Prayers for the Assassin by Robert Ferrigno
Scribner, $24.95, 397pp.
Large numbers of Muslim immigrants in Europe believe all manner of Zionist conspiracies about the World Trade Center attack. In France, a book claiming that 9/11 was a Bush administration plot was a runaway best-seller. And don't forget that a major American presidential candidate flirted with "reports" that George W. Bush knew the 9/11 attacks were coming. Cooler heads in the Democrat Party shut down Howard Dean's speculation in that area, not because they knew it was dangerous for the nation, but because it was deadly for their party.
We have grown so accustomed to outrageous charges -- Louis Farrakhan's that New Orleans' levies were bombed during Hurricane Katrina, Michael Moore's that American military actions are for the benefit of corporations, and rumors that no Jews were at the Twin Towers on 9/11 because they were warned about the terrorist attacks -- that the people who perpetrate them rarely get the public pounding they deserve.
Some might say that's a good thing since taking nutballs too seriously only gives them what they want, more publicity. Perhaps. But Prayers for the Assassin, a wildly imaginative and entertaining new thriller, poses a question: What might happen if a majority of Americans believed the charges?
The book’s premise ups the domestic ante considerably. Instead of a few buildings and about 3,000 killed, make it two American cities and 20 million dead-- and seemingly absolute proof that Israeli agents conducted a nuclear strike on America and tried to frame Islamist terrorists for the act. What would the reaction be?
The novel is the brainchild of noted mystery writer Robert Ferrigno, best known for his noirish crime thrillers set in the sun-drenched underbelly of La-La land. The only clue heretofore that Ferrigno had terrorism on his mind was that the hero of his last book, The Wake Up, was an counterterrorist operative on stress leave (think Jack Bauer on vacation) instead of his usual antihero tabloid journalist, rock singer or retired drug dealer.
Ferrigno posits an America in 2040 -- 25 years after Washington, New York and Mecca are obliterated by nuclear devices -- that is so fractured it makes today's Red State-Blue State divide (or even the Blue and the Gray) seem as innocuous as Different sides in a game of sandlot baseball.
A "confession" by the terrorists--and the inclusion of Mecca, along with America, as a target – means everyone accepts Israel's guilt as gospel. Moreover, the nuclear attacks come just as Islam has become the chic choice for empty-headed celebrities looking for direction in their hedonistic existence. This sets the stage for a religious revival in the current Blue States, and a wave of anti-Semitism has the formerly irreligious looking for Judaism's polar opposite.
As an older Catholic friend explains to the protagonist midway through the book:
"You were too young to remember what the country was like before, but let me tell you, it was grim. Drugs and desperate people beating each other's heads in for reasons they couldn't even explain... Then the Jews took out New York and D.C., and it made our troubles before seem like one of those tea parties where they serve watercress sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Taught us what hard times really were. Muslims were the only people with a clear plan and a helping hand, and everyone equal in the eyes of Allah. That's what they said, anyway. Besides, your people are big on the punishment part of crime and punishment, and they don't take to blasphemy. I like that. The old government actually paid a man to drop a crucifix into a jar of piss and take a picture of it. Don't give me that look, I'm serious. He got paid money to take the picture, and people lined up around the block to look at it. So, I'm not exactly pining for the good old days."
The United States becomes a moderate Islamic Republic. After a brutal civil war, Christians carve out an enclave in most of the Old South which becomes known as the Bible Belt. Much of the western plains is uncontrolled as well, with Las Vegas functioning as a combination of Switzerland and Casablanca, and the Mormons holding fast to their territory.
Within the new Islamic States of America there are various degrees of freedom and religious oppression, depending on the region. In the Pacific Northwest, especially around the national capitol of Seattle, the mullahs and their religious police known as the blackrobes are a growing influence.
Like Fatherland, Robert Harris's classic alternative history thriller about a triumphant Nazi state, the central plot of Prayers for the Assassin concerns the uncovering of a truth so devastating to the central myth of a regime's identity that it cannot survive its public revelation.
