By D.G. Martin D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit unctv.org/ncbookwatch.

Codes of loyalty lead to corruption in a new novel

By D.G. Martin Posted October 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Close friendships and lifelong loyalty: these are good things, aren’t they?

Don’t we admire the way some childhood friends look out for each other all their lives?

And don’t the close bonds that develop among participants in sports, camping, and hunting activities lead to life enriching relationships?

Yes, says author Jon Buchan, the guest on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend.

But, he continues, when it comes to government, these admirable relationships can lead to cronyism and corruption.
This kind of cronyism and corruption forms the setting for Buchan’s new book, “Code of the Forest.” The codes of loyalty and friendship in his book develop at a fictional prep school in Virginia called Westminster Forest, not unlike Woodberry Forest where Buchan went to high school.

These codes also develop in real forests like those of the low country of South Carolina where wealthy business leaders and politicians gather in hunting lodges and preserves to hunt, play cards, drink, socialize, and build trust and friendships.

At these clubs, according to Buchan, they might raise ducks, put them on a big ladder, and release them right over the blinds where the guests are waiting for a shot. He describes one such place in low country South Carolina where a trout stream had been created and stocked for the guests’ enjoyment.

After hunting and fishing, they tell a few jokes, swap stories, and get down to deal.

“Good feelings,” says Buchan are the breeding ground for corrupt deals against the public.”

The code that develops is unspoken. It is simply understood that “we’ll help each other whenever it is needed.”

In Buchan’s novel a deal develops at a hunting preserve called Bowman’s Forest. A group that includes a powerful state senator, an environmental regulator, and a phosphate mining company representative arrange to get permits issued for the mining. Those who help will be rewarded generously but secretly.

A small-town newspaper owner gets solid information about the deal from a source who insists on anonymity. The newspaper publishes the story and names the participants. The result is a libel suit against the newspaper owner and a demand to know the source’s identity.

Author Buchan then takes his reader from the corrupt deal being forged into the complicated, tortuous, painful legal process that accompanies a libel lawsuit.

Buchan is well equipped for the task.

He has covered politics as a newspaper reporter and editor for the Charlotte Observer, where he learned first hand the sad results of corruption and cronyism in government. And, as a well-respected Charlotte lawyer, he represents newspapers and media outlets in just the kind of libel actions he describes in his book.

Ron Rash, the author of “Serena,” another book about the corruption that can accompany the despoiling of nature, writes, “With a sharp eye and perfect pitch, Jon Buchan unravels the Gothic politics that reside in the soul of the South. He reveals a great deal about law, love and life among the live oaks, as well as the power and influence that come from having ducks in your freezer.”

When I ask Buchan on Bookwatch if the corruption he describes in his book is the rule, he says simply, diplomatically, and maybe a little evasively, “I like to think that corruption is just the exception.”

I ask him if the culture he describes is limited to South Carolina or does it operate in North Carolina, too. He says that it is not limited to either state.

Thus, Buchan’s entertaining saga is also a warning.

Watch your government.

Remember, Buchan told me, what legendary 1890s political power broker Mark Hanna said. ‘There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.’
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