A Man You Could Love


From the forests of the Pacific Northwest to the power corridors of Washington, D.C., this powerful novel stretches across the tumult of the 1960s to the disputed 2000 presidential election as it chronicles the life of a crusading politician and, in the process, the coming of age and loss of innocence of a generation.
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From the forests of the Pacific Northwest to the power corridors of Washington, D.C., this powerful novel stretches across the tumult of the 1960s to the disputed 2000 presidential election as it chronicles the life of a crusading politician and, in the process, the coming of age and loss of innocence of a generation.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Callahan's first novel outlines the ebb and flow of Democratic politics in America, from the Vietnam era through today, by following the career of Oregon congressman (and eventually senator) Michael "Mick" Whelan, as seen through the eyes of his adviser, aide, and best friend, Gabe Bontempo. The novel is rich in detail about the maneuvering that occurs, often in barrooms and private offices, before bills reach the floor of the House or Senate. Unfortunately, the story bogs down in blow-by-blow accounts of congressional debates and hearings that only an avid fan of C-SPAN would find dramatic. But it picks up speed and emotional resonance in the last half, when Gabe's devotion to Mick and his work has a devastating impact on his family life. Whelan is portrayed as a bit too much of a martyr, but having a flawed and down-to-earth narrator helps. For regional public library collections and those specializing in political fiction.
—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555916206
  • Publisher: Fulcrum Publishing
  • Publication date: 5/2/2007
  • Pages: 472
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

John Callahan is the Morgan S. Odell professor of humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. As literary executor for Ralph Ellison, he edited the manuscripts of Ellison's unfinished second novel into Juneteenth to widespread critical praise and also edited Ellison's Collected Essays and Flying Home and Other Stories.
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Read an Excerpt

A Man You Could Love


Fulcrum Publishing

Copyright © 2007 John Callahan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55591-620-6

Chapter One

Growing up between the claws of eastern Long Island, I was sure I was in cahoots with the world. Never mind that stuff about the unexamined life not being worth living-on Shelter Island, I had no need for an alarm clock or a wake-up call. At daybreak, when the sun came out of the sea, I watched Gardiner's Bay turn the color of fire. Flying along the causeway between Little Ram and Big Ram on my three-speed, it was a rare summer morning I didn't see an osprey swoop back to its nest or spot a great blue heron stalking the shallows in the tracks of the Manhanset chief who, long before any white men arrived, named the island Manhansack-aha-quashawamock, or "Island Sheltered by Islands."

But now, on the Oregon coast during the millennial Indian summer of 2000, I lay in bed beneath Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain watching the sky turn deeper shades of blue. Waiting for my test results, I couldn't shake the feeling that life was winding down. I felt a chill, a sudden dread that my health would put an end to the dream of returning to Shelter Island with the woman I'd left behind in Washington.

As a former man of politics and the vote, I also wondered if my soul's low tide had anything to do with being far from the action of the presidential election of 2000. I had folded my hand almost ten years before, but politics is like any other addiction-the moment you think you have it licked, its insistent rhythms sneak up on the beating of your heart. I followed Al Gore's up-and-down campaign, but, like a recovering alcoholic, I kept my distance, even when a couple of old cronies called the day after the election. They had been taken out of mothballs and rushed to Florida to act as seconds for Gore's duel in the sun with George Bush the younger. Meanwhile, out in Oregon, my red and white blood cells were going haywire, the count dangerously unstable. I'd prepared for bad news and prepared for good news, but I was not prepared for things to be up in the air. Maybe that's why I was impatient with the Team Gore strategy of seeking recounts only in the two or three counties with the largest Democratic majorities.

"Roll the dice," I said into the phone.

"Dice mice, roll troll," responded the media maverick I'd worked with in the days before hip-hop made sassy spoken rhymes fashionable. "You living in the United States or the twilight zone, Bontempo?"

Usually he called me Gabe, or, if he wanted to pull rank, Gabriel, my mixed blessing of a Christian name.

Breaking the silence, a second voice came on the line, this one belonging to the former congressman from New York with whom I'd conspired during my days as an administrative assistant on Capitol Hill.

