The Porkchoppers, by Ross Thomas

I went through a Ross Thomas phrase quite a few years ago, and once I’d gotten a little ways into The Porkchoppers, I realized I’d already read this one. But that was OK. I’d forgotten who did what—not that that was the chief delight of the book anyway.

Ross Thomas (he passed away, much regretted, in 1995) specialized in quirky, cynical crime novels featuring low-life characters who nevertheless were recognizably human and, to one degree or another, sympathetic. He could also be very funny. He wrote political novels too, and the way Thomas portrayed it, politics wasn’t much different from crime.

The world of labor union politics would seem custom made for Thomas’ method, and the master does not disappoint. The Porkchoppers (“porkchopper” is union slang for an officer primarily concerned with his own personal benefits), first published 1972, centers on Donald Cubbin, long-time head of a major union. Cubbin is almost the walking definition of an “empty suit”—he never really cared much about the job, and is mostly operating on autopilot nowadays, his alcoholism having become acute. His real dream in life was to be a Hollywood actor, and he nearly got the chance once—a missed opportunity that still haunts him. He has a personal handler who keeps his booze level topped up, and his much younger wife is sleeping with someone else.

He’s largely a sympathetic character.

His election opponent is Sammy Hanks, a hard-driving, ugly little scrapper who seems like a better candidate in many ways—except that he’s slightly psychotic, and occasionally goes into uncontrollable, spitting tantrums.

Very powerful, very wealthy men are highly interested in the results of this election. The very opening of the novel informs us that a murder contract has been taken out on Cubbin.

But it’s not as simple as that.

The most sympathetic character in the book is Cubbin’s son Kelly, a failed policeman. He’s kind and honest, and (thus far) untouched by the corruption all around him, though he also takes it for granted. He supplies his dad with drinks without qualms.

Thomas has the rare gift of empathizing with his characters without sentimentality. He shows his reader the wheels within wheels of power, and it’s a fascinating tour.

If there’s a lesson or a moral, I have no idea what it is. But I enjoyed the trip.

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