Sunday, March 25, 2012

All Her Father's Guns by James Warner

All Her Father's Guns
by James Warner

Political satire is hard to do well. One runs the risk of steering too far into silliness, or ends up making the story one big soap-box-monologue for the author's personal beliefs. Luckily, James Warner does a serviceable job of avoiding these traps in his novel, All Her Father's Guns.

In it, British ex-pat Reid Seyton is asked by his girlfriend's father, Cal Lyte, to help derail his ex-wife's 2010 congressional campaign. "Perhaps I could have said no, I didn't want to get involved," Reid says. "But helping keep Tabytha out of Congress felt like my civic duty. Tabytha made Cal look positively left-wing."

The point-of-view switches back and forth between Reid and Cal. Cal is a libertarian venture capitalist who has made barrels of money in the corporate world. Reid is a professor in the "Department of Theory" at a California university. Its function is to "transgress the boundaries" between various humanities, and it focuses on "the theoretical developments rendering those boundaries untenable."

It's intellectual wankery, in other words.

Reid's position isn't looking so solid after a round of budget cuts. Helping Cal seems like a good enough distraction, and he even refers Cal to a "Lacanian" therapist from his department, a Romanian woman named Viorela. Cal would also like to find direction in his life, and Reid theorizes (of course), "the saddest part was that, like many people who claim to defy authority, Cal was really only awaiting an authority that would prove irresistible."

Naturally, Cal finds Viorella's commanding manner transfixing. Meanwhile, Reid finds out his girlfriend, Lyllyan, is pregnant, and Tabytha Lyte is out there being the Arizona version of Sarah Palin with the craziness turned up to eleven. She has to "liberate the Middle East from the A-rabs," dontcha know?

There was an ongoing wave of redistricting going on that favored Republicans. Congress had all the subtlety of toddlers cheating at Candy Land.

If it seems like there is a lot going on, and that there are a lot of ridiculous names, that's because there are. I am not sure why Warner chose so many names spelled with Ys or why there are also women named "Catriona," "Keana" and "Tintinella," while the men are named "Tad," "Bruno," and "Vernon." I don't know if the names serve a function, or are meant to mirror the pulls between left-wing and right, but they were mostly distracting.

What works for this book is that it isn't very long. Yes, that sounds harsh on the surface, but the brisk pace kept the story amusing, rather than inspiring thoughts of "WTF am I reading? And why?" Warner could have gone even further with the political postulating and used all of the narrative as his own mouth piece, but he mostly keeps it to character. In a bit of dramatic irony, we know that the intellectual Reid and the reactionary Cal are meant to meet in the middle, having had their views challenged during all the ensuing chaos.

What I hoped for was something more akin to the film In the Loop, which is political-bungling satire at its best, and also features English characters. I realize that Warner is also an ex-pat, but forgive me for saying that Reid did not feel all that English. Apart from his brother turning up and dropping a few slang words, it's easy to forget that aspect of his character. Perhaps it's a byproduct of being in the country a certain amount of time, but I wanted more Englishness than a reserved disposition.

Overall though, All Her Father's Guns is a quick bit of entertainment, one that might have been stronger with the focus given to just a few ridiculous elements, rather than a hundred. While I would not say it's been one of my recent favorites, I still enjoyed reading it. Knowing what we do about the current election climate, the book's election concerns are somewhat nostalgic relief.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author. I thank him for the gesture and will continue to be fair in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.

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