"Look, man, you know the rules in the Bush league. Leave every vote behind ain't his."

"Take him to court," I said grumpily.

"He got us in court."

In the old days, I would have pressed my case like a trial lawyer working for a percentage. Now, I only wanted to clear my mind.

"Count the whole state by hand. Let the good times roll."

"Good times, my ass," the former congressman growled. "Our boy Al's instinct was to recount everything, but the consultants talked him out of it. Now, far as I can tell, ain't no saints marching in this man's Everglades."

From the abrupt pause, I thought the line had gone dead. On my end, the immense, deceptively calm rollers of the Pacific broke toward shore, while in my mind's eye, my two old brothers-in-arms looked at each other across a conference table in a hastily commandeered law office on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Finally, from the thick silence, I realized they had remembered the state of my health.

"Listen," I said in valediction, "keep me posted on the vote count, and I'll keep you posted on my blood count."

The recount was shaping up as a donnybrook, but the results of my blood tests threw me off balance. If the numbers had been borderline or better, I would have taken it as a reprieve and, like old Daedalus, flown off to Florida. In my heyday, I could soar without losing sight of the Earth, and, from what I could tell, Gore needed a savvy old hand to keep him from getting burned by the Florida sun. Or, if the tests had fingered me as a marked man, I might have taken a last fling. But mine was the middle ground. Like the middle of the road, it was not a safe place-more like purgatory, where, the Sisters of Mercy taught me years ago, your good and bad angels join forces to prepare an elixir of fire exquisitely designed to defy your threshold of pain.

Driving to Portland for consultations, I snaked northeast on Route 53, passing humpbacked hills whose Douglas fir kept watch like Indian braves over patches of earth, raw and ragged in the sunlight, where ancestral trees had been felled one by one during clear-cutting massacres by the logging companies. In the distance, the mountains of the Coast Range rested under a deep, dazzling coat of snow, heralding an early winter. From his office overlooking the Willamette River, my oncologist told me that nothing was decided. Years before, I'd helped him prepare testimony before a Senate committee. Now, when he compared my unstable red and white blood cells to undecided voters, I told him I wanted nothing of the kind associated with my fate. Undecideds were not only fickle, you could never tell why the hell they did what they did. So, as the alligator's tail of the recount thrashed back and forth from the Florida panhandle to the Keys, holding the nation hostage, I learned to live with my life's uncertainties.

With November storms ranting and raving along the Oregon coast, the Florida sun seemed a speck of dust light-years away, and my dreams remained free of the recount. No cell phones ran out of juice, no out-of-season tornadoes left me stranded, no nubile Republican posing as a journalist lured me to her room, and no word came from Vice President Gore that I had cost him his victory by conducting wildcat recounts in the wrong counties. No, my anxiety came from the approach of a new decade, a new century, a new millennium, for God's sake, and also from the feeling I'd had during the phone call from Florida that someone was missing.

My friend Michael J. "Mick" Whelan, senator from Oregon, was missing. But as I lay in bed, reluctant to face another day, the fog in my mind burned off and I imagined him standing there. Without speaking, his intense black-Irish face sized up my condition, a look of concern in his eyes before he melted away. Mick Whelan was the brother I had wanted ...

But even before I met him, politics was the salt in my blood, words the bounce in my shoe. When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I introduced Jack Kennedy at a Young Democrats' meeting during the 1960 New Hampshire primary. I was also writing stories for the literary magazine and, that same weekend, bribed a desk clerk at the Hanover Inn to let me show my date the attic room F. Scott Fitzgerald had stayed in during the 1939 Winter Carnival. Still, most of the time at Dartmouth I was a long way from home.

