(Caveat lector: This book works well as a political thriller, but this review will focus on some topical ideas presented in the course of that thriller. And since the most important idea in this novel is fully revealed only toward the end, there will be a major spoiler.)
In the first few pages of Claes Ryn’s political suspense novel, A Desperate Man, we are privy to the thoughts of one of its main characters, Helen Bittenberg: “This was going to be the perfect vacation … there would not even be any temporary aggravations or uncertainties. … How delightful it was and would continue to be for all of them.”
With these ironic words, Ryn, a political philosopher at Catholic University, introduces one of the book’s major themes: most people want their lives to be comfortable and untroubled, and so will tend to close their eyes and plug their ears when trouble is looming. The Bittenbergs’ family vacation is going to be anything but perfect, and aggravation and uncertainty will be constantly present. In fact, those very thoughts of Helen’s occur as she worries about the failure of her husband, Richard, to meet the family for lunch in Paris.
We next meet Richard, an academic historian of ideas who is entering a crisis, having come to believe that “the leaders of the United States are destroying the country he loved.” From that point on, the novel repeatedly alternates between chapters concerned with Helen’s increasingly frantic investigation as to where her husband has disappeared to, and chapters on Richard that chiefly discuss earlier events that lead him to a momentous decision.
Richard’s sections fill in a lot of backstory on the man—sometimes too much for this reader: did we need to know that Richard’s best friend in high school was “the son of a businessman”?—but in this historical material other important themes in the novel are introduced.
For example, Richard’s father, Peter, who was a doctor, served in World War II as a field surgeon, a job for which he had no training. He had great moral qualms about this: was he really qualified to treat these wounded soldiers? When he expressed those qualms to his superior officer, the man dismissed them out of hand: he told Peter that the alternative to Peter doing surgery was not a highly skilled surgeon magically appearing out of nowhere, but someone even less qualified performing the operations. And that superior related to Peter an aphorism that is a central theme of this novel: “You make do with what you’ve got! That’s all you can do!”
In these sections, I found myself disturbed by the name of Richard Bittenberg’s friend Donald Kiefer, as I could never completely keep images of Donald Trump and Kiefer Sutherland out of my mind while he was active in the story. But Donald does accurately describe our current financial system: “What Donald kept saying about the world of investment banking and its relation to the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Congress, and the International Monetary Fund, suggested that ruthless financial interests were engaged in virtual looting in the American and international markets.”
As Richard’s despair about the current state of his country deepens, about a year and a half before the family trip to Europe, he meets a fan of his work, Herbert Vandenhorst. Vanderhorst had held many high government positions, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, in the past, as well as having had extensive experience in corporate America. After gauging Bittenberg in person, Vanderhorst invites him to join a conspiracy: Vanderhorst and a cadre of like-minded people, including congressmen, high-ranking military officers, law-enforcement personnel, and important figures in the media and in industry, are plotting a coup to overthrow the U.S. government. They are all risking the death penalty for treason by doing this, but they are united in the belief that America has gone so far off the rails that only extreme measures can rescue it.
Richard decides to join, and his already busy life becomes even more harried. The most difficult aspect of his decision, aside from the possibility of losing his life, is the secrecy necessary to the undertaking: even his beloved wife Helen must be kept in the dark about what he is up to, mainly to protect her.
The conspirators’ discussions of their plot offer Ryn many opportunities to introduce what are almost certainly his own views on the current state of our polity. For instance, on the media: “But the media and journalism are dominated by people who help generate and justify the present order of things. … People who want a career in those fields have to give proof of allegiance to the reigning mind-set, or at least not be dissenters in any serious way.”
Or on “intellectuals” whose real job is not to think new thoughts but to justify those in power: “Some of these courtier intellectuals imagine that they’re formulating timeless ideas. They are too conceited and provincial to understand that they’re just pandering to the powers that be. They’re buttressing the system, which also rewards them handsomely. They’re bought and paid for, morally and financially.”
And in the current state of American politics: “In order to advanced to the top these days you have to be an experienced, cunning, clever, brutal crook.”
The conspiracy progresses, and the coup seemingly has a fair shot at success. The plan involves simultaneously assassinating both the president and vice president, and then using the conspiracy’s military insiders to achieve control of Washington and its media insiders to spin the events as a terrorist attack on our government.
