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CARPE LIBRUM: Gwenyfar laughs until she cries with Andrew Shaffer’s ‘Hope Never Dies’

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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, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows 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 and/or 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.

Hope Never Dies
Andrew Shaffer
 Quirk Books, 2018, pgs. 304

“If I am in tears in three pages, I am putting it down.”

I gestured to the book on the table.

“I mean, right now, I can’t handle any more crying—and if I am crying because I miss the two of them so much, then I just have to wait to read it.”

Jock’s eye had been caught by the cover of “Hope Never Dies,” which pictures Joe Biden and Barack Obama in a speeding car. When I unpacked it a couple of months ago, Anthony had called out to slow down and go back and look at the cover! My eyebrows hit my hairline and I cracked a grin. What a great idea: Joe Biden and Barak Obama as crime solvers in their post-White House years! It looked funny and sweet. I transferred it to my ever-growing “to read” pile and kept moving.

The setup is that Joe Biden, famous for riding Amtrak, is contacted because his favorite Amtrak conductor is found dead on the tracks. In his possession is a paper with a map of Biden’s home address. Joe has sunk into a puddle of self-pity, sort of at loose ends after a lifetime of public service. Now he has nothing to do—and his best friend Barack has moved on and is hanging out with Bradley Cooper instead.

Against all better judgment, and without telling their wives, Joe, Barack and Barack’s secret service guy sets out to solve the case. For two of the most famous men in America, they have an amazing weapon for invisibility: no one actually believes they would show up in the places they do. So they were never there, right?

It is actually an incredibly well-plotted, tight, well-written crime thriller. It just happens to have a thin veneer of satirical Biden/Obama humor thrown in. The deceased Amtrak conductor is accused of using heroin and Joe knows that can’t be true. So the chase takes them through a nursing home, a cemetery, a late-night diner (where they give the secret service agent food poisoning), a total flophouse, and even the clubhouse for an outlaw biker gang. Joe is seriously depressed that none of the bikers recognize him—even though he was vice president and their senator for over 20 years. But as soon as Obama walks in. they all know “the guy who killed Osama Bin Laden!”

The tables turn and the two wind up abducting a biker and interrogating him in Joe’s rented storage space before going to get ice cream. The investigation has to pause while Obama holds an impromptu seminar on climate change in a gas station—apparently, something more important and for the greater good. These public servants are prepared to make the sacrifice.

“Hope Never Dies” is a lovely parody of what an aging male friendship can look like: They try to one-up each other with their cars, and there is an absurd argument about car insurance that sounds word-for-word like something Jock and his buddies would recite.

Yes, they do solve the crime. Yes, the climax is a high-stakes, high-octane fight—the kind no man over 70 should engage in on a moving train. And, yes, I was crying by the last page because there moments that were so moving to reassure how much I miss them.

Even though this is completely fictional (fan fiction at its best), I cannot be alone in wanting to spend some time with them right now. With the public health crisis we are facing, it is hard not to yearn for reasoned, science-based, forward-thinking, calm leadership.

Sigh.

The only thing missing from the book is Bo. Seriously, the dog would make a great character. Maybe he will show up in a sequel: “Hope Rides Again”? Now, I spend a lot of time with a 70-plus-year-old gentleman who is forever setting off on adventures—so I am probably better prepared to relate to Jill on this one than many readers. But I will say: The dynamics of Joe’s personal demons and his love for Jill are pretty adorable.

Right now, I am pretty much reading escapist fiction because it is where I need to be, while trying to wrap my head around the situation unfolding around us. A well-written mystery novel feels similar for the protagonist: At every turn, they think they have learned something that makes the situation make sense—and at every turn, it becomes more confusing. The great thing about a mystery novel is the solution at the end of the book, and maybe that’s why I like them so much right now: I want a solution that makes sense, but if I can get a few laughs along the way, that’s OK, too.

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