My father inherited the liquor store on Shelter Island from his father, Giuseppe Bientempo, an immigrant from the corner of the Alps where France, Italy, and Switzerland converge within sight of Mount Blanc. When I was a boy, my grandfather and his cronies sat under the grape arbor telling stories about an Irishman who made furtive trips to the island during Prohibition. They swore that the man, dressed in banker's pinstripes and wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, a trench coat over his arm, looked like a Sinn Fein gunman, or maybe one of the Fenians who had connived with Garibaldi during the Risorgimento. The fact and fiction of the Mafia in America galled my grandfather. Maybe that's why he kept quiet about the Irishman's shady liquor concessions up and down Long Island. Only after the stranger's son became a senator from Massachusetts did I realize that old Giuseppe and his friends had been talking about Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. My grandfather never made any comparisons between old Joe's son Jack and me, but from his pats on the head I got the message. Others of Italian descent could go the way of Valentino, Fermi, or Caruso, but if he had his way, his grandson would be an American caesar, duly elected, of course.

So in the early sixties, I left Shelter Island for Washington.

By then, Senator Kennedy was President Kennedy, and things were heating up with civil rights. After graduating from Georgetown Law in the summer of 1963, I was hired by Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department. People forget how scared the Kennedys were of the civil rights movement. Unable to talk Negro leaders out of a massive march on Washington, the attorney general took extraordinary measures to prepare for violence in the nation's capital by thousands of unruly Negroes. One of his deputies assigned me to snoop around the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and report any plans that might be afoot to embarrass the administration. But I quickly discovered that these SNCC characters had heard too many screams, smelled the ashes of too many smoldering black churches, been beaten too many times, hustled off to too many county jails, and broken bread with too many local black citizens liable to disappear in the middle of the night to let some white boy turn them around, even if he was working for the attorney general of the United States.

Excluded from the SNCC tent the night before the March on Washington, I cooled my heels on the Mall, and met Mick Whelan. Like me, Whelan was an errand boy; unlike me, he knew it.

It turned out that while I was a senior at Hanover, we had unknowingly crossed paths when Whelan, a year behind me at Holy Cross, had won the trophy as best affirmative speaker at the annual tournament hosted by Dartmouth's Daniel Webster Society. Irish to the bone, Whelan's face was a slip of the chisel away from the classic black-Irish face: brown curly hair, a touch nappy at the edges, milk-white complexion with an easy blush, flashing blue eyes, nostrils that flared from a wide nose, which some of the hip brothers later kidded him about, and a decisive chin sometimes tempered by the faintest of dimples. His tenor voice stayed with you, too: it was full of lilt, though sometimes when he told stories he had heard at his fugitive Irish grandfather's knee, his voice was haunted by desolation.

I was no slouch at stories either. But because I'd seen my grandfather roll his eyes at my mother's great-aunt's tale of an exiled ancestor's trek over the Pyrenees in the sixteenth century, I sometimes slipped into a defensive key. Wearing a seersucker suit and straw boater at Georgetown parties, I wasn't above answering questions about where I was from with a telltale bravado: "Out on eastern Long Island, across from the Hamptons." I wasn't ashamed of my Italian background or my Shelter Island address, understand; I simply wanted to belong to the big world. In any case, the night before the March on Washington, I was disarmed to hear Mick Whelan say that many a summer afternoon he had looked east at the long blur of land across the sound from Connecticut yet never set foot on Long Island.

"The closest I got was a summer job driving an excursion boat through the Thimbles," he said with a grin.

I laughed, because I knew about those tiny thumbs of land off the Connecticut shore. In the fifties, more than once during hurricane season I'd heard on the radio that the Thimbles had been evacuated, and now I imagined my earnest new friend helping refugees out of rowboats on the suddenly turbulent Connecticut side of Long Island Sound.

Whelan's curiosity prompted me to tell him that my Long Island was not mansions in the Hamptons, or gridlocked traffic crawling out of New York City, or tract homes as far as the eye could see, or concrete county roads that crisscrossed family truck farms, or strip malls at the end of sprawling, desolate townships. To reach my Long Island, you ferried across from New London to Orient Point, or drove out the north fork, past fields of onions, corn, beets, and potatoes. From Greenport, the last real town on the fork, you could see Shelter Island, but you reached it only by ferry. But by the time I finished explaining all this, Mick was scanning the blue-black clouds tumbling in west of the Mall.

