Philadelphia writer Adam Bender’s new novel Utopia PR, a political satire set in a dystopian Washington, DC, offers a brisk and entertaining sendup of politics and the media, two machines driven by capitalism and ambition.
In the seemingly not-too-distant future, Blake “the Hammer” Hamner (the “n” is silent) is the Crisis Communication Manager for President Ernest Prawnmeijer, otherwise known as “Our Leader.” Prawnmeijer, a former reality-television and pop star, is woefully unprepared for the job and has become an egomaniacal despot, more concerned with being liked than running the country. Though he may bear a striking resemblance to a previous president, Our Leader campaigned on the “liberal” ticket.
Under Our Leader the White House has been moved to a closed compound guarded by vicious mechanical attack dogs called “hounds.” The bowels of the building may contain dungeons imprisoning the president’s perceived enemies. What was meant to be a part-time consultancy for Blake has become a 24/7 nightmare of putting out fires, which has taken a toll on his marriage and his health (Blake is a stress eater with a weakness for jelly donuts and sugary coffee).
Disaster upon disaster
Bender separates the novel into episodic chunks as Blake and the hapless communications team try to manage increasingly dramatic PR disasters. Their solutions usually involve creating even more ludicrous disasters to distract from the first ones, like announcing a missile crisis or releasing all the animals from the National Zoo. Midway through they are stymied by a mysterious superhero named Jetpack intent on bringing down the president. But the real crux of the novel is when will Blake finally hit a wall and leave his toxic job?
Self-interest rather than idealism drives Blake. Early in the book he wonders whether they “should have spent a little more time considering Our Leader’s fitness for office before we got so carried away making him the most powerful man in the world.” But this pang is fairly fleeting—Blake’s marriage and mental health are always more at stake for him than the well-being of the country.
Then again, Blake’s options for a great leader to represent are few and far between. In Utopia PR everyone has ulterior motives, including Jetpack, and who one aligns with is the lesser of two evils. The candidate whom Our Leader ran against was a conservative whom Blake describes as “a handmaid’s nightmare.”
Bender lightens the dark political commentary with absurdity and hijinks, evoking Veep more than The Handmaid’s Tale. Most characters are broad caricatures, the exceptions being Blake and his wife Maria Worthington, a news anchor for a CNN stand-in who is also the common-sense moral center of the novel. Their marriage is an authentic and warm depiction of two people with wild and demanding jobs trying to make it work.
Bender cheerfully reminds us that when it comes to politics, corruption, incompetence, and venality exist no matter which side of the aisle is in charge. Though not as fierce as the hounds that chase Blake all over the compound, Utopia PR has bite.
Image description: The cover of Utopia PR, a novel by Adam Bender. “Utopia” and the author’s name are in light text against a red and navy-blue background respectively, with “PR” in navy-blue text against a red background under the word “Utopia.” Two hands on opposite sides of the cover point at a mechanical dog with red eyes, center. The hands are navy-blue in red sleeves and the dog is navy-blue with a red mouth.
What, When, Where
Utopia PR. By Adam Bender. Independently published February 22, 2021. 205 pages, paperback; $12.00; or $2.99 on Kindle. Get it on the author’s website.