Saturday, May 12, 2018

‘The Hellfire Club’ and the sinister consolations of secret societies

There is a scene in Jake Tapper’s new novel of Washington intrigue, “The Hellfire Club,” which seems tailor-made for our time of Twitter mobs and pearl-clutching, intentional outrage.

The novel follows a conversation in Statuary Hall on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol between newly-installed Representative Charlie Marder and his colleague, Congressman Isaiah Street. It is early 1954, and both men are surrounded by statues of great Americans of the past. Marder is white. Street is black. “Folks at home…voters would be amazed if they ever found out how many decisions are actually made by these secret societies and clubs,” Street says.

He doesn’t mean Skull & Bones – but the Ku Klux Klan. He voices the arguments of this century, wondering why there are monuments to great figures of the Confederacy here in the capital city of the nation they betrayed.

Both men are veterans of World War II, both serving their nation at a moment of great power. But both are men, in a nation at that moment largely led by men. And for one of these men, there are large portions of the nation where he couldn’t get a seat at a table in a restaurant, or even hold elected office, because of his race.

When Marder argues that the legacy of these men is complicated, Street replies that “right is right.” It is not enough to say that the people of the past, like us, contain multitudes. But then again, we are reading a novel about people of the past, in what we think of as an uncomplicated part of it, aren’t we?

This novel, the first by the CNN anchor, is fun. Tapper has constructed an entertaining, teeming, tense and charming thriller with bits of humor and even grandeur. It is obvious that Tapper cares about, and relishes, American history, particularly its more forgotten aspects. He shows the kind of devotion for old Washington haunts that you might want in your favorite tour guide, but he doesn’t let the minutiae overpower the narrative. More importantly, he expertly lifts the veil to show how similar the arguments of the recent past are to our own age. At the same time he's comfortable not answering the questions raised in the process. When a senator claims that 100 communists are crossing into the U.S. through the Mexican border every day, he doesn’t employ a flashing sign for the reader to draw any conclusions.

Like the Statuary Hall scene above, Tapper reminds us that the people of the past have the same complications we do. They sometimes know the right way but can easily lose sight of it in the press of the daily concern. And there is, in any situation, the exertion of the moment to conform to whatever masquerades as wisdom. Charlie’s wife Margaret at one point muses, “The human soul isn’t sold once but rather slowly and methodically and piece by piece.”

Among the sources for “The Hellfire Club,” Tapper acknowledges a debt to David Halberstam’s “The Fifties,” a fantastic account of the times written more than twenty years ago. Halberstam begins with the idea that the Fifties appear to us to be an orderly era, but that image masks vast contradictions. We see these years of American omnipotence in the same shade as the photographs that depict the time - black and white. There was a seeming order to everything, and Americans were grateful for order.

“In that era of general good will and expanding affluence, few Americans doubted the essential goodness of their society,” Halberstam wrote. “After all, it was reflected back at them...they were optimistic about the future…Americans trusted their leaders to tell them the truth, to makes sound decisions, and to keep them out of war.” At the same time, vast cultural, political, social and intellectual forces were moving beneath the surface that would eventually burst forth in the chaos of the Sixties.

Some of those forces are evident in the pages of “The Hellfire Club.” Charlie Marder comes from privilege. It was on his 21st birthday, Dec. 7, 1941, that America was rudely ushered onto the stage of world conflict, and ultimately, power. And it is through his father’s influence that he is appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives during the endgame of the career of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Charlie comes from academia and has faith in the essential goodness of people.

Through the novel’s intrigues, we are introduced to the idea of a secret society that operates at the highest levels of government, as old as America itself, keeping a lid on the tectonic forces driving the nation. But McCarthy’s advent – alleging a shadowy Communist conspiracy at the highest levels – threatens to upset the delicate concentrations of power within the Hellfire Club. Charlie Marder blunders into the middle of this upon taking his seat in Congress, requiring the action of the club’s old hands to escort him out of peril.

