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The Political Imagination of Stacey Abrams

What ails democracy in her Supreme Court thriller, “While Justice Sleeps”?

The politician as novelist is certainly nothing new. Bored, famous, and perhaps hoping to distract from the inevitable reassessment of their legacies, a couple of ex-presidents and several legislators have tried their hand at fiction over the years. Bill Clinton, collaborating with the novelist James Patterson, released The President Is Missing in 2018 (the plot is self-explanatory); the book received middling reviews but positively flew off shelves (a sequel arrived this month). Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton recently announced her own political thriller, co-authored with the mystery writer Louise Penny, about a secretary of state racing to solve a spate of terrorist attacks. The first president to publish a novel was Jimmy Carter, whose deeply researched Revolutionary War saga, The Hornet’s Nest, was apparently pretty good. Less successful politician-novelists include Barbara Boxer, Gary Hart, and Steve Israel; former Congressman Peter King stands out from the pack because of the “execrable” Islamophobia infecting his work, while former Senator Jim Webb’s military romances are memorable for their deeply weird eroticism. Newt Gingrich’s oeuvre is distinguished by its sheer quantity and its numbingly repetitive jingoism.

While Justice Sleeps: A Novel
by Stacey Abrams
Doubleday, 384 pp., $28.00

A new addition to this library is While Justice Sleeps by former Georgia legislator, gubernatorial candidate, and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. Politicians writing fiction may be familiar at this point, but Abrams’s novel merits deeper reading. For one thing, she has actual fiction chops: Under the pen name Selena Montgomery, she has written eight “romantic suspense novels,” which together have sold more than 100,000 copies. Unlike Carter or the Clintons, Abrams’s greatest political achievements likely lie ahead of her; unlike Gingrich or King (whose first novels likewise came out mid-career), her popularity appears to be growing. Indeed, following the Democratic victories in Georgia in 2020, Democrats practically canonized Abrams—and with some reason, for her years of voting rights organizing contributed enormously to the Peach State’s new blue hue. No mere genre writer or run-of-the-mill political aspirant, Abrams is a rising star.

While Justice Sleeps is a thriller, an “airport novel” in the very best sense of the term—it’s fun, fast-paced, absurd, designed to be inhaled in the space of a single flight. It’s also a revealing window into its author’s political imagination—what she wants, what she believes, what she’d do in a position of power.

Part of the sales pitch for any politician’s fiction is the “realism” conferred by its author’s access to the halls of power. And in her nonfiction, Abrams has often displayed a sharp understanding of political realities. The book for which she is best known is her 2020 study of voter suppression, Our Time Is Now. Timed to the months leading up to last year’s presidential election, that book is a sober, accessible survey of the myriad ways conservatives are attempting to restrict the right to vote (especially for working people and people of color), from closing polling places to purging voter rolls to manipulating the census. Many of these restrictions are invisible and demoralizing, designed to feel like “user error,” she writes; her goal is to reveal what is truly going on at both the quotidian and the structural levels.

Anecdotes from Abrams’s life punctuate Our Time Is Now, focusing especially on her 2018 race for governor. In one particularly telling recollection, Abrams writes about how she was almost denied the right to vote—for herself—in that race, when a poll worker told her that their records inexplicably stated that Abrams had already voted absentee. Abrams, who never votes absentee and who, she tells a manager, “would remember voting for me,” does not back down, and a supervisor eventually sorts out the error. “But what of the first-time voter who could not fight back?” Abrams writes. “Or the voter afraid of being followed home by a deputy sheriff?” Although the book sometimes stumbles in its sections on the sweep of history, Our Time Is Now is a well-argued and well-sourced treatment of an urgent political issue.

Abrams’s novel, by contrast, engages very little with the internal dynamics of the Supreme Court or the White House. While Justice Sleeps is, by design, more of a fantasia, so full of twists, turns, and murderous reveals that it is genuinely difficult to summarize without giving too much away. It begins with crotchety, iconoclastic Supreme Court Justice Howard Wynn slipping into a coma, but not before bestowing his legal guardianship and power of attorney on his 26-year-old law clerk, Avery Keene. Avery is astonished and frightened, but fear not, for she is also brilliant, and beautiful. She is described as possessing “light-brown skin,” “naturally corkscrew hair,” a “lush mouth,” and “a wide, strong nose,” in sum “the striking looks that men of any age fell prey to upon sight.” She shares with her author a diploma from Yale Law School and an undergraduate résumé that includes Spelman College (though Avery, whose background is more mysterious, also attended several other colleges before ultimately graduating), as well as an oft-noted tenacity and sense of purpose.

