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Reality Fiction

FEATURE: A bestseller with his very first novel, author Joel C.

So just exactly who, the book-reading public will be asking more and more in the next few days and weeks, is this fellow Joel C. Rosenberg?

"I thought he was a news journalist," responded a stockbroker from Wilmington, Del. "Didn't he used to do a page in WORLD magazine? Didn't he write a kind of political gossip column from Washington called 'Flash Traffic'? And I think I heard that before that, he was a researcher and fact-checker for Rush Limbaugh." The broker was right.

"Un-unh," countered the broker's wife. "He's a novelist. He does political thrillers. He did one last year called The Last Jihad, and I think it was a bestseller." The broker's wife was also right: The Last Jihad spent 11 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, hit No. 4 on The Wall Street Journal's list, and rose to No. 1 on Amazon.com.

So what are Joel Rosenberg's tools? Investigation, the instrument of the journalist, or imagination, the tool of the novelist? He uses them both-and regularly leaves readers shaking their heads and asking: Is this fiction or is it reality?

Readers may shake their heads in bewilderment again next week when Mr. Rosenberg's second novel, The Last Days, hits bookstores across the country. The Last Days is very much and very explicitly a sequel to Mr. Rosenberg's 2002 action-stuffed bestseller The Last Jihad-and both books have hit the market with an uncanny correlation to real-life contemporary news events.

The Last Jihad, for example, opened with a dramatic suicidal jet airplane attack on a presidential motorcade-a plot author Rosenberg had already committed to his computer when an eerily similar plot unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001. The closing chapters of that book were all about a preemptive war by the United States to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Actual war followed publication of the book by only a few months.

Now, in the early pages of Last Days, Mr. Rosenberg has PLO leader Yasser Arafat being assassinated by a member of his own security staff-a plot that was edited and printed just a few weeks (in real life and real time) before Israel indicated in mid-September that Mr. Arafat needs to be removed by almost any means.

"I want my novels to feel so real you're not sure what's fact and what's fiction," Mr. Rosenberg told WORLD. That can be dangerous in that his stories could be overtaken by events-especially with a fast-moving, always-changing part of the world like the Middle East-but he considers it a worthwhile risk because the thrill of the story flows from the realism. Whether Mr. Rosenberg is describing weapons (from side arms to missiles) or geography (from Jerusalem to Gibraltar to Denver), he's almost always done enough thorough research to persuade the reader: He's been there; he's done that.

Even with reference to what some might consider the more outrageous assumptions of Mr. Rosenberg's tales, he claims some basis in fact. At the core of the story is the discovery of vast oil reserves underneath the Mediterranean just off the Israeli and Palestinian coast. "Many people," says Mr. Rosenberg, "think I've made this up from whole cloth.... If you watch carefully, you'll see experts beginning to link that petroleum to future peace processes." Mr. Rosenberg points to specific stories in the Sept. 15, 2000, issue of The New York Times, and to trade journal articles as recently as this past February, to confirm his claims about petroleum deposits in the Mediterranean.

On one issue, Mr. Rosenberg makes no effort to provide a fit between his fiction and historical reality. His story is set in the year 2011-but because the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad has just occurred as the book gets underway, the reader gets caught in a confusing time warp.

And with reference to character development in his stories, Mr. Rosenberg may also still be charged by some of his readers (even his fans) with coming up a little short. "I've really come to like Jonathan Bennett and Erin McCoy," says Fred Chalmers of Tulsa, Okla., referring to the two main protagonists in both Rosenberg books (Mr. Chalmers earlier this month got a sneak preview of The Last Days). "But I'm not sure Rosenberg has the knack yet for rich and persuasive character development. It's better in The Last Days than in the first book-so maybe he's getting it." But if the characters are occasionally a little plastic (and if Erin McCoy especially is just a tad too beautiful and too perfect), that's a minor matter for Mr. Chalmers, who is still very much an enthusiast for Mr. Rosenberg's authentic settings and action, wrapped in the context of newspaper-like reporting.

The journalist/novelist split, however, is not the only one calculated to puzzle Rosenberg readers. "Is Mr. Rosenberg just a good storyteller," someone might understandably ask-"or does he have some message behind his story?" The question might be prompted by either the political or the religious themes in the books.

Mr. Rosenberg, after all, is enthusiastic about his Christian convictions, but not too distant from his Jewish heritage. So it's not surprising to find woven into his tales a nuanced endorsement of the Christian gospel and a deft backing for the state of Israel. Neither is as explicit on either front as is Tyndale House's hugely successful Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. But Mr. Rosenberg, while sharing some leanings with the LaHaye-Jenkins approach, has kept his plots-at least so far-this side of any big end-times and overtly eschatological events. The book's title, The Last Days, seems to be a deliberately ambiguous come-on, and for some will promise more than it delivers.

"It was the publisher who wanted something more apocalyptic," Mr. Rosenberg insists. And that's unusual considering the publisher-Tor/Forge of New York City-is a secular publishing house. Did he feel any pressure to throttle back his Christian content in order to make his fiction more palatable to a broader audience? Mr. Rosenberg says he was "a bit anxious at first" that publishers or editors might have insisted he soft-pedal his worldview, but they have "been incredibly supportive."

"What's cool is that it's paying off for them."

In one understated, believable, and nonformulaic passage, one of The Last Days's main characters becomes a Christian by acknowledging his own sinfulness and the plan of God for salvation. The passage is authentic partly because the dialogue at that point is so consistent with the international crisis surrounding it. "When you're trying to solve a mystery," says one of the characters, "the best place to go is to your most trustworthy source." It's a quietly stated argument for biblical authority that makes good sense in its context.

That's Mr. Rosenberg's desire: "to develop a tool for people to share their faith by giving people a New York Times bestseller with the gospel tucked inside."

The argument for Israel is a bit more heavy-handed, although perhaps integral to the plot. The fictional plot's focus is on reaching agreement on a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians. But when the account spells out over half a dozen pages an actual eight-point "U.S. Proposal for Peace and Prosperity," you can't escape the sense that Mr. Rosenberg really believes his ideas might form the basis for a real-life agreement. After all, the Bush administration's so-called "Roadmap" for peace in the Mideast was pronounced all but dead just last week-so why shouldn't the next proposal come from a novel?

But in fact, for all his pro-Israel leanings, Mr. Rosenberg takes pains repeatedly to identify with the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause. In one moving passage, he even helps the reader enter the sad psyche of a loyal follower of Saddam Hussein who vows to avenge the overthrow of his leader by staking out a life of terror against the United States.

In the end, Joel Rosenberg's stories are better seen as just good entertainment than as evangelistic or political tracts. As such, The Last Days may have significant commercial potential over the next few weeks. The Last Jihad is now approaching some 300,000 copies in print and the publisher thinks the Rosenberg sequel will do even better. To show that their expectations are more than mere optimism, Tor/Forge executives gave Mr. Rosenberg an advance of over a million dollars for the manuscript for The Last Days-and ordered 180,000 copies of the book's first printing.

All that may be a test of Mr. Rosenberg's own eschatological expectations (he calls himself "a strategic optimist but a tactical pessimist"). But he acknowledged that at least in terms of the next few months, he'd really prefer a peace settlement in the Middle East to the apocalyptic and cataclysmic ending that a phrase like The Last Days suggests. "That's what the region needs."