1962 movie with Henry Fonda and Charles Laughton might be better than the book.
“Lucky Bastard” by Charles McCarry. Here’s the sleeper on my list. McCarry should be much more famous than he is. He is the greatest American author of spy fiction, just a trench coat or two down from John LeCarre. But “Lucky Bastard” is a hilarious romp through history, espionage and politics. John Fitzgerald Adams, a Bill Clinton cartoon, may be the love child of John Kennedy – and a deep cover Soviet mole. This book is way underrated, as is McCarry’s “Shelley’s Heart.”
“Roscoe” by William Kennedy. This is my favorite of all of William Kennedy’s novels about Albany, New York, and maybe my favorite book on this list. Roscoe is Roscoe Conway, the secret brain that runs Albany’s political machine in the middle of the 20th century. But Roscoe also has a heart and a soul. By the end of World War II, Roscoe can no longer endure the stains of politics on his life. "I'm a fraud," Roscoe tells his crony, Elisha. "I've always been a fraud."
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