by Richard Lowry
and Keith Korman
Vanguard, 352 pp., $25.95
Imagine a Christopher Buckley novel set in the world of 24 and Jack Bauer, and you have Banquo’s Ghosts, the fiction debut of National Review’s Rich Lowry (along with Keith Korman)—which is really two genres in one. A Buckley novel takes political life and tweaks it ever so slightly so that it comes out just like itself—if not more so—and Ghosts, by this standard, does not disappoint.
There is a venerable left-wing magazine in New York called The Crusader, always on the alert against sexism, racism, warmongering, imperialism, greed, and other forms of mainly American wickedness. There is its editrice, the megarich media empress Josephine Parker von Hildebrand (Jo von H), who looks out for the trodden-upon from her penthouse apartment on Central Park West. There is Peter Johnson, her first husband and now her pet in-house writer, turning out books and award-winning magazine pieces on the justified loathing of the United States by all right-thinking people (Why They Hate Us—Why They Hate Us More—Why There’s Nothing Else to Do But Hate Us), culminating in his epic denunciation of the American role in the 1991 Gulf War, Dresden For Our Times: Fear and Loathing on the Highway of Death. Peter is a fixture on Larry King Live and at Jo’s soirées, where he banters with Neville Poore, the New York Times’s ex-theater critic-turned-pundit, whose favorite and recurrent topic of discourse is “Red State America’s repressed obsession with sex.”
What none of them knows is that Peter was “turned” shortly after 9/11 by two rogue and remarkable CIA agents, who fashion him into something less like a guided missile and more like a loose cannon, to use as a tool in their plots against terror. The genius is in the improbability: Who would believe that a well-known left-winger, wholly disorganized and pickled in alcohol, could be used as a mole by these sinister forces? Sometimes the people who trained him can hardly believe it themselves.
As the unlikely hero and heart of the story, Peter is only too human and fallible, with a drinking problem, a self-discipline problem, and a commitment problem—three failed marriages of two years’ duration—a man whose radicalism is largely a form of inertia, of floating along on the cultural flow. But he is also a decent sort, repelled by the anti-Semitism that prevails in his milieu; and when his only daughter, who worked in a building beside the Twin Towers, is saved from incineration by a stomachache suffered the night of September 10, he realizes that there are things in the world even worse than his country, and commences to see life anew.
This development catches the cold, all-seeing eyes of Stewart Banquo and his aide, Robert Wallets, two superspies who carry on endless war on America’s enemies, and on the bureaucrats, fools, and wimps on their side in the federal government, whom they deeply and truly despise. Square of jaw, stout of heart, resolution personified, they track Johnson down and reel him in slowly, spotting him first at a Jo von H party, where he is repelled by a guest’s anti-Israeli effusions, then after a post-9/11 NYU forum, where his attempts to suggest that terror is evil have been shouted down by a mob. Wallets follows him home, saves him from a mugging, sobers him up, and makes him an offer it turns out he cannot refuse.
There follows “years and years of talk. Just talk” at Banquo’s office at 30 Rock in Manhattan, where they “showed him the world from many new angles,” force-feeding him data on Islamic society, nuclear physics, and Middle East history. They force him to stay at least partially sober. They make him swim laps until he is at least less unfit than he was at the beginning, and all the while, he keeps up his work at The Crusader, doing his best to sabotage the Iraq war effort, playing up Abu Ghraib, accusing Marines of a massacre, making Jo von H even happier. Near the end, they put him through improvised boot camp.
At the start, he appears noncommittal, telling himself he could quit any minute, and sink back to his old life of slothful imbibing. But time passes, and something strange starts to happen: He starts to turn into a mensch. Rigor agrees with him, as does having a purpose. Nursing an in-between twinge in his butter-soft feet,
It occurred to Johnson that he had lived his whole life in a buttery in-between state . . . he never chose to take a stand, never confronted some difficult issue . . . never committed himself to a dangerous point of view unless there were some compensating benefit that outweighed the personal jeopardy by several orders of magnitude . . . and never really knew what a bad place that was to be, except for now.
Newly serene, he returns to New York to be told the point of all this was to send him to Iran in the guise of a regime-friendly journalist, get into the Iranian nuclear program, gain access to Iran’s leading nuclear scientist—and, um . . . take him out.
Alas, the plan fails (although not through his doing), but Johnson discovers his soul in resistance, and on his return (Wallets smuggles him over the Iran/Iraq border) helps foil a plot to irradiate New York City by seeding chemical weapons in Union Square, near the Cloisters, and in the Christopher Street station of the IRT. Along the way, there are you-are-there renderings of Iraq, Iran, and the New York subway system (in its entirety) that bring them to life with more than a vengeance: “The whole Middle East smelled like that—never enough water,” Lowry/Korman write at one point. “The odor of too many people living over too few drains.”
But the real fun is in the evocations of the cultural zeitgeist and the current political scene: Larry King blathering, battles with the hated boss DEADKEY at Langley, Jo von H at a party squeezing the bottom of a current admirer, Jo with Chris Matthews, feeding the beast: “Chris . . . still chewed the bit in his teeth over government spying and lying, and Josephine rode him like a gelding,” as Lowry/Korman inform us. “Do you think—we’ve got reports out there,” as Chris says to the siren, “do you think they know what they’re saying, those so-called neocons—although they don’t seem very neo to me, con maybe, hah-hah —do you think—you know what I’m getting at . . . do you think the Iranians were involved?”
Well, the so-called neocons will certainly love this, as the right people get tortured, including the swine who seduced Johnson’s daughter. They will pray Banquo and Duncan have real-life equivalents. And they will surely love this description of a Soho art gallery where The Crusader contingent holds one of its flings:
The artist . . . specialized in American flags. The stars and stripes plastered on every available wall and in every imaginable condition: some torn, some burned, some upside down, one on the floor that everyone walked on . . . another over a casket, another choking a toilet as a constant flushing sound emanated from the tank.
Banquo’s Ghosts understands, as many conservatives do not, that humor plays better than bluster among the vast uncommitted, and raillery is far more effective than rage. The people at the New York Times and the Nation may find this less amusing, but this is still a free country. They can always write books of their own.
Noemie Emery, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a columnist at the Washington Examiner.