It's tough to be objective when it comes to Glenn Beck. His venomous brand of faux-populist shtick makes it very hard to not have a strong opinion of him -- love him or hate him, as the idiom would have it. When I read Beck's forthcoming novel, The Overton Window, I came to it fully aware that my opinion of the book would necessarily be influenced by my existing attitude towards Beck (which isn't exactly charitable), so I tried to keep things as simple as possible by focusing on one question: What is The Overton Window?
More than anything else, The Overton Window is Glenn Beck's very own fantasy land. He's dreamed up a world in which all the conspiracies and apocalyptic rhetoric that clutter his chalkboards every night are proven to be entirely true. The constant refrain of victimization coming from the Tea Partiers is also revealed to be justified, as Beck constructs an elaborate network of government agencies, saboteurs, and agents provocateurs who exist solely to demonize the fictionalized versions of these unflinchingly patriotic Americans.
The Overton Window is also very creepy. The characters speak in stilted monologues that are stuffed with anti-progressive, limited-government talking points. They quote the Founding Fathers at length and from memory and breezily name-drop obscure political theorists as if they were talking about star athletes. The protagonist, Noah Gardner, and the love interest, Molly Ross, cap off their first kiss with a discussion of the flat tax.
What The Overton Window is not, despite the jacket's boasting, is “a thriller.” The action is infrequent and confusing. Early on there's a police raid on a tea party-like gathering that involves a gun shot (that hits no one) and a beating. After that, the book goes 170 pages without any action at all. Instead we're treated to a break-in in which no one is in danger of being caught, a high-speed chase that almost happens, and a plot to use Star Wars quotes to bypass airport security. The action finally resumes with a gun fight in which a YouTube star-turned-FBI agent is revealed as a quick-draw specialist. A nuke goes off (killing three people), and the novel ends -- not with a tense denouement, but with a bewildering torture scene presided over by the ostensible villain, Noah's father, who recites the last of his many awkwardly ideological diatribes: “Saul Alinsky was right, Noah -- the ends do justify the means.”
This lack of any appreciable action makes the book's many flaws, plot holes, and loose ends all the more glaring. An informant assassinated in the prologue is never mentioned again and the identity of his killer is never revealed. Beck introduces a doctor character in a mid-book chapter who performs no key role and is not heard from again. The characters who do stick around act in an incomprehensible fashion. At the beginning of the book, Noah's father insists that the time to launch the evil plot is nigh: “I told them that now is the time, and ultimately they concurred.” At the end of the book, he says the exact opposite: “After all the years of preparation it was rushed forward, against my advice.” Noah attends a political rally and constantly reminds the reader that the only reason he's there is to ingratiate himself to Molly, who quickly and harshly rebuffs him. So what does he do? He remains there, alone, for hours. Why? Simply because it's necessary to the plot.
As for the plot itself, its reliance on multiple conspiracies (and stubborn refusal to explain most of them) makes it disjointed and confusing. In addition to the main conspiracy that drives the story, there's a conspiracy to discredit Molly's group of freedom fighters, a conspiracy to frame an FBI agent for selling nukes to terrorists, and an ill-defined scheme by the freedom fighters to infiltrate the main organs of the evildoers' infrastructure. The plot also suffers critically from the lack of an actual villain. Noah's father is the representative of the villains, but he spends most of his time telling us how stupid Americans are. Characters are killed, but we never know by whom - it's always “they.” We're told that a domestic terrorist cell is led by a (possibly Muslim) man named Elmer, but do we ever meet Elmer? Nope.
There is one thing The Overton Window does not lack -- irony, albeit of the unintentional variety. This novel represents Glenn Beck's vision of the world as it would be if it operated according to his rules, and he lays out the scenario by which he believes the “progressive” movement can undermine the country. Given that the result is nonsensical, poorly envisioned, and even more poorly executed, one has to think that the only way Beck's worldview could be considered plausible is if the world itself were no longer beholden to sense and reason. And I can't imagine a more damning critique of the Glenn Beck ethos than that.
This review was cross-posted from HuffingtonPost.com.