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By Diane White
Albert Brooks is a keen and critical social observer, attested by his work as screenwriter, director, actor, and comedian. His first novel, “Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America’’ is an inspired work of social science fiction, thoughtful and ambitiously conceived, both serious and seriously funny.
In the year 2030 the United States is trillions of dollars in debt to China. Cancer has been cured, so more people are living longer, draining the Treasury with health care and other entitlements, while remaining youthful due to various medical and cosmetic breakthroughs. Millions of insensible people are kept alive, hooked up at great cost to expensive machines to appease powerful religious lobbies, and the influential nursing home industry. Young people feel they have no future and resent the “olds’’ for gobbling up their tax dollars. “He never even sent me a birthday present,’’ says one young man of his grandfather. “and now I have to pay for his wheelchair.’’
America has elected its first Jewish president, Matthew Bernstein. His mother is Roman Catholic which, strictly speaking, means he’s not Jewish. “But if you’re running for president of the United States, even living on the same street as a Jew makes you one,’’ Brooks writes. Bernstein is frustrated because he feels powerless. There is no money to launch meaningful programs. Initiating change is impossible. The “youngs’’ are forming “resentment gangs’’ and using violence against the “olds.’’ When a 9.1 earthquake hits Southern California, flattening Los Angeles, there’s not enough money in the Treasury to cope with the crisis, let alone rebuild the city.
Brooks assembles a large cast of characters, juggling multiple points of view and story lines, and laces the narrative with his particular peevish humor. Brooks knows how to tell a story, writes lively and convincing dialogue, and develops his characters enough to make them interesting.
Among them is Brad Miller, an 80-year-old retiree, who survives the destruction of his Los Angeles condominium and finds himself living in a tent the size of a football field, on the site of the ruined Rose Bowl, waiting for an insurance check that may never arrive. Kathy Barnard, a 19-year old waitress, is typical of the nation’s financially burdened young people. She puts off plans for college because she’s so deeply in debt due to medical bills incurred by her late father. She falls in love with charismatic Max Leonard, a young radical who believes that violence is the only way to end the tyranny of the “olds.’’
Shen Li, a brilliant young Chinese businessman, transformed the health care system in China. Dr. Sam Mueller, the man who cured cancer, is rich and revered by the “olds.’’ Science professor Walter Masters watched his wife lie in a coma for six years before she died. He vowed to help other families in similar situations, but since the earthquake he’s overwhelmed by requests for euthanasia from people who are healthy but simply don’t want to go on living.
At the White House, first lady Betsy Bernstein gives tours of the premises, which she’s redecorated with vintage 1950s American furniture, while her husband nurtures an infatuation with his Secretary of the Treasury, 70-year-old Susanna P. Colbert. President Bernstein has a radical plan to resolve the nation’s fiscal crisis, a plan that proves surprisingly popular with Congress and voters. “Twenty Thirty’’ is provocative as well as entertaining. It may be science fiction, but it is rooted firmly in the realities of life in 2011.