Red Line Blues, the first novel by Scott Seward Smith, arrives more than six years after its Obama-Romney election backdrop. If its setting seems passé in the wake of the seismic presidential election in between then and now, its theme strikes as so very 2019.
Neither the decade nor the distance between the older Owen and twenty-something Audrey jeopardize their relationship. The political chasm does. Owen votes Republican; Audrey, Democrat. You can bridge a generation gap and wormhole the way to long-distance-relationship success. The notion that love can transcend political disagreements seems further fetched the further we find ourselves from James Carville and Mary Matalin’s wedding day.
Owen, a foreign affairs academic of sorts who fantasizes about influencing policy through a perch in the Romney administration, especially in the moments he spends with “his liquid mistress,” meets the attractive, much younger, underemployed graduate student Audrey, who happens to live in the same building as his mother, whose apartment Owen minds for the summer. Readers wander around M Street’s Georgetown Tobacco, Connecticut Avenue’s Politics & Prose bookstore, and other points of interest around the city whose main point of interest is politics. And the protagonist wanders around his politics in social and work settings despite his ambitions revolving around ending up in Foggy Bottom or the White House as a political animal, even if of the wonkish, Risk-board obsessed variety.
The odd couple not-so-oddly falls into bed, a situation that causes Owen to ponder “the perversities of modern love: One had to be very careful about not rushing into declaring it; such declarations normally happened long after the first copulation.”
Far more awkward to say for Owen than the “L” word is the “R” word, which he refuses to say. His Democrat girlfriend not only does not know she dates a Republican, she also believes, with her boyfriend doing nothing to disabuse her of the notion, that he works for an Obama second term. “Owen nodded automatically, deciding not at this moment to redirect her,” Red State Blues informs of an awkward conversation between the paramours about the 42nd president. “He did not remember very well all the reasons he himself had disliked Clinton. It was not a topic for now.”
The reticence recalled his days as a student. “At Columbia he had felt like a dissident from the ruling ideology but had not risked anything; he had adopted more and more sophisticated subterfuges to avoid stating his real political beliefs, satisfying his conscience by not technically lying but never revealing what he really thought. These subterfuges had become second nature; it had become an effort to not deploy them.” With professors as with paramours, draw back that ballot-box curtain at one’s own risk.
What Owen certainly regards as, at worst, white lies strikes others as dishonesty profound, especially in its reliance on legalisms to soothe conscience. His deception naturally blows up in his face.
Artistic license, fueled perhaps by a not-atypical male fantasy, allows a younger, beautiful woman to fall for to an older, out-of-shape, chain smoker with a drinking problem. Such romances happen rarely in real life but occur often enough in fiction, especially fiction written by older, out-of-shape, chain-smoking alcoholics. What seems novel in life seems common, perhaps trite even, in a novel. The originality of the novel, ironically, involves situations oft encountered in the dating world but largely ignored in the literary one: how to navigate — here done through deception — matters of the heart complicated by politics. Inter-political relationships now seem almost as taboo than interracial relationships did when Spike Lee released Jungle Fever. Whereas those looking for love once limited themselves by race or religion, many now do so by party.
Red Line Blues, then, reads as something of a contradiction. The protagonist keeps his politics close to the vest. The author advertises his on the dust jacket. Surely the same intolerance that prevents some from dating one from another party prevents others from reviewing a book by an author of another party.