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‘The Hellfire Club’ Burns Up Readers’ Patience


Journalists are often not very good fiction writers. Most of them have no idea how to tell a story from the inside out, as a novelist must do. They are usually great droppers of expository lumps, relentless depositors of hackneyed lyrical poppycock, concocters of half-baked, pointless aphorisms, and producers of endless moral hairsplitting by cardboard cutout personas in place of depicting plausible thought processes by believable characters. Jake Tapper, regrettably, falls victim to all of these vices in his novel The Hellfire Club.

In fact, The Hellfire Club is a mess from start to finish. It starts like a slow train, with one car jerking the next into motion, chugs along for a while in the middle, then crashes in a tangled wreck of a rushed climax and conclusion.

As a reviewer, I hate to give a bad notice to someone who is just starting out. One might get better the next time, and a bad review can be very discouraging. It’s hard enough to write a complete novel, much less a good novel, and a huge investment of time. Even the fastest writer I know can’t do it in less than four months, and most take a year or more. But when the author has achieved celebrity in another realm and is able to hype his book at every opportunity in front of hundreds of thousands of people, the reviewer also has a duty to warn potential readers when they might be getting sold shoddy merchandise.

Mr. Marder Goes to Washington

The Hellfire Club is set in 1954 Washington DC. Ike is in office, Senator Joseph McCarthy is at the height of his influence, and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings dominate the news. We follow the adventure of newly appointed congressman from New York City Charlie Marder. Charlie’s predecessor mysteriously died in office, and Charlie’s father, a big-time lawyer and political fixer in Manhattan, used his influence to get Charlie appointed to serve out the remainder of the term.

Ten years before the book’s present, Charlie was in the midst of fighting World War II in Europe, where he was a U.S. Army lieutenant leading a platoon that suffered a terrible blow while taking refuge from a German patrol in a barn with a French family. An explosion collapses a beam in the barn, which falls on one of Charlie’s platoon members and the French family. What’s more, the German attackers have come across old chemical warfare shells and now use them to try to flush the Americans. The Americans all put on gas masks. But, alas, evil capitalist war profiteers strike.

It seems the gas masks are made from substandard rubber by the “Goodstone” Corporation, and all the masks but Charlie’s malfunction. Charlie attempts to rescue his platoon member and succeeds in dragging him out. The French family perishes. Later, Charlie’s underling and friend dies in agonizing fashion from exposure to the gas.

Back in 1954, Charlie finds himself on the House Appropriations Committee. When a spending bill comes up that will include defense money for Goodstone, Charlie takes his stand and vows to oppose the funding. This puts him on the bad side of the committee chairman, who thinks of him as a pipsqueak who ought to know his place as a freshman congressman.

Charlie is no Mr. Smith. He realizes that he’s going to have to compromise if he wants to get anything done. His wife Margaret serves as his conscience, and as Charlie becomes more involved in the social scene and maneuverings of Washington, they began to drift apart. They also must physically separate when Margaret, who is a zoologist studying the wild horses of the Virginia coast, gets a chance to go off to join a research team observing the cross-inlet migration of one equine band.

Secret Societies

Soon Charlie is taken under the wing of stymied presidential hopeful Sen. Estes Kefauver, who wants him in on his upcoming hearings on comic book perversity. He also joins a poker game of congressmen who are military veterans, and begins to make some real friends, including the predictably ultra-competent and angelically upright black congressman from Harlem, Isaiah Streets, a former Tuskegee Airman and clandestine Office of Strategic Services operative.

Unfortunately for historical-novel-diversity’s sake, Tapper didn’t have the best clay to work with in the character of the actual 1954 New York-area congressman, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who does get mentioned in the book as not up to Streets’ caliber. Only female Sen. Margaret Chase Smith has greater moral authority and folksy wisdom than Streets. She appears, ex machina, on a passenger train from DC to New York to provide a soliloquy to Charlie about how Washington really works:

‘I’m sure you’re more than aware that there are any number of secret societies throughout Washington . . . Skull and Bones, Sons of Liberty, the Patriotic Order, the Elks, the Klan. One hears whispers about them, but of course nothing concrete. Washington makes much more sense once you realize that there are factions that people like you and me know nothing about.’

‘People like you and me?’

‘Moral people,’ she said. ‘Good people. And people who are outsiders, to a degree.’

‘Well, I don’t know that I belong in your esteemed company,’ Charlie said.

Before he knows it, Charlie is tricked into voting through the funding for Goodstone pesticide plants, where, in noisy telegraphing by Tapper, it is suggested Goodstone might be brewing up something far more deadly and nefarious than the usual Rachel Carson Eggnog. He is invited to attend a celebration of the bill’s passage by a group called the Hellfire Club.

This is a secret society in Washington full of movers and shakers, some elected, some in other positions of power and influence. It has roots that go back to Benjamin Franklin and is run by none other than hotel impresario Conrad Hilton. Charlie discovers during the course of the novel that, as train-riding harbinger Margaret Chase Smith had warned, Washington is indeed shot through with secret societies. He may have thought he was coming to the capital to serve the people, but he’s really stepped into a battlefield of be-robed Satanic and libertine celebrants in perpetual, deadly struggle. It seems DC’s secret establishment culture is a blood-dripping cross between “Eyes Wide Shut” and “West Side Story”!

