Reviewing books for Publisher’s Weekly has its perks: free books, a very small but nevertheless useful paycheck, titillating dinner conversations, knowing the future, etc. Usually the books fall into the category of “literary” or “sci-fi” or “noir,” or other categories readily identifiable in a bookstore. So when our editor emailed and asked if we would consider reviewing Newt Gingrich’s historical novel called THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER, we were kind of blown away.

This is happening, people.

Usually, and apparently, books written by important people get reviewed by important people (as opposed to, say, the Literary Man). For instance, when David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel came out earlier this year, it was reviewed by Tom McCarthy. In the case of the Newtster, however, no one in the office was willing to read this thing. There are some bad books that get reviewed by PW — seriously — but this one, supposedly, got passed around for weeks, until the publication date (11/8/11) actually came and went, without anyone sacking up to take this sucker down. Whoops! Normally those reviews get done weeks ahead of publication! And so now, it has fallen to us, the Literary Team, to conquer this historical juggernaut, this ode to the 1860s, this bastion of bastardly brainpower bruising its bulky way through the beefy waters of I don’t remember how this sentence started.

We enter this game with excitement and trepidation. Not really knowing anything about the book, we turned, of course, to Wikipedia to learn what THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER was really all about:

The Battle of the Crater was a battle of the American Civil War, part of the Siege of Petersburg. It took place on July 30, 1864, between the ConfederateArmy of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General George G. Meade(under the direct supervision of the general-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant).

After weeks of preparation, on July 30 the Federals exploded a mine in Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps sector, blowing a gap in the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, Virginia. From this propitious beginning, everything deteriorated rapidly for the Union attackers. Unit after unit charged into and around the crater, where soldiers milled in confusion. Grant considered the assault “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”

So that’s what Newt’s novel is “about.” But what is it about, really? Is this just a fictional retelling of some tragic Union defeat in 1864? Is there really an audience for this obscure historical event more than 145 years later? And who is Newt’s co-author, this seemingly omnipotent, crab-loving man named “William R. Forstchen”?  We will document these dark days of reading ahead of us. In the letter from St. Martin’s (the publisher), it says “the authors are available for interviews; please call us to schedule,” which means we’re totally going to meet the Newtster when this thing is finished. Stay tuned, literarians, let the reading begin.