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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Reading List: The Overton Window

Beck, Glenn. The Overton Window. New York: Threshold Editions, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-8430-1.
I have no idea who is actually responsible for what in the authorship of this novel. Glenn Beck is listed as the principal author, but the title page says “with contributions from Kevin Balfe, Emily Bestler, and Jack Henderson”. I have cited the book as it appears on the cover and in most mentions of it, as a work by Glenn Beck. Certainly, regardless of who originated, edited, and assembled the words into the present work, it would not have been published nor have instantaneously vaulted to the top of the bestseller lists had it not been associated with the high profile radio and television commentator to whom it is attributed. Heck, he may have written the whole thing himself and generously given credit to his editors and fact checkers—it does, indeed, read like a first attempt by an aspiring thriller author.

It isn't at all bad. Beck (et al., or whatever) tend to be a bit preachy and the first half of the novel goes pretty slow. It's only after you cross the 50 yard line that you discover there's more to the story than you thought, that things and characters are not what they seemed to be, and that the choices facing the protagonist, Noah Gardner, are more complicated than you might have thought.

The novel has been given effusive cover blurbs by masters of the genre Brad Thor and Vince Flynn. Still, I'd expect those page-turner craftsmen to have better modulated the tension in a story than we find here. A perfectly crafted thriller is like a roller coaster, with fear-inducing rises and terrifying plunges, but this is more like a lecture on constitutional government whilst riding on a Disneyland ride where most of the characters are animatronic robots there to illustrate the author's message. The characters just don't feel right. How plausible is it that a life-long advocate of liberty and conspiracy theorist would become bestest buddy with an undercover FBI agent who blackmailed him into co-operating in a sting operation less than 24 hours before? Or that a son who was tortured almost to death at the behest (and in the presence of) his father could plausibly be accepted as a minion in the father's nefarious undertaking? For the rest, we're going to have to go behind the spoiler curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
In chapter 30, Noah is said to have been kept unconscious for an entire weekend with a “fentanyl patch”. But fentanyl patches are used as an analgesic, not an anæsthetic. Although the drug was once used as a general anæsthetic, it was administered intravenously in this application, not via a transdermal patch.

The nuclear bomb “model” (which turns out to be the real thing) is supposed to have been purloined from a cruise missile which went missing during transport, and is said to weigh “eighty or one hundred pounds”. But the W-80 and W-84 cruise missile warheads weighed 290 and 388 pounds respectively. There is no way the weight of the physics package of these weapons could be reduced to such an extent while remaining functional.

The Mark 8 atomic bomb which comes on the scene in chapter 43 makes no sense at all. Where did it come from? Why was a bomb, of which only 40 were ever produced and removed from service in 1957, carefully maintained in secret and off the books for more than fifty years? Any why would the terrorists want two bombs, when the second would simply be vaporised when they set off the first? Perhaps I've missed something, but it's kind of like you're reading a spy thriller and in the middle of a gunfight a unicorn wanders through the middle and everybody stops shooting until it passes, whereupon they continue the battle as if nothing happened.

Spoilers end here.  

Apart from plausibility of the characters and quibbles, both of which I'm more than willing to excuse in a gripping thriller, the real disappointment here is that the novel ends about two hundred chapters before anything is actually resolved. This is a chronicle of the opening skirmish in a cataclysmic, protracted conflict between partisans of individual liberty and forces seeking to impose global governance by an élite. When you put the book down, you'll have met the players and understand their motives and resources, but it isn't even like the first volume of a trilogy where, regardless of how much remains to happen, there is usually at least the conclusion of a subplot. Now, you're not left with a cliffhanger, but neither is there any form of closure to the story. I suppose one has no option but to wait for the inevitable sequel, but I doubt I'll be reading it.

This is not an awful book; it's enjoyable on its own terms and its citations of real-world events may be enlightening to readers inattentive to the shrinking perimeter of liberty in this increasingly tyrannical world (the afterword provides resources for those inclined to explore further). But despite their praise for it, Vince Flynn and Brad Thor it's not.

Posted at June 19, 2010 20:58