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By Olen Steinhauer


Published : Saturday, 11 August, 2018 at 12:00 AM  Count : 689
Reviewed by Scott Turow

  360 pp. Minotaur     Books. $27.99

360 pp. Minotaur Books. $27.99

In the 20th century, when communist revolutions swept away the established governments in places like Russia, China and Cuba, American leftists toyed with thoughts of effecting the same transformation in the United States. But widely shared fantasies of overthrowing the American government in favor of an anticapitalist regime are the relic of a bygone century, probably because there has never been much evidence that most Americans support it. (Even Bernie Sanders's anticorporate critique, which called for "a political revolution," eschewed any talk of change to our basic form of government.) You need to go back to the political convergences of the late 1960s and early '70s - when many young Americans recoiled at fighting in a reviled war in Vietnam, when the movement for African-American rights became far angrier after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King and when women began to agitate against the restrictions of existing gender roles - to find a time when there was widespread discussion, especially on college campuses, of replacing our political system, even if that talk was often woolly-headed and laughably vague.
What if something similar were to occur today? What if young Americans were to fall in the thrall of a charismatic leader who preached the kind of broad structural change that would depose today's corporate order? Is there anything in the America of 2018 that presages a different outcome? That's the premise of Olen Steinhauer's "The Middleman," a fast-moving thriller that imagines the fate of an anticapitalist revolutionary movement called the Massive Brigade.
The voice and inspiration of the Massive Brigade is handsome Martin Bishop, "the Revolution's New Face," whose speeches and blog posts on his website, the Propaganda Ministry, raise the chalk dust but never cross the line to advocate armed insurrection. Bishop urges his followers to "make everyone listen to each other," explaining that this can be accomplished when "you destroy the part of the system that allows them to ignore each other. The part that teaches them that their enemies live in the other political party, or in another demographic, when the truth is that their enemies are the people above them." He asks, "What would happen if, in some basement dogfight, the pit bulls would unite and turn on their masters." Bishop's hope to redirect the anger of both sides against their common antagonists seems to make him the middleman of the title.
In the novel's opening pages, an astonishing and brilliant act of nonviolence, secretly coordinated by the Massive Brigade, is unfolding. Coast to coast, young Americans simply disappear. They drop off the grid, abandoning their cellphones (imagine!) and all other aspects of their lives - jobs, contact with the people who love them - vanishing to God-knows-where.
In Washington, at F.B.I. headquarters, the disappearances deepen suspicions that the Massive Brigade is a terrorist operation preparing for violence, fears that are largely confirmed when a shoulder-launched Stinger missile is discovered in a Massive Brigade storage garage. The F.B.I. special agent Rachel Proulx, an expert on left-wing organizations, coordinates the investigation, albeit with too much unwanted oversight by the political appointees in the Justice Department and a bureau heavyweight named Owen Jakes.
The story of the Massive Brigade is told from alternating points of view. Rachel's perspective dominates the second half of the novel, but we also witness events through the eyes of Kevin Moore, an African-American military veteran and one of the Massive Brigade members who go missing, as well as Ingrid and David Parker, whose frayed marriage comes apart when Ingrid meets Martin Bishop. Ingrid, the daughter of a communist union organizer in Flint, Mich., is pregnant and ready to rejoin a cause. David is that ubiquitous fictional figure, a failing novelist. His debut book "garnered impressive reviews" if not big sales, but after a "brush with mortality" in Berlin in 2009, when "a terrorist bomb went off in an apartment building as David was passing on the street," the only thing he now wants is success, which has completely eluded him.

Steinhauer is justly celebrated as the creator of the TV series "Berlin Station" and the author of several spy novels, including a series centering on an operative named Milo Weaver. "The Middleman" appears to be what's called in the trade a stand-alone, although Milo makes an important, if somewhat confounding, cameo appearance at the end (which includes a flat-out spoiler for Steinhauer's excellent earlier novel "The Tourist").
"The Middleman" is smart and entertaining and consistently intriguing, clipping along in brief chapters, somewhat reminiscent of the novels of James Patterson, and often animated by lovely, spare descriptive writing. ("They returned to I-80, and as they progressed, Kevin watched the unraveling of civilization. After Rocklin the landscape flattened, speckled with burned yellow grass and low trees. Eventually, they got off of 80 to where humans had given up trying to control the land at all.") Yet because the premise of "The Middleman" is so audacious and because its point of view is fragmented, the novel doesn't fully exhibit the propulsive force of some of Steinhauer's spy fiction.

The reviewer is a writer and lawyer.

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