From the very first line of Chapter One in Robert Ferrigno’s excellent new novel, you know you’re in a different world: “The second half of the Super Bowl began right after midday prayers.”
Those would be Islamic prayers–one in a set of five said each day, with the worshippers facing toward Mecca. Except that in Prayers for the Assassin, Mecca is a radioactive husk, allegedly ruined by Zionists in an episode of nuclear terrorism that also leveled New York and Washington, D.C. The key word here is allegedly: The plot of Ferrigno’s book revolves around a clandestine attempt to discover what really happened many years earlier in a series of coordinated attacks that were so catastrophic that they made 9/11 look like a yawn-inducing warm-up act.
The problem is that the truth has been buried beneath a rubble of lies and oppression. By 2040, the United States is gone and the North American continent is dominated by rival nation states–one is a Christian fundamentalist country popularly known as the “Bible Belt” and inhabiting what is roughly the Old Confederacy, and the other is an Islamofascist republic that occupies just about everything else. (Here’s a map.)
Ferrigno is a veteran crime novelist, best known for edgy books such as Scavenger Hunt, Heart Breaker, and The Wake-Up. These are well-written thrillers, and they fall within the conventions of an established genre. Prayers for the Assassin is at once completely familiar and utterly different: familiar because at its heart lies a group of compelling characters and perilous situations that could find a home in an Elmore Leonard book, and different because its events occur not in the present day but in a dystopian near future that is the worst nightmare of Daniel Pipes. (Check out Ferrigno’s impressive website, especially this part.)
Full disclosure: Ferrigno is an e-mail buddy of mine. We’ve never met, but I know what his kids look like because we trade Christmas cards. He is a reader of NRO who originally contacted me a few years back so we could swap author stories. I interviewed him in 2004, when an earlier book came out. A couple of months later, Robert made me smile when Slate.com polled a group of novelists about their voting plans. He was one of the only participants bold enough to say he supported President Bush. Here’s what he wrote:
Mark me on the Bush side of the ledger, a lonely side for this survey, I’m certain. Most novelists live in their imagination, which is a fine place to be until the bad guys come knock knock knocking. I don’t agree with Bush on shoveling free meds to granny and grandpa, or his antipathy to fuel conservation along with opening up the arctic reserve, but this is small stuff. I’ll be voting for Bush because his approach to stopping the people who want to kill my children is the right one, i.e., kill them first. Kerry will dance the Albright two-step with Kim Jong-il, consult with Sandy Berger’s socks, and kowtow to the U.N. apparatchiks who have done such a fine job of protecting the Cambodians, Rwandans, and the Sudanese. No thanks. No contest.
This of course caused Lefties to flame Ferrigno on Amazon.com, in a fire-alarm drill for their more recent attacks on Kate O’Beirne. How dare a novelist say he prefers Bush! He must be purged! I suspect that many of these digital-age book burners were secretly jealous of the fact that Ferrigno is a terrific writer.
Many of us in the word trade, when we check out the work of colleagues and competitors and come across really outstanding turns-of-phrase or passages, silently say, “I wish I’d written that.” Here are a few lines from Prayers for the Assassin that I wish I’d written (if I were writing a piece of speculative fiction about America’s Islamofascist future). They are told from the perspective of Darwin, a charismatic rogue:
Fundamentalists always talked as if God were easily offended, but Darwin knew better. Any God who could create this raging sh**hole of a world had no fragile sensibilities. Nothing offended God. Anyone who kept his eyes open would have to conclude that all we knew about God, the only thing we could be absolutely certain of, was that He thought the screams of men were sweeter music that the singing of nightingales.
Wow. That’s not Ferrigno’s worldview–it’s the opinion of a character–but it’s the kind of writing that makes you sit up straight, pull out your pen, and do some underlining. Or tell your wife to put down her magazine and listen up as you read aloud by the side of the pool where you kids are taking swimming lessons. For the record, I did all of the above.
In reading Prayers for the Assassin, it’s important to engage in what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief”–i.e., it’s essential to grant Ferrigno his unbelievable premise that a certain set of circumstances may arise to compel millions of Americans to convert to Islam. Once you allow this, everything else falls into place, because everything else about Ferrigno’s invented world feels utterly believable. If the imagined history that he describes actually were to happen–Ferrigno explains here why it’s not so farfetched–our world might be very much like the one laid out in Prayers for the Assassin.
This, in fact, may be the chief reward of the book: The creation of an alternate reality that abides by a set of internally consistent rules as well as a place that reminds us of what’s at stake in the war on terror. In Ferrigno’s future, the Superbowl is played at Khomeini Stadium, cab drivers have Osama and Zarqawi emblems dangling from their rearview mirrors, LAX is called Bin Laden International, Jews try to escape to Canada on a 21st-century version of the Underground Railroad, Disneyland is a slum overtaken by prostitutes, and radical Muslims have tried to blow up Mt. Rushmore just as the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. The clever blend of Islamic radicalism with American culture results in passages such as this:
Rakkim turned the page of the magazine. There was a full-page ad for the Palestine Adventures outside San Francisco, happy families waving to the camera, the kids in plastic suicide-belts, hoisting AK-47s to the sky. “You ever been to Palestine Adventures?”
Ferrigno has a sense of humor that is both black and wry: San Francisco, nicknamed “Sharia City,” has become a magnet for radicals. “They behead homosexuals at the Civic Center every week,” explains one character. A quick description of the Golden Gate Bridge (“renamed for an Afghan war lord”) is especially macabre.
All the while, Ferrigno’s future is a place full of complexity: The bad guys are Muslims, but so are the good guys. And even at the core of the new Islamic republic, there’s a grudging admiration for certain aspects of the non-Muslim world. As one character comments, “Those peckerwoods in the Bible Belt are black-hearted infidels and eaters of swine, but you have to admit, they know how to make soda pop.” That line is a joke, but one that’s pregnant with meaning.
The whole book is that way. Prayers for the Assassin is at heart a thriller about finding a young woman who has disappeared. But it is also more than a thriller: It is a warning.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..