Patriots, by David Frum
America’s first black president has just lost re-election. A new leader tries to pull the country out of a terrible recession—only to face a devilish plot from inside his own party. David Frum’s darkly comic satire PATRIOTS is not only a warning about the future of American politics. It is a scorching, intimate explanation of why the U.S. political system has so badly failed the American people over the years just past.
PATRIOTS tells the story of Walter Schotzke, the aimless young heir to America’s largest mustard fortune. Walter is sent by his tough-minded grandmother to work in the office of a distinguished U.S. Senator. She hopes her otherwise worthless only grandchild might find purpose, and even appreciation for his country, from political service. Perhaps the job will also help Walter overcome the tragic loss of both his parents—especially that of his famous father, a genuine American hero, whose example Walter can’t ever hope to live up to.
In Washington, Walter quickly proves to be a better student of the dark side of politics than he ever was at all the boarding schools he was thrown out of. He gains his education from a farcical faculty of blowhard radio hosts, outraged protestors, think-tank experts-for-hire, shady lobbyists, internet impressiaros, and the sexy but sinister talking heads of the “Patriot News Network.”
Lunching and fundraising their luxurious way through economic depression and foreign war, the characters of PATRIOTS prosper by manipulating the fears and resentments of a country in crisis. Walter is used and abused – until, inadvertently and unexpectedly, he finds himself the unlikely hero of the angriest populist movement America has ever seen.
It is not the experience Walter, or his grandmother, expected. Walter must make some tough decisions fast—leading to the novel’s surprising and hilarious conclusion.
I DIDN’T GET the job through merit, my girlfriend said. But then, I didn’t get my girlfriend through merit either.
I got her the way I get everything.
“What’s your name?” she shouted over the party noise.
“Like the mustard?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Kind of funny to be named after a mustard.”
“The mustard’s named after me.”
That’s how it had started with my previous girlfriend, and the one before that, and the one before that. After a couple of months, though, visions of the glamorous life of the future Mrs. Walter Schotzke bumped up against actual life with Walter Schotzke.
“Walter, where are we going?”
“I’m going to play a little Xbox.”
“No I mean us — where are we going?”
“You want to play Xbox too?”
Valerie never asked such questions. I don’t remember exactly how she ended up living in my apartment. Or telling the cleaning lady what to do. Or becoming best friends with my grandmother. She just did it.
She was doing it again that morning.
“Hey,” I said sleepily. “It’s 6 AM!”
“Don’t you like it?” Valerie murmured from beneath the covers. “Do you want me to stop?”
“I like it,” I admitted. “But I’d like it better at nine.”
Her tousled brown hair and big matching eyes emerged from below the sheets. “We have to be on the road by nine. It’s your grandmother’s birthday. We’re expected for lunch.”
Oh no. I protested: “I’m not going!”
“Don’t be silly, of course we’re going.” The long straight nose pointed downward to its target. “Now shhh — we’re going to start the day in a good mood.”
Three hours later, and my old Range Rover was inching across the Whitestone Bridge on the way to Little Compton.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Valerie rested a calming hand on my forearm. In black slacks and beige silk blouse, she looked demure, even prim: not a hint of the seductress of three hours before. The long dark-brown hair that had bounced so wantonly before dawn was now tied into a sporty ponytail.
“Your grandmother is the only family you have.”
“That’s not my fault.”
“She loves you.”
“She loved my dad. Me — I remind her of my mother.”
“Your dad was a great man.”
“Fine. I know. Everybody says so. They don’t add anything to his reputation by trashing my mom.”
“Your grandmother doesn’t trash your mom.”
“She enjoys hearing others do it.”
“Besides, she gives you all your money.”
“She doesn’t give me money. It’s my money.”
“Well she decides how much of it you can have, which is next to the same thing.”
Three more hours, and we were pulling past bare late autumn trees into a suspiciously empty driveway.
“Where’s everybody else?” I demanded.
Valerie opened the car door. The smell and sound of ocean poured into the cabin. “The other guests are joining for dinner. It’s just us for lunch — your grandmother thought that would be nicer.”
“It would be nicer to eat my lunch in the tiger cage at the zoo.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I don’t want to stay for dinner with her dismal friends. And I don’t want to drive back to the city in the middle of the night.”
“You don’t have to drive back in the middle of the night, we’re staying over. I packed your toiletries and a tie.”
Valerie opened the back of the Range Rover. She extracted a small powder-blue suitcase and presented it to me to carry.
“Staying over? Where? Grandma never allows unmarried couples to stay over.”
“Well, she and I talked about it, and she said she’d make an exception this one time. Hey — there she is. Happy birthday, Clara!” Valerie ran across the gravel and up the two verandah steps to kiss my grandmother’s proffered cheek.
“It’s wonderful to see you, Valerie. Hello, Walter.”
“It’s so good to see you too!” Valerie beckoned to me. “Come kiss your grandmother.”
I did my duty.
Until you drew near enough to see the deep creases around her mouth, the polished black cane in my grandmother’s hand was the only clue that the birthday she was celebrating lay on the further side of eighty. She stood straight and tall and slim; her white hair still full and thick.
I followed my grandmother and Valerie into the familiar front hall. When my grandparents bought the house in 1954, my grandmother had repainted the old dark wood paneling bright white. Between the panels, she had pasted lurid wallpapers: white and lime; white and tangerine; white and watermelon. You could almost make a fruit salad out of her color choices.
Around the corner from the hall, on the way to the (raspberry mousse) guest bathroom, there glared a huge dark oil portrait: the founder of the family fortune.
