Total 'Eclipse'

Richard North Patterson takes on the Nigerian and Western petrolords
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Tredmond@sfbg.com

REVIEW Mass market novels of the mystery and thriller kind are not known for their progressive politics. The most popular authors of the political adventure set are the likes of Tom Clancy, who thinks we're still at war with Japan and ought to be at war with China. The detective novelists tend to glorify law enforcement and disparage those weak-willed sorts who would rein in the mighty and righteous gun-wielding police. My favorite new character, Jack Reacher, who has made Lee Child a massive international best-selling writer, is a former military cop with a taste for violent vengeance.

But of course I read this stuff. It's my guilty pleasure, what I do to relax over with my whiskey before bed, while my beloved partner is watching Super Nanny. As Pete Townshend used to say, each to his own sewage.

I've read almost everything San Francisco resident Richard North Patterson has written, and he's a rarity. His stuff tends to go in a more liberal direction. (It also tends to have a subplot involving teenage sex.) He's written about the death penalty and the criminal justice system and American politics, and his characters have more depth than John Grisham's. I like him, but I've never raved.

But I do want to recommend Patterson's latest book, Eclipse (Henry Holt and Co., 384 pages, $26). Not because it's the most brilliant writing he's ever written, but because it's a real-life political novel that reveals, in graphic detail, the impact oil companies like Chevron Corp. have on the Niger River delta. Eclipse is a fictionalized account of the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an eloquent and charismatic environmentalist who tried desperately to tell the world how oil money had corrupted Nigeria and how the Western oil companies were conspiring with the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha to stifle dissent. He was hanged 15 years ago by Abacha; his legacy drives the protest movement that is still trying to force the petrolords to take responsibility for what they have done to the delta environment, its tribal residents, and the Nigerian people. Eclipse didn't put me to sleep — it made me mad. It reminded me of what American companies are allowed to do to the rest of the world, with impunity. It's a story, with Patterson's typical devices (for example, I don't have any reason to believe Saro-Wiwa's wife had an affair with his lawyer). But there's enough truth in it to make you think. And that makes Patterson's novel, in a unique and surprising way, an important political book.