Sunday, June 15, 2014

Quests for Truth: The Thrillers of Philip Kraske

Although the content of Philip Kraske’s four political thrillers substantially vary from one another, an observant reader will quickly recognize his left-of-centre politics and his jaundiced view of American political institutions and of political operators at home and abroad, the media circus and of the presence of corrupt, malevolent law enforcement officials. Kraske, an American who spent his formative years growing up in Minnesota before decamping for abroad, possesses a gimlet-eyed grasp of American life and a deep distrust of official versions. At the same time, he is no mere polemicist. His writing is vivid, his dialogue crackles, and his novels are stocked with wonderfully realized characters distinguished by their decency, their search for truth and their desire to make courageous and humane choices under difficult circumstances. (We met briefly in Madrid December 2013 where he has lived since the 1980s, we have had some email correspondence and we share the same publisher, Encompass Editions.)

His first and most overly political novel, Mockery (2010, second edition 2012) is a satire of that genre of political books on presidential elections, from Theodore White’s analysis of the 1960 election to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s behind-the-scenes scoops on the last two American elections. Kraske imagines a scenario where Sam Walker, an obscure author of history books is tricked by his editors into writing “contemporary history.” After receiving and following up on an anonymous written tip, he writes a sensational exposé about how scandals sank the two major-party presidential candidates and swung victory to the Independent candidate – and it turns out that he got it all wrong. Believing initially that he needed to tie up a few loose ends for a new prologue, Walker doggedly retraces his investigative steps. He eventually writes an addendum that details what he believes really happened, including the attempt to derail his efforts through a honey trap thereby destroying his credibility. (It is hard to imagine Walker’s real life counterparts admitting that their story was untrue and undertaking a similar re-examination.) His refurbished account challenges the accepted narrative provided by the major media companies of a party worker who owns up to her mistake and is transformed into a national icon with an office in the White House and a shoo-in to be elected to Congress. As a result, his editors will not touch it.

What we are reading consists of the original tapes of interviews conducted with party workers from both parties leading up to the publication and fallout from his best-seller and, apart from one tragic incident, his interviews four years later with the same people plus others who knew them. This time he is more sceptical, probing and most importantly, more savvy. Walker informs us that his revised version, in the interests of truth, will be made available free on the Internet. Originally, he had contended that the political destruction of the two leaders was the result of a careless mishandling of video outtakes about the party leaders’ behaviour. He later recognizes that much more sinister forces were actually at work. While I cannot expand upon those sinister forces without giving too much away, I can say that Kraske is warning that national elections and the democratic process can be sabotaged – he clearly has the 2000 Gore-Bush election in mind – and appearances, as reported in the mainstream media, can be deceptive and misleading. He is also scathingly critical of the American penchant for redeeming individuals who apologize for their bad behaviour when that contrition is part of a carefully orchestrated plan to exploit the “repentant sinner” trope in order to acquire greater power or influence than they could have previously anticipated. The overriding impression that remains fixed in my mind long after finishing Mockery is that truth is most elusive, particularly in an age of coarsened political discourse with cable television and Internet bloggers.

Set against the pewter gray of a Minnesota winter, Flight in February (2011) evokes the sensibility of the Coen brothers' Fargo, (the film and the recent television series) with its odd, idiosyncratic characters, and David Simon's The Wire, as Kraske vividly captures the lives and patois of those involved in the urban drug culture. The plot focuses on drug-trafficker Marcus Strenk who escapes from a Minnesota maximum-security prison during a blizzard simulated to look like he perished in his attempt, leaving a suicide note behind. The conscientious Deputy Marshal, Henry Scott, thinks that Strenk actually made it to freedom. But the search Scott puts into gear is quickly spiked by Alec Barkley, the very FBI agent that put Strenk in jail. Scott is perplexed as that the FBI is determined to declare Strenk a suicide victim when the evidence was anything but conclusive. Then when Strenk's note from outside arrives at the prison, Barkley puts every available agent on the manhunt. Why, Scott wonders, was so much effort being expended on this individual?

From the outset, it is abundantly evident that Barkley is a corrupt official and is involved in a cozy relationship with the drug cartel. By contrast, Strenk emerges as a sympathetic and talented individual who may have been set-up by Barkley. As Scott proceeds with his own independent investigation, he recognizes that the official boundary between an honourable security force and the vicious drug trafficker has dissolved, and that he faces a difficult moral choice. Given the power of the FBI, a reader might conclude that the future of Scott and Strenk will not be a happy outcome, but then Kraske may surprise you.

