Primary Colors, Joe Klein [as Anonymous]

Warner, 1996, 507 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60427-5

From time to time, a book appears which become more than a book. For a quirk or another, it becomes not something that talks about something, but something that’s talked about. Recent example include Kitty Kelley’s unflinching biography of Nancy Reagan (Her Way), the scientifically-racist The Bell Curve, James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy and… the “anonymously” written Primary Colors.

In Primary Colors‘ case, the identity of the author was the subject of the discussions. Warner Books was pushing a satirical novel about American politics, in which a previously unknown southern governor (and his domineering wife) dealt with sexual scandals and other assorted problems on the way to the Democratic convention. Given the parallels with the Clintons, if it was written “anonymously” then it must have been the work of someone closely related to the Clintons! Could it have been the work of George Stephanopoulos, the press secretary? Or another person high up in the Clinton organization? Whodunit, Whowroteit?

The game amused political America for a few weeks, until it was discovered that Joe Klein (a Newsweek journalist who covered the campaign.) wrote the novel. The game wasn’t over yet (more than a few journalists questioned the ethics of Klein, who reportedly went in rages of denial at his coworkers and friends before it was conclusively proven that it was him) but the controversy was enough to send Primary Colors riding on top of the bestsellers lists.

But what about the book?

Well, it’s just about everything we’ve been promised: a scathing look at American politics, starring the Stantons, close (but not perfect) representations of the Clintons. The events described in the book are, fortunately, quite fictional, and it makes for some mesmerizing reading about modern politics in America. The wheeling, dealing and back-room back-stabbing are all well-described, at the exception of a few rough spots where the author might have tried to be too clever for his own good.

The story is narrated by Henry, one public relation whiz who joins the Stanton team early on. (The narrative stops before the presidential campaign.) During the book, Henry will fall in love with a fellow co-worker, deal with personal issues, discover shocking “truths”, make friends and influence people. His personal odyssey become at times more interesting than the campaign itself. He’s sympathetic, and he should be: A few passages are unusually moving, and the reader will run the gamut of emotions, from humor to disgust, back to exhilaration and loss.

A strong stable of supporting characters help round out an already solidly-written novel. Klein’s style is not without quirks, but mostly carries the reader through to the story he’s telling. This isn’t an “anonymous” novel because the author disavowed his writing; Klein should be proud to have produced quite a good piece of prose. There are a few rough spots, and the conclusion is of the “make up your own” type, but Primary Colors is an interesting book in its own right. It’s appropriately cynical, fairly funny and compulsively readable. A must for every political pundit.

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