The Patriot, by Harold Bienvenu

July 24th, 2012

Cover of Avon paperback edition of "The Patriot" by Harold BienvenuWhen I picked up an old paperback edition of Harold Bienvenu’s 1964 novel, The Patriot, I was hoping it might turn out to be a forgotten gem. From the cover blurbs, it was clearly a scathing view of right-wing Southern California politics from the heyday of Barry Goldwater. A young public relations man sets up shop in a fictional version of San Bernardino or Riverside, and stumbles into a connection with right wing minister. Together they decide to form the American Patriots, a group blending the tenets of the John Birch Society, the NRA, and Senator Joe MacCarthy.

“I am an American Patriot. I believe in a Supreme Being. I believe in the American Republic. I believe in the American Constitution. I believe in the American Enterprise System. I am an American Patriot.” So goes the group’s oath. At first it’s little but a flag-waving version of the Rotary, but with the help of a local millionaire (modelled on Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm) and the PR man’s hard work, it soon becomes a force in local politics and business. Stores are pressured into sponsoring the group and displaying American Patriot cards. A not-too-subtle boycott is organized: “No member who is an American Patriot would trade with any professional man, or any businessman, who is ashamed to proclaim himself a patriot.”

At this point, The Patriot could have developed into something promising. But having created the situation, novice novelist Bienvenu (a professor of economics by trade) quickly loses all control, and the story spirals off into lurid silliness. In the course of a few chapters, the PR man dumps his lounge singer girlfriend, agrees to become a bagman for a Howard Hughes-like billionaire in return for a shot at the local Congressional seat, and rapes and then marries the Knott-like millionaire’s lesbian daughter. Bienvenu might have started out with the aim of writing a serious book, but he caught the Harold Robbins mojo and ended up with a gawdawful mess.

Hands down the worst book I’ve read this century.

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