- - Thursday, December 3, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE COPPERHEAD CLUB

By William Neikirk

William Neikirk, $24.99, 410 pages

From corruption in the corridors of power to illegal drugs in Hopefully, Kentucky, this book gallops along from scandal to scandal.

William Neikirk, a former veteran political correspondent in Washington, knows his characters, from a rather sleazy president to the resident cadre of political socialites who populate the nation’s capital. What might be termed the star of the show is Stella, the wife of a lobbyist who spends her days in salons where a pedicure costs $200 and socializing with those who have enough political influence to be useful to her husband. Who is missing. The shadow of influence fades with the disappearance of Bob whose absence on a trade deal in New York becomes a permanent disappearance and the kind of scandal that is relished on the social scene.

It is certainly the end of a glamorous way of life for Stella who finds herself being interrogated by the FBI and finding out those who are no longer her friends in social circles that once included White House parties. The plot, which is shallow when it focuses on the tawdriness of Washington, gains considerably in strength as Stella boards buses to take her to the hollows of Kentucky in her search for her missing husband. There is a quality of determination that emerges in her as she realizes that she now has only herself to rely on as she seeks not only to discover where Bob has gone but how she can seek revenge. She is as perplexed as angry with her husband, and the anger springs from the realization that life as she knew it and enjoyed it is over. Even her best friend turns out to have been cheating on Stella with Bob.

The author also develops more interesting characters as he moves his story into the rural towns of Kentucky where Stella finds tough and plucky people and they discover she is not as air headed as she appears. And Stella discovers immediately that she isn’t in Washington any more. Her Kentucky friends call her by her newly acquired name “Ellie” and aren’t interested in her social history. They find it more intriguing that she allegedly has come to Hopefully to paint pictures of the hills and visit the Copperhead Club, which is the kind of place her erstwhile husband might have hung out in. It also has an attractive male vocalist who is a lot less attractive when he beats her up after trying to rape her. “Ellie” has come a long way from the gossipy fun and games in the more elite D.C. suburbs. That is driven home when she finds herself running from a wandering bear outside her motel in Hopefully.

She is lucky to find a friend in BJ Matson, otherwise known as Doofus, who provides protection and common sense and also is the source of a photograph of a man with a beer that Ellie recognizes as her husband’s favorite brand, appropriately called Tutankhamun. She is now pounding down Bob’s trail despite BJ’s warnings that this is far more dangerous than she can imagine. BJ has suspected for a long time that local authorities might be taking bribes from drug rings that had grown in eastern Kentucky in recent years. He knew the “pill mills” had free rein in that part of the country and he also wants to keep his new friend alive. When the FBI show up as part of the investigation, the erstwhile Stella begins to learn the truth about her former life and her missing husband. She is warned by an agent that a new and deadly synthetic drug called sweetlick was being marketed in America by a cartel called Robinhood, and that Hopefully is a hub for its operations.

The book’s dialogue is weak and stilted at times as when “Doofus” thanks the talkative agent “for keeping us safe” which brings into question the intelligence of the kindly Kentuckian. He also “gets in his mother’s face” which is out of character. Unfortunately Stella/Ellie is worse, between her short fuse and her naivete. Whatever she learned in Washington cocktail gatherings, it was not sophistication. In the end, the answers lie with the missing Bob as might be expected and he proves to have a few scruples of his own. Without disclosing the denouement, it can be said that the good guys win. Stella doesn’t exactly get a happy ending nor does she deserve it. She remains a shallow and shrill character even when she has to admit that Bob wasn’t as bad as she thought he was. In fact, they had a lot in common and she never realized it.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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