But as the planning proceeds, Ryn raises a troubling question: are comfortable, affluent, postmodern Americans in any condition to actually take decisive political action? A conversation Richard has with his friend Robert expresses Ryn’s doubts:
Either you fuss and worry about everything … or you decide that you’re in, and then you give it your all … that’s the kind of commitment that people like you and me have such difficulty making because we’ve lived our entire lives in a different world. Our deepest reflexes are conditioned by fairly tranquil circumstances … we’re probably too civilized—no, that’s not quite what I mean, I mean we, too, are infected by our progressively corrupt culture.
In another passage, Ryn seems to be predicting the current election:
The media establishment formed a protective wall around the existing order. Individuals or movements that raised issues potentially dangerous to the powers-that-be were sooner or later co-opted, discredited, or destroyed outright. Before serious challengers could achieve real political momentum, they were brought low by scandal, innuendo, or fear mongering. Only persons who accepted the reigning moral, political, economic, and cultural order could achieve political influence.
Yes. The only way an individual might actually be able to survive the media onslaught that descends on every outsider candidate would be if he:
1) Is very wealthy, so he doesn’t have to worry about the donor class rejecting him.
2) Doesn’t care in the least about scandal. His reputation already is scandalous!
3) Is an egomaniac so that the constant attempts at smearing him simply slide off him.
4) Is a master manipulator of the media, so that he can outplay them at their games.
So, the choices are:
1) Elect someone fitting the above description, if anyone like that should happen to come along; or
2) Just accept that the status quo will continue on and on.
As the moment for action draws nearer, Richard learns that part of the master plan—as in any decent conspiracy, members of this one are told details only on a need-to-know basis—includes shooting any soldiers or cops who stand in the way of the coup, however innocently, and the execution of many people understood to be too strongly linked to the regime being overthrown to be allowed to live. Richard at this point essentially “flips out.”
The other conspirators tell him that any revolution has to eliminate key opponents, and that he is “just another nervous Nellie who can’t stand the heat in the kitchen.” Richard is hiding behind “his principles. … Those principles are his pride, but they’re phony—disconnected from the world we actually live in. They’re excuses for backing out of difficult situations. They are dressed up as something fine and noble, but they’re nothing but an escape from confronting reality. … Even the noblest purposes sometimes require making alliances with bad people.”
But Richard’s pangs of conscience overwhelm him and lead him to desert the conspiracy. The attempted coup fails, partially due to Richard’s absence. Shortly later Richard’s mentor dies of a stroke, broken by the failure of the coup. Another leading conspirator, Gordon Bunker, shows up at Richard’s house and demands that Richard come with him, to a bar, as it turns out. There, somewhat drunk, he lays into Richard. Bunker tells Richard that he lacked respect for Vandenhorst: “You, the bookish professor, had to second-guess this very experienced, knowledgeable man who knew a lot—from practice, not theory—about how the world works. You had to sit in moral judgment of him!”
No, Richard protests, it was a matter of his conscience: he could not in good conscience support the things that had to be done for the coup to succeed. Bunker is having none of it: “The plans rattled you and became your excuse for withdrawing. The real reason was that you simply couldn’t take the pressure any longer.”
When Richard again invokes his conscience, Gordon has had it: “Listen to you! Can’t you hear the sanctimoniousness? If you weren’t so damn conceited, it might have occurred to you to rely on the judgment of someone who really does know the world, someone like Herb. But you assume that you knew best, didn’t you? You saw more deeply than anybody else, didn’t you? You had a much finer conscience. You had no reason to give Herb the benefit of the doubt. No, in the end you treated him with the same moral condescension as you treated Noah [another conspirator]. … You’d lived your life in protected, cushioned surroundings. Your imagination failed when you had to size a very unusual situation. … The choice for you … was between an imperfect coup and no coup. You didn’t want an imperfect coup, so what you got, the status quo, must be what you wanted. Right?”
Ryn’s message here is spot-on: If we are going to overthrow a corrupt system, we can do so only with the resources actually at our disposal. I might wish that Buddha, or St. Francis, or Lao-Tse were around at this moment in our history to lead a perfectly pure revolt against the militaristic, amoral oligarchy currently ruling us. Heck, I’d happily settle for Dwight Eisenhower or Calvin Coolidge. But none of those people seem to be available. If we wait for perfection, the current system will continue indefinitely, until it produces some global catastrophe like a nuclear war with Russia. We aren’t living in Eden: perfection is not an option. We have to make do with what we’ve got.
Gene Callahan teaches economics and computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.