Wyoming. There's a detention center being built, ostensibly to house terrorists. But there aren't enough terrorists, and the center is too far away from a major airport or federal court to be practical. Conspiracy theorists posit the building is for domestic dissidents, but really it's a boondoggle for a well-connected government contractor, which remorselessly takes advantage of its cost-plus contract. Everything goes well until a secretary in the office discovers the padded accounting numbers. Is this the story of another corrupt, Bush-era government contract gone bad? No; it's the premise for former Missoula author Keir Graff's latest political-themed thriller, The Price of Liberty.
This is Graff's third political thriller. The first, My Fellow Americans, was released during the Bush years, and its dystopian world of kidnapping and torture of Americans by Homeland Security agents perfectly summed up the paranoia created by a government that instigated rendition, warrantless domestic spying and waterboarding. My Fellow Americans was written in an era when a presidential advisor baldly told a New York Times reporter, "When we act, we create our own reality." Graff backed away from his flirtation with futuristic-themed books with his second book, One Nation Under God, a psychological thriller set in a plausible present about the conservative evangelical movement and right-wing domestic terror. It, too, reflects its time, aptly anticipating the paranoid conservative backlash around the 2008 election. Birthers. The Tea Party movement. Clumsy cries of "socialism" and promises to "go Galt." Graff's books were refreshingly biting and political in a media environment otherwise devoid of biting political entertainment.
Politics is only a backdrop for the action in The Price of Liberty, which focuses on Jack McEnroe, a former offshore roughneck whose ex-wife, Kyla, is the secretary who discovers the crooked accounting sheets. The son of the local contractor, Shane Fetters, snaps when he finds out Kyla knows his father's cooking the books; he goes on a mini killing spree and kidnaps Kyla and Jack's children. Jack, the epitome of the Western cowboy archetype—an honest, tough and misunderstood loner—has to save the day.
While political and social commentary is dulled in The Price of Liberty, the book is Graff's tautest yet. It's an almost seamless thriller, a page-turner. The best feature of the book is the villain, Shane Fetters. In a new move for Graff, the book is partly told from Fetters' point of view, which allows Graff to flex a talent also not yet seen in his previous novels: humor. Fetters is completely un-self-aware. He's cocky and brazen, and a dimwit, never seen without wraparound sunglasses, even at night. His father, Dave, doesn't let him have any responsibility over their company's operations (wisely so), and Shane plays video games at work.
During an early and especially lovely and awkward scene in which Shane crashes an important business dinner hosted by his father, he ogles a waitress in the steak restaurant: "She showed him her teeth professionally, but she really didn't put anything into it, making him realize that she didn't know who he was," observes Shane. "It occurred to him that some of his employees probably wore their Fetters and Son windbreakers out on the town, too, so she wouldn't necessarily know that he was the boss. Well, one of the bosses." He's a buffoon, working out his childish interpretation of the world.
Fetters' later rampage is birthed in a fistfight at the local watering hole. There he's too aggressive in hitting on Jack McEnroe's new romantic interest and local librarian, Molly Porter. Jack slugs Shane (much to the joy of the bar regulars: "Every time I think they don't make 'em like they used to," says one old-timer to Jack, "some young son-of-a-gun up and proves me wrong"), and Shane slinks out, vowing revenge. When Shane discovers that Jack's ex-wife is going to blow the whistle on Fetters and Son, much of his motivation for kidnapping Kyla and the kids stems from that need for revenge against Jack. Shane uses them as bait to lure Jack into a trap. A showdown ensues.
In Bill Ott's Booklist review of The Price of Liberty, Graff says his latest is the conclusion of a post-9/11 political thriller trilogy (a "thrillogy"?). If so, that's a shame. This book feels more like a Western—with its squint-eyed morally ambiguous loner white hat in a shootout with the crazy son of the town's richest man—than any kind of political satire. It's almost as if Graff wants to put politics behind him. And that, too, seems to fit the times. Instead of sweeping change in the nation's capitol, we got wonkish insider debates on health care and bank bailouts. That's enough politicking to put anyone asleep. However, rendition, assassination programs and warrantless wiretapping persist. Wars drag on. There's still a need for edgy social commentary.
Keir Graff reads from The Price of Liberty at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, Aug. 10, at 7 PM. Free.