Glenn Beck’s ‘thriller’ is not that thrilling

I like thrillers, especially thrillers with conspiracy themes. When I read one, I usually do it in one sitting, taking a break only to go to the bathroom or fix myself another cup of coffee.

It doesn’t matter if I believe in the conspiracy or not. A good fiction writer can persuade me to temporarily suspend disbelief and draw me into his story. For example, I knew the conspiracy at the heart of Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code was a crock and the “history” it presented as evidence was distorted, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel.

On the other hand, a novel based on a plausible conspiracy supported by actual history can, nevertheless, be a bore. Glenn Beck’s new thriller, The Overton Window, isn’t a bore, but it didn’t pass my one-sitting test, either. (True, I had a lot of other things to do yesterday, when I sat down to read it. But if a novel is truly gripping, I’ll put off everything — including eating — in order to finish it. As it happened, I didn’t finish it until this morning.)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still an enjoyable read, but it doesn’t come up to the level of a Dan Brown or Michael Crichton thriller.

The first thing I noticed is that it is not entirely the creation of Glenn Beck. I was wondering about that. Where does a guy who does a three-hour radio broadcast and an hour-long TV show every day, who turns out approximately two non-fiction bestsellers a year, and who tours the country giving speeches, find the time to write a novel? The answer is: he doesn’t. Under his name on the title page, in smaller type, are additional author credits: “with contributions from Kevin Balfe, Emily Bestler, and Jack Henderson.” Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they actually wrote the book with Beck’s contributions limited to having the initial idea and approving the final draft.

The book’s title comes from a public policy model developed by the late Joseph P. Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The “Window” represents a range of policy options that are considered acceptable by the public at any given time. The idea is that, over time, the Window moves so that ideas once considered unthinkable become acceptable, while ideas once considered conventional become unacceptable. Normally this is a gradual process, but in times of crisis the Window can make large, abrupt shifts.

The main protagonist in the novel is Noah Gardner, a 28-year-old executive in a prosperous and influential New York public relations firm headed by his father. The PR firm, which bears an eerie resemblance to that creepy New York law firm headed by Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, seems to be at the center of everything bad that has happened over the last generation.

While the firm has done the usual PR things like manufacturing demand for Christmas toys and bottled tap water, inventing diseases that drugs made by their pharmaceutical clients can cure, and convincing people to throw money away on state lotteries, its main business is persuading people to give up more and more of their freedom to a cabal of international elites.

We learn about all this because Noah’s father, Arthur Gardner, cannot resist giving lengthy speeches to his clients and his son expounding on how stupid and easily manipulated ordinary people are and why it is the duty of elites like himself to rule the world. In this he sounds like a carbon copy of Ellsworth Toohey, the Mephistophelean character in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead.

As the story unfolds we learn that something big is afoot. Some kind of major crisis is being planned to cause a big enough shift in the Overton Window to persuade people to give up whatever freedom they have left and allow the global elites to seize total control.

In the meantime, Noah has met a young woman, Molly Ross, who is deeply involved in the patriot movement. At first Noah’s interest is mainly hormonal, but after attending a meet-up group and being busted in a police raid that was an obvious setup, he starts to give credence to his girlfriend’s “extremist” views.

The conspiracy that forms the backdrop of The Overton Window is more believable than the one in The da Vinci Code first, because there are frequent references to recent items in the news that seem to support it, and second because it is a well-known conspiracy theory that is widely believed, not only on the Right, but by segments of the Left as well.

In 1966, Carroll Quigley, a Georgetown University history professor, published his mammoth history of the modern world, Tragedy and Hope. In this tome he confirmed what some elements on the Right and Left already believed: that Western governments are heavily influenced, if not controlled, by a network of international financiers. Quigley, who for the most part supported its goals, traced this network back to Cecil Rhodes. On the Right, Quigley’s work became the centerpiece of John Birch Society conspiracy theories (see: None Dare Call It Conspiracy by Gary Allen), and on the Left Quigley was approvingly cited by Carl Oglesby, an early president of Students for a Democratic Society (see: The Yankee and Cowboy War). Quigley was even popular with the more centrist Left: former President Bill Clinton cited Quigley as a major intellectual influence in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

The Overton Window makes several references to Tragedy and Hope and, from the speeches of Arthur Gardner, it is clear that the conspiracy is practically identical to the international network of elites described by Quigley. This should boost sales of Quigley’s book, making his heirs very happy.

Beck describes his novel’s genre as “faction”: i.e., fiction based on fact. It is not that hard to suspend disbelief, because so much of what the novel describes we already know or think we know. For example, recent efforts to demonize the Tea Party movement as a bunch of racists and know-nothings bear all the earmarks of a well-orchestrated PR campaign like the ones conducted by the Gardners’ firm.

Unfortunately, as a thriller the novel comes up short. Its plot is too predictable, and that is almost always fatal to a thriller. A good thriller dishes up plenty of plot twists, with surprises around almost every corner. If you already know what’s going to happen next, you’re going to be less inclined to skip dinner to get to the next chapter.