Power Pages: Pitch-Perfect Works Of Political Fiction

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"Three Books ..." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

In American politics, truth has always been more entertaining than fiction. Maybe that's why there are so few great novels about our 200 years of politicians and their power-seeking antics.

Dick Meyer

Dick Meyer is the editorial director of NPR's digital media and the author of Why We Hate Us. He is still looking for a place to eat lunch. Marion Ettlinger hide caption

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The accepted classic of the genre is Democracy by Henry Adams, a novel as dry and dusty as its title. And then there's Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Drawn from the life and times of Louisiana's Huey Long, this is a poetic and unforgettable book. But to say it is about politics is like, well, saying War and Peace is about war and peace.

The three political novels I like best are all perfect for the late summer — addictive, incisive and generous with humor.

'Advise and Consent'

'Advise and Consent'
Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury, paperback, 616 pages

Allen Drury, a recovering reporter, invented the modern Washington novel in 1959 with Advise and Consent. This is a wily, knowing thriller that turns on a Cold War confirmation battle. It so perfectly captures the spirit of these intrigues and the souls of the combatants that 90 percent of the books and movies about Washington ever since seem like stale imitations. More remarkably, the players in real-life dramas such as the confirmation fights of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, or the impeachment of Bill Clinton, appear to have been imitating Drury's characters.

'Shelley's Heart'

'Shelley's Heart'
Shelley's Heart, by Charles McCarry, hardcover, 576 pages

A post-Drury political novel that nails the anthropology of power-Washington with snarky wit is Shelley's Heart by Charles McCarry. McCarry, for my money, is the greatest American spy novelist ever. He is our John Le Carre, and Shelley's Heart is his best Washington novel. Published in 1995, it is set during the first inauguration of the 21st century.

Though McCarry stocks the plot with familiar ingredients — conspiracy, assassination, a constitutional crisis, a sleazy reporter and a tragically-drunken House leader — his writing is pitch-perfect, and some of his characters are deep and vivid. Shelley's Heart also has an eccentricity and sense of humor rarely seen in the genre.

'Roscoe'

'Roscoe'
Roscoe, by William Kennedy, paperback, 306 pages

My all-time favorite political novel takes place in the capital city of Albany, N.Y., not Washington. It is Roscoe by William Kennedy, the seventh novel in his cycle of Albany novels.

Roscoe is Roscoe Conway, the brains behind Albany's political machine in the middle of the 20th century. On V-J day, Roscoe decides to get out of politics after years as his party's resident fixer and philosopher. "I'm a fraud," Roscoe tells his crony, Elisha. "I've always been a fraud."

If Roscoe Conway wants to stop being a fraud — which he does, because he wants to find love — he figures he must quit the party and leave politics altogether; a clean soul and an open heart aren't compatible in Kennedy's novel. It's a book that peers far deeper into the heart and conflicts of the people who do the daily work of politics than any Washington novel ever has.

All three of these fabulous political novels are a perfect tonic for this long campaign.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

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