- - Wednesday, August 19, 2015


By Webb Hubbell

Beaufort Books, $24.95, 344 pages

Set in the heart of the homeland, in Little Rock, Ark., to be exact, “Ginger Snaps” is a Washington novel. It is peopled by bureaucrats, lawyers and investigators; driven by heroism, calumny and greed; redolent with ambition, nobility and lies. It resonates issues torn from today’s headlines, and en fin, preaches a classic lesson: power corrupts. Further, there’s hardly a dull page in it — a yarn to read in one sitting, as I might have done if I had taken a milk train from New York instead of the Acela, which pulled into Union Station an hour too soon.

As readers with long memories may recall, the author, aka Webster Hubbell, was a Washington insider in the Clinton years. Full disclosure: I met him once, just after he stepped down as a top dog in the Justice Department and headed for a short term in a lesser federal establishment. We were introduced at DeCarlo’s, which this novel’s legal-eagle-hero calls “my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant … . The Bolognese here is the best in the city.” (The last time I saw this Spring Valley cucina praised in hardcover was in another Washington novel that I reviewed in these pages, one by Jim Lehrer.)

A book titled “Ginger Snaps” must have abundant food, including magic cookies, so Mr. Hubbell also tosses out kudos for Johnnie’s Half Shell on Capitol Hill and Bethesda’s Lebanese Taverna. More important: There is lots of law per se in the fiction written by a man who served as U.S. associate attorney general, chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, and head of a major law firm. There are also doses of pharmacology, drug dealing, addiction, sex trafficking and plain old-fashioned government chicanery.

It begins with a drug bust in which DEA agents invade a college classroom, terrorize the students, and throw the professor to the floor. The violence gets more graphic later, yet the ugliest surprises involve the abuse of law by federal officers, and Mr. Hubbell wreaks honest havoc here. In particular, he proves the wrongheadedness of the Defense Authorization Act of 2012 and its sequels in the epidemic of official hysteria that followed Sept. 11, 2001. Jack declares “the mere mention of ‘terrorism’ or ‘national security’ allows the Feds to throw the Fourth Amendment to the wind.”

Mr. Hubbell’s plot is as serpentine as a blue highway through the Ozarks, while it visits abuses committed under the camouflage claims of national security. Witness: “U.S. Attorney Wilbur ‘Dub’ Blanchard grinned like a kid in a candy store . ‘Professor Stewart is a threat to our nation’s security. He doesn’t deserve to be treated gently. We’re sending a message to would-be terrorists.’ ” Spoiler alert: the good professor ain’t the villain; that would be Dub Blanchard.

Professor Stewart, a chemist bent on finding a cure for cancer, has crossed swords with Big Pharma, which is in bed with federal regulators, who are pawns of politicians, and most of them are venal as loan sharks in Mr. Hubbell’s book. The professor is declared a terrorist so that he can be held incommunicado and tossed into the labyrinth of the federal prison system without a bag of breadcrumbs to mark the trail back. Dub Blanchard will seize his personal property, all of it: his notebooks, his pickup truck, his home. Says Jack Patterson, “I could never get over the fact that even if they never filed a single charge, the government could still bring a civil forfeiture proceeding . It reminded me of a Kafka story except it wasn’t fiction; in America it happens every day.”

While occasionally letting loose a lazy metaphor — “Clovis looked as nervous as a hooker in church” — Mr. Hubbell writes of these outrages as prophetically as Cassandra. And let us remember, Cassandra was right. In passing, he describes a rotten command structure in our longest war, the war on drugs, given that the “Drug Czar” is a political creature who operates outside the ethical canons that bind, say, the attorney general.

Writing about what he knows, perhaps too intimately, he zeroes in on the penal system. “The Bureau [of Prisons] has adopted the Federal Express approach to inmate transfer. Prisoners are handled like chain-wrapped packages.” The Bureau of Prisons won’t even acknowledge who is in its Oklahoma City Transfer Facility, where an errant accountant may be locked in a cell with a sexual psychopath. When Jack gets jailed, he endures a “strip search more intrusive than I thought possible or legal.” In a book that describes some cruelties too gross to quote here, he asks, “What would it be like to spend years behind those bars? … What would it do to your soul?”

Still, as befits a novel of our fair city, this native Arkansan concludes, “Washington is a beautiful city if you can ignore the traffic and don’t fall prey to the intense backstabbing that’s part of its culture.” Amen to that.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc. in Bethesda, writes about Americana and culture.

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