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09/21/2003 Archived Entry: "Full review: Matthew Bracken's Enemies Foreign and Domestic"


I have some good views and some bad views about Matthew Bracken's new novel about freedom, Enemies Foreign and Domestic.

Before I offer either, a preface.

I rarely review novels from the freedom movement.

The majority are poorly written, self-pubbed amateur works whose authors can't distinguish between “its” and “it's,” “their” and they're,” and “whose” and “who's,” let alone craft an engaging plot. Even the better-written “movement” novels tend to be lectures in the guise of fiction – which is boring.

In either case, I'd rather keep quiet than dis the books. But my opinions on freedom-movement novels tend to be more harsh than most libertarians'. So take these views for whatever they may be worth.

First, the good views.

Matt Bracken, keep writing!

Enemies Foreign and Domestic is not any of the bad things I listed above.

It shows vivid sparks of talent and potential. The first half of this Very Big Novel is as good as anything to come out of the freedom movement in many a year.

Enemies starts with an unforgettable scene – one of many in the book. On the first day of pro football season, a sniper (using, of all things, a scoped SKS) opens fire on a packed football stadium. Between those killed by the bullets and those suffocated or stampeded in the resultant panic, some 1,000 die.

Congress quickly passes a law banning all semi-automatic rifles.

Other acts of violence follow. These lead to even more draconian bans and imposition of mobile firearms checkpoints. Gun owners retaliate. The U.S. is at the brink of civil war.

Second-Amendment supporters realize immediately that the stadium shooting and some of the other violent acts are a setup – staged terror designed to further a government agenda. But who is responsible?

When Bracken describes acts of violence and rebellion, he simply takes your breath away. These scenes, with their mounting anticipation, their drama, their horror, their pathos, and the clarity of their unfolding, are as vivid as any scene from a Hollywood thriller. They, by themselves, make this novel well worth reading.

Bracken also delivers cogent political observations without pounding you over the head. He introduces fictional politicians you'll recognize from real life without awkwardly belaboring their identities. His settings, his dialog, his characters, and their motivations are believable within the framework he has constructed.

Bracken describes various firearms and their uses in interesting, pertinent detail, giving enough information to show why and how a particular weapon can do a particular job, but never inserting so much detail we seem to be reading a technical manual.

Aside from a few typos, which are nearly inescapable in books these days (including my own, alas), this self-pubbed author does know his “its” and “their” and “whose.”

From the beginning, Bracken shows a tendency to over-explain and over-describe. (For instance, he mentions “FreeAmericans.net,” his fictional analog of FreeRepublic, three times, and each time he gives a page of basically the same information about it.). But initially, he keeps his story moving right along and moving well and I was a happy girl engrossed in a good book.

Until about page 275.

Then the bad views.

Somewhere between there and page 300, I discovered I was bored. The national crisis, as shown in those tremendous scenes, was escallating. But the pace and suspense of the storytelling were not.

For instance, there are number of scenes at this mid-point in the tale involving one of the main characters peacefully working on a sailboat, buying equipment for the boat, and finally doing a little sailing. At first it seems that these serene scenes are creative tension-builders. You know this young man wants only to sail away from America and be free. You know he's already in the eye of the Most Evil ATF Goon (who has tried to enlist him as an informant). And you know events are bound to close in on him, and that he'll never get away without a struggle. So each time we see him working peacefully on his boat, we wonder ... will the catastrophe come now?

But in scene after sailboat scene nothing pertinent to the story happens. The character just goes on working on his sailboat as pages of information reel out about types of anchors, GPS equipment, how to step a mast, ad infinitum. Had these scenes focused more on the sailor's dreads or conflicts as he worked, or had they shown him being shadowed and surveilled or threatened by mysterious figures, they might have worked to build tension. (The feds, who had threatened him so viciously earlier, are strangely and utterly absent.)Because these scenes largely focus on the minutia of sailboats, without a hint of a developing threat, they lose their tension. They just make it clear that the author knows a lot about sailboats (as his Web site and bio show) and is eager to tell us.*

In the end, the sailboat scenes do give two central characters a means to build their relationship (although that could also have been done in the course of more integral action). But when the Ultimate Evil ATF Goon inevitably re-enters the sailor's life, he does so in a way that makes the earlier scenario between the sailor and the goon look like exactly what it was -- a red herring.

The close encounter between goon and sailor leads to my second – and more serious – disappointment in the novel.

Enemies, which initially appears to be a sweeping tale of nationwide tyranny and resistance, actually turns out to focus on a rather small tale of a few Tidewater Virginia locals trying to track down a handful of rogue government agents. The second half of the book is largely dedicated to this group of rogues, their barbarities, and the hunt for them.

The agents are evil, indeed, and they are responsible for much chaos and savage cruelty. But by the time the crusade against them gets seriously underway, national events have overtaken their deeds in drama, scope, and importance. By then we're dying to see what's happening in legislatures and shooting clubs and militia groups and public opinion and the minds of freedom-loving computer hackers all across the country. We want to know how far the checkpoints are spreading and whether the military is being widely deployed against the resisters. And what new laws or emergency orders are being imposed. And what FEMA and the entire Homeland Security apparatus and all the alphabet soupers are doing in their panic at a nationwide, but unfocused, uprising of armed Americans. We want to know how the resistance is fairing across the land and whether Americans are going to lose or regain their freedoms. That is where the book first seemed to be heading before it veered away.

Bracken gives us glimpses of these big pictures in the latter half of the book. And each time he does, the book comes to vivid life. Then he drops us back into this small-scale story.

It doesn't help that by the time the protagonists track down the villains, the reader has already known – for several hundred pages -- who dunnit and why. Thus the long climactic scenes are fundamentally anti-climactic. At this point, just when events should be whizzing to a conclusion, Bracken's tendency to load the pages with excess detail becomes ponderous.

There were two big questions that could have been answered by the action in this novel: Who set up the violence? And what ultimately happens to America after truly draconian anti-gun policies sweep the land? An experienced novelist could have answered both questions. In the end, Bracken chose to answer only question #1 (merely throwing in tentative third-hand allusions about what might be the ultimate fate of freedom).

Had he trimmed 100 pages of verbiage and non-essential action, Bracken would have had a lot of room to weave the story of the hunt and the story of the nation together. He could have given us an integrated view, rather than a disjointed one. He could have shown us more of the things that might apply to us all someday. The book and we freedom-loving readers would have benefited.

Because of its shift in emphasis from the big events to smaller ones, Enemies feels like a prologue to a far greater novel yet to be
written. Whether Bracken can write that novel, or will write it, remains to be seen.

But there's talent here. And certainly plenty of knowledge, insight, and ability. Even if Enemies is ultimately not the book it could and should have been, it's woth reading. And Matt ... find a good editor and keep on writing. Your next book could really be something.


* I realize long passages about equipment and technique have been a standby of male-oriented novels from Ian Fleming to Tom Clancy. Such digressions are as boring as the cookie recipes and quilting techniques that have been absurdly included in a recent spate of highly praised and blindingly dull women's novels. (Unless, of course, you just happen to be "into" the particular topic the writer is digressing about.) If a sentence, or a paragraph, or a page, or a chapter of text doesn't tell something new about the characters, advance the plot, or explain something crucial about the events, then a novelist should mercilessly whack it out, no matter how much he personally loves it.

Posted by Claire @ 11:09 PM CST

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