If Men Were Angels

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A searching and powerfully written novel about a dark-horse presidential candidate who seems to be the answer to the hopes of the American voters. Is he, perhaps, too good to be true?
The tumultuous presidential bandwagon of Thomas Crane, a charismatic but elusive senator from the midwest, presents reporter Cliff O'Connell with a career-making opportunity that dissolves into a nightmare. In combing the past for the real Thomas Crane, O'Connell becomes the keeper of a chilling ...

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Overview

A searching and powerfully written novel about a dark-horse presidential candidate who seems to be the answer to the hopes of the American voters. Is he, perhaps, too good to be true?
The tumultuous presidential bandwagon of Thomas Crane, a charismatic but elusive senator from the midwest, presents reporter Cliff O'Connell with a career-making opportunity that dissolves into a nightmare. In combing the past for the real Thomas Crane, O'Connell becomes the keeper of a chilling secret that he knows should remain buried forever. O'Connell's former lover, Robin Winters, now works for the Crane campaign, and that relationship reignites at the same time the campaign, against all odds, takes off. O'Connell also discovers an unexpected rapport with Crane himself, who shares his love of history and a humble, small-town background. Digging into the part of Thomas Crane's past that refuses to make sense, uncovering layers of truth with a growing sense of unease, O'Connell is caught in a brutal triangle, torn between personal and political passions and his commitment to the truth. His discovery and what he does about it have cataclysmic and unexpected results for himself, Robin, Crane, and a nation. If Men Were Angels is an urgent, resonant novel about love, hope, and loss. Rooted in the realities of a brawling campaign, but proceeding along the lines of an elegant and remorseless legal thriller, it is the novel about politics that Scott Turow might have written.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In the name of truth, journalists pursue every secret, invade every corner, and publish so that the public can know the simple facts and decide the truth for themselves. With this standard firmly in hand, a young reporter follows a distinguished senator who is making a presidential bid. Sharing an interest in Civil War history, the two connect as the campaign unfolds. Soon, though, a niggling inconsistency begins to prey on the reporter's mind. With his feelings complicated by the presence of an ex-lover working as an adviser to the candidate, the reporter teases out a distant fact whose truth is proved by a teenager with a face much like the candidate's own. In his first novel, Karaim delivers a story that is searingly realistic and exquisitely written. A Knight-Ridder journalist who has covered prominent candidates, Karaim reports with laconic veracity about the stress, excitement, and boredom of a campaign. Of the recent crop of Washington novels, this may well be the best. A sure bet for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/99.]--Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A bilious fictional examination of the perverse relationship between a presidential candidate too good to be true and a newspaper reporter whose insecurities and uncanny nose for news bring doom and gloom to the campaign trail. Much of this humorless, darkly solemn first novel is evidently based on personal experience: Karaim, a Washington journalist for the Miami-based Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, covered the 1992 Democratic campaign and revels in the cynicism, monotony, lost luggage, and stale odors that envelope a cadre of journalists whose job it is eat, drink, and merrily cling to the candidate's every word and gesture. Illinois Senator Thomas Hart "Saint Thomas" Crane is as good as they come: an intelligent, sincerely compassionate liberal Democrat who hasn't forgotten the despair of his lower-class, coal-town upbringing. Terminally brooding journalist Cliff O'Connell, suffers from career burnout (at age 33) and the untimely departure of his lover, Robin Winters, now a strategist in the Crane machine. Though the two meet for some passionate tumbles, Karaim avoids the pot-boiling, bed-hopping high jinks of current political romans à clef and instead contrasts Crane's dogged determination to be the hero the voting public wants with O'Connell's relentless attempt to find himself in the subject he's covering. When Crane tells voters that he never lies, the suspicious reporter pokes around the senator's Illinois hometown and discovers a secret that could ruin him. Despite a teary plea from Robin, O'Connell prints the truth, then masochistically stays with the campaign as public condemnation of Crane slowly simmers into an angry backlash at the news media for revealingan aspect of his character that may not have been so bad after all. Can the electorate, with its need to idolize, and the media, with its need to slay the celebrities it creates, ever grasp the truth about political leaders? Though he ducks the answer with an inevitable—and much too convenient—tragic end, Karaim deserves credit for asking. .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393333220
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/17/1999
  • Pages: 324
  • Product dimensions: 0.73 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Reed Karaim worked the Washington Bureau of Knight-Ridder Newspapers for eight years. In 1992, he covered the Democratic presidential campaign from April through the election. He is the author of short stories and poetry, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. If Men Were Angels is his first novel.
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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Chapter One


