Friday, September 29, 2006

Book Review: Middle America is upper class

Middle America
by Anthony F. Lewis
Booksurge Publishing, 2006

$17.99 from Amazon.Com

Middle America is Anthony F. Lewis's second novel (I reviewed his debut, The Third Revolution, in two parts here and here). Let me effuse in brief: The prologue is well worth the book's cover price, and it's all gravy after that.

Middle America takes up four years after The Third Revolution. Governor Ben Kane, who led several states out of the union in a freedom-driven secession movement, is now former Governor Ben Kane -- back in the restaurant business but with an eye always on, and an involuntary finger always in, politics. Middle America has lived through four years of explosive economic growth: A burgeoning tourist industry based on activities prohibited or tightly regulated in the Old USA has taken root, and freeing and reinvigorating the North American bison herds (instead of relying on federal subsidies for ailing beef operations) provides both a cultural rallying point and another economic stimulus.

All, of course, is not well. Something fishy's going on at Middle America's largest tourist trap, and a presidential race in the Old USA turns on the issue of Kane's secession and its impact. These two elements are the framework on which Lewis hangs his plot, bringing back his original cast of characters (with additions) to take on Some Big Questions.

No spoilers here: I'm more interested in talking about Lewis's obvious growth as a writer between the two books. The Third Revolution is competently written by any measure, but mainly carried along by its plot -- a plot which really only appeals to a small niche audience (fans of libertarian secession fiction). Middle America is a buffalo of a different color (speaking of which, there's one of those in the book). It's beautifully rendered, the characters come to life, and Lewis's vision seems much more tightly integrated into rational speculation about future technological developments and a realistic appraisal of how real people (and politicians) act under a given set of circumstances.

Lewis's portrayal of a tourist Mecca ("Shining City") in a libertarian enclave surrounded by "victimless crime" regimes is particularly striking. This is one area in which many fine authors fall short when it comes to achieving suspension of disbelief in the reader's mind ... but Lewis hits the nail on the head. Shining City -- and the reaction to it both in Middle America and the Old USA -- strikes me as utterly believable.

Moreover, both that portrayal and the story in general strike me as something which a non-libertarian (or someone not even especially interested in politics per se) could curl up with and enjoy, which is indeed a rarity among novels with libertarian themes.

As always, I have my little complaints, but little they are. The love story which sprouted in the first novel gets more believable, but only marginally so. I can live with that (if Lewis has male-female relationships figured out he's way ahead of most of us, right?). There's still a slight tilt toward the "Republicans are more open to libertarian ideas than Democrats" notion which prevailed in The Third Revolution, but that tilt is much less pronounced and Lewis does give the Left its due where the situation calls for it. The one thing I probably can't forgive is his retirement of Joe Adams's 1972 Norton Commando. That one hurt.

I've read a number of good books lately; Middle America is probably the best thing I've read this year. Lewis is going to regret this when his inbox begins filling up with my emails demanding the next installment.

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