The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
Wouldn’t it be lovely if politicians were, you know, smart and informed and honest? If they, occasionally, stopped worrying about re-election and focused on the long-term well-being of their constituents and citizens?
A fantasy, I know. But Terry Fallis gives us a taste of what that world might be like in The Best Laid Plans (McLelland, 2008).
The rarest of literary creatures: a Canadian, political fairy tale, the book is set in Ottawa and focuses on two very engaging main characters, Daniel Addison and Angus McLintock.
Daniel is a burnt out political aide who’s leaving Parliament Hill for a job in the private sector. His final task: find a Liberal to run in a hopelessly Conservative riding. Knowing that any Grit with any political acumen will refuse the nomination, Daniel strikes a deal with crotchety engineering professor, Agnus McLintock. Angus will stand as a candidate to get out of teaching a first year university course, and Daniel will make sure he loses.
It’s a terrific set up, because it frees Angus who’s outspoken at the best of times to run a truthful campaign. Instead of pandering, shaking hands and evading tough questions, he’s forthright. Straightforward. Authentic. Angus won’t get so much as a haircut in deference to the conventions of political campaigning. What does he care? He isn’t trying to win, anyway.
Angus becomes something of a folk hero, and this is reflected in his polling numbers (which, to everyone’s horror, start going up). Still, he is a dark horse with no political experience; he can’t possibly win.
Except that he does. Right before Election Day, his opponent’s candidacy explodes in scandal, sending Angus (and Daniel) to Ottawa. Daniel does his best to reign in his reluctant candidate. He tries to teach Angus the ins and outs of life on Parliament Hill specifically, and how to handle his fellow politicians. Angus has no intention of being reigned. Instead, he uses this (unwanted) opportunity to foist thoughtful and creative changes on his riding.
The heavily political storyline is warmed by a more personal subplot. Through a series of letters written to his late wife whom he clearly still mourns – we get to see Angus’ softer side. We learn about him as a husband and empathize with him as a widower. It’s a contrast to the cranky, obstreperous Angus and, while the device is a little cliched, it generally works.
It’s probably clear that I enjoyed The Best Laid Plans. Although not everybody will. I’ve read some reviews that accuse itof being naive, overly-precious and dated. Frankly, they’re probably right. But, like I said, this is a fairy tale and you have to read it as one.
If you do, Angus’ unrelenting integrity is believable. Straight-as-an-arrow Daniel becomes endearing. It’s politics as it should be, instead of as it is.
That said, there were things about the book that irked me. First, Fallis’ prose is too broad; he doesn’t play with words or use language in any particularly interesting ways. Second, his humour is ham-fisted. He gives us a funny scene, then tells us it’s funny, then explains why it’s funny. I was left to wonder, as I was when I read Jian Ghomeshi’s 1982, if the author doesn’t trust me to understand, or himself to communicate. Either way, the effect was irritating.
Still, I tore through The Best Laid Plans, and loved it. The two protagonists are charming, the narrative is absorbing and the whole thing is underpinned by Fallis’ thorough understanding of Canadian politics. So would I recommend it? Absolutely. So long as you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and accept the concept of an honest politician.