Book lovers talk about books: Richard North Patterson

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Photo by Miranda Lewis

In a continuing series, The MV Times asks book lovers to describe a memorable book that has made an impact, and continues to affect them.

A good novel can stir varied reactions among its individual readers — profound enjoyment, deep reflection, high excitement, or even a genuine expansion of empathy and imagination. Few novels, however, can broaden one’s interests, affect one’s worldview, or influence the choice and direction of a career. But that was the ultimate impact on me of reading Allen Drury’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel “Advise and Consent.”

The year was 1961. I was a restive 14-year-old, stuck for hours in a station wagon on a cross-country drive with my parents and sister. To kill time, I picked up a paperback edition of a novel I knew nothing about, save that a bunch of other people had read it. Very quickly, I was immersed in the story of United States senators of varying beliefs and character, their rivalries, ambitions, and frailties tested by a powerful President’s nomination of a highly controversial candidate for Secretary of State at the height of the Cold War.

The entwinement of great national consequences with the personal needs and desires of formidable but flawed men, playing politics for the highest stakes, enthralled me. The characters were beautifully rendered; the environment seemed very real (the author was, after all, a Capitol Hill reporter) and the dramatic nomination fight built to a level of excruciating tension. Threats were made; cherished goals promised or threatened; feuds deepened; and blackmail deployed. And yet the behavior of some of the central characters held out the possibility that, as Robert Kennedy later said, “politics can be an honorable adventure.”

Central to this story is that the best of senators formed friendships which transcend party, and, when the national interest demanded, could put aside partisan politics. Drury’s Washington, while a tough-minded and even ruthless place, was also a city where Republicans and Democrats socialized on weekends; saw their peers as human beings; were not involved in an endless chase for campaign dollars; and viewed rank demagoguery with distaste. It was, in short, the kind of world a young person could imagine becoming part of, where, however difficult, great things could be done. I am far from the only impressionable reader to have have been affected by this novel — and ask any prominent journalist or political figure of my vintage, and most of them will cite the early influence of “Advise and Consent.”

In my case, the book deepened my interest in politics, precipitated a lifetime of engagement with Washington-based political causes, and, as a result, helped define the things I care about and the friends I’ve made along the way. But it did more. When I became a novelist, I realized that — if I dared, and believed I had the talent — a large-scale political novel was something I needed to write. In the end, I wrote a trilogy of novels about an American presidential candidate and president, one of which, “Protect and Defend,” became a # 1 New York Times bestseller and, even more gratifying, was compared by some critics to “Advise and Consent.” Along the way, I was helped by, and in some cases formed friendships with, such fascinating leaders as George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, William Cohen, John McCain, Bob Dole, and Barbara Boxer. And I came to understand that we have leaders better than the money-driven political system we ensnare them in. They deserve better, and so do we. The least all of us deserve is Alan Drury’s Washington.

Richard North Patterson, a summer resident of West Tisbury for almost two decades, is the author of 20 novels to date, including 16 New York Times bestsellers. His recent bestseller, “Fall From Grace,” was the first in a Martha’s Vineyard trilogy, which will be continued in “Loss Of Innocence,” to be published in October 2013.