Harper Collins, 1997, 227 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 0-00-224562-0
As a political junkie working in Ottawa, I’m more interested than most in Canadian politics and the idea of a roman-à-clef describing mid-nineties power struggles in the capital is the kind of thing I’m predisposed to like. That it comes from one of my favourite political operatives is a bonus… although it wasn’t possible to know that at the time the book hit bookstores twelve years ago.
Party Favours was published in 1997 as from one pseudonymous “Jean Doe”. It describes a civil war inside the then-reigning Liberal Party of Canada, between the factions of a populist French-Canadian Prime Minister and a scheming “Liberal-in-name-only” upstart who wants to be the PM in lieu of the PM. Any half-aware Canadian political observer could see that this was a thinly-veiled fictional take on the rivalry between the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin camp as of the mid-nineties. Given the novel’s overwhelmingly positive portrait of Prime Minister “Bobby Laurier”, it seemed obvious to most that Party Favours came from a Chrétien loyalist. But which one? When it was revealed that “Jean Doe” was none other than the “Prince of Darkness” Warren Kinsella, a Liberal strategist and staunch Chrétien loyalist often compared to the US’s James Carville, few were shocked.
The Canadian political/journalistic complex being so small and vicious, the book was savaged upon publication. And, in some ways, it deserves its knocks: From a purely narrative viewpoint, Party Favours isn’t all that refined: An umpteenth political thriller about a semi-innocent protagonist who comes to understand how things truly work in the world, the novel doesn’t break any new grounds nor narrative twists. Our hero is a likable young journalist who works on a government-shattering scoop, finds love and manages to bring down those who deserve it. In the conclusion of the story, he is apparently naïve enough to be shocked –shocked!– at the way he has been used by political antagonists… after spending an entire novel cynically explaining the nature of what happens to journalists in Ottawa. Elsewhere in the book, the narrator takes an actual guided tour of the city to tell us about it (subtle!), large portion of the narrative just give way to exposition and the identity of a mysterious source is so obvious that it’s embarrassing that a mystery is made about it at all. This is not an accomplished novelist’s masterpiece.
But where Party Favours shine far more brightly is in its insider’s commentary about Ottawa and the people who go there to seek power and/or glory. Kinsella has a lot of fun taking on lobbyists, journalists and politicians, not to mention public servants in one of the book’s most amusing passages:
“The pools [seen from the airplane] conjured up an image of the classical Ottawa bureaucrat: an overweight white male killing time as an information systems analyst somewhere deep in the shadowed recesses of Statistics Canada, let’s say, scrambling home at 3:30 P.M. every July afternoon to slouch by his pool. He carried a briefcase, purchased at the Bay, that almost always contained little more than his lunch and the Ottawa Sun. He drove to and from work in a dented three-year-old Pontiac Sedan. He voted Liberal. He earned much more than I did. And he had a swimming pool nestled alongside his suburban split-level, where he and his wife and their offsprings congregated in the muggy Ottawa summer.” [P.16]
Perfection itself. (And I refuse to tell you how much this description matches me, because it’s too close for comfort.)
The above paragraph being the worst thing in Party Favours about me and my place in the national capital, I was free to enjoy the rest of the novel for what it was: a splendidly entertaining chainsaw job on political Ottawa. For a country with a vigorous publishing and political industry, it’s surprising that there haven’t been that many political thrillers and satires –although the grants that most Canadian publishers receive from the government may be enough of a cynical answer for that mystery. Suffice to say that Party Favours in an entertaining book, even when it doesn’t work as a novel: Kinsella had fun writing it, and readers without grudges (and with a good working knowledge of mid-nineties Canadian politics) will enjoy at least good chunks of it.
The added advantage of reading it now is that we now know who, in the great Chrétien/Martin face-off, ultimately won. Hint: It was the guy who won three successive majorities.