Chapter 77: “Advise and Consent” by Allen Drury (1960)

“Son, this is a Washington, D.C. kind of lie. It’s when the other person knows you’re lying, and also knows you know he knows.”

advise and consentMr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans: the May reading challenge is ended, and I, Drew Moody, emerge the victor. I, quite frankly, am completely flabbergasted by my victory, which was claimed at the eleventh hour.

You see, my compatriot and oftentimes opponent, Joshua, is currently unemployed and was, thus, able to devote a great deal more time than I to the reading of this novel as I am (for the time being, anyway) employed. Nine hours of my day, I am forced to sit at a desk, editing grade 2 mathematics textbooks while Joshua reads at a leisurely pace from the comfort of his favorite chair. Sure, I was able to read the book during bathroom breaks, during lunch, during the ride to and from work, but that wasn’t much of an opportunity to keep pace. I also couldn’t read much during the first weekend of May as I was out of town for a my sister-in-law’s wedding on Saturday and another sister-in-law’s college graduation ceremony/party on Sunday – I really didn’t have as much time to read my opponent did, and it showed!

We’ve both been keeping track of our progress on Goodreads.com and, at times, he was hundreds of pages ahead of me. He’d be on page 150 to my 17; 238 to my 87; 375 to my 156. But I kept plugging away even though, at one point, he was on page 600 of 683 while I was on page 350 of 616. I read all day Sunday, stayed up late Monday night to read, woke up early Tuesday morning to read, read one page at my desk for every two pages of manuscript I edited, read in the bathroom, spent my first 15 minute break reading, skipped lunch to read, spent my second 15 minute break reading, and read for two hours when I got home; all the while (especially as I approached nearer and nearer the end of the book), I was fully expecting Joshua to call me to gloat, “I just finished.” But that call never came.

And, it must be said, Joshua will forever rue the day that he decided to go easy on himself the last two days of the challenge; he will especially rue his decision when he has to read Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans – his just desserts for losing the May reading challenge.

Now, onto my thoughts of Allen Drury’s 1960 Pulitzer-winning novel, Advise and Consent!

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I have to be honest with you – this book took me by surprise. It had all the makings of a book that I was going to have to slog my way through – a dense and lengthy debut novel from a political newspaper columnist about the United States Senate blocking a presidential cabinet appointee set against the backdrop of the self-importance of Washington politics and set during the time of McCarthyism and the Cold War?

YAWN. Talk about a snooze fest!

But, I have to say – I really enjoyed the book. Of course, it almost goes without saying that this is in no way a perfect novel, and I didn’t absolutely adore everything down to the last jot and tittle about it. No, there was plenty about it that I didn’t have patience for, and there were some things about it that actually drove me absolutely around the bend…

For one thing, Drury’s pacing is horrendous. The novel takes place over a span of two weeks, but you’d think that it was two years the way Drury writes. On several occasions in the coarse of its 616 pages, Drury spends scores of pages talking about the Senate vote for the Bob Leffingwell nomination – just talking about it. And, within those scores of pages, Drury keeps bringing it up over and over again – the hearing is happening, the hearing is almost here, they were preparing the hearing, they were talking about the hearing, etc., etc. The first hearing for the nomination was great, though – it was tense, dramatic, full of intrigue, really riveting stuff that captivated me. Then Drury just went on and on about the second vote for 300 or so pages and it was over and done with in a matter of a couple paragraphs. Very anti-climactic.

Oh, and he kills off the president, whose health was failing over the course of the entire novel, a couple pages later. Boom boom boom – book over. To be fair, I’m kind of happy that Drury wrapped everything up so quickly at the end, though; because I’m not sure I could have handled another 300 pages of exposition.

There are also exceedingly long sections where Drury does this sort of “fly on the wall” thing that I can only compare to the music video for the Beatles’ “Free as a Bird,” in which he focuses on a character in the act of doing something, then flutters away to another character doing something at the same time, then flies into the home of another character doing something else at the same time, and so on. Like, “It is 7pm and dusk has fallen on the capitol. Senator Bob Munson is standing at the window of his penthouse apartment and gazing on the capitol building; meanwhile Senator Robert Leffingwell, the Secretary of State nominee, is resting comfortably in his easy chair; and Senator Seab Cooley is plotting away while sipping whiskey from a highball glass.” That style of writing is fine when done well; but it’s another thing when it’s not only not done well, but over-done too.

Here’s another silly thing that really, really bothered me: newspapers don’t talk. “‘Give ’em hell, Bob,’ said AP; ‘What’s going to happen next,’ wondered UPI; ‘How’s Leffingwell going to get out of this one?’ asked the Miami Herald.” No, Drury – just stop it. And if Drury wrote one more time “Seab felt all of his 75 years as he stood up,” I was going to throw the book across the room. And why are all of the characters constantly eating breakfast!?

My last complaint is that Drury spends way too much time setting things up and not enough time focusing on the present action. Drury divides the book into five sections, with four senators getting their own “book” – Bob Munson, Seab Cooley, Brigham Anderson, and Orrin Knox. – and each of those four senators gets a lengthy and detailed backstory (which, actually, take up most of the book and do little for the reader except give a basic idea why they are the way that they are). Seab Cooley, for example – Drury is a good enough writer for me to understand, just from reading, what Seab Cooley is all about; he’s a grumpy, cantankerous, entrenched old man whom the Senate fears because of his seniority and ruthlessness. I don’t need 100 or whatever it was pages telling me why he is that way – all I need to know is that he is that way.

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But, there are plenty of things that Drury does really well.

Like I said before, the nomination hearings were full of tension and drama; I was absolutely riveted by the action and was genuinely excited to see what would happen next – the book is a real a page-turner. It is during these moments that Drury’s journalistic background really comes to the forefront and does him a great service, as he writes with an urgency that is missing from the rest of the novel.

He’s also great at “reporting” the action. One of the biggest reasons this book was so frustrating was because of how true-to-life it actually is. Throughout the book – particularly with Senate blocking the Leffingwell nomination – I kept thinking about the current state of Washington politics and the gridlock that prevents anything from getting done.

If the mark of a good writer is that he/she makes have a strong reaction to the story, then Drury is a good writer. Maybe not great, but certainly good.

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Some brave soul took the time to put together Drury’s fictional Senate. Check it out here.

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