The Cobweb

[Amazon Link]

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 de-pseudonymize Mr. Stephenson, while inventing a new pseudonym, J. Frederick George, for Mr. Jewsbury. I don't know why.) I read the first book, Interface, back 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 bit.

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.