In the midst of Banned Books Week, President John F. Kennedy’s statement that “a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people” is particularly pertinent. And is it just coincidence that the Kennedy presidency seems to be the last one most Americans seemed to trust? After all, Kennedy’s “Camelot” was followed by the “credibility gap” of Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra and the run-up to the Iraq War. Distrust of Washington and the government is widespread.
That distrust undoubtedly motivates Mike Palecek’s Guests of the Nation, a short work that advocates that the attacks of September 11, 2001, were planned by the Bush Administration. The free speech principle summarized so well by Kennedy leads me to countenance Palecek’s book even though I don’t buy the arguments of the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement. But that admitted predisposition isn’t why I don’t like it.
Guests of the Nation details the detention and questioning of a man we know only as John by three FBI agents at New York’s JFK Airport. John is returning home from “9/11 Truth anniversary events.” During the interrogation, John dominates the discussion. He explains to the agents that, among other things, the WTC towers that collapsed did so because explosives were planted in them, the government actually arranged for the hijacked planes to land elsewhere and the passengers killed, that President Bush and others in the administration were fully aware of the plan, and that drones and replicas struck the towers and the Pentagon and crashed in Pennsylvania. These are just some of the elements of the various conspiracy theories advanced by the truth movement.
A novel is undeniably a legitimate vehicle to advocate these theories or any other political viewpoint. From a literary standpoint, though, Palecek falls short.
The biggest problem is a lack of character development. Granted, the story unfolds during a small part of one day but John is never really fleshed out. Although it is plain he is a vocal and dedicated “9/11 truth” advocate, we don’t know how he got there. Instead, he is largely a one-dimensional evangelist. Likewise, the FBI agents are little better than hollow stereotypes from central casting even though Palecek hints that some are actually open-minded to John’s contentions. There is a side story of an individual who worked for the Bush campaign in Florida that tends to leave more questions than it adds to the story. And while a novel need not document the analysis that underpins it, the various assertions are made without much reference to what leads John to believe them.
I’m not sure whether these failings are a reflection of or the reason for the length of the book. At 72 pages, it is far closer to a short story than a novel. In fact, the title comes from a short story by the Frank O’Connor. In addition, significant space on those pages present illustrations for the story and a variety of quotes from real individuals who question the 9/11 orthodoxy. When the illustrations are combined with the book’s 8 1/2 by 11-inch format, Guests of the Nation has the feel of, and perhaps would be better suited to, a graphic novel.
I commend Palecek for putting these ideas and beliefs into the marketplace for examination and discussion. Unfortunately, though, the flaws in the presentation may reduce the effectiveness of its advocacy.
They will stand for whatever you want — believe anything you want — as long as it only last a short time and there is promise of sex or beer or comfort or warm fuzzies somewhere in the distance that they can focus on — that is all they want.
Mike Palecek, Guests of the Nation