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Comey As You Are

James Comey, “novelist”
James Comey pictured against a backdrop of buildings along the western edge of Central Park.

Central Park West: A Crime Novel by James Comey. Mysterious Press, 384 pages. 2023.

“Downright smiley” James Comey is a crime novelist now. Few functionaries of state power have achieved as high a profile with as little personality as has the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, so it’s nearly impossible to guess what about the art of fiction would give the involuntary retiree the giggles. That is, unless we first recall this nugget of ad-hoc eschatology: 

There was once a time when most people worried about going to hell if they violated an oath taken in the name of God. That divine deterrence has slipped away from our modern cultures. In its place, people must fear going to jail. They must fear their lives being turned upside down. They must fear their pictures splashed on newspapers and websites. People must fear having their name forever associated with a criminal act if we are to have a nation with the rule of law.

That’s A Higher Loyalty, Comey’s post-Trump speaker-circuit-club hand stamp. While Comey may maintain a neatly anodyne image of steadfast civil servitude on television—if with a smug cop’s “part of the job” shrug toward the brutalities of enhanced interrogation—in print, he is perfectly explicit about his respect for rule by intimidation. This duplicitous public persona is less an attempt to conceal his ambitions than it is a strategy to win broad support for his worldview by appearing himself uncontroversial. A career focused on procuring for the government deeper access to the inner lives of its citizens first came to wide attention in 2015, when Apple refused to comply with Comey’s requests for a “back door” into the iPhone. He hit prime time the following year, when he investigated then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s private email server during the presidential election. Now, deprived of a jurisdiction, Comey’s will to power has nowhere to flourish but in his mind. Like law, like religion, fiction, too, offers a metaphysical whole, a world complete. After falling through the trap door labeled “trap door”—offering “honest loyalty” to the president—the pathetic public life flashing before Comey’s eyes and put to paper here in his debut novel reads like Willy Wonka’s admission essay to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Central Park West is a boring souvenir from the federal courtroom, an ostentatious recapitulation of the author’s memoirs populated by guileless characters based on his friends.

Central Park West is a legal workplace drama that aspires to the cursed union of #MeToo revenge story and buddy-cop rib tickler. Here, Comey repackages his experiences in New York working as an assistant U.S. attorney, including a stint under Rudy Giuliani in the late 1980s, in an attempt to genetically modify the meager fruit of an appointed bureaucrat’s imagination with some vestige of intrigue. The prose is clear enough to call it a beach read, if by “beach” we mean the sunny Riker’s Island shoreline. And the plot does not inspire melioration: at gunpoint, former governor Tony Burke is forced to write an apology to the many victims of his sexual harassment, after which he is injected with a lethal dose of insulin. Security footage shows the killer appears to be the luv guv’s ex-wife, Columbia law professor Kyra Burke. Kyra’s trial coincides with the trial of longtime mafioso Daniel “The Nose” D’Amico, who, in exchange for the promise of a reduced sentence, offers to expose the real killer; but he’s whacked before he can seal the deal. While Kyra’s jury hangs 11-1 and she walks, she’ll be retried soon and probably put away for life.

At this tender impasse, our do-gooding quartet make their debut. Investigator Benny Dugan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Carleton, their boss Carmen Garcia, and FBI special agent Jessica Watson make it their mission to run down The Nose’s tip: that Burke’s killer is a woman working for Cosa Nostra. Thanks in part to Dugan’s connections with the mafia underworld, the focus soon turns to Gina Cufaro, a real estate broker in Palm Beach with funky cell phone location data and a made man for a father. Unable to use her flight records to connect Cufaro to the Burke hit, or eleven others she may have committed, the team catches a break when a Florida airport security guard remembers something of obvious importance: Cufaro’s coffee order, a grandé Frappuccino with one pump of white mocha syrup and a biscotti cookie blended in. “We got this bitch, and her fancy-pants Starbucks secret-menu shit,” agent Watson says, as the awesome power of the government descends on Cufaro’s rewards card, revealing she had been in disguise to frame Kyra Burke. Her name cleared, Kyra rides the wave of positive press straight to the governor’s office. The gang go their separate ways, with Nora leaving law enforcement for a hedge fund in Connecticut.

With a paperwork plot arranged to portray a dispute over jurisdiction between the feds and the Manhattan DA as of any general interest whatsoever, character detains the starved attention instead. The invention of Benny Dugan is a hack stroke of dubious genius. Based on his friend Kenneth McCabe, the real NYPD investigator who taught Comey everything he knows about the mob, Dugan not only moves the plot more than any other character but also personally interfaces with mafia people and principles. He is the mob’s interpreter; Dugan demonstrates that porous is the border between legality and crime when honor, loyalty, and blood are concerned. For this, the family is grateful. Because they believe he treats them with respect, he’s the one they call when they’re ready to cut a deal. Comey squanders this inadvertent revelation of moral ambiguity in spectacularly lame fashion; his compulsion for belabored prosecutorial literalism transforms any potential excitement from the key moments in the investigation, like the early morning arrest of a contract killer, into a PowerPoint presentation on the universal appeal of police benevolence:

No disrespect at all. But I know Cosa Nostra. I know how they think. Gina thinks she is a uomo d’onore—a “man of honor”—even though she’s a donna, a woman. The rules matter to her: No killing with explosives, no killing civilians, and no killing law enforcement, ever.

Comey will win undue credit for lulling his airport readers into a false sense of camaraderie.

