Mark Salter, a speech- and ghost-writer for the 2008 Republican candidate John McCain, has not denied authorship of O: a Presidential Novel. If I were him, I would. Because this "speculative fiction" about an Obama-like Democrat's re-election campaign in 2012 is a plodding dog of a yarn, worth attention as a textbook case of how to drag the messy thrills of political life down into a swamp of plot and leave them there to drown.
Our protagonist, as in Primary Colors (Joe Klein's much livelier, and prudently retrospective, fiction about the 1992 Clinton run), is an ambitious Democratic aide. Cal Regan, up-and-coming lawyer and Washington insider, gets a surprise nod to steer the campaign to re-elect the first African American president.
We view the White House incumbent from afar, through the murky glass of cliché, as a basketball-loving blend of "shrewdness and sincerity, elegance and informality, watchfulness and daring". Cal's chance, which interrupts a fledgling affair with snappy online journalist Maddy Cohan, arrives when his glum predecessor spends too much time with a teenage hooker. Typically, O drops both old hack and young floozy after this dangerously racy episode in order to slip back into its comfort zone of policy-wonk exegesis. Cal "had been drawn to politics by its improvisational nature". Yet, as it trudges from milestone to milestone over two years of pre-election rituals, O feels about as improvised as a funeral cortège.
Although his backroom girls and boys from time to time get hammered and get laid, O's author suffers from terminal respectability. Let's leave aside the graveyard prose of the narration: "When they agreed their enquiries had yielded all that could be ascertained at present, they decided on a course of action..." O's creator knows far too much for a novelist's own good about the Washington media business and, boy, does he need to share it with us. Buried within O you may detect a smart if snooty essay on the accelerator effect of rapidly-updated digital platforms on the rhythm of politics. Online scuttlebutt morphs into network-news rumour, then into opinion shift and political fact. So "the musing of a handful of gossipy Washington pedants becomes the informed opinions of millions of voters".
This is new, and true. It deserves a better novelist to make it live. What a shame that Aaron Sorkin, scintillating screenwriter of The West Wing and The Social Network, never had a go at O. Alas, the author we do have ties one hand behind his ramrod-stiff back.
First, he creates transparent surrogates for real-life figures – so blogger queen Arianna Huffington becomes "Bianca Stefani" with her "Mediterranean drawl". Then, hobbled by his own deference, he declines to lay a finger on them. As satire, O floats like a buffalo, and stings like a flea. Republican candidate Tom Morrison, O's rival and a central-casting war hero, starts off as "square-jawed, straight-backed, irresistibly perfect". He grows less credible from there.
The author utterly dodges the Tea Party wave of grassroots anger at central government that – however loopy – has put the fear of a redneck God into Washington. O simply assumes that, in 2012, the populist tide has long ebbed and that we're back to stuffed-shirt insider-dealing as normal. Most unlikely. A Sarah Palin figure ("Calamity Jane of the North") briefly turns up on page 210, but only so we know that she and her screechy ilk don't matter to the DC grown-ups any more. What an abysmal cop-out.
Given this airless Beltway introspection, it hardly comes as a shock that the dénouement of O pivots not on some great matter of policy or even personality but a mind-numbingly tedious micro-scandal about a crook hired by a Morrison-owned firm. By this time, the reader may have dropped off, or turned on the news.
One thing we can predict with confidence about the 2012 campaign: each day will prove a hundred times more exciting than the doughy lump of O. Before it kicks off, find time to read Hunter S Thompson's deranged masterpiece about the 1972 election – Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail – to remind you of the head-spinning heights that American political literature can scale. When, that is, it is written by someone other than an uptight fixer with a style about as mobile as the statues on Mount Rushmore.