Political Fiction Page-Turners
In recent years, American politics has started to resemble an uneasy mix of reality TV show, celebrity gossip column and WWF match, so it's no surprise that it increasingly appeals to novelists looking for high-stakes plots and larger-than-life characters. In the hands of top writers, readers of political novels ride the fascinating divide between taking flights of fancy and playing detective to work out what's true and what's made up among the stranger-than-fiction details. These books take the raw materials of the American political experience and turned them into silk purses.
The ebullient, charismatic former President begat an appropriately fulsome fictional counterpart in "Primary Colors," by Anonymous (later revealed to be journalist Joe Klein). Jack Stanton is Bill Clinton writ even larger--and there is also room for Hillary Clinton, George Stephanopolous, Mario Cuomo, Gennifer Flowers, James Carville and many others, all undeniably plausible, or plausibly deniable, thanks to Klein's witty pseudonyms (Cashmere McLeod for Gennifer Flowers, anyone?).
Well before Bill O'Reilly took on the Lincoln story for his first huge historical bestseller, an altogether different kind of media hound/writer penned the life and death of our 16th president. Gore Vidal was as much a bloviator in his day as O'Reilly is in ours, appearing on numerous TV shows and showing off his brilliance every chance he got. When he wasn't talking, he was a serious writer, producing several well-researched historical novels. His 1984 tale tracking the life of Lincoln is considered one of the very best, though Vidal's books on Roman emperor Julian ("Julian"), Aaron Burr ("Burr"), and "1876" (guess what that one's called) all showcased his particular brand of wit, erudition and political insight.
The life of former first lady Laura Bush seems tailor-made for a dramatic treatment: Rising from small-town Texas (where, at age 17, she ran a red light and caused the death of a friend in another vehicle); becoming a teacher and librarian; marrying the son of the then-former head of the CIA (that same father-in-law, George H. W. Bush, would later become the 41st president, and George W., Laura's husband, would become the 43rd)--well, the material is almost too unreal for fiction. But this didn't stop "Prep" author Curtis Sittenfeld turning it into the hugely popular "American Wife," a thinly-veiled roman-a-clef on the life of the former Laura Lane Welch.
Robert Penn Warren might best be remembered as one of the 20th- century's preeminent American poets, his name whispered with those of Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost and e.e. cummings. But Penn Warren was a handy novelist, too, and his account of the life of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, with the pseudonym Willie Stark, in his 1946 novel "All the King's Men," raised the bar for the what a fictionalized version of a real political story could achieve (i.e., winning the Pulitzer Prize). Regularly chosen as one of the 20th century's top 100 novels, it also lent itself to the silver screen: The movie adaptation of 1949 won an Academy Award for best picture, and though the 2006 remake had a cast to die for (Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslett, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Hopkins), it was widely considered to be an absolute turkey. (Six degrees of separation: James Carville--aka Richard Jemmons in "Primary Colors"-- was executive producer of this remake.)
Lee Harvey Oswald
Don DeLillo turned to the political arena with his 1988 novel, "Libra." If "White Noise" was DeLillo's first truly classic novel and "Underworld" the book that matched--and perhaps outdid--the brilliance of "White Noise," "Libra" more than held its own among critics, with its re-imagining of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. A young man adrift and prey to the forces of the CIA and Cuban anti-revolutionaries alike, JFK's killer springs off the page as a fully imagined and--dare we say--almost sympathetic character, in a testament to the powers of DeLillo's imagination.