The Race, by Richard North Patterson

A liberal Republican on his way to the White House? It's fiction, of course
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The Independent Culture

No doubt a certain calculation could be attributed to Richard North Patterson when he began a novel on the race for the American presidency, timed to arrive in the bookstores just as things were beginning to hot up. But in his wildest dreams, he could not have hoped for the ascendancy, in the Republican camp, of Senator John McCain.

Although Corey Grace in The Race is a synthesis of several Washington figures, he is very much a younger (and more handsome) McCain. With this confluence of novel and ballot box, American tills will ring.

Corey Grace is an attractive, charismatic senator from Ohio, a star of the Republican party. The auguries for him in the presidential primary battle are good, not least because he is too intelligent to see all issues through a veneer of unbending Christian morality. But what Scott Fitzgerald described as the necessity of seeing both sides of an argument lands him in hot water, particularly when he is set against the Christian right.

North Patterson ensures that we are on Corey's side from the start, whatever our political allegiances. As his career steams ahead, the road to the White House seems assured – until he begins a relationship with a striking African-American film actress, who meets him to discuss stem-cell research.

When asked by writers in London why they never ran into Americans who voted for George Bush, the US novelist Dan Fesperman replied: "It's because you meet the Americans who have a passport." Clearly, North Patterson is an American who travels, and it's an audacious touch to make his Republican protagonist so liberal in his views (not the characteristics of real-life Republicans such as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee). If any of the real Republican candidates boasted a back story as vivid as that of Corey, we might summon up a little more interest in what seems (on this side of the pond) a contest between some deeply unappealing individuals.

So is The Race a picture of the destructiveness of American politics, like Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men? It's hardly likely that North Patterson had such aspirations: the seductive blend of sexuality and violence here locates the book firmly in the populist, crowd-pleasing camp. North Patterson's is the art of the pacy, incident-packed novel delivered in economical chapters. But a political saga as ambitious as this needs a writer of more subtlety and nuance.

Macmillan, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897