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Great Expectations by Vinson Cunningham: Does not deliver enough despite an intriguing depiction of Barack Obama

US politics junkies will find things to relish but this novel falls short of being revelatory

Great Expectations
Great Expectations
Author: Vinson Cunningham
ISBN-13: 978-1529437768
Publisher: riverrun
Guideline Price: £18.99

Those of us old enough to remember the brouhaha that surrounded Primary Colours in 1996 will welcome Vinson Cunningham’s debut, which does for Barack Obama what Joe Klein did for Bill Clinton. While the earlier book was witty and scandalous, however, Great Expectations too often denies the reader the very thing we’ve come for: the gossip.

Obama becomes “the Senator” here, while Cunningham, who worked on his 2008 campaign, becomes “David”, a fundraiser moving among influential donors as he helps elect America’s first black commander-in-chief.

Unfortunately, no more than a third of the story is devoted to the election. On the occasions where Obama does waft through the pages, he comes across as aloof, irritable, bored, rude and more than a little messianic, as if he feels affronted that he has to campaign at all. It’s an intriguing depiction of such a historically significant figure, and quite at odds with his public persona.

Had Cunningham focused on this, the novel might have proved revelatory, but he spends too much time on David’s backstory, turning some sections into a slog. We don’t want the warm-up act; we want the star.

He betrays a troubling attitude towards female characters too, subjecting them to lengthy descriptions of their looks and clothes – naturally, most of them want to sleep with him – while their male counterparts are defined through their wealth and connections. The mother of his child doesn’t even merit a name, she’s simply dismissed as “the dancer”.

Still, for any junkie of US politics, there are moments to relish. An unsettling scene in a hallway after an early loss leaves David feeling a “wary fear” of the candidate. A remark made about Hillary before the Nevada primary – “we’re gonna drag her out to the desert, and we’re gonna put a bullet in her head” – is truly chilling. Best of all, however, is when David meets Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. “Oh God,” says Yarrow. “Finally, a person of colour! You know, I’ve been back and forth across the country for this campaign ... and you’d be absolutely shocked by the demographics of the staff.”

It’s an astonishing insight, and one that must have some basis in reality. If only there had been more of them.

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