When Advise and Consent, the biggest-selling book of 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was indicative of either the Pulitzer committee’s shockingly middlebrow sensibility or its admirable populism, depending on how you want to look at it. Centering on the Senate confirmation hearings of a liberal nominee for secretary of state, Allen Drury’s blockbuster might be regarded as a forerunner of the political thriller, a genre that didn’t really make much sense to people (politics could be thrilling?) until the likes of Ludlum and Clancy gave another genre, the spy novel (with, you know, guns and stuff), a political subtext. And if these recent novels are finally about how democracy fails—becoming, in Clancy’s view, the playground of intellectuals besotted with the Bill of Rights—Advise and Consent is about how it succeeds, though seen from a perspective as right-wing in its day as Clancy’s in his.
Shots are fired in Consent as well, albeit by a single senator to his own head, a narrative twist based on a real-life incident in the early ’50s involving a Democratic senator from Wyoming, who was pushed to commit suicide over his son’s homosexuality by associates of Joseph McCarthy. In the novel, of course, it’s a left-wing senator who drives a decent rising young political star to a similar end for similar reasons. When I first read it at age thirteen, this revisionism escaped me, maybe because I was raised in a home that worshipped Barry Goldwater, so the urgent anti-Communism seemed almost perfunctory. More likely, it’s that I was riveted like the rest of the country by an author who knew of what he wrote after two decades as a reporter on Capitol Hill, and whose melodrama, gleaned entirely from congressional machinations, feels authentic with the turn of every page. The sheer intrigue and storytelling of Advise and Consent survive the ideological intentions and also made for a wonderfully pulpy movie by Otto Preminger. He had a fine, lurid time with the gay subplot while shifting the philosophical center of gravity back toward the center, casting paragon Henry Fonda as the once idealistic, now repentant lefty secretary-designate. Advise and Consent was Drury’s first book. In impact on publication, as well as in legacy, none of his five sequels or fifteen other novels came close.
Steve Erickson's novel These Dreams of You will be published by Europa Editions in February.