“The Dirty Secret” is Brent Wolfingbarger’s novel about the dirty politicians, desperate business owners, angry billionaires, foreign triggermen, political aides, lawyers, and angry high-class housewives whose lives all coalesce around the last remaining battleground in a hotly contested presidential race: West Virginia. For all that, though, it’s still a pretty unconventional political thriller, which is a lot of the reason this book makes for such an interesting read. The conflict at the heart of the novel involves a close presidential race which devolves along similar lines as Bush v. Gore did in the Florida portion of the 2000 presidential election. The novel follows the presidential race as it descends into passionate vested interests, dirty party politics, and intense personal vendettas which all come to bare on the disputed results of presidential campaigning.
It might sound like just another depressing installment of the nightly news, and indeed there are elements which have painful real-world analogs. But the genius of the story has much more to do with the characters the author focuses on instead of the politics which are portrayed. I should spend a moment talking about the politics in the book, though, to give an accurate picture of what readers can expect.
The political stance of the book is actually admirably measured, shying away from actual issues in favor of fairly nuanced psychological motivations. Additionally, while there is ultimately a winner declared, neither party is portrayed in a particularly favorable light. Just about every political figure is dirty in one way or another. If one party is portrayed as more aggressive than the other, it’s only because one party gets away with something that the other doesn’t. Ultimately, the election in the book hangs on which party cheats better, and which party gets caught. My impression has always been that the conflicts of political thrillers have to revolve around issues most people can agree on…like avoiding nuclear war or defeating bio-terrorism, etc. But “The Dirty Secret” doesn’t follow the formula. Instead, “The Dirty Secret” portrays every political figure as equally corrupt in one direction or another, but it also relegates them to supporting roles in the real drama of all the regular people caught in the middle.
There’s the political advisor whose charmed career hasn’t ameliorated the wreckage of a lost relationship which fell apart fifteen years earlier in the midst of family tragedy.
There’s a businessman desperate to keep the company which his dead father built from going bankrupt while settling a lawsuit, and fighting with his beautiful but chronically disappointed and embittered society wife.
There’s the lawyer, recently appointed to a post as county prosecutor, trying to balance her new duties with cases already underway while having to confront conflicting feelings about her high school sweetheart, back in town on business.
There’s a very rich immigrant fighting against imminent extradition with his vast fortune and the help of some old-world friends, and there’s a one-eyed small town sheriff working to keep law enforcement funded and the citizens of his town safe.
Like a lot of political novels, “The Dirty Secret” is somewhat complex with a large cast of characters and widely varying motives to keep track of. But it isn’t Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, and the story is worth every bit of the mental gymnastics to takes to keep everything straight. The author wisely lets his characters drive the story against a background of political intrigue, and this gives the book a real emotional center. So when politicking and party back-biting begins to derail the lives of people outside the political arena, the reader sympathizes enough to feel that the real drama is what happens to those regular people. But even if the presidential race in the book is relegated to a position of less importance, the novel is never dull and keeps up a really well-paced plot.
It’s a really well-written book, with some of the snappiest dialogue I’ve read in a long time. Much of the writing is executed nicely, but the dialogue is the best part. Characters have great lines, and great moments without feeling contrived or unrealistically clever. Each character has their own voice that gives each of them a rare level of authenticity. More than that, Mr. Wolfingbarger manages to include some real texture to his characters, which adds a level of emotional drama to an already interesting story.
I’d like to say that there’s a demographic I can imagine that wouldn’t enjoy this book, because it makes me look discerning. And maybe, young adults wouldn’t find much of interest in “The Dirty Secret.” But otherwise, this book has a lot to offer…fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...actually no fencing or miracles, but otherwise that’s pretty close. There’s even quite a bit of humor throughout the story, and there were particular moments that made me laugh out loud.
I’m going to say 5 Stars out of 5: Maybe teen audiences won’t get some of the political subtext (though I’ve known some pretty sharp teenagers) but I really can’t think of much to criticize about this book. Great characters, great plot, great focus and an interesting treatment of politics, some really enjoyable dialogue and well-executed action. It’s a complex book without being overly complicated, and people looking for a read with some interesting ideas, some interesting characters, or a nice fast-paced plot that doesn’t feel like something you’ve already read a handful of times, this is a great choice. Mr. Wolfingbarger seems way more interested in showing the dimensions of political life instead of touting or defending any one perspective, and if there’s a cynicism to the portrayal of the American political system, it’s at least a cynicism that most people will probably relate to.