Back in 2018, my friend Brandon Hensley reviewed a terrible book on this blog in my first guest post. Now, he returns to review what might be an even worse book. The following text are his words and not mine.
“I’m so hungry I could eat the balls off a low-flying goose.” –Joe Biden, according to Andrew Shaffer
Lord Dismiss Us is a 377 page novel by written in 1967 by openly-gay British Peer Michael Campbell. It is a tense, sexually-driven novel about young men coming to terms with their sexuality amidst an administration’s religiously-motivated witch hunt to purge deviants from the boarding school in which the story is set. It is fraught with desire, unrequited love, and the problem that every man wrestles with in Western society—is a quick pump and dump the closest thing gay men can have to experiencing love and fulfillment? If I were to write a review of it I would give it four stars out of five. It’s really good, I highly recommend it, and you should read it instead of Hope Never Dies, a 301 page novel written in 2018 by Andrew Shaffer.
If my choice of opening quote (pg. 112) is anything to go on, I promise you that my comparison to Lord Dismiss Us is not snarky or random. It is intentional, and I am sure by the end of this review you will fully appreciate why. Because for 301 pages, Andrew Shaffer desperately wants to write a slash-fiction of former President Barack Obama and former Vice President, current President, Joe Biden. He wants it very, very badly. The problem is that an explicitly pornographic fan fiction would probably have been better than what he actually turned in to his publisher. I have a lot of criticism of Shaffer’s ability to tell a story, as well—it’s not just the wannabe slash-fiction that makes this bad—but I really need to hammer home just how much Shaffer wants Obama and Biden to Pete and Chasten Buttigieg. To do this I will present to you a brief passage from Chapter 43:
When I woke up, I found myself in the middle of the cemetery. I was lying on my back, with the sun beating down on my face. A gentle breeze was rustling the unmowed grass.
Far away, I heard a thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Like racing heartbeat. The louder it grew, the more distinct it became. It wasn’t a heartbeat at all. It was the trotting of hooves. Big, heavy horse hooves.
I sat up just as a white horse emerged from over a hill. A faceless rider snapped the reins and flew down the slope of the hill, dodging broken tombstones and barren trees. The hooves pounded louder and louder, as if the sound was coming from inside my own head. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump…
The closer the horse came, the more indistinct its shape. It was so white that it was glowing. Looking at it was like staring into the sun during an eclipse; I was forced to look away.
Just when it sounded like the horse was about to run me down, the animal came to an abrupt stop. It was so close now, I could feel its warm breath on me. I was vaguely aware that I was dreaming, but every sensation was so vibrant. I desperately wanted it all to be real.
“Need a hand?”
I peeked at the figure on the horse’s back through cracks in my fingers. My eyes slowly adjusted to the light emanating from the horse, and the figure came into focus. It was Barack Obama, clad in a white toga.
Take all the time you need to revel in that afterglow. It’s honestly a surprise to me that this bodice-ripper wasn’t given some kind of GLAAD award or picked up as a multi-season crime drama on Logo or VH1, wherever RuPaul’s Drag Race is currently being hosted.
To be fair to Shaffer, this steamy Obama-as-Greek-god scene (turns out it’s a unicorn, not a horse—seriously) is meant to evoke a symbolic foreshadowing of the once bosom-buddies to their pre-2016 status quo. The overriding emotional theme of the story is that, since Trump’s inauguration in January, 2017, Obama has been out gallivanting around with celebrities while Biden eats ice cream at home, neither one has kept in contact with the other, and now Biden is insanely jealous that Obama is holding auditions for a new best friend. This tension defines their interactions throughout the book. Told in the first-person from Biden’s perspective, this tension is necessary because Biden just isn’t a tough cop act. He can’t just go swaggering in and solve a murder—oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to tell you this wanna-be porn show is actually a murder mystery. Let’s back this up a little bit. Face down ass up, right into daddy’s lap.
Biden is at home one night, feeling jealous, when his dog gets all feisty to go outside. Biden sees the orange glow of a cigarette in the dark trees outside and goes to investigate. Turns out Obama is hiding in the woods waiting for Biden to make an appearance, and he’s back on Marlboro Man’s good graces. Shaffer tips his hand very, very early in the text and gives us a sprawling four page description of Obama being the coolest dude in the locker room. The jock everyone looks up to, desperately wanting to be like him, the familiar feelings of latent homosexual longing that most young men experience at one point or another but only a select few will ever go on to actually experience. I’m not even kidding about this. The actual text of the story begins on page eleven, and every single thing that happens over the entire first chapter is either Biden scowling at how cool Obama is or Obama channeling serious James Dean energy:
“He rose to his feet, a slim figure in his black hand-tailored suit. His white dress shirt was unbuttoned at the neck. He took a long drag off his cigarette and exhaled smoke with leisure. Barack Obama was never in a hurry.”
