#FridayReads ‘Mark Coffin, U.S.S.’ by Allen Drury

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markcoffin1One of the best pieces of book news this year was the return to print of four novels by the peerless Washington, D.C. chronicler Allen Drury.

Drury was hugely popular from the late 1950s through the 1970s, telling stories based on his many decades as a journalist and observer of American political life.

The writer’s first novel, “Advise & Consent,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 and was one of the most popular books of its time (remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for two years and inspiring both a hit Broadway play and an Otto Preminger film). Drury wrote multiple sequels to that novel, following the characters (and the country) through times of great crises, internally and abroad.

Despite their popularity, the Drury novels all went out of print around the turn of the century.

Thanks to the late novelist’s two nephews, Kevin Killiany and Kenneth A. Killiany, Drury has returned on  e-Book and in print from WordFire Press. So far, “Advise & Consent” and its immediate sequel “A Shade of Difference” are back, along with Drury’s 1983 Supreme Court novel, “Decision” and “Mark Coffin, U.S.S.,” the 1979 “Novel of Capitol Hill.”

I read all of the “Advise & Consent” books in the space of a few months when I was in college (a binge-read markcoffinbecause I couldn’t get enough of Drury’s characters and his irresistible storytelling skills). Over the years, I moved on to other popular authors of the moment and lost track of what Drury was up to in his later novels.

Last week, I picked up “Mark Coffin, U.S.S.” for the first time and immediately felt the pull of Drury’s potent mix of drama, the mechanics of Washington political life, and his underrated ability to create a wide variety of characters (of both sexes and different political persuasions).

The novel follows a newly elected California senator who is just turning 30 and is filled with liberal idealism from his years at Stanford University. His election is an upset and Coffin’s voter turn-out  helps to carry the presidential nominee of his party into the White House.

In a narrative reminiscent of the great 1939 Frank Capra film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” we witness the young senator’s education in down-and-dirty Washington politics after he decides to oppose the new president’s nominee for Attorney General (a borderline racist from Orange County) and a huge defense spending bill sponsored by the powerful senator who happens to be Coffin’s father-in-law.

Drury is a marvelous off-stage narrator, commenting on the action, and telling us the things his characters won’t admit in public. Of the conflicted president and senator, he writes “Both, in short, had fought the same campaign that American candidates of whatever political leaning almost always fight: the great Middle-of-the-Road, All-Things-to-All-Men, All-Purpose campaign that American voters want. Only rarely did someone, a Goldwater, a McGovern, try anything really radical in either direction; defeat always resulted. In America the middle of the road was best, tried and proven in a hundred thousand campaigns from city council to the White House. The really dividing factors were the nature of the candidate, the voters’ understanding of him as a human being, and a slight gloss, either liberal or conservative, to suit the constituency.”

Drury is clear-eyed about the workings of Washington but never cynical. Like Capra, he is willing to look at the worst abuses of our system, but never suggests a revolutionary overhaul. In his eyes, decent men will eventually rise to the occasion no matter how hopeless a situation might seem.

Coffin goes through a terrible, largely trumped-up sex scandal — a plot point that gives the novel a timeless feel — but it doesn’t destroy the man, it educates him.

Joe Meyers

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