Through his odyssey, we meet familiar and forgotten figures of the era – the Kennedy brothers, Estes Kefauver, Lyndon Johnson, Ike – and we are treated again to the pageant of deep Cold War politics. As I read the novel, I kept wondering what the Russians would have thought of the idea of cabals within cabals. It probably would have looked familiar to them, as anyone who has seen “The Death of Stalin” would understand.

But I was also reminded of the lure of secret societies, an idea probably as old as government itself. The concept of a group of highly placed individuals who secretly pull the strings has an almost equal share of mystique and menace. If you are someone who prizes order, there is consolation in knowing that things may spin out of balance, but never quite out of control. There will always be someone to step in and preserve the institutions that help us sleep at night.

But if you feel yourself outside the order of society, then you are constantly wondering at what point that secret power will collapse, and what it will take to finally bring it down. Even so, there are consolations here.

Generations of anti-Semites have stoked themselves into a frenzy at the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world through politics, finance and culture. That idea has laid waste to millions. Those believing the lie even today have also taken cheer from it, because its believers see themselves as liberators, and their lives have an awful meaning and purpose. The political assassinations of the Sixties have led to spiderwebs of conspiracy among amateur detectives, with each new blurry photograph promising the long-wished-for solution. Those same people take pride in the fact that they know, better than anyone.

And there is sometimes truth to the ideas behind our fears. Hillary Clinton supporters speak of a "vast right wing conspiracy." Followers of Donald Trump talk about a "deep state" that frustrates his plans and sews suspicion through leaks. Read Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, and it too posits a conspiracy among America's institutions to preserve slavery. Judge for yourself whether he was right.

 When people on the left or right hear the other side’s conspiracy theories, they probably think, “If only we were as powerful and united as they suppose…” But both sides draw strength from the idea that, beneath the surface, are nameless vindictive zealots who may frustrate them today, but not tomorrow.

Somehow, Tapper makes all of this entertaining against a tapestry of time that we’ve mostly managed to forget. I was thrilled to see his story shoehorn in episodes like Congress’ hearings on the comic book industry. That too was a conspiracy theory – that lurid tales of murder and horror were responsible for rising juvenile delinquency. The way he works this into the conclusion was particularly sweet.

There is, of course, at this moment in American politics, the idea that we lost something when we lost the order of the Fifties. We lost surety, peace, optimism and benevolence. A movement to “make America great again” necessarily taps into that nostalgia. It was obvious who our enemy was then, we think. “The Hellfire Club,” within the mechanism of a suspense novel, pokes needed holes in that belief by reminding us of how complicated the uncomplicated past was. 

Novels like this – LeCarre comes to mind –usually cement in the reader’s mind the idea of a moral universe where everything is contested and there are no reliable levers to pull in order to bring everything into balance. Governments and movements are peopled by morally corrupted and endlessly compromised people. But Tapper leaves the reader of “The Hellfire Club” with a hopeful optimism, putting these words into the mouth of the era’s most recognizable, and sadly, overshadowed figure, President Eisenhower:

“I am confident in the idea of the United States of America…I believe that the combination of checks and balances and a free press and our democratically elected representatives ultimately expose charlatans. I believe in the good sense of the American people, and I know in my soul that truth will win out.”

There is a tendency in every era of American history to think that the stakes have never been higher, that the threat to the Republic has never been greater, that sinister forces were never closer to an ultimate victory. That may be true of any era, but as the years pass we quickly move past those conflicts to find others, consoling ourselves with darker, more mendacious conspiracies, casting ourselves in greater clothing to be quickly discarded. As Marilynne Robinson wrote in “Gilead,” “…how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome and meaningless in the next.”

I find myself wanting to revisit the history of “The Hellfire Club” (which I suppose is Tapper’s intention), seeing how it might have handled the Civil Rights struggle, Vietnam, or Watergate. Or perhaps a look back at the toll of the Civil War. We can hopefully wait to see about our own age, after our outrage cools. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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