- - Tuesday, June 11, 2019


By Scott Seward Smith

Liberty Island (paperback original), $12.99, 247 pages

Washington is not a town that lends itself to love stories. Scandals and divorces, yes. But romances? Forget about it, particularly in the case of driven young singles pursuing careers in politics, lobbying and public policy. There’s no shortage of lust in the nation’s capital, as even a cursory glance at the daily papers reveals; there just isn’t a whole lot of love out there. This is especially true of love affairs across party lines. In the over-the-top era of zealous Trumpophiles and paranoid Trumpophobes, left is left, right is right, and ne’er the twain shall meet. But it didn’t all start in 2016 with The Donald and Hillary Dearest.

Witness “Red Line Blues,” Scott Seward Smith’s clever and amusingly bittersweet novel of a doomed romance between Owen Cassell, an aspiring, thoroughly decent conservative foreign policy wonk with a taste for strong drink, and Audrey, a bright, kind, beautiful but soggily liberal young librarian-in-training. It is set in 2012, in the climactic weeks of the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney but it couldn’t be more timely today.

Thanks to the author’s familiarity with the capital scene, atmospherics are all deftly handled. The initiated will be impressed by the authentic evocation of landmarks, bars, clubs and think tanks. To cite but one instance, I laughed my way through his affectionate send-up of the stately, slightly creaky Metropolitan Club, both accurate and devastatingly funny all the way down to the description of the ancient, slow-motion lift. Geographic authenticity is matched by the plausibility — in some cases one might almost say recognizability — of the allegedly fictitious characters.

Consider, for example, this vignette describing the second-tier conservative foreign policy think tank where Owen works, and its head, a former Iron Curtain apparatchik turned American public intellectual. The style might best be described as Neo-Dickensian:

“Dean Cernic’s office was in a room formed by the turret of the old mansion bought by the institute’s benefactor, Chilton Stiles, former CIA agent who had made a post 9/11 fortune in security services. Dean Cernic motioned him in, indicating more with his chin than his hand one of the two leather armchairs set on the fraying Oriental rug fronting the chipped desk. The room still had the stale smell of the cigars that Dean Cernic had reportedly stopped smoking during the second Clinton administration. The dean, despite the heat — even with the old air conditioner droning and wheezing — wore his double-breasted naval blazer buttoned and his tie squeezed up against his too-tight, yet unstayed collar. A button on one of his suit sleeves, Owen noticed, was dangling from a dark, coiled thread, threatening to jump forever from his sleeve but perhaps lacking the courage. Owen tried not to look at it “

Without giving away too much plot, Mr. Smith manages to accomplish several literary feats at once. He paints an excellent likeness of pre-Trump Washington while telling a bittersweet love story that is charming and moving in its own right. And he illustrates how the illiberal intolerance of supposedly liberal political correctness can poison personal relationships. Owen is afraid to reveal his “closet” conservatism to Obama-worshipping Audrey with disastrous results, results made even more so by the machinations of Owen’s Lady Macbeth of a mother who considers all Republicans “fascists” at the same time that she looks down on the liberal Audrey as socially inferior.

There are moments reading “Red Line Blues” when the hero and heroine reminded me of two Evelyn Waugh characters: Owen as an older, wearier version of Paul Pennyfeather, the hapless hero of “Decline and Fall,” and Audrey as a deeper, more intelligent Aimee Thanatogenos, the beautiful, innocent apprentice mortician in “The Loved One.” Unlike Waugh, who reveled in inflicting pain on his most sympathetic characters, Mr. Smith treats his with an engaging affection and compassion. Two characters who died before the story’s action begins remain powerful ghostly presences: Owen’s father, a kindly, intelligent career diplomat who succumbed to alcoholism, and his maternal grandfather, a larger-than-life literary figure with hints of William Faulkner, Ezra Pound and — just barely — Gore Vidal about him.

It all makes for a rich, multi-tiered plot that is both touching and instructive. “Red Line Blues” — the title is a play on Washington’s central subway line — is one of those rare books that allows you to laugh at human folly at the same time that it kindles genuine sympathy for a hero and heroine trying their best to be good people in bad times.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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