The first thing you notice about Night of the Avenging Blowfish: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat by John Welter is the humor. The book is downright funny, and not just a one-note sort of funny. At the start we are with a group of Secret Service agents who may (or may not) have been challenged to a baseball game by the CIA. The game will be played at night, in an unknown location. The challenge on the bulletin board may be a prank. The Secret Service men are eager to form a team, primarily because their boss doesn’t want them to. Silly? Perhaps, but no less silly than living your entire life ready to shoot anyone who looks like they might want to harm the president. No less silly, but a lot less painful.
Doyle is one of those agents. He and the other bachelors in the service sometimes go out drinking, to look at the women in the bars they will never meet. It’s hard to have a romance when you can’t even say where you work. Doyle has another secret, one all his own, to share with no one. He’s so desperately lonely that he’s starting to crumble. He’s also in love with a married woman whom he can never, ever tell about his feelings.
He’s also in a bit of a pickle at work. One night during a visit to the White House kitchen, he finds the chef preparing Spam for a state dinner. The president, it seems, made a comment that the chef took personally. The chef also tells Doyle that tonight’s paté will actually be cat food. Doyle decides that Spam poses no threat to the President so it’s not up to him to interfere. In fact, he’s amused by it all. Unfortunately, the Spam is exposed (though not the cat food), the chef is fired, and Doyle’s inaction angers important people. Eventually (with Doyle’s help) the episode develops into a political scandal (“The president is an elitist!”) that leads to the Chief Executive eating all sorts of awful local dishes, which in turn leads to protest from animal rights groups…
It gets complicated. Meanwhile, the baseball team, dubbed the Avenging Blowfish, continue to practice playing in the dark, and Doyle learns that the object of his unrequited love might — just might — return his affection.
The dialog in the book is crackling sharp and very funny, even when dancing around dark subjects. People speak almost in code, conversations twisting with deliberate misinterpretation of others’ words, layers of negatives, and an understood agreement to not understand. This is particularly true when the Secret Service and the CIA talk to each other. I was reminded of Joseph Heller several times while reading, and then noticed that Heller was quoted on the cover, endorsing the writer.
For all the silliness, the book has a heart. It’s a love story, and Doyle, speaking privately with us, feels emotions with a force that threatens to break him, and he can never, ever tell anyone about them. Occasionally I thought the author went a bit overboard with Doyle’s private expressions of hopelessness, but the language was powerful enough to pull it off. Doyle is a good man, and he’s in a tough place for someone who has emotions.
One thing I can say for Welter: He ended this novel really well. Progress made, understanding reached, but life is still complicated, the way life is. Doyle does his job, supports his friends, and hits a home run.
Or does he?
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