Picks and Pans Review: "q" Clearance

updated 06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 01:00AM

by Peter Benchley

No voracious giant sharks. No neo-pirates. No kindhearted manta rays. Which leaves Benchley struggling with that most intransigent of creatures for a novelist, the basic human being. Benchley puts up a fight, but in the end this novel seems oddly unformed—not funny enough to be comic, not plausible or clever enough to be a spy thriller. The protagonist, Tim Burnham, is a low-level speech-writer for a U.S. President. The President comes sometime after Ronald Reagan, yet bears a strong resemblance to Lyndon Johnson, whom Benchley served as a writer for nearly two years pre-Jaws. Benchley even puts one of LBJ's most famous quotes in the mouth of fictional President Benjamin T. Winslow. When a pilot tells Winslow, "That's your helicopter over there, sir," Winslow replies, "Son, they're all my helicopters." Burnham, whose health, marriage and morale are all a shambles, suddenly becomes the President's chief adviser through a series of accidental triumphs. (The unlikeliest involves his preventing a transsexual charter-boat captain from provoking an international incident when he/she sails into Havana.) Meanwhile Burnham is becoming an unwitting source of information for a Soviet spy. The spy's gorgeous daughter figures in the plot too. Benchley tries to be funny. Burnham at one point recalls that a woman was nabbed while trying to break into the White House so that the President could bless her parakeet, known as Onan because "he spilleth his seed upon the ground." There's also a lot of political byplay. Benchley may be indulging in some inside-joking when he has his Secretary of Commerce put the President to sleep with a dull Cabinet meeting speech. But most of the political characters aren't given enough personality to make this a very accessible roman à clef, and the spy plot is contrived in the extreme. The book drifts to an enigmatic ending with Benchley more out of his depth on dry land than he ever was in his maritime fiction. (Random House, $16.95)

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