You smoke after sex, Shaffer, not during foreplay. Jeez. Anyway, Obama lets Biden know that he heard about Biden’s friend’s Anna Karenina moment (read another book, Potterheads) and hand delivers a printed map to Biden’s house that was found in said dead friend’s apartment, setting off the mystery for Biden to investigate. In a normal murder mystery, we’d have Sherlock or Poirot or even fucking Bond running off to begin the investigation. Instead, because Obama and Biden aren’t your normal crime-fighting duo, we need to set the stage a little more elaborately to really dig into the how’s and why’s of a former POTUS and his VP actively investigating a death without any public or legal sanction to do so. This gives us more time to elaborate on just how salty Biden is that Obama has friends other than him. This goes on for several chapters.
After deciding that Finn (Biden’s stiff) didn’t Anna Karenina himself into that train and was actually put there Spaghetti Western style, he gets squirrely and decides he should Uber home with some flowers for Jill. When suddenly:
A black Cadillac Escalade pulled up to the curb in front of me. The truck-sized SUV sat there, idling. Was my ride early? If there was an Uber sign on the dash, I had no way of knowing—I couldn’t see anything through the heavily tinted windows.
Suppose this wasn’t my ride. Suppose it was some enemy of the state, some deranged lunatic fixated on a former vice president. Suppose Finn wasn’t the one who’d left the printout of my address behind on the train…
My heart rate began to ratchet up. I had no Secret Service protection anymore. No private security. I didn’t even have my pistol, because who brings a gun to a funeral? The vehicle just sat there, towering over me. There was nothing stopping a passenger from rolling down one of the windows and poking me full of holes. I was a sitting duck, with no wings to carry me away. I inhaled sharply and squeezed the bouquet tight. Water dripped out the bottom and onto the cement.
The tinted back window lowered.
“Need a lift?” Barack Obama asked.
Again. Afterglow. Also, Shaffer’s version of Biden has one single romantic fantasy, and that’s to be plucked away and carried off by the in-shape, bronze Adonis of his dreams. Now, I’ve read a LOT of Russian literature. It formed the backbone of the college degree that I, like most millennials, am not actively using to pay my bills. (Shaffer’s acknowledgements page literally just says “Thanks, Obama,” a sentiment that I, for no reason related to the 2008 bailout and its aftermath, would like to echo now.)
I understand the intended symbolism of Biden’s tension feeling like he’s about to get capped by Cornpop being relieved by Obama just rolling up all cool-like being mirrored later in the story when Biden is finally getting back to where he feels the most fulfilled. I get it. But, this is not a dense symbolist tome from 1880’s Russia. We do not have a Myshkin and Rogozhin from Dostoevsky’s The Prince debating the ethics of murder on a train as the set up for the payoff later of actually killing someone who is otherwise suicidal at the end of the novel. The only actual investment anybody involved has with the dead Finn is just that Biden happened to ride the train that Finn happened to be the conductor of. And Obama doesn’t know how to express his feelings because men apparently don’t have friends. The set up and pay off for these highly symbolic parallels at the beginning and end of the book does absolutely fuck all for anybody. And this, more than the porn, is what makes this a terrible fucking book.
Andrew Shaffer does not know how to actually tell a story. This book only exists to be pornography for blue-tick twitter nerds who think the term “policy wonk” is a compliment instead of a warning. Spoiler alert: Finn was not put in front of the train. He did, actually, Anna Karenina himself. Like Anna Karenina, he got himself too deep in something that he couldn’t handle and didn’t see a way out. Biden, always the plucky boy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who lived most of his life in Wilmington, Delaware, just can’t wrap his head around the evidence that his friend—who, again, was not his friend, but just the conductor of a train he happened to ride—could have been somebody that he didn’t know very well, gosh darnit! Biden inserts himself into an active criminal investigation, is told off by law enforcement and Obama’s Secret Service agent, almost dies in the process, and gets a DEA agent murdered. All so that he and Obama can be friends again. Awwwww!
