IN THE OLD DAYS, the political novel, like politics itself, was a game only professionals played. But in the wake of the "new politics" amateurs like Wilfrid Sheed, former film critic for Esquire, are beginning to write a new brand of political fiction. People Will Always Be Kind is a good example of how this new type fails: like the "new politics" itself, the book is unorganized, self-righteous and too self-consciously concerned with style.
Professional politicians, most Americans assume, are at worst corrupt. Sheed thinks most of them are crazy. He may well be right, but the political novel isn't suited to expound such a far-reaching thesis. As a result, Sheed's book seems like a shotgun marriage of escapism and pretentious character analysis.
The old-style political novel rarely concentrated on a single man; it was narrative or panoramic, not analytical. The new politics born in the last decade often seems based on personality, so Wilfrid Sheed's new-style novel is the portrait of one man, Senator Brian Casey. Crippled by polio since the age of 15, Casey turns his deformity into a power base after he discovers that "people will always be kind". But this childhood trauma is the source of Casey's instability as well as his appeal, and eventually leads to his decision to throw away his chances for the Presidency.
Sheed has camouflaged his simplistic view of human motivation with the literary techniques developed in his earlier work. He divides his story in half, changes narrators in midstream and works endless transformations of style. Preoccupied with technique, he fails to provide enough information to create even the most casual sympathy. The most sophisticated campaign saga, after all, is a failure if the reader doesn't care who wins the election.
Casey's campaign is equipped with the standard props -- cynical Irish father, devout Catholic mother, crazy aunts, WASP college roommates, leftist Jewish professors, a hard-boiled campaign manager, sex-crazed secretaries. Only Casey himself stands out from this familiar array. The first half of the book is a family chronicle of his illness, the second -- after a gap of twenty years -- the story of his race for President. The long hiatus leaves our understanding of Casey hopelessly incomplete.
Casey might be less opaque if Sam Perkins, through whom Sheed presents the campaign, were more observant. A Harvard speechwriter who becomes his candidate's Ivy League conscience, Perkins concentrates more on the sexual activities of the campaign secretary than on Casey's political life. This secretary exaggerates the love interest of the old political novel -- her cool efficiency disintegrates into virtual nymphomania whenever Casey wins a primary. Sheed ignores the opportunity to describe the fascinating symbiosis of sex and politics within a campaign; he is satisfied to turn a writer's trick with tradition. Sheed's disappointing conclusion to Casey's career, tossed off in one or two sentences, is another refusal to invigorate his story, to give it a climax or use it to explore the role of martyrdom in politics.
By introducing polio and making Casey Irish, Sheed means to conjure up the myths of Roosevelt and Kennedy. But he accomplishes little with this powerful material beyond a few superficial parallels between the attitudes of the polio victim and the politician. The best of these comparisons suggests that both outwardly trust the advice of experts, but privately count on a miracle to solve their difficulties.
GOOD POLITICAL NOVELS will come out of the new politics. Too often "political" novels have been gossipy adventure stories with no involvement in either the theoretical or the gut issues of politics. It is no longer possible -- as it was in the heyday of Drury, Burdick, Uris, and Knebel -- to write such political escapism. For the political novel to become valuable, as writers like Sheed so clearly desire, it must live up to its own name by intensifying its political content.