What a reader takes from a book is often defined by the context in which they read it. In the case of Attica Locke's Pleasantville, a novel set against a Houston mayoral campaign influenced by the politics of race, it was impossible not to find parallels to the horribly toxic US Presidential campaign currently being played out.
The year is 1996. Bill Clinton has just been re-elected President, and in Houston the race for City Hall is set for a run-off between Axel Hathorne, a former police chief aiming to be the City's first black leader, and Sandy Wolcott, the white female District Attorney. The electoral mathematics are tight but Hathorne can count on the support of district 259. That is Pleasantville, a pioneering black neighbourhood his father Sam has played an instrumental role in developing.
When a young woman is found murdered and her presence in the neighbourhood is tied to Hathorne's campaign, his stranglehold over the voters begins to weaken.
Enter Jay Porter, local attorney and former civil rights activists last seen on these pages in a review of Locke's brilliant 2010 debut Black Water Rising. Porter, mourning his wife while struggling to raise his two children and maintain a legal career he has diminishing appetite for, is contracted to defend Hathrone's nephew Neal who police believe to be mixed up with the girl.
His advocacy for Neal, at first reluctantly offered but later zealously pursued, takes him on a dark and dangerous ride through the treacherous world where politics meets money and vested interest.
Pleasantville is a tour de force. It is part political thriller, part courtroom drama and part murder mystery laced with nuanced social commentary. It excels in delivering riveting reading on all these fronts. But it is in the political sphere that it is at its most compelling, foreshadowing the controversial George W Bush election of 2000 and posing the question: What will money stop at to buy political outcomes? The answering is nasty and terrifying and in turn foreshadows the current ugly scenes in the US where a billionaire populist uses race and fear to propel himself to the brink of the White House. It articulates the loss of democracy as something belonging to the people, instead becoming a tradable commodity, the exclusive preserve of the rich and powerful.
And at the heart of it all is Jay Porter. In 2010 I described him as 'one of the most memorable and complex characters I have read in some time'. He remains that and more. Forced into an welcome course of action and placed in physical danger, Porter responds with a combination of courage and determination, entirely at odds with his own vulnerability and desperation, and yet entirely credible. I don't know if Locke has future plans for Porter, but I hope so, just as I hope that someone brings him the small screen. Pleasantville would make a killer addition to the Netflix and HBO portfolio.
It's a quite brilliant book. Locke's narrative binds a number of different strands and ideas into one irresistible tale and a writing style that is tough and uncompromising drives it forward with power. If I read a better book this year, I'll count myself fortunate indeed.