Now Avery must marshal all of her abilities to safeguard Justice Wynn’s interests, her own life and future, and the republic itself. Together with Justice Wynn’s hunky son, Jared, she embarks on a journey that has them dodging assassins, searching for clues hidden across the country, and attempting to unravel a massive conspiracy that has genocidal implications and involves high-ranking government officials—including the president himself. The whole thing is, again, very fun, culminating in a charmingly ludicrous showdown in the Supreme Court itself, with Avery standing alone, doing (legal) battle against the sinister forces intent on destroying her.

Unlike Our Time Is Now—which is populated with ordinary individuals struggling to vote—While Justice Sleeps is packed with the kind of characters that inhabit the novels of Dan Brown or Scott Turow. The good guys are all hot, with tortured pasts and dazzling intellects, keen to reveal a heretofore hidden talent or ability just in time to save the day (one character has a photographic memory; another has wildly unrealistic computer skills; multiple characters are apparently chess masters). The villains, by contrast, are sociopaths and maniacs, with little complexity and no sympathetic backstories that might lend them any patina of nuance.

While the writing in Our Time Is Now is as clear and unadorned as any politician’s policy book, the prose in While Justice Sleeps is gripping and, above all, melodramatic. (“This is how we’re going to save my mother and your father. And bring down the president.”) Every now and then, there’s a cringeworthy turn of phrase. (An assassin surveying the corpse of one of his victims: “He considered violating her, but he hadn’t come adequately prepared for that scenario.”) Abrams thrives on a pithy description—William Howard Taft is “robust”; a table had been “chopped from an ancient forest that had long disappeared beneath the advance of civilization”; another law clerk is a “brunette with a piquant face and the soul of an archconservative”—occasionally verging on the offensive (the first lady is called “equine”). Abrams has a penchant for shooting straight, which makes for a satisfying pointedness when describing her heroes or her villains (the fictional Republican president is a “shrill xenophobe”). But what about more complicated human beings?

If there’s one thing While Justice Sleeps wants to communicate about Avery’s mother, Rita, it’s that she’s an addict. And not just an addict but a mean, dirty, and manipulative addict. Indeed, it almost feels as if Abrams went out of her way to depict Rita in as loathsome a way as possible, invoking a shockingly wide range of stereotypes and negative descriptors.

Rita is described as having “dark red hair hanging in greasy hanks over her pale, mottled face.” She has “pallid” skin, “black-tipped nails,” “poorly rouged cheeks,” “disheveled hair” (which has a notably “rancid scent”), and “glassy and red-rimmed” eyes “battling with thick layers of mascara.” The first time she actually appears in the novel (earlier there had been an expletive-laced phone call), Rita is wearing a “ratty fake fur” and “toss[ing] thin, track-marked arms” around the shoulders of a stranger. Avery warns the stranger that her mother is a thief; a page later, the man comments that Rita “smells like piss.” Rita doesn’t just breathe; she has a “rasping cough.” She doesn’t just laugh; she lets out a “sullen giggle” or emits a “high, desperate laugh.” She doesn’t just walk; she “teeter[s] on heels too spindly for wear.” She doesn’t just speak; she “hisse[s],” which fits with her “serpentine grip.” Rita swears constantly, even on the rare occasions when the narrative provides the reader a glimpse inside her head.

Every character defines Rita almost solely by her addiction. At one point, Avery reflects on her “druggie mom,” while at another she recalls her as a “tweaked-up cokehead.” Avery’s roommate casually refers to Rita as “a crack addict,” and the president refers to her as a “crack whore.” One man thinks of Rita as “a bedraggled creature identified as [Avery’s] mother,” while another looks at her and sees “how she might have been beautiful once, but the skinny whore look did nothing for him.” The author shows little interest in complicating these depictions. And while Rita has a sympathetic (albeit underdeveloped) backstory, the narrative provides her with hardly any moments in which she is not portrayed as wretched or pathetic.

