EMPIRE OF LIES
By Andrew Klavan
Harcourt, $25, 383 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.
Looking back on the late 1940s, when he weighed the cost of testifying before a congressional committee about Alger Hiss’ activities as a Communist spy, Whittaker Chambers recalled, “At issue … was the question of whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it.”
In Andrew Klavan’s novel “Empire of Lies,” the central character and narrator, Jason Harrow, finds himself in a situation similar to that of Chambers, being the only person to perceive what others would prefer not to see, being in a position to prevent a “Son of 9/11”-type terrorist plot. At one point in the novel, while standing before the New York City morgue and watching coffins being delivered to accommodate the homeless dead, Harrow recalls, “And I realized-it struck me like a blow: There was only me now… . It was ridiculous. It was insane. But it was true-there was only me who knew, only me who saw, only me who could stop it, who might be able to hurl myself into the machinery and bring it to a halt before it churned out more coffins, more and more.”
Readers familiar with Mr. Klavan’s trilogy of fast-paced thrillers — “Damnation Street,” “Shotgun Alley,” and “Dynamite Road” — will embrace the author’s latest novel, perhaps with greater interest. For unlike the trilogy, which features a masterfully methodical gumshoe and his two-fisted partner, “Empire of Lies” tells of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation-like Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill in the film “North by Northwest.”
Harrow is an undistinguished man on the cusp of middle age, living quietly in the Midwest, married with a wife and children. A churchgoing Christian, he is attempting to live a normal life and forget his fairly sordid youth in New York. But some ghosts do not rest easy; and the past — that myriad of choices for ill or for good — can shape unexpected consequences and arise unbidden.
So it is that on an ordinary day at home with the family, Harrow receives an out-of-the-blue telephone call from a troubled woman in New York: Lauren, with whom he shared his earthy past. Her motives for calling are unclear and suspect. All Harrow can discern is that she believes he is the only person who can help her out of a dire situation, and that she needs to meet him in New York for further information.
In an act of spur-of-the-moment deception, Harrow chooses not to tell his trusting wife about this call, and he travels to New York, ostensibly to settle some business related to his late mother’s house. There, Lauren asks him to rescue her teenage daughter from the Ecstasy-fueled lifestyle that is threatening to destroy her. Almost immediately, violent, seemingly senseless events erupt into Harrow’s life in a manner that bears thematic comparison to William Hoffman’s novel “The Land That Drank the Rain” (1982). Like the troubled protagonist in Hoffman’s novel, Harrow finds himself caught in a lonely downward spiral into spiritually tormenting circumstances and must face questions that recurrently arise: Where is God’s love amid this? Why is He silent?
Beyond that, Mr. Klavan recurrently asks, why do those who hold positions of influence and power in our country choose to abet those who would destroy all that remains of Western culture, denigrating the nation that protects and enriches them, all while mouthing the inane, politically correct slogans in which we float indifferently? As Harrow recurrently confronts these questions, it becomes clear that by the term “empire of lies,” Mr. Klavan means the present world of public discourse in the United States. Here, people have forgotten the truth that cultures and civilizations are defended ultimately by force, not by good intentions, comforting catch-phrases, and honeyed words. It is a truth articulated in words attributed to George Orwell and quoted by Harrow: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Harrow finds Lauren’s daughter and discovers that she is the witness to a murder and unwittingly complicit in a plot to destroy hundreds of people. If the moment of epiphany in which Harrow perceives the truth of what is afoot seems something of a stretch to the reader, it is a revelation that must be taken on faith, even as Harrow himself can hardly believe the horrible truth he discerns.
The small terrorist band behind this plot seeks to commit their act of mass-murder for the glory of their god, with the idea of striking a blow at one of America’s greatest strengths: Its world of imagination. Why such a target? As the conservative thinker Russell Kirk once explained, “All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendancy over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.” And that new “set of principles” might well be the submit-or-die dictates of some ruthless sect-the very people Harrow must confront and thwart.
As Harrow strives to protect Lauren’s daughter and decides upon a dangerous course of action to thwart the terror plot, he encounters a number of lively characters who closely resemble certain real-life figures, including an actor best known for his starring role in a long-ago sci-fi television series who wears a preposterous hairpiece and speaks in lurching intonations, as well as a braying loudmouth on CNN who has a voice like a traffic jam. And while he is truly “harrowed” by all he endures, in the end Jason Harrow perceives a glimmering of transcendent hope, deftly presented by the author.
“Empire of Lies” is a can’t-put-it-down thriller for the thinking person. In it, Mr. Klavan embraces (but does not quote) another quote attributed to George Orwell: “In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House) and has completed a novel.