"It's funny. During JFK's blockade last October, I wasn't sure anything would be left." Whelan swept his arm toward the Lincoln Memorial, where no one knew how many people would march the next day. "When I heard Russian ships were hours away, I drove up Route 1 to check on a rumor that a sub had surfaced just beyond the breakwater."

Down the sandy path adjacent to the Smithsonian, two volunteers, one black, one white, both dressed smartly in slacks and turtlenecks, emerged from the organizers' tent with stacks of leaflets that announced the next day's points of assembly.

"That's when you knew it was real."

"No," Whelan said, slowing down to pull me into his story. "After I walked through some marshes and heard a rooster crowing at noon, I climbed a hill and noticed that the sky was deep blue and the leaves were on fire. Everything was alive, and the world seemed to be waiting. When I looked east, Long Island was closer than I'd ever seen it." He shook his head. "I'd never gone there, and now it might turn into a cinder."

He accepted a bundle of leaflets from the young black woman with processed hair, interrupting his story to thank her.

"I know," I said, remembering that in my urge to be on Shelter Island if the world was going to end, I'd gone up to the top of the belvedere alongside an unfinished beach house and suddenly felt as carefree as I had as a boy. Now, on the Mall, I looked down at the leaflet's blurry Associated Press photograph of a girl cowering from the German shepherd tugging at her dress and turned back to Mick.

"I could see Connecticut across Long Island Sound," I told him. "I cocked my ears, listening for the whoosh of missiles, before it hit me that I had no idea what a nuclear exchange would sound like."

I fished a cigarette out of my shirt pocket, and Mick gave me a light from his Camel.

"Funny." He took a long drag. "You looked my way, I looked yours, but nothing happened, and here we are trying to turn the country around."

Despite our memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mick Whelan and I were too young to know we were mortal and that our escape from doomsday was an accident. The world was stirring our blood. Moved by black students who had had ketchup poured on their heads at southern lunch counters, and sickened by Bull Connor's police dogs and cattle prods in Birmingham, we were going to change American society. Yet, that night before the march, outside tents on the Mall, within range of thunder and impending drops of rain, we knew we were summer soldiers, stationed well behind the front lines of the struggle for freedom.

The next morning, Mick Whelan stood on top of the ledge above the reflecting pool to get a better view of the marchers striding down the Mall from the Capitol by the tens of thousands. In the sun, the water sparkled white and blue. Several boisterous black boys in Dodgers and Giants baseball caps dodged past Whelan, single file, playing tag with slick moves. Touched on the arm, one slight boy, pink blotches disfiguring his dark-brown skin, stood still, one leg in the air. Like his companions, he knew that although he had faced down fire hoses in Birmingham, a tumble into the reflecting pool meant the end of the game and a stern reproof from any relative or marshal who heard the splash.

Before long, Mick jumped down and knifed through the crowd like a broken field runner, feinting and darting past every opposing player between him and the goal line. Turning abruptly to avoid an old woman with a cane, he bumped into a nut-brown man who kept to his rhythm. Shorter than Mick, the man was dressed in his Sunday best and wore his hair cropped neat and natural in one of the original Afros. I was too far away to hear what was said, but I saw a flush of red deepen the color of my new friend's face.

Presently, a little brown boy wearing a shiny blue suit over a white shirt and red bow tie and holding a homemade sign with the words Ship of Zion crayoned in green, black, and red, appeared beside the man with the Afro. The man bent down, buttoned the top button of the boy's suit jacket, and straightened his sign on its rough wooden stick. Then, hand in hand, Odetta's deep, dark voice resounding around them, father and son stepped off down the Mall toward President Lincoln's far-reaching gaze.

"I'm on my way to the freedom land.... I'm on my way, and I won't turn back."

From a distance, I sensed a sea change come over Mick like the turn of the tide on a cloudless summer day on the Sound. Like me, he wore a Black and White Together button the size of a silver dollar pinned to his shirt. Now, his face suddenly as grave as Lincoln's, he picked his way forward through the crowd.


Excerpted from A Man You Could Love by JOHN CALLAHAN Copyright © 2007 by John Callahan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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