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One Man’s Paranoia . . .
The last time we featured Booklist Online Senior Editor Keir Graff in this column, he was writing under a pseudonym: Michael McCulloch, author of Cold Lessons. With his second book, though, a spy thriller set in a near and nearly dystopian future, Keir has come in from the pseudonymous cold. What prompted the switch?
“I had planned to write this new one under the name Walter Key,” Keir explains, “but my publisher asked me to reconsider, and I agreed. At my spot on the ladder, it’s necessary for a writer to lend a hand with the promotional and marketing efforts, and using a fake name makes that harder to do. With the first book, I found myself explaining that Michael McCulloch and I were the same person so often that it hardly seemed worth it. I still love the idea of using different names for different kinds of books. I think I have a lot of books in me, and the different names seemed like a fun way to brand them while also providing me with a nice, low-pressure way of getting into the business. It’s never been because I was ashamed to put my name on them.”
Names aside, My Fellow Americans is a very different book from Cold Lessons, a no-frills noir starring an amateur sleuth who lacks the chops to solve much of anything. The new book also stars an amateur in the ways of intrigue, but Jason Walker isn’t looking to solve crimes. He’s a marginally employed freelance editor living in Chicago in the very near future. A wave of terrorist attacks has given the president the support he needs to declare martial law and to pass a constitutional amendment allowing a third term. Despite being half-Lebanese, Walker sees himself as thoroughly American, more interested in the Cubs than politics—until he’s abducted by Homeland Security and given an offer he can’t refuse: use his background to infilitrate a group of Lebanese radicals, or face deportation or imprisonment. The plot spirals on from there, with Walker caught in a vortex of treachery leading to a shocking climax in which, well . . . the U.S. government does something bad. Ripped from the headlines or dystopian fantasy?
Keir isn’t quite sure: “I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what genre the book is—paranoid thriller? speculative fiction? spy novel?—but it’s hard to say exactly. To some people, the setup probably seems paranoid, to others it might be very plausible. I do believe that America’s way of waging the war on terror has put our civil liberties—and our lives—at greater risk than ever. The larger plot is a what-if scenario, although certain episodes are intentionally similar to things we’ve all read in the newspaper.”
My Fellow Americans mixes real and fictional characters—the “President” isn’t named—and never explains the time frame in detail. Keir says he chose that route intentionally. “I felt that mixing truth and fact, and steering away from a precise time line, would help keep readers from focusing on whether my scenario could technically be said to be possible and more on the bigger issues. And the more details you put out there, the more you’re vulnerable to some deputy in the gaffe squad who wants to tell you that you got the latitude and longitude wrong. What I really want people to think about is what we let our government do in our name, and the price of complacency, and whether they should buy an extra copy of my book to give as a gift.”
Keir’s readers, especially the ones from Chicago, are likely to think about something else, too: even in the dystopian near future, even with sandbags and National Guardsmen arrayed in front of the city’s landmark buildings, they’re still playing baseball at Wrigley Field—and the Cubs still stink.
My Fellow Americans. By Keir Graff. Oct. 2007. 256p. Severn, $27.95 (0-7278-6522-6).
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