Kraske’s third novel, The Magnificent Mary Ann is the most moving of his fictional oeuvre, in large part because he paints an incandescence and wondrous portrait of the eponymous protagonist who emerges from poverty, abuse and illiteracy in rural Arkansas to star status in the New York dance scene and as a television celebrity. Narrated in the first person by Hal Dormund, a globe-trotting engineer, he originally met Mary Ann seven-years earlier on a two-hour airplane flight. He offered a rambling monologue of advice to the teary-eyed and run-away teenager as she sat beside him. “Find what you like best and work like hell at it,” he said. Through a series of circumstances, she finally found him to thank him for his advice that she took to heart. To Hal’s amazement, Mary Ann recites whole passages of his monologue word for word. Mary Ann’s passion is dance, and from the moment she got off the airplane, it became an obsession: train to the exclusion of almost everything, including overcoming her ignorance about sex and the wider world. And her efforts are rewarded when she stars in a Broadway dance production. It debuts just weeks after her reunion with Hal, and for the first time in her life she experiences success and, over the course of the novel, love with Hal.

Despite her sunny disposition – a remarkable trait given her treatment as a chattel slave when she was a child – her ability to charm television audiences, and her budding relationship with Hal, dark forces from her past and the present bubble up to threaten her current happiness. As long as she remained an anonymous dancer, her family of lowlife Arkansas farmers could afford to ignore her. Now she is a public relations embarrassment to her family headed by a malevolent, hypocritical fundamentalist television preacher who vilifies any expression of liberalism or secularism as Satanism. With the support of shadowy backers who have implicit ties to conservatives in the Republican Party, his ministry is about to go on national television. Moreover, Mary Ann is the leverage that a vile CEO uses in order to avoid paying Hal’s company for a completed contract: he is not above feeding information to a television host about her educational limitations. Despite these baleful figures and her legitimate fears around her family who wish to abduct and consign her to a home for her alleged mental incompetence, she retains her sweetness and joie de vivre and we are moved by her efforts to overcome her lack of worldliness. Kraske’s scintillating portrait of the magnificent Mary Ann will remain etched in any reader’s mind.

City on the Ledge (2012) is Kraske’s only novel that is primarily set outside of America – in Quito, Ecuador. Having lived there for a year during the 1980s and recently having revisited it, Kraske’s novel is laced with precise descriptions of specific Quito locations and examples of local colour. Among them are the rituals of the shoeshine boys (an altercation involving one of them described in the prologue will have major repercussions later in the novel) and a fixed beauty contest. Set against the emerald majesty of the Andes, City on the Ledge is about the conflict between the workers on strike for better pay and improved conditions and the wealthy owners of the banana plantations. The American embassy in Quito regards the strike as a threat to American interests.

Lest anyone think that City on the Ledge is an anti-American diatribe, one of the strengths of City is Kraske’s variegated portrait of the different personalities and conflicting agendas of the embassy’s personnel. There is Mary Swanson, who is has a deep empathy for the local population and is beloved by them for her television appearances. She is in love with the leader of the striking workers, who is a charismatic and highly respected figure reminiscent of Cesar Chavez. At the other end of the ideological spectrum is the CIA head of station, Harry Kruger, who not only believes in what advances his career, but is a scary malign figure. Consider the American diplomat, Paul Klippen’s, contemptuous but astute assessment of Kruger: “(He) hated people for whom truth had an intrinsic value. Hence Harry’s impatience with diplomats and politicians and anyone else who dealt in facts and the conflicts, and his unalloyed belief in his agency as the last bastion of civilization.” Kruger’s belligerent posturing at embassy meetings even intimidates the hapless Ambassador whose prime interests are in acquiring support of the Ecuadoran government to allow Americans to use a local airbase and maintaining the status quo in the labour dispute. Those tasks are allotted to the discrete and capable diplomat, Klippen.

Klippen appoints as arbitrator Jay Streets, a wealthy handsome ex pro-football star, who is chosen through a strange set of circumstances, the most interesting character in the novel. Because he has no interest in the matter, both sides expect him to be impartial. Union officials have noted his personal generosity toward ordinary street people. But the U.S. Government, thinking of U.S. consumers, would rather that Streets be partial. Streets appears the perfect malleable candidate to represent American interests given his naiveté and lack of geo-political awareness. Yet no one counted upon his basic decency and a deft subversive move from Klippen that upends Kruger’s Machiavellian strategy. How Kruger responds to this unexpected turn of events drives the remainder of the novel. Embassy politics and union politics on the street, that have been the central motifs in City, are eclipsed by a high-octane Bourne-like thriller that will rivet some readers while others may wonder whether a more subtle alternative was possible. Regardless, I think that they will favourably respond to the quiet tone of the last few pages as two of the more engaging characters reflect upon what has happened.

Kraske’s excellent books should be read and enjoyed, but if you cannot find them in your local bookstore, they can be purchased on Amazon; they are not expensive and they can be read in any order. Encourage your local libraries to acquire them. Their patrons will be rewarded.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. You can find more at his website:

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