It can be difficult to read fiction during the autumn of an election year. In 2004, the last time the election was the most important in American history, fiction sales fell drastically in at least one major Seattle bookstore as sales of political books soared. It's hard to entertain flights of fancy when images of neocon-inspired apocalyptic death are dancing in your head. But only reading books about the election between now and November is a surefire way to wind up in the booby hatch. The solution, then, must be to read fiction about politics.
Roland Merullo's American Savior is speculative fiction about Jesus Christ returning and running for president on an independent ticket. It's almost definitely not the first time someone's written a book about the idea, but it's the first one this year, when McCain/Palin confederates are releasing ads implying Obama is the Antichrist.
It's a shame Merullo does so little with it. A few of the gags—Jesus rides a wild bull at a rodeo to dispel the belief that he's too feminine to be president—are surprising, but too much of the novel ambles down a well-trod path. It doesn't help that Merullo's political worldview is decidedly simple and his caricatures are far too broad. There are right-wing talk-show hosts named "Hurry Linneament" and "Bull O'Malley," which are names that a seventh grader who just discovered satire might consider hilariously clever. James Morrow, particularly in his religious sci-fi farce Only Begotten Daughter, has done some serious, and entertaining, theological consideration of what Jesus would do if he were alive today. Merullo simply wallows in cliché.
At first glance, Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife appears to be that sort of book—a thoughtless, election-year cash grab—too. It's a novel about how a thinly veiled analogue for Laura Bush, who by all accounts isn't overly religious or conservative or for the Iraq war, can manage to love a man idolized by only the most right-wing and evangelical wingnuts in the land. The icky truth of it is that, like everyone in a relatively healthy lifelong partnership, she's wildly sexually attracted to him.
Some of the synonyms are a little precious: The Bush stand-in runs for president as a "tolerant traditionalist." But unlike Merullo's cardboard cutouts, Sittenfeld does a novelist's work by making her characters real humans with doubts and weaknesses and charm. It's a moral novel and by extension a political one. The first lady looks back on her life and reflects on whether she could have changed the world: "Anyone who has been married, and especially anyone married for several decades, knows the union is a series of compromises; to judge the compromises I have made is, I take it, easy to do from far away." She knows that like anything worthwhile, politics seem maddeningly easy from a distance but are complex, and often painful, up close.