A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling*****

How much would you pay right now to laugh out loud, and laugh hard, about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with current events? Exactly. My thanks go to Net Galley and Perseus Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The author is a journalist who caught wind of a tiny hamlet in New Hampshire that was taken over by libertarians:

“The four libertarians who came to New Hampshire had thinner wallets than…other would-be utopians, but they had a new angle they believed would help them move the Free Town Project out of the realm of marijuana-hazed reveries and into reality. Instead of building from scratch, they would harness the power and infrastructure of an existing town—just as a rabies parasite can co-opt the brain of a much larger organism and force it work against its own interests, the libertarians planned to apply just a bit of pressure in such a way that an entire town could be steered toward liberty.” 

By the time the long-term denizens of Grafton realized the extent of the mayhem that these people intended, they discovered that “the libertarians were operating under vampire rules—the invitation to enter, once offered, could not be rescinded…At the same time the Free Towners set themselves to shaping the community to their liking, the town’s bears were working to create their own utopia.”

The newcomers’ idea of liberty meant no enforcement of any law, and no taxes, even for basic infrastructure and services. And when the local bear population blossomed, it was every Free Towner for herself.

Hongoltz-Hetling provides a succinct history of the town, then introduces a handful of the key players. There’s a man that buys and lives in a church in order to avoid paying taxes; an Earth Mother type that decides the bears are hungry and should receive free donuts, seeds, and grains daily in her own backyard; several tent dwellers that eschew basic hygiene and food safety; and oh, so many, many bears. Some of the townspeople are identified by name, but those that prefer anonymity are identified by colorful nicknames.

At the outset we see jaw-dropping levels of eccentricity coupled with hilarious anecdotes, and true to his journalistic calling, the author spends a good deal of time in this tiny, lawless burg, and so he reports events not second hand, but from his own experience. My favorite part is the showdown between Hurricane the Guard Llama and an ursine interloper looking for mutton on the hoof. Another is the conflict between “Beretta,” the resident next door to “Doughnut Lady,” who hates all bears primarily because they are fat.

Eventually things take a darker, more tragic turn for some; the most impressive aspect of this story is the seamless manner in which the author segues from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, and then brings us back up for air.

Ultimately, the bears are emblematic of the need human beings have for cooperation and organization.

Though the material used for this story is rich and original, it takes a gifted wordsmith like Hongoltz-Hetling to craft it into a darkly amusing tale of this caliber. If I were to change one thing, I would lose the digression near the middle of the book with regard to typhus, Tunisia, and diseases shared by bears. It slows the pace and could easily be whittled down to a single paragraph. But the rest of this book is so engaging that I cannot reduce my rating by even half a star. My advice is to skim that passage, which eats up about five percent of an otherwise perfectly executed narrative, unless of course you like that aspect of it.

In six years of reviewing, and out of the 666 reviews I have provided to Net Galley—and yes, that’s the actual number, until I turn this review in—I have purchased fewer than one percent of the books I’ve read, either to give as gifts, or to keep. That said, this book is going under my Christmas tree this December. If you read it, you’re bound to agree: the story of Grafton is the best surprise of 2020.

Do it.

The Paladin, by David Ignatius***-****

David Ignatius writes reliably entertaining spy novels, and when I saw that this one was available, I hopped right on it. Big thanks go to Net Galley, Edelweiss, and W.W. Norton for the review copies. It’s for sale now.

Michael Dunne is a career operative for the CIA, and he’s sent to sniff out what appears to be an enemy intelligence service fronting as a news organization. This particular assignment is risky because it’s illegal to run surveillance on journalists, but his boss tells him that he’ll run interference for him, and like a good soldier, he goes. He does what he’s been told to do, and next thing he knows, he’s been arrested for spying on the press, and nobody at the CIA will go to bat for him. What the hell just happened? With his career in tatters, and his family torn asunder, Dunne’s only interest, upon emerging from the year he spends in prison, is vengeance. He wants to find the guy that set him up and ruin him. From there come multiple surprising twists that kept me on the edge of my seat.

My first David Ignatius book was The Director, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway in 2014. I liked it so well that I bought one of his older novels during my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books that summer. In 2018 I read and reviewed The Quantum Spy, a title perched on my favorites shelf not only for its brilliant pacing and suspense, but also for its insightful take on the challenges faced by Asian Americans within sensitive government positions. The strong impression I received reading it is likely to blame for my being slow on the uptake this time around. I realized when I finished reading The Paladin that it wasn’t as strong as his earlier novels, but I don’t think it’s fair to judge an excellent writer against himself when rating a novel. I initially rated this book five stars because there’s still no other spy novelist whose work I like better than his…except.

There’s a serious problem with his use of gender roles here, one I am surprised not to have noticed from the get-go, because it’s so obvious. Another reviewer opened my eyes and made me ashamed of myself for not homing in on the problem, because it’s not a small one.

There are two women that play important roles in our protagonist’s life. One is the virgin, and the other is the whore. Frankly it is so obnoxious that for any other writer, I would have given a negative rating and a scathing review. I am being measured in my response because I still see this as atypical of this author’s work, and I suspect it’s a slip rather than a true reflection of his own ideas. Then too, protagonist Dunne is portrayed as a hawk with regressive attitudes, and so the value he places on his wife’s virginity when he married her may have been a deliberate choice in developing this flawed character. I surely hope so.

The second female character is the seductress that lures Dunne into a “honeypot trap,” his sole but egregious infidelity that makes his overseas behavior all the more contemptible and costs him his family. Whereas this is a classic element of a great many spy stories, both old and new, it would have been more acceptable if Ignatius had included some other female roles that were more nuanced and that fell into neither category.

It is perhaps a measure of the author’s ability to write tense, believable tales of espionage that I had to have this major flaw pointed out to me. Because of his track record, I give this story 3.5 stars and round up. I will be interested to see what he writes next time.

If you read this one, I recommend doing so critically.