Review article by Phil Jason, co-chair of Jewish Book Festival and Florida Weekly book columnist
The Fifth Column: A Novel, by Andrew Gross. Minotaur Books. 336 pages. Hardcover $28.99.
This fast-paced historical thriller has all the ingredients of another best seller for its prolific and popular author. In the late 1930s, the concept of a fifth column, a seditious group forming in the United States in league with this country’s enemies or potential enemies, gained quite a bit of attention. Anti-war sentiment was high, and it raised the possibility of anti-government action.
Many groups, especially after France fell, admired Hitler and fascism. They admired authoritarian leadership. U. S. security agencies recognized the threat, but agents’ hands were tied without solid proof of law-breaking.
Worst of all, the more sophisticated Fifth Column groups were adept at fitting in, keeping a low profile, and passing for loyalists while planning to undermine the country or its principles.
There were plenty of pro-Nazi rallies, anti-Semitic rants, and New York area neighborhoods in which children wore swastikas.
Andrew Gross describes such an atmosphere, and he finds the perfect premises and plot line to bring it to life in a most horrifying fashion.
We meet the central character and main narrator, Charles Mossman, in a New York bar continuing a pattern of drinking way too much while pondering the political stories of the day. His drinking had brought Charlie low, costing him his job as a history professor at Columbia University. A minimally observant Jew, Charlie is dismayed about the popularity of figures like Father Coughlin and Joseph McWilliams who stirred up trouble and spread hate. He is also grieving over the loss of his twin brother Ben, who died fighting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Worse yet, Charlie had been unfaithful to his wife Liz, who has become the main breadwinner.
He hopes to regain her trust and to never lose it again. His worst nightmare is failing their six-year old daughter Emma.
This night, even more disaster for Charlie comes to pass. Drunk beyond sense or stability, he manages to get into a fight and accidentally murder a teenager.
Two years later, when a clean Charlie is released from jail, determined to claw his way back to respectability, just about all of Europe is at war. Charlie has a lot to prove to regain the faith of his wife, who has changed the last name on the door from Mossman to Rubin. When he hears his daughter’s voice calling “Daddy,” he knows more than ever how much he has missed.
It’s clear that Liz is a long way from trusting him. She is not willing to have him return to their home. Charlie understands; he is hoping – over time – to make amends and prove himself worthy.
Liz agrees to allow Charlie to visit with Emma twice a week after school, but he must leave before Liz returns home. Liz has Mrs. Shearer helping her out minding Emma, and Liz is working to support the tenuously balanced family. There are also elderly neighbors, the Bauers, who have befriended Liz and Emma.
The novel shifts into a new gear when Charlie begins to feel that something is not quite right about the behavior of Trudi and Willi Bauer, who long ago established themselves as Swiss citizens of German heritage enjoying their senior years in the United States. They seem somehow too close to Emma, and she to them.
Charlie is also perplexed by their furtive-seeming visitors, whom they call “customers,” whom the Bauers invite on a regular basis. While it is no surprise that Emma has been developing something of a German vocabulary from her interaction with the Bauers, Charlie is shocked to hear his daughter use the word lebensraum, the oft-repeated justification for Germany’s military aggression.
When Charlie asks Emma what the word means, she responds, “the future.” Now he is further worried. His concern deepens when he notices, in the Bauer home, a strip of partially burned paper containing numbers that might be a secret code. Charlie is also troubled that nearby German bars hold meetings of groups like the German American Bund at which speakers offer Nazi propaganda.
Without much to go on, Charlie – on his lawyer’s advice and without Liz’s consent – takes his concerns to the local police station. He receives a patronizing response and little satisfaction. Given his background, this down-and-out ex-con doesn’t have a chance of getting a fair listening from the police officer, who at least pays him some attention.
The narrative builds in various ways. Charlie continues to tell his story, including his discovery of more suspicious items, including a hidden radio transmitter, in the Bauer home. Gross sets Charlie’s personal story against the larger story of the German advances in Europe and the growing anti-war sentiment in the United States. Although Charlie thinks he has an FBI-connected ally who can put his findings to good use, progress is iffy.
He gets no support from Liz, who acts like a divorce is forthcoming. In her view, Charlie’s behavior is ruining their chances for a normal family life. Hating to be seen in this light, Charlie is nonetheless driven to find the truth for his daughter’s sake – and for his country’s sake.
Charlie’s desperation makes him an easy mark for those who can read it and maneuver him to their advantage.
Andrew Gross masterfully portrays the details of how Charlie’s quest plays out, including the setbacks along the way, Charlie’s emotional predicament, and the forces arrayed against him. I can’t tell you more without giving too much away!
Book lovers can hear Mr. Gross discuss this blazing thriller – which imagines a carefully planned, deadly threat against the U. S. – on Tuesday, November 11 beginning at 1:00 at the Naples Conference Center. The book will be available for sale and signing. Also speaking at that event will be Steve Israel, author of Big Guns. Find details about the complete Festival series of events, along with an order form, author bios, sponsor news, and contact information at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.
This review article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples).