These are tough times for political fiction. Political reality has become so zany, it's hard for even the most inventive minds to keep pace. Imagine: A president turns the Oval Office into a love hutch for himself and a chipmunky White House intern, while a maniacal prosecutor establishes his own fourth branch of government to hunt down her presidentially embossed cocktail dress. Who can top that? To his credit, Richard North Patterson doesn't really try. In "No Safe Place," he burrows into the interior world of politics rather than skimming along the increasingly gaudy exteriors. The results are as gripping as they are thoughtful.
In New Jersey Sen. Kerry Kilcannon, Patterson introduces a dream candidate. Kilcannon's an earnest but existentially scarred former prosecutor who's challenging an incumbent vice president for the Democratic Party's 2000 nomination. Unafraid to speak truth to power, Kilcannon rails against the campaign finance system, calls for compulsory national service, advocates gay rights and trashes teachers unions. Yet while he's dynamite in public, he's given to bouts of introspection and self-laceration in private. He utters what many pro-choicers believe but rarely say -- that, yeah, a fetus is sort of a life. He knows he may be killed on the campaign trail; he knows, too, there's not much he can do about it. Kilcannon is like a Frank Capra character with a little script-doctoring by Albert Camus -- a curious mix of idealism and fatalism.
In April 2000, the final week of California's presidential primary, Kilcannon has to face down some internal adversaries as well as the sitting VP. For one thing, he's haunted by the memory of his older brother Jamie, who was assassinated in California during his own run for the presidency 12 years earlier. For another, a crazed anti-abortion zealot is stalking him, intent on repeating history. Finally, a newsmagazine is about to break a devastating story about his recent extramarital affair with Lara Costello, a young TV reporter who has begun covering the campaign.
Patterson packs all this into a brisk account of seven days in April. There are a few missteps here: One of the novel's major plot turns, for example, stands out like a gigantic water tower on a Midwestern prairie. You can see it about 30 miles away, but it seems like forever before you reach it. Nonetheless, Patterson -- who usually writes legal thrillers -- has done his homework. (In his acknowledgments, he thanks several dozen political and media bigwigs.) He is deadly accurate when he describes a presidential campaign as "hours of boredom punctuated by panic." His consultants and operatives are less cartoonish than in most political novels. And he includes great insidery references to countdown meetings and the color-coded symbology of Secret Service pins.
What gives "No Safe Place" unusual strength for a pop thriller is less its outer details than its inner subtleties. Running for president requires what Patterson rightly calls a "molten single-mindedness." But as his book demonstrates and our recent history affirms, we're probably better off with leaders who both grasp ambiguity and seek to gratify desires beyond their own.