Too bad Fife Symington peaked early. He could have used State of Emergency, a political potboiler published in October by G.P. Putnam's Sons, as his own Mein Kampf.
The novel is right up Fife's alley, brimming with babes and bureaucrats and right-wing ideology all rendered in a florid style. Fed up with the feds, the governors of Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming secede from the Union. They order National Guard units to Page, Arizona, seize Glen Canyon Dam and open the floodgates to paralyze the entire Southwest (more on that later). The Arizona governor is the dumb one of this gang-of-four, but the book's author, Steve R. Pieczenik, swears that's just coincidence.
State of Emergency is Pieczenik's fifth novel, and he is the "co-creator" of the paperback and TV movie series Tom Clancy's Op Center, which means that he and Clancy, best known for his own political thrillers, including The Hunt for Red October, sit down and script out the plot and then hire a freelancer to actually write the book.
The Op Center books are allegedly based loosely on Pieczenik's own career in the U.S. State Department, where he served under secretaries Kissinger, Vance, Baker and Schultz and bore titles such as "crisis manager," "hostage negotiator" and "Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs." The man's got credentials: a medical degree from Cornell, a psychiatry residency at Harvard, a Ph.D. in International Affairs from MIT. The State Department tapped his expertise after the Aldo Moro kidnaping by terrorists in Italy and in the Iran hostage crisis, and occasionally he ventured out into the press as an official spokesman or a psychiatric expert--as in 1992, when he told a reporter at Newsday that President George Bush was at the end of his rope, ready to crack and send troops just about anywhere as a reelection campaign strategy.
That background, of course, turns up in the protagonist of State of Emergency, the gum-chewing, rock 'n' rollin' State Department physician, Alison Carter (his girl's name, like in Johnny Cash's song "A Boy Named Sue," has made him a man with grit and character).
"My protagonist is a cleansed version," Pieczenik says. "Alison Carter is a nicer form of what I had to do out in the field where you really have to create coalitions and do damage control and prevent people like Pol Pot from creating a second killing field."
All that Carter has to do is prevent a second civil war.
Pieczenik, incidentally, claims a literary prescience. His first novel, he brags, alerted the world to the abuse of political prisoners in Soviet mental hospitals.
And so in the introduction to State of Emergency, he writes, "More than anything else, I hope that my prediction of an imminent civil war within the United States is strictly a function of my imagination. I hope the novelist in me presides over the realist, lest I be identified as a cynic, or worse, a modern-day Cassandra."
The novel opens early in the 21st century, as Secretary of State Barbara Reynolds announces the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. This could have been another Pieczenik prediction, except that it already happened back in 1996. But never mind that. Reynolds, as Pieczenik puts it, "paused and waited for the applause from the environmentalists in the audience to subside."
The four soon-to-be rogue governors are sulking in the front row of the assembled crowd. The foreshadowing continues:
Their collective feelings could probably be summarized by the remark made by the governor of Utah to his executive assistant months before when he had first been informed that this federal landgrab was being orchestrated. "This is the most arrogant illegal presidential act I have ever witnessed in my lifetime."
It's a beginning fraught with . . . Republicanism.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, the governors secede, reuniting in Colorado as their troops descend on Glen Canyon Dam. France and Germany throw their support to the rebels.
The president and vice president are conveniently out of the country as the crisis unfolds. Reynolds, the "Sec State," sends her personal physician and sometime crisis manager, Dr. Carter, to manage the crisis.
Carter, as Pieczenik describes him, "had a twinkle in his hazy blue 'bedroom eyes' that made him extremely attractive to women. But beneath the sharp features of his Swedish-stock face, he had a certain coolness and reserve that on occasion could transform into a stern and authoritarian forcefulness. In his college days at Columbia University, he was captain of all three major varsity teams--football, baseball, and rugby."
In other words, picture Mark Harmon in the resulting movie.
And so it's a matter of pages before he seduces the lovely rebellious governor of Colorado, Cheri Black, "an unusual combination of toughness and feminine intuition woven in a filigree of Southern coquetry. Single, at the age of forty-five, she lived with her own code of morality, a combination of Catholic rigor and Baptist mischief with all its inherent contradictions."
