When Barack Obama, in January 2017, presented Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he joked that the ceremony would give “the internet one last chance to talk about our bromance.” He was wrong about that being the last chance. At the end of July, the pair was “spotted” getting lunch together in Georgetown, their first joint appearance since leaving office. The internet talked about everything you’d expect it to, and a local news outlet provided some helpful context: “Obama and Biden have become known for their strong bromance, often speaking highly of the other.”
This strong bromance is also the focus of Hope Never Dies, a mystery novel by Andrew Shaffer that stars the former president and vice president as a pair of sleuths. It sounds, on its face, like a deadly dose of #resistance wish fulfillment. It isn’t. Shaffer has sublimated liberal grief, nostalgia, and fantasy into a sort of allegorical potboiler. Though the sleuthing concerns a suspicious death, the book’s deepest mystery is Barack Obama. We see him through the eyes of a jilted Joe Biden, simultaneously ticked off and drawn in by his coolness, stewing in the sense that he was “dumped the day after graduation.”
That kind of longing is familiar. Obama attracted fantasy from the moment he stepped onto the national stage (remember Obama Girl?), and as he left it, he became a locus of powerful nostalgia: in memes envisioning the strong bromance, in Pete Souza’s Instagram and book, in a Saturday Night Live torch song called “Come Back, Barack.”
Hope Never Dies opens on Biden, at home in Delaware, bitterly contemplating Obama’s carefree post-presidency:
Unencumbered by his dead-weight loser vice president, 44 was on the vacation to end all vacations. Windsurfing on Richard Branson’s private island. Kayaking with Justin Trudeau. BASE jumping in Hong Kong with Bradley Cooper.
Within a few pages, Obama has materialized in Biden’s backyard with news of the suspicious death: Finn Donnelly, a rail conductor dear to Biden since his “Amtrak Joe” days, has been run over by a train, and for some reason he left behind a map to Biden’s home. Biden is mystified by both the visit and the death, which he sets out to investigate, keeping Obama at arm’s length.
Those ambiguities work themselves out over the course of a story that manages to engage meaningfully with some uber-topical issues (the opioid epidemic, health care reform) and the psychology of its narrator while maintaining the shape of a competent thriller. That psychology isn’t the real Joe Biden’s. This fictional Biden is neither a plausible Washington power player nor the wild man of the Onion’s long series of Biden fan fiction. Instead he functions, for the most part, as a mouthpiece for the audience. When he looks into Obama’s “impenetrable” face, he feels and resents the intensity of his own attachment: The president “seemingly wanted to pick up right where we’d left off, like no time had passed since we’d left Washington. To be fair, it was exactly what I’d wanted.”
Apart from some occasional moodiness, Biden’s narration is light and convincingly folksy (“the weather outside was as nasty as the devil’s armpit”). But it can turn suddenly apocalyptic. The thought that Finn may have been involved with drugs immediately leads Biden to wonder whether, “by the time the universe got to righting the wrongs in Wilmington,” it would be “too late—not just for Finn or the city, but for all of us.” These kinds of non sequiturs might just be bad writing, bungled stabs at a hard-boiled melancholy. But—at least right now, in summer 2018—they work. Many of us are living with ambient grief, with a sense that our country is lost, and it surges into our private griefs. (Trump is referenced only a few times in Hope Never Dies, in passing, by means of stale jokes.)
Even Shaffer’s determination to yoke as much political trivia as possible to his zero-plausibility plot turns out to be charming. Bits of Obama’s memoirs and speeches are repurposed as dialogue. Barack and Michelle’s Secret Service code names, the geography of Wilmington, the history of Amtrak, and Biden’s presidential medal show up as plot devices and scenery. The rigging is visible, just as it is in the farkakte theories Biden and Obama cook up to make sense of their clues, which might—as the two are repeatedly told by miffed cops—add up to nothing. “Make no mistake: there was a conspiracy, all right,” Biden insists in an anguished aside.
That longing for sense is familiar, too: from the right-wing online fever swamps, from the left-wing online fever swamps. When Biden and Obama ditch the former president’s security detail, Biden starts worrying about their safety. “It was a dangerous world,” he says, “especially for politicians in the public eye.” There were “whackjobs” who “probably thought [Obama] was still the president, running some sort of ‘deep state’ behind the scenes,” he continues. “It was a comforting thought, that someone was in control of this chaotic world.”
The scene lines up neatly with that recent lunch in Georgetown. The fictional politicians have just come out of a diner where, as in real life, Obama put in an annoyingly healthy order. (Grilled chicken in the book, fennel salad in real life.) And as the fictional Biden worries, the whack jobs were indeed watching their strong bromance. There’s a corner of Reddit where conspiracists piece together clues in the QAnon theory, a Pizzagate-adjacent hysteria about the activities of the “deep state.” I can’t explain exactly what they were trying to prove when they surveyed the remains of that fennel salad, but they seemed to find plenty of evidence for it. “Obama and Biden were spotted together today,” one commenter noted, to acclaim. “Coincidence?”