FAN FICTION: Andrew Shaffer's Hope Never Diesby Matt Grant
Hope Never Dies
It’s a well-known fact that as a Senator, former Vice President Joe Biden commuted daily between Washington, D.C. and his home in Delaware by Amtrak. Over a thirty-six year career, Biden racked up more than two million miles over 8,200 round trips by rail. He was a consistent advocate for America’s railways and would blame lack of proper funding as the reason he was late to meetings. After leaving the White House, Biden’s ties to Amtrak grew stronger when he and Barack Obama teamed up to solve the mystery behind the death of a beloved conductor.
Okay, so that last part didn’t actually happen. Biden’s love for Amtrak is true, and the rest is the brilliant set-up for Hope Never Dies, the first Obama/Biden mystery by best-selling humorist and satirist Andrew Shaffer. Part noir thriller, part fan fiction bromance, just the cover of Hope Never Dies is enough for a good chuckle. Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, stands on the seat of a 1970s Trans Am, pointing decisively off into the distance. His red power tie flaps behind him in the wind. Next to him, Biden sits at the wheel, a look of earnest determination on his face.
However, a solid premise doesn’t always guarantee deft execution. The worst kinds of jokes are ones that work as a five-minute Saturday Night Live sketch but fall apart when ballooned into a full-length movie. The same risks are at play here. Fortunately, the idea is in good hands with Shaffer, who’s built a career out of writing successful book-length parodies like Catsby, How to Survive a Sharknado,and Fifty Shames of Earl Grey. He works in enough legitimate mystery around his farcical premise that the story stands on its own merits. Fan fiction is using the copyrighted material that belongs to someone else. Since Obama and Biden are actual people and not anyone’s intellectual property, Hope Never Dies is fan fiction in the sense that Shaffer is clearly a fan of these two men.
As the book opens, Biden sits at home in Delaware quietly seething. He’s restless after eight years in Washington and nursing a sore spot over the fact that his supposed “best friend,” Barack, hasn’t contacted him in months. As the former president gallivants around the world with celebrities, Biden is drawn into the suspicious death of conductor Finn Donnelly back home. A train hit Donnelly, a close friend of Biden’s, and Biden knows better than to suspect poor health or suicide. When a map printout that had been in Donnelly’s possession containing Biden’s address in the search bar materializes, Biden suspects there’s more going on than the police are saying.
Narrated by Biden doing his best Sam Spade impression, Hope Never Dieskeeps up a steady stream of laughs and twists, in that order. The real fun ramps up when Obama joins the crusade for justice, which doesn’t always remain inside the confines of the law. The former leaders of the free world contend with false leads, renegade biker gangs, corrupt cops, and drug runners. As two of the most recognizable people in the world, it’s easy to visualize them actually doing and saying these things, which makes it all the more fun.
Yet the story mines its best material from the imagined strained relationship between the pair. After working side by side for eight years and becoming friends, Obama and Biden aren’t sure how their relationship is supposed to operate as private citizens. Shaffer wisely keeps the story focused on the mystery, choosing to mention just enough of their White House years to keep the story believable. Trump is never mentioned by name. Biden contemplates a run in 2020, but we never learn the outcome of his decision. If there’s anything that feels out of place, it’s that Biden never once mentions his son’s, Beau’s, death. It seems right for Shaffer not to go there, but feels odd that with all that happens this would never once cross Biden’s mind.
Hope Never Dies is the lighthearted antidote for our tense political times, the escapist summer book we all need. Once you read it, you’ll want more. And your hope doesn’t have to die yet. One can look forward to a sequel—an untitled second Obama/Biden mystery is already in the works, according to Shaffer’s website.
Hope Never Dies is out July 10 from Quirk Books.
Matt Grant is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.