A Political Novel On Gun Rights That Fails to Show Both Sides:

A Review of Richard North Patterson's Balance of Power


Friday, Oct. 03, 2003
Richard North Patterson, Balance of Power(Ballantine Books 2003)

Richard North Patterson's new book, Balance of Power, is first and foremost a polemic. It is also a novel - and, in many ways, a skillfully told story - but more than anything else, this book is an advocacy piece on the subject of guns.

Patterson is a lawyer, and his earliest books tended to focus on the courtroom. More recently, however, his books - all of which have been extremely successful - have tended to focus much more on overtly political issues. Balance of Power is no exception.

Balance of Power exhibits many of the narrative skills that have made Patterson such a popular novelist. Unfortunately, however, his portrayal of the gun issue is so one-sided that the author loses much of his power as an advocate, and ends up largely preaching only to the already-converted.

Patterson's Recent Turn Towards the Political: The Kerry Kilcannon Novels

Three of Patterson's last four books have centered around Kerry Kilcannon - the brother of a former Presidential frontrunner who was shot while campaigning.

First, in No Safe Place, Kilcannon is introduced as a Senator and dark horse candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. His opponent is the sitting Vice President. In the course of the race, Kilcannon is shot by a deranged anti-abortion fanatic.

No Safe Place had a definite perspective on the U.S. political scene. For instance, it was hard not to see Kilcannon's opponent, Vice President Mason, as a proxy for Al Gore. But it didn't concentrate on any particular political issue.

Next, in Protect and Defend, Kilcannon, having been recently elected President, is forced to nominate a new Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He responds by nominating Caroline Masters to be the first female Chief Justice. At the time of her nomination, Masters is deciding a difficult partial birth abortion case in her capacity as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The book follows her nomination, as well as the abortion case, for they are inextricably intertwined.

Protect and Defend obviously took a pro-choice stance. Yet, at the same time, it did a good job of showing the many complex moral issues surrounding abortion, especially partial birth procedures.

Patterson portrayed some of the pro-life activists in especially unflattering lights. But many also came across as people of deep religious belief, who honestly believed that a fetus is a living human, and that an abortion is therefore the taking of human life. At the same time, some of the pro-choice activists were portrayed as scheming or overly zealous people who were unable to see that free access to abortion might not always be a good thing.

The book was stronger because it showed the difficulty of the abortion issue. It also made clear that there are honest people on both sides of the issue who sincerely believe they are acting in the nation's best interest.

A Compelling Story About A Bill and A Lawsuit

That brings us to Balance of Power itself. It starts with the President, again Kerry Kilcannon, planning for his wedding to Lara Costello, a TV reporter he met while she covered the Senate. At the same time, Costello's sister Joan is struggling with an abusive husband.

With help from Kilcannon, a former domestic violence prosecutor, Joan's husband, John, is arrested and a restraining order is issued that directs him to stay away from Joan and her six-year old daughter.

In the midst of this, Costello's family travels to Washington to attend the wedding. But while they are in transit, John buys a gun. When he meets up with Joan and other members of her family on their return home, the results are predictably horrific.

This sends President Kilcannon on a two-pronged anti-gun campaign: first, he sponsors a series of bills to place more governmental control on firearms sales, and second, he supports a lawsuit against the company that manufactured John's gun, brought by Lara's other sister, Mary. In this respect, Balance of Power is similar to Protect and Defend: it shows the legislative progression of the gun bill as it simultaneously tracks Mary's suit against the gun company.

Many of the characters in Balance of Power are easily recognizable: Frank Fasano, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, bears an unmistakable resemblance to Rick Santorum; Macdonald Gage, a conservative Kentuckian, can only be seen as Trent Lott. And Chad Palmer, a maverick Republican Senator from Ohio who was once captured by terrorists, is clearly John McCain.

Where the Novel Falters: Presenting Only One Side of a Complex Issue

From a narrative standpoint, Patterson does a good job of telling the various stories involved in this book, and Balance of Power often makes for compelling reading. The problem with the novel, however, is that unlike his portrayal of the abortion debate, Patterson's perspective on gun rights is completely one-sided.