Picture Annette Alvarez in her big-screen debut.
Dr. Carter and Governor Black spend much of the book running through forests hand in hand being chased by state cops and national guardsmen. They float a raging river on car tires: "He [Carter] was tempted to sing a few verses of Tina Turner's famous lyrics 'Rollin' . . . rollin' . . . down the river . . .' to control his fear, but the shock of the water eliminated any lyrical notions."
And probably any immediate chances of scoring with the lovely lady governor.
Then a stroke of genius: Carter thwarts the rebel governors by enlisting a coalition of Native Americans to assert the sovereignty of their reservations, call in their water rights from the seceding states and deny passage on their highways.
The rebels fold. Al and Cheri chase them to Salt Lake City for the final shootout with the evil Mormon governor of Utah, who has been using the LDS genealogy computers to send out hate mail.
So the feds win in the end after all--even though the author could have guaranteed himself a cult following if he had let the states-rights guys win.
"I don't want a cult following," says Pieczenik. "I don't really want to be on one side or the other. I just want to show the arguments and issues, vis-a-vis water rights in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Wyoming, where you have very strong governors and--in my book--you do not have a federal government that is strong. At the second level, I'm showing what happens when you have militia groups that go unbridled and they become the posse comitatus and create their own judicial system. And on a third level, I show what happens if you have an actual secession of states from the federal government. And what would happen would be an imminent second civil war."
Now, did we say Pieczenik could write?
He launches into long lectures about false patriots--we find it amusing that he chooses local blab station KFYI as one of the radio stations poised to broadcast a call to arms to militia groups.
And he waxes absolutely turgid--in this passage either about nature or the free market:
At this time of year, the Grand Tetons stood as a magnificent testimony to the natural beauty of the country. Its outline mirrored the finest of America's character. Independent. Proud. Tough. The mountain range was chiseled into ragged sparkling granite spirals covered with parchments of snow. Dense rows of trees covered the side of the mountain, providing an impressive shelter for an array of moose, deer, wolves, and snakes, all of which lived in a wonderful predatory ecology, where the simple dictate of Darwinian survival, eat or be eaten, permeated the cool, brisk air.
And oh, did we mention that the governor of Utah had already pointed out that Grand Tetons means "big tits" in French?
What the hell. No one reads thriller novels for their lyricism. When Pieczenik details the conference-table workings of the State Department officials plotting their course of action, the book takes off. And speaking from experience, he claims that the international mayhem he describes, tiny retaliatory actions the U.S. takes against the European nations helping the rebels, are well within the realm of possibility.
According to myriad newspaper reviews, Tom Clancy has referred to Pieczenik as one of the smartest guys he knows. But Pieczenik's vulnerable on a few points.
He picked the wrong dam, for one thing. And Lake Powell, contrary to Pieczenik's assumptions, only supplies water directly to the city of Page and the Navajo power plant. The Glen Canyon Dam's turbines are supposed to provide power for the Southwest during peak use periods, when air conditioners are humming. If you really wanted to shut off utilities to the Southwest, you'd take over Hoover Dam--or drop a tree on a power line in the Pacific Northwest, which accounted for last year's big outage.
Pieczenik says he knew that, but took dramatic license.
When the bad guys open the floodgates in the book, they imperil hundreds of thousands of people in the villages downstream from Glen Canyon Dam. But wait, there's another problem: In real life, there's nothing downstream from the gates but the Grand Canyon. Or, in Pieczenik's futuristic vision, did the Republicans finally succeed in selling off park land to developers who made it into golf courses and gated communities?
More dramatic license, Pieczenik says.
Then the big boo-boo. When those spillways open, instead of draining Lake Powell, the water in the lake somehow rises and floods the city of Page--which actually is upstream and uphill from the dam! Moses couldn't have done better.
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"I do apologize for that error, and it may be a serious error, and I will take fault on that," Pieczenik says.
Surprisingly, Pieczenik has actually been to Page. "I'm not a great expert on geology or navigation," he says.
Despite its author's vagueness on Western watersheds and his clunky language, State of Emergency is still a pretty good read. Here's a suggestion for the sequel: A certain albino ex-governor breaks out of a country-club federal prison, declares he's still in control of the state . . .