How to Hang Protectionists


Boomerang, by Raymond Q. Armington and William Donahue Ellis, Chesterland, OH: Ward and Ward, 338 pages, $9.94 paper

One of the many problems of current American fiction is that characters have a restricted range of occupations. As Joe Queenan noted in a perceptive American Spectator article, the characters in most contemporary fiction are either self-employed, unemployed, or graduate students. The tensions and pleasures of the business world are largely ignored by modern novelists. John O'Hara, John P. Marquand, and James Gould Cozzens have no successors.

When I learned that Boomerang was a novel about capitalism, I was looking forward to it. When I discovered that the book takes on protectionism, I was prepared to enjoy it even more. One of my firmly rooted prejudices is that protectionists should be smited, denounced, horsewhipped, and flogged whenever possible. Unfortunately, Boomerang is a novel of ideas whose sound principles are buried in poor prose. Consider, for example, my favorite solecism, on page 232: "Boar's attention drifted long enough to note that the expression on the face of the worldly Jim Veitch for once betrayed naked wonder."

Boomerang does provide intermittent pleasure. Whenever the novel directly deals with business growth, it is enjoyable. So many of the businessmen portrayed in films and television shows are treated as con men, thugs, or vultures. Yet Boomerang, in a subplot that is one of the book's strengths, portrays engineer Jason Dart creating a new product that (brace yourself) helps people.

If Boomerang were primarily concerned with Dart's quest to market prefabricated housing, it would be a better book. Instead, the authors devote most of their novel to intrigues by reporters and members of Congress, two professions with which the authors seem to have had little contact. While Dart has some life, the other characters are all part of the walking dead.

Boomerang uses a technique pioneered by John Dos Passos in which bits of "reality"—in this case, newspaper clippings—are strewn throughout the text to add weight to the plot. But consider these "headlines" from Boomerang: "Three Senators Plan Far-Out 'War of Worlds' Demo for Senate" or "'We Are Looking at Another Watts-Type Burning of Cities.'" From the text, it's hard to tell whether the authors ever read a newspaper or talked to a journalist.

Their treatment of Washington political life is equally implausible. For example, two farmers interrupt crucial testimony to listen to the farm report on a Chicago radio station. Chicago is nearly 1,000 miles from Washington. Even the strongest radio stations (such as WGN) can be heard only at night, and then only dimly. And while I've never tried to bring a radio into the Capitol, since the guards would no doubt confiscate it, I strongly suspect that its thick granite walls would block reception from stations distant enough actually to have farm reports.

Equally implausible is the book's climax. The beleaguered pro-free-trade forces in the Senate decide to create a computer simulation called "Boomerang," which shows the consequences of protectionist actions. The simulation is so convincing that the world is, at least temporarily, saved.

I hate to disappoint the authors, but dozens of computer simulations are held each year in Washington. Few have ever convinced any legislators to change their minds. Everyone, however, loves to play them.

As much as I agree with Armington and Ellis about the importance of protection-smashing, I can't recommend Boomerang. But if any REASON reader decides to hold a necktie party and hang protectionists in effigy, why not invite the authors? They—and I—would love to come.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is REASON's Magazines columnist.