Today’s Washington Post (Saturday, April 25) features my review of Peter Schechter’s new novel, Pipeline. I enjoyed reading the book and thought its insight into the world of international energy brokering was fascinating — the U.S. and Russia in high-stakes negotiations while murderous forces are afoot behind the scenes — but Schechter’s attentions seemed divided between developing his characters and pushing the plot ahead — something I mention in the published review and would like to elaborate on here a little.
Just a couple of quick examples first. In the novel, presidential advisor Tony Ruiz stands out as our first major protagonist — our psychological and emotional focal point in D.C. — but after being introduced in a series of scenes, he’s dropped for more than a hundred pages, nearly a third of the book, and though Schechter takes the time to survey Tony’s early career path, the author ultimately doesn’t provide enough depth or background to prepare readers for some of the moral missteps Tony makes abroad during his negotiations with the Russians (or for the decisions he makes in the wake of those mistakes). In another main storyline, a Russian couple’s marital troubles begin to reveal how a household’s domestic differences can impact a country’s international standing, but there too, this personal drama is relegated abruptly to the sidelines.
Orchestrating a multi-layered plot pitting nations against nations is a tall order; evaluating complex political and economic issues adds to the task; and suspense novelists by definition need to keep the action brisk and unencumbered. Such ambitions and expectations don’t always leave room to examine the push and pull of modern marital relations or to plumb the depths of one man’s tragic flaw, and faulting a book for such omissions might generally seem unfair. But Schechter has striven here to measure political morality, gauge the strengths of idealism and the pitfalls of patriotism, and even consider the consequences of basic human frailty, and his characterizations simply can’t bear the weight of those ambitions.
So does that mean I wouldn’t recommend it? As I said above, I enjoyed reading it and no hesitation in encouraging others to do so as well. But I do think the book falls short of its own ambitions — which in many ways are the terms we should use to judge its success.