Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review - The Kicker of St. John's Wood by Gary Wolf

Short review: In a future United States political correctness runs amuck, the U.N. has teeth, and a band of football players try to save the country.

New NFL rules
The U.N. rules the U.S.
Wild-eyed diatribe

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Kicker of St. John's Wood is a political diatribe that bashes the reader over the head with the wrongness of political correctness, the evils of the U.N., and the shadowy shibboleth of the evil liberal conspiracy against the Bill of Rights. While the book makes some decent points, it would have been more effective if it had not been so heavy handed with what little message contained in the story and not been so dominated by the almost unhinged paranoid hysterics those points were packaged with.

And the message is delivered with punishing blows: The wrongheaded U.S. President is named Malpomme (literally "bad apple" in French). The evil U.N. agency that is driving the encroachment on liberties is abbreviated UNSAINE. The characters are generally caricatures or straw-men: Jayesh (a British born place kicker of Indian ancestry) is interviewed by a reporter in the initial chapter who turns her story about him into a hack job about how he is denying his third world heritage. His girlfriend Ashley is writing a dissertation about how football is run by patriarchal Christian fundamentalists, but is convinced to give up her feminist views (and Ph.D. dissertation) by Jayesh's arguments and, of course, a healthy dose of his manly penis.

The central plot device of the early portion of the story is the NFL's mandate to have a female player hold for Jayesh in the Super Bowl and the announced mandate to make all professional sports leagues 50% female in five years. The woman turns out to be nice and not very athletic, and of course when she gets into the game she is horribly injured. Why a nonathletic woman is chosen to be the first female NFL player is left as something of a mystery - reality demonstrates that there are plenty of strong, fast, and tough female athletes in the world, many of whom would fit in perfectly well on a football field. But since having such a player show up would ruin Wolf's wild-eyed polemic, we get a woman who would rather be doing her nails thrust into the action. The game was also supposed to be the site of a new announcement from the President and the U.N., but that is disrupted by Sam, a secondary character, who is immediately arrested on charges of "aggravated racism" and deported to France.

Jayesh and another player (the afro wearing Thelonius) try to help, are drawn into political shenanigans and thwarted at every turn by evil and seemingly ubiquitous U.N. agents, until the President announces (in effect) that the U.S. Constitution will be suspended and elections will be conducted in accord with the U.N.'s mandates. Things get worse and worse, with the two players and their girlfriends finally holing up with their coach in his desert ranch until finally a civil war breaks out.

The political commentary is very heavy handed, which makes the insightful points in the narrative less than convincing. The book portrays the U.N. as some sort of super efficient and powerful organization, able to intimidate governments and suppress news it doesn't like. The least believable element of the story was that news outlets served as gatekeepers for information to such an extent that if no one picked up a story it would be forgotten - that's an element that might fly in a book published fifteen or twenty years ago, but now the internet is simply too pervasive, and not accounting for it makes the story just not believable. The news about Sam's railroading would burn up the blogosphere whether or not any actual news organization ran the story. One must assume the author is either not aware of the internet (which seems unlikely), or simply not playing fair with his narrative.

Some of the ideas contained in the book are mildly interesting - the dangers of political correctness run rampant, the sometimes unwise nature of racial and ethnic quotas and so on. But the portrayal of these elements is so over the top that any reader who is not already on the lunatic fringe is likely to collapses into laughter resulting from the unintended comedy. The book is also intentionally humorous at times, and does a decent job at portraying the ineffectiveness of the U.N. at aiding third world nations, although that kind of undercuts the assertion that the U.N. is somehow an incredibly effective organization that has agents everywhere and controls the fates of industrialized nations. On the other hand, consistency is rarely a hallmark of political diatribes from the lunatic fringe, so this sort of internal contradiction is not surprising. Annoyingly, the enemy is mostly faceless and apparently ubiquitous (although Wolf does try to set up one U.N. official as the locus of evil, but he's too much of a "behind the scenes" operator for the reader to fix upon). In the end the text simply attempts to brow beat the reader into agreement, and the harangue wears thin.

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