Cover image of "The Porkchoppers," a novel about dirty politics

If you’re looking for insightful writing about dirty politics, the novels of Ross Thomas have no peer. In The Porkchoppers, Thomas portrays the behind-the-scenes reality of a high-stakes labor union election, and it ain’t pretty. The picture is likely to be exaggerated through the lens of the author’s cynicism, but not by all that much.

Now in his 60s, Donald Cribbin has served for decades as the president of a million-member international union headquartered in Washington, DC. He is bored with his job and regularly turns to the bottle for solace, leaving his much younger wife to seek sexual fulfillment in the arms of Donald’s loyal but dumb sidekick.

For the first time in years, Donald now faces a serious challenge. His protege, Sammy Hanks, the younger man he rescued from obscurity and appointed as the union’s international secretary-treasurer, is running a strong campaign against him. Sammy has problems of his own, of course. Big ones. Not only is he unnaturally ugly but he has a tendency to fly off the handle in a tantrum at the slightest provocation, often throwing himself to the floor and obsessively pounding the surface until someone manages to distract him.

The Porkchoppers by Ross Thomas ★★★★★

They’re called “advisers”

Each of the two candidates has both a retinue of loyalists inside the union as well as outside advisers, and the rub comes with the outsiders. They’re the forerunners of today’s political campaign professionals — the ones who put all those negative ads on TV — but the comparison is weak. These guys are what might better be called “fixers.” They don’t play nice. As I said, dirty politics.

On Donald’s side, there’s a Washington-based firm named Walter Penry and Associates, all former law enforcement officers. “What Walter Penry and Associates, Inc., actually specialized in was skullduggery, the kind that stayed within the law” (though just barely). Penry secretly takes direction from a shadowy old millionaire who appears to know everyone and everything. (Of course, there are such people who seem like they do.)

Dirty politics, union-style

Sammy’s campaign connects with a Chicago political operator who is said to have stolen the 1960 presidential election for John F. Kennedy. (Somebody actually did.) The man attempts to do the same for Sammy. But Sammy’s main man is Mickey Della. Among political “PR agents,” Mickey was “without doubt the most vicious one around and just possibly the best.”

When all these colorful characters converge in a single dramatic election campaign, sparks fly — and that’s not all.

The signatures of Ross Thomas’ writing

You can count on at least three things in a Ross Thomas novel. First, the writing is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Especially the dialog. Second, the novels reflect Thomas’ well-informed and all-too-realistic rendering of politics as it’s actually practiced. He’s clearly cynical, and he certainly exaggerates for dramatic effect, but he clearly knows how stuff gets done in high-stakes political campaigns. And, third, Thomas manages to people every book with a large cast of characters — and only rarely leave the reader confused about who’s who or what’s happening. Every character is vividly pictured. It’s quite extraordinary, really. This is a great example of what truly deserves the monniker literature, academic critics notwithstanding.

About the author

The late Ross Thomas wrote twenty-five novels and two books of nonfiction. As Wikipedia notes, “He worked as a public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist in the USA, Germany, and Nigeria before becoming a writer.” The man knew his stuff!

For more great reading

I’ve listed and linked my reviews of all the Ross Thomas novels I’ve read here: Reviewing Ross Thomas – thrillers that stand the test of time.

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