Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America makes instructive reading today: Charles Lindbergh defeats incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 general election. Lindbergh had two distinctive traits, a talent for flying and a fondness for National Socialist ideology, and his presidency resulted in the internment of Jewish Americans in camps on their home soil.
History doesn’t have to be twisted much to create a nightmarish present, and in Shafts of Strife, David Bates offers a timely portrait of a New Zealand tipped off its axis. In the mid-1980s, the Lange administration has been pushed into the rear-view mirror, but its populist anti-nuclear position holds – until conservative Prime Minister Wynyard Nairn does a deal allowing the United States government to establish a don’t-ask-don’t-tell US naval facility in Wellington Harbour. The agreement provokes a rebellion by NOANA (National Organisation Against Nuclear Arms), which unleashes a well-orchestrated but unintentionally bloody series of attacks designed to destabilize the Nairn administration and force a backdown.
It’s plenty topical: one reason for American interest in a southern beachhead is the expansion of Russian activity in the South Pacific; the long-standing but tattered ANZUS agreement is subject to reconstruction; Australia is putting pressure on its small neighbour to toe the line; and it’s an election year. As ordinary Kiwis rise up in violent resistance, state surveillance of private citizens increases, and the Prime Minister, presiding over a cowed Cabinet, succumbs to megalomania and threatens to pass legislation – something like, say, an executive order – to bring the police service under government control.
Bates is a former inspector and legal adviser to the New Zealand Police, so it is perhaps unsurprising that his law enforcers are uniformly correct and courageous. They lack the NOANA protestors’ tendency to hotheaded haplessness, and possess all the moral steeliness absent in Nairn. By turns, Police Commissioner Patrick Edsun and his deputy Colin Cadman speak truth to power, as does a Governor-General, who proves his role more than symbolic. The Minister of Police, on the other hand, is a callow stooge of the Prime Minister and a discomforting reminder that not everyone who rises to the highest levels of power does so on merit.
Unfortunately, Shafts of Strife is plagued by a general sloppiness in editing that undermines the largely solid story. These errors – inconsistent punctuation, a misspelling of Lyttelton, for example – are distracting, as is the multiplicity of closed-door meetings and conversational exchanges whose length and verbosity are too prosaic to be high on drama. An exception is an hilarious mano a mano between Nairn and Cadman in which the Prime Minister finds the Westminster system of government not quite as malleable as he thought.
In any earlier novel about endangered youth, The Making of Travis, Bates proved himself an observant and empathetic scribe of human behaviour. In Shafts of Strife the stakes are higher and the narrative bar is not quite cleared – but as visions of history go, it’s far from absurd. More than one democratically elected head of state has led his country towards the abyss.