These are trying times politically and the divide in the U.S. has never been greater. But as the campaign season gets into full swing, we can all agree on: Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. But what about fiction with a strong political theme? Can it help us understand and make sense of the world around us? You bet it can, and I’ve got just the list to prove it.
Whether you’re fed up with politics and need an escape or you just can’t get enough of it, here are ten American political novels worth considering. The choices are mine, and I’ll warn you that I’ve left out a few that might seem particularly partisan (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for example), as well as the many great foreign political classics (1984, The Trial, War and Peace, to name just a few). Most have been made into movies, but trust me, the books are better.
The list of strictly American political novels has to start with All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s classic about the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a 1930s Louisiana politician (patterned after Huey Long) who sells his soul for political power. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel remains as relevant today as when it was published seventy years ago.
Advise and Consent by Allan Drury provides a fascinating and intimate look at the workings of the U.S. Senate. Another Pulitzer winner (1959), it tells the story of a battle over the confirmation of a secretary of state who once belonged to the Communist Party.
Democracy, an American novel by Henry Adams, first published anonymously in 1880, is filled with characters based on the major politicians in the years following the Civil War. It is a novel about the acquisition, use, and abuse of political power. What’s amazing is how little has changed in the 136 years since it was published.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon is a gripping story about an American POW captured in Korea and brainwashed by the Chinese, who send him home programmed to kill the president. It was published in 1959, just four years before President Kennedy was assassinated, and remains a gripping and horrifying tale.
Catch-22, the satirical novel by Joseph Heller, is a different kind of political story. Set during World War II, it follows the life of Captain John Yossarian as he attempts to maintain his sanity in an impossibly insane world.
A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just seeks to make sense of the American experience in Vietnam. Just recreates the complications of U.S. involvement and manages to convey the war’s complexities and the struggles of American diplomats who are both well intentioned and misguided.
Seven Days in May by Charles W. Bailey and Fletcher Knebel (1962) is set at the height of the Cold War and involves a plot by the American military to oust the president in a coup. It’s a fun and engaging story.
Lincoln, Gore Vidal’s fictional biography of the 16th president, is historically accurate but written with a lively, creative style that makes it both informative and entertaining. Vidal provides vibrant portraits of Lincoln and several of his contemporaries.
Like Drury’s novel, Richard North Patterson’s Protect and Defend (2000) deals with an ugly confirmation battle, this one involving abortion and the nomination of the first female chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004) has drawn attention this year because of some surface similarities to the 2016 campaign. Roth creates an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 election, adopts discriminatory policies against Jews and others, and signs a treaty with Hitler promising that the United States won’t interfere with German expansion.
That’s my list of the ten best American political novels. If you think I’ve got it wrong and want to suggest something else, comment below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.