Below the Belt, by Stuart Woods

I listened to the audio book of “Below the Belt,” borrowed from my father-in-law.  The audio book is narrated by Tony Roberts, who is a superb actor and a great reader, who voiced the multiple characters flawlessly and made the listen enjoyable despite the very, very slow pace of this book, especially at the start.  The performance by Mr. Roberts gets 5-stars!

                The book itself follows the travels of Stone Barrington, a very wealthy and well-connected lawyer who finds himself in possession of a “strong case” containing a mysterious manuscript that people think has the potential to be a political bombshell.  The manuscript was penned by Ed Rawles, a friend of Stone, and it was given to Stone by a former US President, who is also a friend of Stone.  After he receives the case, a host of rich and powerful people seem to find out about it (despite the fact that it’s supposed to be a huge secret), including a multi-billionaire named Christian St. Claire, who facies himself a king-maker and who is financing and backing a man named Nelson Knox, who is forming an independent third party and planning a run for President.  St. Claire, along with the head of the CIA (another acquaintance of Stone) all want to get their hands on the case, which may or may not have a significant impact on the upcoming election.

                All this seems to have the potential to be very suspenseful and interesting, and it is, but the reader (listener) doesn’t find out about all of this until three-quarters of the way through the book.  For the first 75% of the book, we follow Stone and his current girlfriend, Holly (the chief national security advisor for the current President) as they meander through dinner parties and trips to Santa Fe, Maine, and New York in the very, very slow run-out of the details about the mysterious strong case and its contents.  It’s not that the narrative is not interesting – at times the descriptions of Stone and Holly taking a cruise on St. Claire’s luxury Yacht are really fun to listen to – it’s just that the plot doesn’t really advance.  Case in point – when Stone first gets the strong case, he descends a mountain road in his rented car, and has an encounter with a rock slide that wrecks his car. He is stranded.  So, he goes to sleep and eventually a park ranger rescues him.  This little episode has nothing to do with anything else that happens.  The park ranger is not really a spy for St. Claire, the strong case is not lost or endangered.  So why does the author give us this little episode?  Because there is nothing else going on and he wanted there to be some kind of action or crisis, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with anything.

                Much of the book is like that – interesting narrative that has nothing to do with anything.  There are also characters who seem to have unlimited funds, unlimited time, and an omnipotent awareness of every important fact.  The circumstances are always very coincidental, and Holly (who was interesting) disappears half way through the book.  The story is like a movie that you watch on an airplane because it’s there and you need to kill some time.  Time is killed, but if you’re asked if you would recommend the movie to somebody else, you’d say, “Tony Roberts was great, but the movie was nothing special.”  Every time there is some potential crisis or action, the facts conveniently change so that the crisis is averted.  It must be nice to live in Stone Barrington’s world.

                In the current political reality, it is a quaint notion that a Presidential candidate who has a huge television following and a magnetic personality could be derailed by a scandal involving sexual impropriety.  Wouldn’t it be nice if such politicians would recognize their culpability and consider themselves disqualified for high office if the facts got revealed.  But, this is fiction, not reality.

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