The road is narrow and rolls up and down in hesitant, not-quite hills that capture all the half-hearted defeat I once saw at the heart of this country. I park on the edge of town. There is no one here who would welcome me. I sit in the car, watching snow slant across the hills and the sad little town, and after a while a strange thing happens. I am looking at a field, the gaunt figures of bent cornstalks leaning together into the gray distance, and it comes alive.

    The world of my memories is lined with the faces of strangers, and now they rise pale and attenuated in the wintry light, pale but hopeful, raised and always hopeful, as if the most delicate of all emotions has gathered substance in the flesh. We were, in the end, just another road show, another carnival in a world jaded by spectacle, but in the beginning there came these moments when the crowds gathered in the summer twilight and you felt it out there. You could hold out your hand and feel it against your palm.

    There was a night when we arrived late at a small southern town in a state I have long forgotten. They had been waiting for five hours and the noise started even before we left the buses. We walked through the crowd and they were cheering us for no reason, leaning across the rope and clapping, slapping us on our backs, and soon we were all running, running in this narrow space between thousands, carried along by the sound, flying through the darkness until we came out into the space reserved for us and we saw the courthouse brilliantly illuminated, a Georgian wedding cake, white as a bridal gown, curved pillars suspended in the air by light.

    He was standing on the porch with his wife, swaying to the music, and their shadows were thrown up huge and black against the wall. It was August but a girl in an Easter dress, her black hair in a white bow, walked up to the microphone and sang "The Star Spangled Banner" in a voice so guileless you had to close your eyes, and the crowd fell into a hush, and before he even spoke, you could feel it gathering and you knew that there is nothing ephemeral about hope; gathered, it is a force like the wind that bends trees and blows rooftops into the sea.

    Then he spoke. He took off his jacket and it wasn't long before he sweated through his blue shirt. He went through all he would do in his gentle midwestern voice, that voice in which the words each did their business and got out of the way. I won't let you down, he said. I won't fail you. I will be there. There has been enough blame. There is a time for trust. There is a time to believe in each other. There is a time to say we have forgiven and we will move forward. There is a time for hope. He stood with his shadow swinging back and forth across the courthouse and when you looked into the crowd you saw their faces raised to his and you could feel everything they wanted to believe pounding like a rush of blood into your temples. When they cheered the sound seemed dragged up from the earth itself.

    That night I believed he would do it. I knew I wanted him to, despite all my protestations of neutrality, and I thought he would. I thought he would be the next president of the United States and I thought he would be a good one.

    I want you to know that I too believed. I want you to know that I shared your hope, maybe more than most. I want you to know I too could see it, the kingdom of the wish coming alive.

    I want you to know so you'll understand that I ruined him for something else.

    I told myself once it was for the truth, the last excuse for every cruelty. But now I think it might have been for much less than that. I think maybe I ruined him because I could not believe in something much smaller. Three simple words. An answer to my prayers.


Chapter Two


I first met him on a snowy morning in Concord, New Hampshire. I was standing on the statehouse square across from the beetle-browed statue of Daniel Webster, which glowers eternally at the ostentatiously golden-domed capitol, when his van came down the street and he got out looking for hands to shake. There was no one around. He stood on the sidewalk in a charcoal gray topcoat, the snow falling in flecks into his coal-black hair, his hands held awkwardly together in front of him like those of an altar boy. He was tall and slender, handsome in a midwestern sort of way, with a fine jaw and long clean forehead, heavy eyebrows perched on top of gentle brown eyes. His mouth was his mother's mouth, feminine, a bit too full.

    But then, you know his face as well as I do.

    "Well," Thomas Crane said. "Clearly the world waits for us."

    He smiled and it was a wonderful smile, crooked and boyish and lit with a gentle self-mockery that I think of as quintessentially American.