No character in favor of gun ownership rights is shown as taking his or her position out of an honest belief that it is right. Instead, each does so because he or she has been terrified by the Sons of the Second Amendment (Patterson's version of the National Rifle Association), or have been promised something in exchange for their support. (For example, Palmer/McCain is promised a straight vote on his beloved campaign finance bill). In the end, the only gun control advocates who come off well are those who abandon their positions and side with the President.

Meanwhile, the proponents of greater gun control are as angelic as the opponents are satanic. Almost anyone will admit that no matter how much good plaintiffs' lawyers may do, they also engage in a fair amount of ethically questionable behavior. Yet in Balance of Power, the plaintiff's attorney who brings the gun suit almost completely escapes criticism, and his - and his colleagues' - significant financial interest in suing the gun manufacturers almost escapes mention. The message is clear, and grating: Those who are pro-gun control are on the side of the angels.

Finally, it also doesn't help that Patterson gets facts wrong in attempting to portray the "average American" as supporting his cause. For example, Senator Palmer/McCain states that "the [gun control] states Kilcannon won are gaining population, while too many of our [pro-gun rights] states are losing population."

In fact, the most recent census information (which, concededly, was not available to Patterson at the time that he wrote this book) indicates the exact opposite. Since the previous census, the only "blue," pro-gun control states to gain population are Washington and Oregon. And the only "red," pro-gun rights state to lose population is Louisiana. In the meantime, "blue" pro-gun control states New York and California both suffered significant net population losses.

A Novelist's Pitfall: Falling Too Much In Love with the Hero

Much of this black-and-white approach seems to stem from the fact that Patterson has made a mistake endemic to authors who write a series of books involving one protagonist: he's become too attached to his leading man. Just as Tom Clancy fell in love with Jack Ryan, Patterson has fallen in love with Kerry Kilcannon, and it does damage to his book in numerous ways.

Kilcannon can do no wrong either strategically or morally: he is a better politician than anyone else in the book, and he's also a better person. One of the funnier aspects of the book is that Bill Clinton is quoted on the back, praising the story. Yet almost every aspect of Kilcannon is a direct rebuke of Clinton, morally and strategically.

Kilcannon is too good a person to fall into Clintonian "honey traps," and he's too focused on doing the right thing to be distracted politically, a charge frequently leveled at Clinton. Just like Jed Bartlet from the TV show The West Wing, and President Andrew Shepherd from the movie The American President, Kilcannon is the President that Democrats wish Clinton had been.

But Kilcannon's goodness hurts the book. From a moral perspective, it's irritating to be preached at for 600-plus pages. And from a suspense standpoint, there's just no believing that Kilcannon won't succeed in the end. Yes, there will be setbacks while the mortals struggle to appreciate his genius, but there's no real doubt about how things will turn out. This robs the book of most of its drama.

In addition, Patterson overstates his case, claiming that Kilcannon's gun control proposals would cause results that seem unlikely at best. For example, much is made of the high current numbers of gun deaths in the U.S., and Patterson at least implies, if not explicitly states, that the Kilcannon plan would have stopped these tragedies. That's simply not plausible, however.

Given the nature of the Kilcannon proposal, it's clear that he's not outlawing all gun ownership, merely instituting reforms in the purchase of firearms. As a result, anyone who already possesses a firearm, anyone who could pass a background check, and anyone willing or able to buy firearms illegally (a category which would surely include most violent criminals) would still have ready access to guns even under Kilcannon's system. Thus, while Kilcannon's plan might lessen firearm deaths, it seems unlikely that the effect would be sweeping in nature, let alone the radical change Patterson predicts.

Many of Patterson's earlier books were extremely suspenseful. But Balance of Power is less so. In his pursuit of the gun industry, Patterson sacrifices telling a story that is as strong as it could be, in an attempt to make a political point as frequently (thought not as convincingly) as possible.

The irony is that the characters in Balance of Power bear so little relationship to reality, that their stories do little to serve Patterson's crusade against the gun industry. Patterson would have made his pro-gun control point far more successfully had he told a better story along the way: Morally ambiguous characters not only make for better drama, but also make for more convincing and memorable demonstrations of political points.

Sam Williamson is an attorney practicing in New York. He frequently reviews legal thrillers and other works for this site.

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