Brian Fletcher is in Washington, DC, to bury his mother and -- to his own surprise -- collect from a Georgetown lawyer a sheaf of papers his mother stashed away for him years ago. Returning to the law office a few minutes later for a forgotten jacket, Brian discovers the lawyer and his secretary messily murdered, the office ransacked. Worse, the killers have returned, and it's Brian they're after. He dives out a back door and jumps a fence. The chase is on in this thought-provoking thriller from Jameson Parker.
Calling "American Riff" a thriller does need some qualifying, though. The first fifth or so of the novel, with Brian trying to evade his pursuers and figure out why they're after him, earns the "adrenaline-pumping, pulse-pounding" adjectives reviewers give action novels. When Brian realizes, as he soon does, that the government is after him and he needs to ditch Mordor-on-Potomac, he lights out for California -- where he hopes to find people he can trust -- and his girlfriend, Chela. During this part of the novel, the shoot-'em-up action goes way down, replaced by the tension of the chase and the looming question of "Why?"
As the centerpiece of the novel, Brian is an interesting character -- most interesting because of his ordinariness. Unlike many action-novel tropes, Brian isn't an ex-Green Beret gone freelance, a reformed jewel thief, or a rogue CIA agent (although elements of this story did remind me of Six Days of the Condor and its film adaptation Three Days of the Condor). He's just a guy -- although, as his adversaries are forced to admit, a resourceful one and one who does turn out to have relevant skills (he also, in my mind's eye, looked a lot like A.J. Simon; I'm not sure why). Brian's ordinariness helps with one of the key elements of the book, the contrast between the amoral men atop the government and the regular guys Brian meets on his run west (as I write that, it occurs to me that with the exception of Chela, who is a strong character, and Brian's late mother who started the ball rolling, all the significant players in this book are men). As he encounters a long-haul trucker, an elderly hobo ("I was homeless before homeless was a word."), a rodeo rider and rancher, and -- in flashback -- Chela's father, we meet people who, though kicked around a bit by life, remain centered, principled, and who still trust what we might, on the eve of Independence Day, unironically call the American Dream. They and their gritty surroundings clash with the plush clubs and burnished corridors of power in which statesmen cloak their personal interests in the robes of "national security" with dickcheneyan ease. Are these characters and their shared faith the American riff that drives and sustains? Or is Parker riffing on the newer, more "realistic" forms of Americanism in the Age of Empire?
I ask because, in this story of political venality, private armies answerable only to the Executive, and manipulation of "national security," it's easy to recognize the world we live in. All that's lacking are drones circling overhead. And while the word "Wikileaks" never occurs in this book (except when I was urging Brian "Send the papers to Wikileaks! Send them to Wikileaks!"), the lesson of "American Riff" seems to be the lesson of Wikileaks, and the lesson Richard North identified in the last book I reviewed, The Many Not The Few: The Stolen History of the Battle of Britain: "that censorship and government power over the flow of information are invariably used to protect the government from the consequences of its own actions, rather than for the purpose intended."
Without giving anything away, I will say that the end of the novel -- after another spike in the action -- is ambiguous and in some ways unfulfilling. If Parker's goal, like ending a piece of music on an unresolved chord, was to leave the reader unsettled and thinking, he's done it. "American Riff" is a good beach or airplane "thriller" read, but it's more, too.
Brian Fletcher is in Washington, DC, to bury his mother and -- to his own surprise -- collect from a Georgetown lawyer a sheaf of papers his mother stashed away for him years ago. Returning to the law office a few minutes later for a forgotten jacket, Brian discovers the lawyer and his secretary messily murdered, the office ransacked. Worse, the killers have returned, and it's Brian they're after. He dives out a back door and jumps a fence. The chase is on in this thought-provoking thriller from … more