Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
“The Twentieth Day of January”
Dover Reprint, 2017, pgs. 219
By Ted Allbeury
In January I got an email suggesting I give Ted Allbeury’s “The Twentieth Day of January” a read. I get a lot of those, so it didn’t really register. But Allbeury’s work is frequently compared to John Le Carré, whose work I find entertaining. Both are former British spies and draw heavily upon their real-world experiences to create suspense fiction.
“The Twentieth Day of January” centers on the premise that in the early 1980s, a candidate is elected to the presidency of the United States as a result of Moscow’s interference in the American election. Logan Powell, a political outsider and well-connected businessman, won an unlikely election as governor of Connecticut. From there his meteoric rise took him to a completely unexpected presidential election victory. Based on a few nagging loose threads they follow, the CIA discovers his success was orchestrated by the Kremlin, who utilized their extensive network, favors owed, pressure-points known, and bankroll. Does it sound sort of like something trickling through the airwaves right now? But what to do? The CIA agents have between the night of the election and day of inauguration to prove and try to resolve the situation. But what resolution exactly can anyone hope for? If this is made public, confidence and faith in the electoral system will be shattered (which is exactly what Moscow wanted). If the president–elect takes office and Moscow exerts pressure upon him, then, for all intents and purposes, the Cold War has been lost.
Powell begins to give interviews regarding his plans for his transition team that indicate a certain level of sympathy toward Moscow’s agenda. In the meantime, the prostitute he has been seeing (and is in the pay of the Russians) gets tantalizing and incriminating photographs developed and stashed for future use. The CIA continue working through the evidence, and like Le Carré, “The Twentieth Day of January” does show a lot of grunt work: checking government records, registries, etc. Unlike the shoot ‘em up, bang-bang world of Robert Ludlum, Le Carré’s books tend toward dramatizing actual working methods with much less emphasis on heroics. Allbeury’s “The Twentieth Day of January” has a similar sense about it, maybe stronger because of the British Intelligence Officer on loan to the US for assignment.
The violence is minimal, most of it is offstage, but the effects are felt through the rest of the book. Le Carré’s books tend to be heavy with male characters, and “The Twentieth Day of January” shares that. The few female characters in the novel are either wives or whores. All are one dimensional, all are in desperate need of help, while shamelessly hey manipulate the men around them. It really does make readers wonder if either Le Carré or Allbeury ever met a female. But, before getting worked up about it, readers have to be reminded this is genre writing and with stock characters—written for an audience with specific expectations. Thus it’s not a great work of literature—only an entertaining, if worrisome, read. To make it a truly great piece of writing would require deepening the characters and plot. Instead, Allbeury cranked out formula novels at an almost incredible pace.
The other interesting problem with the novel is, by definition, it must have a resolution. Does the president-elect take the oath of office? Do they out him in the press and try to prevent it? The agents investigating decide to approach him through his estranged wife. She is not living with him in Washington for the transition, but rather is still in the north east with their school-aged son. They give her their notes from the investigation and pictures of her husband with the professional lady-of-easy virtue they stole from the Russians. An offer is made that he can retire with his presidential pension, and they can go live in Europe again as a family. He takes a day to think about his answer and responds the way a British gentleman of the old school would.
“The Twentieth Day of January” was written in the wake of Watergate. Indeed, the episode hangs a dark shadow across the characters in the novel. The unanswered questions surrounding Russia’s role in our most recent presidential election do make the book eerily relevant today—not so much for the steps that got us here but rather for the questions with which we must now wrestle. What does it mean moving forward for the sanctity of our electoral process and basis of our democracy? How do we confront questions and come out on the other side with something of value intact? Fiction gives us an opportunity to ask questions and consider them almost in a safety chamber before impact is truly felt in our daily lives.