By the final days of the Obama Administration, there was, among those inclined to recognize it, much warm feeling attached to the odd-couple bromance between the President and the Vice-President, Joe Biden. An image of the two men laughing in the stands at a basketball game, in 2012, had long before become the stuff of memes, setting the terms for the pair’s dynamic—Biden effusive and grabby, Obama warily amused. In August, 2016, on the occasion of Obama’s fifty-fifth birthday, Biden tweeted out an image of friendship bracelets featuring the two men’s first names, writing, of Obama, “A brother to me, a best friend forever.” Obama, in turn, called Biden his brother when awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, during a surprise ceremony just days before the two left office. Biden wept openly, and by that point, with Obama and Biden shortly giving way to Trump and Pence, there was a note of sadness to the partnership, the twinge of a twist ending and a legacy thrust into uncertainty.
It’s here, in a purgatory of unfinished business, that we find Joseph R. Biden, Jr., in the opening pages of “Hope Never Dies,” a mystery-thriller-fan-fiction mash-up by Andrew Shaffer that imagines Biden and Obama as crime fighters who set out to clean up the opioid-ravaged streets of Wilmington, Delaware. “These days, nobody seemed to want my help,” Biden, who narrates the novel, muses, sitting alone at night in his lake house. He’d looked on with jealousy as Obama had taken a world tour after leaving office, hanging out with celebrities and parasailing off the coasts of private islands. Obama hadn’t been in touch; “He was too big for one best friend,” Biden laments. Then, in the dark woods, Biden sees a “pinprick of orange light” that can mean only one thing: his pal and his Marlboro Reds are back. But Obama has returned with bad news: an Amtrak conductor has been struck and killed by a train, and in his pocket the police found a baggie of heroin and a map to Biden’s house. Dun dun dun!
It’s a giddy premise, a bit of Resistance wish-fulfillment for those who’d like to see Biden and Obama trading one-liners and cracking skulls. The pair take on a biker gang, lock horns with a no-nonsense local detective, and, in a very funny sequence, don slacker disguises to blend in with a crowd, with Biden wearing long shorts and a hoodie and Obama wearing a Tapout T-shirt. The Biden character is an amalgam of detective-novel tropes and the beer-swilling, Trans Am-washing Biden character created by the Onion. His two most prized possessions are his Medal of Freedom and a Sig Sauer pistol, which he calls his “bean shooter.” At one point he gives himself the alias Joe Tingler, to Obama’s distress. He refers to his legs as “getaway sticks,” complains that the weather is “as nasty as a devil’s armpit,” and says, “I’m so hungry I could eat the balls off a low-flying goose.” Obama, meanwhile, remains mostly unknowable, capable and cool, but maddeningly, to Biden especially, dispassionate and reserved. He makes Biden buy him protein bars at gas stations and eats apple slices at McDonald’s, and never seems too worried about the mounting mortal danger that the two men are facing. His best moment comes when he gets to threaten the bikers with a shotgun.
Yet, for all its lighthearted genre machinations and optimistic title, the book is suffused with a surprising amount of gloom. There is a clear tension between Obama’s breezy charm and Biden’s earnestness, and Biden, as the narrator, often talks about feeling like a chump for being so openhearted and emotionally sincere. The playful squabbling between the two men masks real wounds on Biden’s part, a shame at needing Obama more than the former President needs him; a feeling of regret for not having run for President himself, in 2016; and even an unspoken anger that Obama had favored Hillary Clinton and gently ushered him aside. “Friends were for children,” Biden observes. “It was time for me to grow up.”
Despite taking on the roles of hard-bitten private investigators, Biden and Obama still talk like politicians. Biden’s narration at times reads like the careful boilerplate of a political memoir; he pauses amid the action to muse on the benefits of Obamacare and plug the new Biden Institute at the University of Delaware. Obama touts the energy benefits of L.E.D. light bulbs and explains the difference between the terms “global warming” and “climate change” to a cashier. “We’re as square as it gets,” Obama says to Biden, who’d rather be Dirty Harry than Harry Truman.
And, as retired public servants, it is hard for Biden and Obama to feel anything but dismay at their roles in recent American history. “We were entering a new age, where there was no absolute right and wrong,” Biden observes, gesturing toward “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and all the rest. “The worst part of it was that it felt like everyone else had already been living there for a long time. I was just finally catching on.” By the end, even Obama is feeling dejected. “I had my eight years,” he says. “There were some wins, but they were few and far between. The slate’s being wiped clean. If anything, we’re going backward.” In the outer reaches of escapism, where Obama and Biden are snooping around motel rooms and fistfighting with crooked cops in between moving train cars, the grim truths of the present remain in view. The book might have been more fun had it been even more outrageous, less tethered to the current moment and mood. On the other hand, you can’t have noir without darkness. Biden and Obama solve the crime, renew their friendship, and live to fight another day. But on a larger scale, as Biden asks his old boss, had they really made a difference? “I just don’t know, Joe,” Obama replies. “I just don’t know.”