By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this political thriller, set just before the onset of the first Gulf War. It draws two very different threads, eventually weaving them into a single whole, although I’m not entirely sure how successfully. The first thread involves deputy sheriff Clyde Banks, his campaign to be elected sheriff and the discovery of a dead foreign student at the bottom of a local lake. The second involves Betsy Vandeventer, a lowish ranking CIA agent, who writes a report that ruffles some feathers and makes enemies in all the wrong places.

Of the two strands, I much preferred Clyde’s story. His small town charm and solid mind, behind a dumb fa├žade make him a pleasure to read. And the fact that he spends so much time carrying his infant daughter around in his car (whether on- or off-duty) just adds to the charm.

The CIA politicking in Washington left me a bit cold. I still don’t know if I entirely understand it, especially the set-up with Betsy’s social circle. I appreciate that it could have been deliberately worked to make the small town sheriff come out better than the conniving federal agents (whether they be FBI, CIA or any other TLA) and, if so, it worked on me.

I don’t usually read present-day fiction, so it was somewhat odd seeing real people popping up in the book; both Tariq Aziz (the Iraqi foreign minister) and President George (H. W.) Bush turn up, in extended cameos. The closest thing that the book has to a villain is James Millikan. A top diplomat, who just wants things to stay under his control so that he can get on with having lunch in expensive restaurants with his friends (such as the aforementioned Mr Aziz). When Betsy’s report suggests that the Iraqis may be up to something funny, Millikan immediately stomps on it, and ‘cobwebs’ the whole thing, which basically seems to involve wrapping everybody remotely involved in so many layers of bureaucracy that nothing could possibly get done.

And that’s depressingly plausible. Despite the copious humour running through the book, the idea that very clever people are doing their best to stop others doing what’s in the best interest of the country strikes me as wholly believable and wholly depressing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099478850
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1996

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