I actually stopped taking notes after a while because, once Shaffer gives the whole “Will they, won’t they” shtick a rest and gets into the groove of actually telling a murder mystery, there isn’t much to report on. His mystery proceeds as one would expect. Obama and Biden go poking around and find out that Finn was living in a motel. They go to check it out and gasp! A lady is there who gives them the slip! A clue that leads them to a Waffle House—sorry, Waffle Depot; also Shaffer calls a pawn shop a “pawn store”? Who the hell calls them that?—where they learn that Finn had a duffel bag sometimes. Finn’s family doesn’t know anything about a duffel bag. So who is the mystery lady and where is the duffel bag? The head of the investigation steps in and tells them it’s a suicide and they need to go home and stop playing cops and robbers. There’s tension between Obama and Biden! What are they going to do? Biden’s cop friend feeds them leads here and there. Turns out the mystery lady was a private investigator for the insurance company. She fills in Biden that she’s going to say it was a suicide. Biden and Obama finally have it out and Biden tells Obama they aren’t friends anymore! Oh no! Maybe Finn was a dirty drug pusher after all! But wait! A letter from Finn admitting that he’s a drug mule! Biden is off to tie up loose ends. The duffel bag! What’s this? Cop friend? Oh noes! Cop friend stole the dope! He was Dirty Harry the whole time! Oh no! A big bad biker dude is helping Dirty Harry! Biden literally has fisticuffs on a moving train, gets thrown from it, hangs on for dear life, and gets pulled back in by the biker dude! Lucky break! Biker dude was actually an undercover DEA agent! What a time to blow your cover right before you’re thrown off the train at-speed and die. Dirty Harry isn’t unconscious at all! The train has come to a stop! Quick! What do? Let Dirty Harry off the train, apparently! And then…whack! Dirty Harry is hit by a train going in the opposite direction. But wait! Shit! Somehow being hit by a 120 mph Amtrak Acela at-speed does not kill him. Because he gets back up, shoots Biden, gets shot by the Secret Service agent (oh yeah, Obama came back and showed up right at the nick of time—such belabored imagery, Shaffer), and Biden’s life is spared by his Presidential Medal of Freedom that he just so happens to carry in his pocket because reasons.
So. To summarize. Biden’s friend Finn dies by train. Biden refuses to believe it wasn’t murder. Biden inserts himself into an active investigation and it turns out that everything the police were saying about Finn was absolutely true. The only thing Biden did was uncover a dirty cop. The experience brings Obama and Biden closer together and now they’re besties again and can emote to one another like mature adults.
This isn’t a murder mystery. It’s not even a buddy cop story. It’s literally a romantic fictionalization of the twee DC liberal ideal of the Obama-Biden white house that is framed as a murder mystery, not the other way around. If you subbed in any other mystery solving duo for these two and expunged the obvious slash-fiction tropes, this would be a halfway decent first draft in need of some serious workshopping. It reads like fanfiction because that is precisely what it is.
A December, 2021 article by Vox points out the serious problem with Obama-era pop culture and how almost all of it is a projection of the world according to Hillary Clinton. As cringey as Vox itself is, they get the cringe of Harry Potter, Hamilton, Parks and Rec, et al to a T. After reading Hope Never Dies it is astonishing to me that this did not make it into their analysis. Because, at the end of the day, their analysis applies to this book, as well (and not just because of the many belabored references to Hillary in Biden’s narration of his worldview). The Obama years were never about Obama in the ontological worldview of these people. The Obama years were always about setting up Hillary to win in 2016. The people that hitched their wagons earnestly to Obama so that they could serve as the vanguard for Hillary eight years later see the world as being solely there to service Hillary. And Andrew Shaffer is no exception. “An Obama Biden Mystery” this ain’t. It’s pure Freudian, psycho-sexual projection. The twenty-four hour news cycle may have murdered the part of the American brain that is still capable of healthy sexual relationships, but it hasn’t murdered the part of the brain that still wants to fuck. And it’s the policy-wonk mentality that is used as a substitute for smashing genitals into various orifices for fun. So while my understanding of the English language leads me to define pornography in a particular way, I also know that society takes all kinds, and for a specifically loud and influential segment of our nation’s elite, Hope Never Dies should be sold at gas stations with a black bag hiding the cover art.
In my entire life I have only ever thrown two books across the room once I was done reading them. Hope Never Dies is one of them. Twilight was the first.