A review by Sam Sheikh
The Wizard and the White House
By Mike Maggio
Little Feather Books, Inc.
“It is a fool’s prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak.” ~Neil Gaiman, Dream Country
Satire has long been used to mask biting social commentary. The works of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain spring to mind. Science fiction/fantasy, a more recent genre, has been used to the same effect as well.
So it was with great interest and high expectations that I read The Wizard and the White House by Mike Maggio. Combining elements of both genres, the premise is deliciously intriguing: What happens when the President of the United States wakes up one day without a mouth?
President Gerald Wellington Thorne (clearly a play on the name of a former White House occupant) is a likeable, simple, religious man from Texas clearly out of his depth. When he finds himself without a mouth, he begins a journey of self-discovery. After all, what use is a mouthpiece without a mouth?
Meanwhile, on the other side of Washington, D.C., Larry White wakes up hungover with a severe pain in his head and an extra mouth under his nose. Unbeknownst to him, that mouth utters words coming from the President.
That same morning in the capital, Fuzzaluddin Choudry, a Pakistani immigrant, hears from a mysterious waterspout in the Tidal Basin that he has been chosen to protect the President, who is in grave danger.
The cause of this mischief is an evil wizard Sharir, casting spells and manipulating people from a cave in the Hindu Kush. His unwilling apprentice is Akram, a local shepherd forced into servitude.
After his initial panic, President Thorne has to adjust to his mute condition, even though clarity of thought and speech have never been his strong suits. Despite this disability, he has to manage his cabinet as well as a flu-like pandemic that breaks out suddenly. Unfortunately, the First Lady is quite unsupportive, leaving the President to struggle by himself.
Thorne concludes that he is both a mouthpiece and a figurehead whose words and actions are determined by others. His epiphany:
“What mattered was what was forced upon him, however subtly, by powers beyond his control, what he, knowingly or unknowingly, ultimately succumbed to. Even the decisions he made on a daily basis … were not really his. Never had been, and never would be.”
Unlike the First Lady, the wives of both Larry and Choudry undergo supernatural transformations and feature prominently in battling Sharir’s plots and spells. Larry’s wife, Pearl, helps Thorne and Choudry confront Sharir, while Choudry’s wife, Amina, is instrumental in aiding those afflicted by the pandemic.
Throughout the book, Mr. Maggio highlights the role religion plays in each character’s life. A deeply religious character ends his journey with a better understanding of his fellow man, even one not of his religion. Other characters who are not religious are influenced by the faith and strength of those who are, making them better persons by the story’s end.
The message Mr. Maggio imparts is one of fellowship and acceptance despite superficial differences. There is even empathy for the political class being driven by ambition as well as difficult circumstances and choices. Finally, Mr. Maggio also highlights the cyclical nature of life and politics as usual.
Mr. Maggio goes to great lengths to develop both major and minor characters. His primary device is the interior monologue, where he attempts to flesh out characters by presenting their thoughts, prejudices, schemes, and motivations.
However, he overloads these interior monologues with too many parenthetical elements. The result is lengthy, meandering passages that hinder rather than aid character development. For example, I found three consecutive paragraphs in one passage that each contained a sentence with 98, 99, and 77 words. The record-holder must surely be on page 159, which has a sentence running 176 words.
Another consequence of the lengthy interior monologues is the leisurely pace of the book. There is little sense of motion or advancement of the plot. Indeed, amid the dense descriptive paragraphs, one struggles to find the verb that moves the story along.
Ultimately, Mr. Maggio’s ambition is admirable, but his satire is more “feel good” than incisive. Admittedly, I was hoping for more of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a marvelous dystopian novel of the future/present. At the least, I was hoping for something akin to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The Wizard and the White House does not reach the thought-provoking levels of these other books, leaving the reader with a light socio-political fairy tale that has a familiar ending.
Nevertheless, I hope The Wizard and the White House is a harbinger of stories to come. Going into the second decade after September 11, 2001, perhaps other authors will begin to reflect and write about a time when it seemed we all lived under a long, strange spell.