Two Gripping Thrillers

A great deal of attention has been paid to the need to escape from the constant anxiety of each day’s news, especially during this past year of the pandemic. You can turn off notifications on your phone and avoid reading the news online but it will still find you, somehow.

Streaming TV has been the most widespread diversion for most, but these days one has to dig deeper into Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu et al. to find something truly engaging. And even at its best, TV has a hard time matching the kind of transcendent escape provided by a really engrossing book.

I’m going to recommend two such books, each of which provides a wonderful diversion from daily tasks and worries. Both generate plenty of tension but it’s good tension—the kind that keeps you turning pages and temporarily rising above whatever happened in the wider world today. Both books are thrillers (though they’re quite different), and both are very well-written, and featured on last year’s New York Times100 Notable Books” list.

A new twist on noir. Image:
A new twist on noir. Image:

S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is a thoroughgoing delight—if you like classic noir, you’ll love this book. Set in Virginia, its depiction of criminals and criminal life in the South reads as completely authentic. The novel’s protagonist, Beauregard “Bug” Montage, is torn between his past life as a getaway driver extraordinaire and his current desire to live as a good citizen, husband and father. The tension between these two roles helps fuel a fast-moving plot that grabs you tight and won’t let go. Full review here.

A nasty piece of work. Image:
A nasty piece of work. Image:

Lawrence Osborne’s The Glass Kingdom is an altogether different kind of thriller, and a nasty piece of work it is (I mean that as high praise). This novel’s setting is bustling, shadowy, dangerous Bangkok, where 30-something Sarah Mullins winds up after scamming $200K using the reputation of a famous American author. Sarah gravitates to a high-end collection of high-rises known as the Kingdom, supposedly secure from the chaos and growing civil unrest on the streets of Bangkok below. There she mingles with other expats from around the world, all of whom have sketchy backgrounds of their own. The book’s tension builds steadily and becomes almost unbearable toward the end. Full review here.

Read either or both of these novels and enjoy a well-deserved vacation from the news cycle. Have a good trip!

Last Chance, Long Odds

Without phenomenal luck and remarkable courage, the United States will soon be over.

Where to begin? The events of January 6 represent one of the darkest chapters in American history, and point the way toward a very bleak future—toward no future at all, where the country is concerned.

Today’s Republican Party is an active threat to democracy, truth and life itself. Yet it retains, and appears as though it will continue to retain, tremendous power. The fact that Trump will almost certainly be acquitted by the Republicans for his nihilistic and seditious behavior speaks for itself. So do the 74 million votes cast on his behalf in the recent election.

Although Democrats have achieved nominal power, this is deceptive. America’s built-in structural inequities guarantee that President Biden’s, and the Democratic Party’s, power remains very fragile. It’s good to see the flurry of Biden executive orders attempting to undo some of the damage Trump has done, but those orders themselves are fragile—they can easily be undone by the next right-wing president—and they don’t do enough to address America’s ongoing medical, political and societal emergencies.

President Biden's inauguration.
President Biden’s inauguration.

What can be done? In an ideal world, in a sane world, a world governed by logic, the Democrats would employ their current shaky majority to attempt radical, structural change, despite the odds against achieving such change. And I’m not talking about economic or racial inequality here, because unless the nation can successfully address the emergencies referenced above, those are moot points.

Some ideas, none of which are likely to be implemented:

  • Criminalize disregard of public health precautions during the pandemic. Make anyone not wearing a mask or observing social distancing do substantial jail time and/or pay a crippling fine. America’s current laissez-faire attitude toward life itself is a disgusting perversion of the founders’ conception of individual rights.
  • Shut down social media. All of it. The ignorant and the destructive have no inherent right to spread their craziness among the population at large. The use of social media does not equate to free speech when such use produces obvious widespread damage.
  • Implement re-education camps (yes, just as the far right fears). Much of today’s appalling ignorance and susceptibility to lies and conspiracy theories stems from the 40-year-plus failure of America’s educational system. But instead of barbed wire and guard towers, try using America’s best and brightest teachers—we still have some—to show the benighted Trump public what gullible, harmful dupes they have been. Pay those people to obtain the education they should have obtained years ago (the carrot), and punish non-compliance (the stick).
  • Try the worst Republican politicians for treason. From Trump on down, Republicans have done their damnedest to undermine faith in the country’s democratic values, and their blatant spread of lies and misinformation has cost hundreds of thousands of lives during the Covid–19 pandemic. Republicans have also seriously weakened our standing in the world and they have made democratic governance almost impossible.
  • Use the National Guard, where appropriate, to clamp down on violence, including police violence (witness the cops’ typical double-standard at work on January 6). And while we’re at it, root out right-wing radicals from the Guard and from police departments nationwide.
  • Outlaw all militia groups and go for their guns. I don’t mean to be facetious here—400 million guns floating around the United States virtually guarantees that many of the 74 million Trump voters will eventually use them, and relatively soon, to “take back their country.” Offer a combination of money and National Guard force to mandate compliance. Allow the retaining of individual weapons for self-protection where appropriate (it usually won’t be).
The assault on the Capitol.
The assault on the Capitol.

How likely do you think it is that any of these six suggestions will become reality? Right—none of this going to happen. Therefore, the intelligent thing to do is prepare for what comes next as we hurtle toward disaster. I’m not talking about Civil War (though that is a distinct possibility), but a negotiated separation. Now is the ideal time to begin this process, while Democrats do wield some sort of power.

Governors of blue states and mayors of major cities should start the discussion now. The one way out of America’s downward spiral, the one chance that some semblance of America’s best moments in history and its leadership role in the world can be salvaged, is to say a permanent goodbye to Trump, to his voters and to the Republican Party at large. Let them go their own way. And let the rest of us regroup to try and salvage a sane and healthy American future, even if it’s on a reduced scale.