May 22, 2018
For the liberal progressive independents among us, Jake Tapper is a household name. He is a highly respected and award-winning journalist with an afternoon news show and a double-feature Sunday morning interview show on CNN. Of late, at the end of the afternoon gig, Tapper has been “shamelessly promoting” (to use his words) his new novel, The Hellfire Club, about which this review is being written. This book is his first novel, although he has written some other books of the nonfiction persuasion.
I was enthused to read this novel because of the author’s mention of it at his newsprogram’s conclusion and the intial favorable reviews posted at Amazon’s website. I took a chance on this book, because I was a bit concerned about spending time with a novel set in the middle of the previous century. I have been around, however, since that period of time and was a year and a half old on December 7th 1941, which also turned out to be the 21st birthday of the main character, Charlie Marder. Soon into the read, however, I lost entirely my earlier concern about the time setting and settled into a pleasant, almost comforting reading experience. Since I was born in 1940 and have paid some attention in the ensuing years to world events, especially those occurring in my own country, I found it interesting to encounter real-life poltical leaders used as characters in the book, with whom Charlie, a newly-minted Congressman, interacts. The novel begins in 1954, during a regrettable time in US history when a young senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, part-way into a 10-year span of “service” in the Congress, based a political career on promotion of the so-called “Red Scare,” the idea that a broad array of people in this country were attempting to infiltrate US institutions and organizations with communism. Although McCarthy is thought these days to have been associated with the long-lived House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC, as a senator he could have had no membership on a committee in the House of Representatives. HUAC also functioned for a much longer time (1938–1975) than McCarthy served in the Senate (1947–1957). This is a period in US history that deserves some study, I think, by people living in this country today, especially in a time in which the news is dominated by the so-called “Russia probe” and the battle emanating from the highest levels of government to disenfranchise the truth and eliminate the role of journalism to “speak truth to power.” Not much seems to have changed from the fictional political environment of this novel and the real one of the present day.
The first chapter of The Hellfire Club has a bit of a Chappaquiddick flavor to it and takes place in March of 1954. In the next chapter, however, it becomes evident that the author did not intend to pursue a straight timeline because that second chapter jumps back to January of 1954 and then moves forward.
Charlie Marder, our protagonist, is a freshman member of Congress, having been enthused to move into politics from a career in academia by his father, one of Washington’s movers and shakers. Charlie is married to a zoologist who is carrying their first child and still trying to participate on field research on wild ponies descended from predecessors of Spanish origin. The choice of a career for Charlie’s wife, Margaret, by the author is interesting to me, since I, too, am a zoologist, although my chosen creatures are built closer to the ground than are Margaret’s ponies (i.e., they are reptiles and amphibians).
Charlie has an idea that being in Congress involves public service and he starts out his term with that idea in mind. Learning the real reason for this “service” comes surprisingly easy for him, it seems to me, and soon he finds out what Washington is really all about. At a point about three-quarters of the way through the book, the principal protagonist is visiting the area of the Library of Congress reserved for the use of members of Congress with his spritely intern. They are searching for information on Benjamin Franklin and his conection with The Hellfire Club. Time runs out…Charlie needs to return home to Margaret, so he suggest that they photocopy some materials for later study. Xerography was just beginning to be possible and Charlie suggests to the intern, referred to by her last name Bernstein, that if she had any money she ought to invest in this new technology. Bernstein admits to having none and her boss replies:
“Seriously, though,” Charlie said, collecting his belongings, “don’t you read the business pages?”
“Not really,” Bernstein admitted. “I prefer to focus on the politicians, not the CEOs.”
“And who do you think,” Charlie asked, walking toward the door, “is telling those politicians what to do?”
So, ladies and gentlemen of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, it does not become more graphic about how this country is run than in those few statements. That revelation leads into the chapter quoted by Stephen Colbert on his May 18th 2016 show when he hosted Jake Tapper and chatted about The Hellfire Club with the author. Colbert chose to quote the “after sex” scene at the beginning of chapter 22. Tapper demonstrated that another of his talents is as an effective member of a comedy duo, but he also became very serious when he responded to Colbert’s concern to know the truth that lies somewhere within the Robert Mueller investigation. Tapper replied, “Yeah, and you know what? I’ll do you one better. You want the truth about Russia and possible collusion, I just would like the truth and facts to be respected again in this country.” This desire by Tapper, which is understandable from a journalist, especially in the current climate in this country, is of huge importance to all of us, as freedom of speech is one of the so-called “Four Freedoms” available to people in the United States and a cornerstone of our democratic way of life. So, it is not surprising to find the challenges that existed in the mid-50s to truth as a foundation of democracy acting as a backdrop to the storyline in this novel. Tapper, in essence, is giving us a warning from the not-too distant past to help strengthen us in the present to prepare us for the perilous future.
I don’t plan to “spill the beans” in this review, but suffice it to say that Jake Tapper did not invent the name The Hellfire Club. A short trip through Wikipedia will provide a capsule of the history of this interesting group of people. In addition, a reader with a small amount of knowledge of environmental chemistry will probably figure out the plot teaser early on, especially if that reader has a friend or friends who “served” in the VietNam War, as do I. That said, this novel makes for very interesting reading, especially if one is old enough to remember some of the real-life individuals from the 1950s who pepper the pages of Tapper’s work. As an academic, I am happy to see the author acknowledge the many sources he consulted in preparation for writing this novel, which is a pleasant contrast to the unsubstantiated statements that characterize the approach of some current elected “public servants,” supporting their existence from taxpayer-supported funds. The language of the novel is beautifully crafted; it is to be hoped that this ability will presage a new career direction for Jake Tapper, who has demonstrated that he is already a major contributor to what makes CNN a must-see channel for those of us who think that devotion to the freedom of speech available to US citizens, as guaranteed by the first ammendment to the US Constitution, is a key foundation of the life we allow ourselves to enjoy in this nation. Just as I think that CNN is a must-see channel for interpretation of the “news,” I think that Jake Tapper’s novel is a must-read for anyone who wishes to gain some insight on what makes the US “tick.” In short, go find it and read it.