    "There's a group waiting inside," said John Starke, his press secretary, who had tumbled out of the van after him, along with a nervous, overweight woman I did not recognize and two reporters, both clearly wishing they were still in bed.

    Crane squinted into the snow, pounding his gloves together, and you could feel his concentrated awareness of being out on this street on this morning in this town with the heart of a nation waiting to be won. There was a pink glow, a newly minted brightness to his cheeks that was more than the cold and it filled me with a faint sense of warmth.

    "We've got a few minutes," he said. "Let's stay out here for a while."

    There is so much about him I have learned from others over the last year. There are scenes where I was not present that I now see as clearly as if I had been sitting in the back of the room. This is what comes from having too long to think about things, too many days free to wander backward into the past, too much regret. But this first meeting was before all of that, and what I remember is the odd contrast between the stray melancholy that floated in the back of his eyes and the rest of his manner. Waiting on the sidewalk, he seemed the very model of the confident young politician, and yet there was this disconnection, this brief trace of something else when he let his gaze wander. I thought then it might be a kind of boredom, a reflection of an arrogance to which politicians are particularly susceptible, a conviction that any part of the universe not revolving intimately around their particular star is a lifeless void.

    Those eyes, however, slipped back into focus as he saw the first voter of the day approaching: a woman in a Scotch-plaid hat dragging a dog dressed in a matching sweater through the snow. He crossed the sidewalk to shake her hand.

    "I'm Thomas Crane," he said. "And I'm running for president."

    She smiled and held the rat-eared dog up for inspection.

    "A handsome dog," he said, "but I'm not going to kiss him."

    "Hold him," she said, offering the terrier into his hands.

    With a wry smile he let her place the dog in his arms.

    "Tickle him on the tummy," she said. "He loves that so."

    He tried to oblige.

    "No, a little to the left. There. Now behind the ears. Down at the base. Yes. Okay. Now back to his tummy again."

    Other people were out on the street now and they stopped to see what Crane was doing. He scratched dutifully and the dog's head rolled back, his rear end squirmed. A small crowd gathered, dressed in the mufflers, stocking caps and goose-down parkas of New England. They peered over each other's shoulders to see what creature was cradled in Crane's arms. The moment froze itself into a strange nativity scene. The woman leaned in protectively, instructing with a sharply pointed finger.

    "Now the top of the nose, with a couple fingers."

    He rubbed the nose awkwardly; the dog stared cross-eyed at his fingers.

    "You did hear I'm running for president?" Crane said.

    "And then right under the chin. That's right."

    Crane patted tangled hair. Someone giggled.

    "There, Snoogems, you're being petted by a man who might be the next president. Isn't that nice? There, there, darling, he's doing his best. You're doing your best, aren't you? A little bit more to the right, I think."

    A southern voice drawled in my ear, "Roll over, Senator."

    "What do you think, Snoogems?" the woman asked. "Should I vote for the man? Maybe, you say?"

    "Why maybe?" Crane asked the dog.

    The woman smiled and took Snoogems out of his hands. "He likes that other one, the one on TV who promises to knock the hell out of the Japanese in the trade talks. But he thinks you're a nice man."

    Straight-backed and happy, she strolled on down the sidewalk. Snoogems gave Crane a last, lovesick look, then trotted obediently at the end of his leash.

    "Ohh, play dead, Senator," the voice whispered.

    Crane stared at his hand, covered with terrier hair, as if searching for some explanation. Another giggle escaped from the back, but the crowd watched him in its quiet New England way, waiting for the clever thing he would surely say next.

    "Folks, come on into the diner with us," Starke said quickly. "We're going to have a cup of coffee, talk about the issues. Join us. We'll even buy the coffee."

    Inside, the smell of frying eggs, sausage, bacon and hash browns filled the air. A handful of men were bent over heavy porcelain mugs along the counter. Crane slipped into the washroom and emerged with a fresh smile on his face. That is the thing about politics—every encounter is a new chance to be loved.

    He worked his way down the counter slowly, listening carefully, knowing when to touch a shoulder, when to laugh. He reached a pale, long-haired man wearing a baseball cap tipped back on his head and a green down vest over a denim workshirt. The man told Crane he was a welder who worked at the bus factory on the edge of town.

