Back in the mid-1990s, writer Neal Stephenson teamed up with his uncle,
George Jewsbury, to write a couple of books. (The pseudonym they used at
the time was "Stephen Bury". Recent editions
Mr. Stephenson, while inventing a new pseudonym, J. Frederick George,
for Mr. Jewsbury. I don't know why.) I read the first book,
in 2012. I liked it fine, but I enjoyed The Cobweb even more.
Ostensibly a thriller, with heavy comic overtones. Think Carl Hiaasen,
without Hiaasen's mean-spiritedness.
It is mostly set in the leadup to the 1990/91 Gulf War; the primary
action is centered around the fictional twin cities of Nishnabotna and
Wapsipinicon, Iowa, home to Eastern Iowa University. (Stephenson lived
in Ames, Iowa during some of his Formative Years.) A secondary location
is the Washington, D. C. environs; there are also side trips to
Kennebunkport and … well, I'd tell you, but it would be a spoiler.
The joint protagonists are Clyde Banks and Betsy Vandeventer. Clyde is a
salt-of-the-earth Iowa county policeman, who's married to his formidable
childhood sweetheart, Desiree, and who's looking to displace the
current sheriff in the upcoming election. Betsy's in the CIA, where her
hard work and honesty has begun to attract the attention of her
superiors. Which is not an unmitigated blessing, because of the honesty
Coincidentally, Betsy's brother, Kevin, is at Eastern Iowa U, struggling
to get his Ph.D. in the massive (but corrupt)
agricultural research organization run
by Dr. Arthur Larsen. When offered a lucrative opportunity to jump up in the
hierarchy—all he has to do is cut some major ethical corners,
not ask any inconvenient questions, and not
look too closely at some of the Middle Eastern students coming in,
or what they're up to—he grabs it. To his eventual regret.
Now if you check out the book cover over there (you may have to disable
your ad blocker, which you should, it's just an Amazon ad,
nothing obnoxious or
clickbaity), you'll see biohazard symbols and a gas mask. And if you
remember the Gulf War, you'll recall the concern that Saddam Hussein
might be willing to deploy bio-WMDs to avoid a certain loss. Could the
mysterious doings in Wapsipinicon have anything to do with that? Hint:
yes, but let's not go into details.
There are plot twists and turns, as Clyde and Betsy battle their
respective bureaucracies and struggle to uncover the truth. There's
a pulse-pounding climax.
A wonderful book, readers, highly recommended if you're into this sort
of thing at all.
Without getting too mushy or overanalytical, what I've noticed in
Stephenson's work over the years is: his books, through the actions
of his characters, seem to champion the same
values I hold dear. You'd think that would be more common than it is.
It's not. So when it happens, it's worth pointing out.