Abrams repeatedly implies that Rita has been a sex worker—“Laid on her back to earn bread for the ungrateful brat’s mouth, hadn’t she?” There is nothing shameful about this, but the novel makes quite clear that it sees sex work as a source of shame. At one point, Avery reflects, “She’d been a lot of things in her life, some legal, some questionable, most of the latter courtesy of Rita Keene. But never in her life had she been a whore.” Early in the novel, Abrams mentions—apparently for comic relief—that a certain U.S. senator had been “diagnosed with a rabid strain of venereal disease contracted on a trade mission to Thailand,” the infection transmitted by a “male prostitute.” Nowhere does the author trouble the widespread and unkind and wrong assumption that to be a prostitute, an addict, or a “whore” reflects some sort of moral failing.

All of this might just be dismissed as run-of-the-mill insensitivity, but it is notably confounding given Abrams’s thoughtful discussion of addiction in Our Time Is Now. Early in that book, she reflects that two of her siblings had to miss most of her campaign for governor for two very different reasons: “a brother who watched my race from a television in a state prison and a sister who is forbidden to engage in partisan politics as a federal judge.” Her vision for America, she continues “isn’t one where Leslie [her sister] is the star and Walter [her brother] is simply a cautionary tale. My America sees my brother and my sister as the promise of what our nation can and must become—a place of extraordinary success that transcends barriers and a place of redemption that defies the cynicism of our politics.”

Indeed, she writes that during her campaign, and with his permission, she talked about Walter’s “story of struggling with substance abuse and bipolar disorder as a way to connect. I wanted to demonstrate how voting for me could help families who have their own Walter—a loved one trapped by illness, addiction, or mistakes that seem to have no remedy within reach.” She notes that the stereotype of “the homeless junkie” allows politicians to “evade the hard work of understanding whom they represent.” Our Time Is Now is dedicated to a number of Abrams’s family members, including Walter. In the acknowledgments of While Justice Sleeps, she notes that Walter “pored over drafts, nixed scenes, and asked the right questions to keep the story going.”

What, then, are we to make of the disconnect between Abrams’s sensitive depiction of Walter and her dehumanizing depiction of Rita? It is too easy simply to invoke the differences of form and function—the informality of a novel compared to the caution of a politician’s treatise—for Abrams is clear in the acknowledgments that While Justice Sleeps had a “twelve-year journey” and numerous “second readers” along the way. It seems more like a failure of imagination. Abrams-the-sister can know that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, while Abrams-the-novelist can fall into the trap of stereotyping.

In spite of the novel’s dramatic tone and deliberately absurd elements, While Justice Sleeps ultimately allows its characters little growth. The heroes emerge heroic, the villains are dragged away in infamy, and the political system that Justice Wynn describes as spiraling into “intellectual torpor” and “hubris and narcissism”—a political system crying out to be drowned in a “righteous flood”—remains unaltered. It’s striking that Avery has overcome so much adversity and reached the pinnacle of accomplishment for a new lawyer but has no clear ambitions beyond cashing in at a corporate law firm. After paying off her loans, what next?

In fiction, one can create whatever world one chooses. Yet politicians almost uniformly choose to write novels about politics—about the institutions of government and the levers of power with which they’re so familiar. And no matter how fun or filled with cliffhangers these novels may be, so many of them are lacking in imagination. Sure, politician-novelists usually throw in a murder or a kidnapping or two, but in the end their novels always seem to come down to the good government bureaucrat prevailing against the malefactor whose ultimate aim is to subvert American democracy. Why is it that, with all of the time and resources and possibility in the world, Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich have both written novels about honest and decent government agents rushing to personally take down a deadly terrorist before it’s too late? And why, after years of publishing wonderfully sexy fiction to such acclaim, has Stacey Abrams opted to essentially do the same?

Long before her remarkable ascent into the national spotlight, Abrams wrote about serial killers and international antiquities theft and the joys of sex. But with While Justice Sleeps, she has produced a far more conventional politician’s novel, one in which a noble federal employee exposes the individual wrongdoing of a corrupt president and his shadowy Deep State allies. As with nearly all politicians’ novels, hers is a story of bad actors, not bad systems. Indeed, the story’s greatest victor is the U.S. government itself, with the political order that consigned Avery’s mother to poverty and allowed a literal murderer to win the White House emerging purged of any delegitimizing blight.

Books by politicians about politicians (with a dash of espionage or high crime) sell. But fundamentally, these novels also reveal something about the imaginations of our elected officials. They suggest that years of success in the realm of politics—victories won through rallying and speechifying and building coalitions; change accomplished according to the established governing processes—may ultimately diminish the creativity or narrow the horizons of even our most inspiring leaders.

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