    "But I lost my job last summer, after working my ass off for that company for seven years. What can you do for me?"

    Crane sat down on the next stool. "I've got an eight-point economic plan—"

    The welder cut him off.

    "That's very nice, but that could take years. I mean, you wouldn't be elected until next year and then, who knows. What I want to know is what can you do for me now?"

    Crane's smile seemed oddly stuck. "I would have to get elected first," he confessed.

    The welder stared into his coffee cup in disappointment.

    "Sure."

    The drawl in my ear earlier had come from a tall, thin southern aristocrat employed by the New York Times. His graying hair was a bit unkempt in the morning and his skin a sallower yellow than normal, but his voice had not lost its icy, bitter tang.

    "Ah, the can-do spirit of America."

    It was my first day on the campaign trail, and I had arrived dreaming all the usual dreams. Now, here I was, in a sour little coffee shop on a cold morning, with the smell of dog hanging over the man who would be the leader of the free world, in a country where people want things now, right now. A presidential administration glimmered like the ocean down a desert highway and disappeared. Inaugural speeches and State of the Union addresses crumpled and blew away. Entire cabinets fell back into their graves.

    Crane sat there on his stool and searched the welder's face as if there had to be something more, some glimmer of hope he had missed. The scene seemed to pain him in a way that I took again for a form of disbelieving arrogance.

    A commotion turned his head. A shaved skull flew through the door like a bullet. The man beneath it landed on his knees and then scrambled back to his feet, shouting at the top of his lungs, shouting that Crane hated gays because he had not backed a certain bill. A half dozen ACT-UP members tumbled through the door behind him. They began a frenzied, hoarse chant that filled the diner. Their coats fell like cloaks; one of them was carrying two pieces of rough wood; one was wearing a robe; he stretched his arms out and they tied the lumber to his arms and down his back, a cross. A crown of thorns appeared from somewhere. The chant had changed. Kill us, Kill us, Kill us, it went. The words were so hoarse they were hard to understand. When the cross came out, I realized they thought television was going to be here. They had been misinformed.

    For a moment Crane seemed paralyzed. He stood warily, his hands out, a sign of peace, asking for quiet. The chant continued, but changed again, Act up! Act up! Act up! Their shout had the mindless fury, the desperate assertion, of a dying scream. Crane tried again for silence. The chant only intensified. Finally, he turned to the rest of the room and shrugged his shoulders. He headed for the door. Scattered applause, intended to show support, arose from the diner's patrons.

    The protesters followed him outside, but his car was waiting. It was time for his next engagement anyway. Before leaving, he paused by the open door and surveyed the protesters as if they were raw fish laid out in a supermarket stall. He lifted his fine chin and shook his head sadly.

    We ended that night at a meeting with the strikers at a shoe factory outside of Portsmouth. A wet sleet was falling and a dozen men, worn and creased and drained of color, waited beneath a tarpaulin stretched between four poles. A trickle of water ran off the back and beneath their boots into a greasy puddle shivering with muddy light. They'd been on the line for thirty days, marching back and forth in front of a low brick factory blackened decades ago, the sole survivor in a dinosaur park of rusting iron skeletons and sagging brick carcasses sinking in a field of ash.

    He joined them, shook hands and began to speak. He talked about the plans he had to provide tax credits for business modernization. He talked about his plans to retrain workers in dying industries. He spoke about the need to believe that things could be better. The need to believe we could change the course of our lives together. He was earnest and confident and they stared at him out of the death throes of American industry and after a time it was as if they had slid underwater and were watching him through drowned eyes.

    We were walking back to the cars in the dark with the sleet falling down our backs when I ended up beside him. You could feel the whole bone-wearying slog of the day in his every step. He didn't say anything for a while. Then a smile curled up one side of his mouth, and he raised his head and fixed me with a sideways glance that had in it a stubborn refusal to go down, a strange and imperishable joy at where he had arrived in his life.

    "I don't care what that woman says," he said. "I still think I got that dog's vote."

    If this is a story about multiple seductions, about the delicate tide of faith on which we rise and fall, then it begins here. Because I confess I was a little bit gone on him from that moment on.

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