When he rebels against being sucked in, and tries to do the right thing, Charlie is set up to appear to have killed a beautiful waitress from the Hellfire Club party in a drunk driving accident. At this point, the plot veers from iffy to preposterous. Suffice to say, Tapper’s close reading of David Halberstam’s The Fifties is put to good use, as he brings in nearly every historical figure mentioned therein, and places them in one secret faction or another. It is only Charlie’s inadvertent membership-by-proxy in his father’s faction (one that includes Eisenhower, the Dulles brothers, and a couple of other notables) that might save Charlie from ruin and probable assassination.

All Over the Place

This may sound like a Dan Brown plot, but the reader is left wishing that Tapper wrote in Brown’s overwrought brutish manner. Brown’s prose may be wooden and his stories hogwash, but at least Brown usually manages to create internally consistent baloney. Tapper is all over the place. First, there’s the attempt at a serious novel indicated by the leaden exposition of the early chapters.

Charlie and his wife Margaret go out for a night on the town and, what do you know, the theater lobby they find themselves in is full of historically portentous people. There’s Vice President Nixon and his wife, Patricia! There’s Jack and Jackie! There’s newspaper columnist Joe Alsop! Hey, across the room is Robert Kennedy deep in conversation with Joe McCarthy! Each notable is accompanied by at least one obligatory expository lump of prose only vaguely tied to the current setting. The Kennedys get double and triple lumps, of course, such as:

Charlie’s mother somewhat secretly worshiped the Kennedy brood. His father, Winston, a powerful Republican lawyer in Manhattan, had a more skeptical view of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and, though the transitive property, his scions. He faulted the Kennedy patriarch for wanting to appease Hitler. For fun, he’d also bad-mouth him for having made his fortune in bootlegging during Prohibition.

Who needs Wikipedia? It is also helpful that people tend to introduce themselves with their full names, sometimes even with middle initials. At times one feels trapped in a creepy liberal version of the Hall of Presidents, where Jackie Kennedy quotes Alan Seegers’ “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” off the cuff, and McCarthy is perpetually pounding a finger on his list of 205 communists in the State Department.

Exposition in a historical novel, even the exaggerated mounds of it found in The Hellfire Club, can be excused as necessary, but Tapper lays it on even thicker when Charlie overhears a mélange of historical headlines and newsy cocktail conversations several times throughout the book. A charitable reader might say that Tapper is borrowing the form from the newsreel prose poem interludes in John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. A more suspicious reader might imagine these are standard-issue left-of-center 1950s historical checklist items from an outline the author was planning to squeeze into the narrative, but Tapper ran out of steam, and just decided to italicize it all and call it done.

What doesn’t come across in the novel is a storyteller’s feel for being inside the early ’50s. Charlie and Margaret, who also gets several viewpoint chapters (in a misbegotten subplot involving conspiratorial commie zoologists), reflect upon their surroundings with the cultural and political sensibilities of 1990s-era New Republic writers. They are themselves shallowly conceived. Charlie’s characterization consists of a continual flashback to his wartime experiences and deep declarations of teenage-level moral perplexity:

‘No, I mean it,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I understood until recently how tough it is to stand up for what’s right in politics. It all looks so easy from the outside. But inside, the imperatives, the forces, the motivations almost always push one toward complicity or silence. If not worse. The system seems designed to grind away our better natures.’

You don’t say, Charlie? One longs to add, “and what a good thing to figure out now that you’re in your 30s and representing tens of thousands of people in the U.S. Congress.”

Margaret bears a similar trauma to Charlie’s wartime experience brought on by the death of her father, burned to death in a horrific dirigible accident when Margaret was young. Airships are fickle, dangerous beasts—which has got to be worth a digression on zeppelin transport history, right? Yes, it is, and indeed we get one.

A Rushed Ending

By midpoint in the story, finding hardly any way to understand or identify with these two, it’s hard to care about their ultimate fates. But if we do stick with the book, we are fated to be sucked down the rabbit hole into First Time Novelist Rushed Ending Land. One convoluted twist leads to another, as Charlie flees the clutches of the Hellfire Club and the malevolent senatorial and congressional members who pursue him (who fortunately for Charlie, are such bad marksmen they rival the evil minions of Bond villains and imperial stormtroopers).

In fact, seemingly every 1950s icon comes out of the conspiracy closet to join in fighting on one side or another—that is, literarily fighting, by shooting at one another. It feels a bit like the Pampers swiping scene in Raising Arizona where even the 7-Eleven clerks, grocery store managers, and old grandmas pop up with .357 magnums and 12-gauges to take potshots at poor Nicolas Cage.

The problem is, the book has not been played for laughs, and the double and triple twists of the finale come off as supremely goofy and take one right out of any imaginative investment in the story. The reader is left a bit stupefied by it all.

“You go through more bestsellers than a McCarthy bonfire,” Charlie kids his wife early in the book. The Hellfire Club leads one to ponder the notion that Tailgunner Joe might have been right, if for the wrong reasons, about consigning some books to the flames.