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Michael Lind is a talented polemicist -- the pundit who coined the "overclass" label -- who has worked on both sides of the political fence. Lind toiled for George Bush's State Department and William F. Buckley before converting (very publicly) to liberalism in his 1995 book The Next American Nation. Now a staff writer at The New Yorker, the prolific Lind not only has another political tract, Up From Conservatism (Free Press), in the stores, but he's issued a first novel he hopes will become the Primary Colors of the fall election season.
This isn't going to happen. As fiction, Powertown is surprisingly soft-boiled and muddled. An overachiever, Lind attempts to pack far too many disconnected characters (gay lobbyists, illegal immigrants, gangbangers, sexy journalists, Vietnam vets) and subplots into far too compact a novel. None of these strivers are particularly memorable; none of the multiple plots grabs you by the lapels. Powertown feels like fiction written by a committee.
More specifically, Powertown feels like fiction written by a man with a tiny partisan Devil planted on each shoulder. When the neo-conservative Devil is whispering in Lind's ear, Powertown actually has some wicked, insiderish charm. Lind writes tartly about the couples who "will wear power clothes and own power cars. They will have power children and send them to power schools. They will have a power dog and a power cat." He also has a nice ear for Washington neologisms. Thus, a white homeboy is a "wigger"; former government officials spotted at parties are "wuzzenees" (as in, "Wuzzenee somebody in the Nixon administration?"); and the young recipients of patronage jobs are "heir heads." Further, Lind gets off some nice barbs in the direction of National Public Radio, and at a Ted Kennedy-like senator whose "breath smelled like a ransacked honky tonk."
It's when Lind turns away from the inside-the-beltway power games -- that is, when the neo-liberal Devil has his ear -- that Powertown becomes almost unbearably earnest and sentimental. Lind has filled his book with noble but hoary stereotypes, characters he has absolutely no feel for: the sweet young black kid who joins a gang; the illegal immigrant mother who is threatened with deportation unless she performs oral sex for her landlord; the honest black cop who quits the crooked police force. Lind's punditry may have profited from his political conversion; thus far, his fiction hasn't. -- Salon