The ancestral Schotzke had been short and round, black-haired and red-faced. Luckily for me, I had not inherited any of that. In late middle age, my great-great grandfather had married a pretty girl from the old country, with the result that his two sons and four daughters emerged significantly less short, less round, less black-haired and less red-faced than their progenitor. My grandmother had improved the family looks even more, and as for my mother — well, she stopped traffic, quite literally. In her last year of high school in New Jersey, she had skipped class to spend a day with friends in New York City. A motorist on Canal Street gawked at her minidress so hard that he smashed into the car in front of him. When the rear-ended driver jumped out of her car, the driver who had caused the accident just pointed at my mother. The rear-ended driver happened to work for one of the big New York modeling agencies. A star was born.
Valerie and I walked through the hall into my grandmother’s sunroom. I’d spent a lot of summer afternoons playing on the lawn beyond those windows. My mother would be away filming one of her direct-to-cable movies. My father would be traveling in Europe or the Middle East. Between sessions at summer camp, I’d be deposited with two distracted old people.
Those empty summer days blur together in my memory now, but there’s one I will never forget. It was after my parents’ separation, but before my father’s death. My grandfather was serving late afternoon drinks on the verandah to some business friends. I was indoors, lying on the sunroom floor, watching an ant crawl across the aquamarine carpet. One of the guests began to talk loud and to laugh in a way I did not like.
“I saw your ex-daughter-in-law’s new movie last night,” he boomed. “That girl may be crazy, but you gotta appreciate her body.”
My grandfather’s voice abruptly turned icy. “That’s the mother of my grandson you’re talking about, and don’t you ever forget it.”
The loud man started to apologize. Through the wall of the house, I heard my grandmother’s voice, low and fierce. “I wish she wouldn’t forget it.”
Settled now in that same sunroom, my grandmother and Valerie exchanged pleasantries about the plans for the evening’s party. At one o’clock, my grandmother’s shuffling ancient houseman, Eduardo, opened the door to the Chinese red dining room.
We took seats. Eduardo passed a platter of grilled sole around the table. My grandmother served herself first, her one deviation from a lifetime’s worship at the altar of Emily Post. She never trusted anybody to know what to do with the serving spoons unless she demonstrated. What she was demonstrating today was how to find the Guinness Book of Records smallest slice of sole ever imagined as a meal. Valerie served herself the runner-up. Eduardo presented the platter to me last. I reached for a piece, then a second, then a third. Valerie and my grandmother looked at me curiously. I dropped the third fillet to rejoin the rest of the school. The platter vanished into the kitchen. Next passed a dish of tiny boiled potatoes, then tinier roasted squash and miniaturized zucchini, then finally a great silver boat filled with butter sauce. My grandmother spooned out just enough to lubricate a contact lens. Valerie emulated her. I splashed sauce all around my plate.
After Eduardo poured white wine into our glasses, Valerie excused herself to retrieve something from her powder-blue suitcase. A moment later, she reappeared and placed a lavishly gift-wrapped box on the dining-room table.
“Oh Valerie, how thoughtful of you!” exclaimed my grandmother.
“Walter and I found it in London, when we stopped on our way back from South Africa last month. Your friend Mr. Henchley helped us.” The paper rustled, the latch on the wooden box was popped, and my grandmother’s ringed fingers extracted from the padded interior a statuette of a flirting couple: a big-titted girl in a too-tight dress with a come-get-me smile painted on her porcelain face and a young man who looked like he’d rather go get the pageboy at stage left.
My grandmother studied the nauseating object with genuine delight.
“It was made for King Louis of Bavaria. Mr. Henchley bought it at the Ratonne estate auction. He says it’s very rare and important.”
“It’s beautiful,” my grandmother agreed after a connoisseur’s pause. I winced as I anticipated the invoice from Mr. Henchley. Valerie was fibbing about the “Walter and I” bit. On our first morning in London, as I slept off the business-class champagne, Valerie had slipped out to “meet friends.” But my grandmother accepted the improbable story and smiled an unforced smile at me: “Your taste is improving.”
The wine did not return.
After lunch, we returned to the sunroom. The carpet had faded over the years, but the orange cushions on the white wicker chairs glared as luridly as ever. Eduardo shut the doors upon us, and my grandmother proceeded direct to business.
“Walter, neither of us is getting any younger. You are 28. At your age, your father was already heading all of our overseas operations. You on the other hand have been let go from two different investment banks. The marketing job did not work out. The volunteer teaching program thought you should employ your talents elsewhere. The Peace Corps turned you down. You would not consider the military. I spoke to the people at General Brands, and while there will always be some kind of a job for a Schotzke, I’m not prepared to ask for that job until I feel more confident that you will meet your responsibilities. Frankly, I had almost run out of ideas.”
I stared at the carpet in front of my feet. No ants today.
“But it’s important that a young man with your advantages in life contribute something to society. After Valerie and I talked last week, I had one last thought. You remember Senator Hazen?”
My grandmother always spoke to me as if I could not be expected to remember anything other than the schedule of trust fund pay-out dates. Valerie sensed my reaction, because she caught my eye to look pleadingly at me. I bit back my words and nodded yes.
“Good. Senator Hazen used to do some of your grandfather’s legal work before he entered politics. He was wonderful to us after … after we lost your father. He has an opening in his Senate office in Washington. Filing, answering the telephone, tasks even you cannot mishandle. I told him you would be delighted to accept. You’ll meet people. It will pull you out of yourself. Perhaps you’ll learn something about this country that has been so good to our family.”
Excerpted from Patriots by David Frum. Copyright © 2012 by David Frum. All rights reserved.
About the Author
David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including most recently, his first novel Patriots published in April 2012. For more from David, visit his blog here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/davidfrum.html.
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