The "Zionist Betrayal," as it was called, was actually the plot of the Old One, a Wahabbist Saudi billionaire who is more reminiscent of John LeCarre's Soviet spymaster Karla than Osama bin Laden. His plot succeeded brilliantly but not completely. Now, he is poised to realize his vision of a world ruled by Islamic law.
Standing in his way is Sarah Dougan, a modernist Islamic scholar and the niece of "Redbeard," the head of State Security. The author of a bestseller, "How the West was Really Won," which questioned some of the clerics' premises about the Islamic States of America's founding, Sarah has discovered that the Zionist Betrayal is a lie and knows that even her uncle's protection may no longer be enough. She goes into hiding.
To find her, Redbeard turns to Rakkim Epps, his estranged protégé and Sarah's childhood sweetheart -- the lover Redbeard forbade her to marry. Rakkim is a former member of an elite military unit, the American Fedayeen, who retired after too many missions to the Bible Belt convinced him that war with the Christians was not worth pursuing. Rakkim is so disillusioned with the regime that his sideline is escorting people who are out of favor though the Lawless Zone to Canada.
As Rakkim picks up Sarah's trail, he learns what she is working on, though he feels in can't be true. When he actually comes to believe it, he's still not sure the public should know.
Rakkim and Sarah are faced with a dilemma: They are still loyal to what they think the ISA should be, and they know that the information they possess would bring down the regime. While they both yearn for more freedom, they also shudder at the thought of going back to what they have been told of the decadence of early 21st century America.
On the other hand, Rakkim has little fear of the Bible Belt -- some of his happier moments were spent there while undercover. He remembers church picnics with sundresses, real Coke and Southern cooking, and men talking hunting and sports with a dreamy fondness.
While immigration, demographics and an even more secularized and decadent culture make Europe a more likely candidate for this scenario (and as two new provocative books, Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe and Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept indicate, it wouldn't take nuclear holocaust to get there), you have to admit that it's a lot more memorable to have the Super Bowl halftime interrupted for mid-day prayers than it would be for the World Cup.
What really sets "Prayers" apart are Ferrigno's attention to the crumbling infrastructure, stagnant economy and lack of innovation in a society that plays favorites and makes large portions of its populace second-class citizens, as well as the various ways in which the former culture affects the current social climate in the different parts of the country. This is far more complicated - and interesting - than if the book were about a dystopia with the mullahs in totalitarian control.
Ferrigno dares to contemplate whether a moderate Islamic state is even possible, or if the very nature of its mix of Islam and state will make it tend to gravitate in the direction of the authoritarian mullahs and their religious police.
(If you don't think radical chic in the United States could ever extend to radical Muslims-- the most illiberal group of people in the modern world-- check out the headlines about Yale University working overtime to get the former spokesman for the Taliban enrolled there before Harvard snaps him up, at the same time Yale goes all the way to the Supreme Court to keep ROTC off its New Haven campus.)
Although Prayers for the Assassin boldly raises important issues, it is more entertainment than agitprop. In fact, by Ferrigno's standards, there are more stock thriller elements here than usual. The novel wears far more of its heart on its sleeve than Ferrigno's hard-boiled narratives usually countenance; and Rakkim is very much the traditional world-weary hero looking to regain his idealism that we've seen many times since "Casablanca."
Ferrigno says he built his house with money he made selling books to studios for movies that were never made. "Prayers" is as cinematically inclined as any of his books and selling very well, but don't look for this to be filmed unless the studio changes it to a future America taken over by Midwestern neo-Nazis or wild-eyed fundamentalist Christians from Margaret Atwood's worst nightmare. Until "24" producer Joel Surnow decides to make an off-season miniseries, no one in Hollywood will this with a 10-foot pole.
The publisher has set up an imaginative website, www.prayersfortheassassin.com, for fans to interact with the scenario. It's a bit more satirical than the book, but it's nearly as provocative.
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