Yet it’s Nora Carleton who makes plain the real narrative perspective of Central Park West. A six-foot tall AUSA, Carleton might have the strongest claim to Comey avatar, with one small hitch. For the workaholic Hoboken basement apartment resident, sexually active on precisely one occasion years prior which produced her daughter Sophie, there is no question more distressing than whether to decide she is a lesbian after work or just wait until Thanksgiving. Weeping into the pie filling, the procrastinator tells her mother “If I’m honest with myself, I think maybe I should be looking at women on those apps of yours.” Set aside, for a moment, the idea that Comey’s cheesecloth cannot hold both a day job and love life together on any one page. The fact that the defining are-we-or-aren’t-we situationship of Carleton’s college life was with none other than Killer Kyra Burke (who went by Lizzy back then), like Dugan’s mob connection, is a billboard-sized missed opportunity for narrative tension. Rather than heat his plot over a rekindled flame, Comey saves the moment of direct confrontation for the very end, when, on her way from the home of the celebrity chef who Comey famously sent to prison, the newly elected governor meets Carleton in a park:

Kyra looked at her watch. “And I’m so grateful to you for meeting me in this place. I know it’s a bit out of the way. But it’s right between my meetings. I just came from Martha Stewart’s place in Katonah—she’s a great supporter and, of course, had her own experiences with our flawed justice system—and I’m on my way to the Northern Westchester Women’s Resource Center up in Mahopac. They do great work for victims of domestic violence.”

Kyra started to stand, then stopped, dropping back down to the bench. “Oh, I should have asked. Was there something you wanted to talk about? I actually think you reached out first, although it was great to catch up.”

Yeah, maybe you stop gaslighting me and tell me what happened to Lizzy, somebody I loved and who loved me back. Where did that sweet, honest person go and how did she end up as someone named Kyra and married to Tony Burke? What happened to turn her into this twisted, ambitious politician?

Nora suddenly had the urge to run . . . She stood abruptly. “Nope,” she said, extending her hand.

Lizzy-Kyra’s rejection in college doesn’t matter to Nora anymore, nor does the revelation that Kyra-Lizzy likely ordered the hit on her husband in the first place. Nora has learned something far worse about the governor: she’s a liar. Nevermind that our AUSA fails to render justice; her heart is in the right place, and that’s all that matters.

To take stock. Tony Burke was a sex pest whose crimes we never learn. Dugan is a dirty cop who never actually gets dirty. Carleton is a lesbian who never touches a woman. Kyra Burke is a victim who was never abused, the leader of a #MeToo movement she does not belong to, the exonerated killer of a husband she never loved. Central Park West is a boring souvenir from the federal courtroom, an ostentatious recapitulation of the author’s memoirs populated by guileless characters based on his friends. And that polite man Mr. Comey himself is a champion of justice without any private sense of right and wrong. With this novel, he has managed to cultivate a fungus of insight that for decades grew wild over bloodless state machinery, harvesting for aesthetic purposes his own ideological mold.

James Comey’s impression that the novel exists in a world of pure imagination is unfortunately the predominant one. In his seminal 1986 work The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, the critic Arthur C. Danto explains how that view that art is of no real-world consequence came to pass:

This view of historical style which asks, for example, that we appreciate Abstract Expressionism as expressing the same deep realities politically expressed by Eisenhower foreign policy, McCarthy domestic policy, and the feminine mystique—or Pop Art as expressing the same reality as the politics of Nixon, the Counter-Culture, and the women’s liberation movements—tends to dissolve all horizontal relationships between surface phenomena in favor of vertical relationships between surface and depth—with again the consequence that art is not especially more ineffective than anything else on the surfaces of historical change. It requires a very deep view indeed of history to say that politics never makes anything happen. But once we sanely cede power to politics, it becomes difficult to know where the line is to be drawn, and why art should in the end be [considered] uniquely ineffectual and merely reflective.

Nevertheless, if the spectrum of novels which have been slyly bugged in the national interest of their eras has, on one end, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s inane Blackford Oakes series, and John le Carré’s serious (if occasionally acrimonious) work on the other, Central Park West falls nearer the Buckley.

Comey will win undue credit for lulling his airport readers into a false sense of camaraderie. With its diverse cast of characters, carefully selected with a sterile diligence likely learned from a mandatory FBI human resources seminar, Central Park West will offend few. Blatant pandering to popular anti-elite sentiment—the word fancy appears five times in the first ten pages alongside brands like Hermès and Prada—comes at the expense of the sole character from the working class. Doorman Ivan Ramirez watches the woman he believes to be Kyra Burke arrogantly raise a gloved hand to him as she exits her luxury apartment complex. “These fucking rich people.” A delivery for the governor arrives. Elevator. Door. Yoo-hoo? Ramirez discovers a corpse in his workplace. “Dead fucking rich people,” is all the clock-puncher can think.

It isn’t right to say that this tedious pastiche of courtroom summation will have no effect. Because by painstakingly taking down every detail of government buildings, by portraying every human instrument of legal jurisdiction as morally pure, and by manufacturing a line between law and enforcement, Comey’s low-budget remake of his vile career is offered as a fantasy of power to disillusioned readers he expects will come cheap. As Nora says in her closing argument:

You were chosen for this jury because you have lived lives—incredibly diverse and interesting lives, to be sure—but you have all spent years listening to people, watching situations, and asking yourselves, “So what’s really going on here?” If you use that common sense, that lifetime of experience, you will see what’s going on here.

Would that it were so simple.