THE COLUMNIST: A Novel.
by Jeffrey Frank
Simon & Schuster, $22.00
IT'S ALWAYS A CONFLICT OF interest when a conservative writes for a magazine published by the vast left-wing conspiracy. In this case, doubly so.
You'll see on the dust jacket of this novel a blurb by this reviewer.
The book was sent to me some months ago with a request for a sentence or two of puffery. Groan. A novel about a Washington columnist? Better bamboo slivers under the finger-nails. Then I picked it up. It was about noon on a Saturday. I finished it around five that afternoon. I've not done that in a very long time. I wrote the blurb, then sent the author, Jeffrey Frank, an old friend, an embarrassing e-mail in which I said something to the effect that I felt like Edward Everett, who also spoke at Gettysburg that day-for two hours--and was left to write the other guy who spoke and tell him that he had come closer to the essence of the thing in two minutes. The Columnist may not be the Gettysburg Address, but it comes closer to perfectly satirizing a certain Washington type than anything else I've read. It's as dark as chocolate find every bit as tasty.
One week later, an editor of the Monthly called and asked if I would review the book. I said that this would constitute a grave conflict of interest that no magazine of integrity could countenance. He replied, "Could we have it in two weeks?"
Jeffrey Frank is an editor at the New Yorker magazine. Before that, he was an editor at The Washington Post's Style section and, before that, he worked at the Washington Star. He is in his fifties and if this is not quite his first novel, it is his first great American novel, which surely stands as a rebuke to the rest of us who, athwart the golden admonition, began writing novels before the age of 40.
This is not a pretty story. Its main character is one Brandon Sladder, a young conniver from upstate New York who works his way up the ladder one backstab at a time until he becomes a certified Washington pundit-eminence. I'm not going to speculate on whom it's based, or about the real-life identities of the other characters. As someone who has dabbled (with far less skill) in this field, I'm in enough trouble already. You can figure it out for yourself. It should leave people sputtering and denying that they were the model for so-and-so. Watch for the Post to run a chart of the characters.
There have been plenty of novels about homo punditus Washingtoniensis insufferabilis. The triumph of this one is tone. It's Balzac as word-processed by Philip Roth, only, for my two cents, funnier. Warning: It ends up bleaker than an Alan Greenspan rate-hike, but even as you recoil, you chortle at Brandon's come-uppance. The satire runs so deep that here and there it takes a few seconds before you realize you've just been spun.
This starts in chapter one when the elder Brandon, his career over and having been through so many slings and arrows he resembles a WASP Saint Sebastian with eyeglasses, and bow tie, is chomping on canapes at "a cocktail party in the home of a wise cabinet officer, one of those happy occasions when everything is `off the record,' When we're Americans first and antagonists second" Okay. Right away we know that we are in the narrative hands of a real ... dick. Fictionally speaking, my kind of folks.
In the next beat, the terminally but deliciously pompous Brandon is sucking up compliments from "George Bush the elder," who urges him to write it all down, the story of his life. "Don't hold back," 41 tells him. The idea of George Bush telling a self- important Washington columnist to let 'er rip is, to say the least, a daring premise. But let 'er rip he does, of course, "in the spirit of a Bildungsroman"
His bildung leaves a trail of wreckage. After college he gets a job at the Buffalo Vindicator, where he screws not only his boss but his poor old dad. He accompanies the editor to a conference in Washington. "By the time we reached our destination, the Mayflower Hotel on lower Connecticut Avenue, I unashamedly confronted my ambition to live here" You go, girl! He encounters Bob McNamara, "the weight of decision on his shrewd, smooth face." He dines at Harvey's and has his "first glimpse of J. Edgar Hoover, seated in a booth with a male friend." Not since Lucien de Rubempre arrived in Paris has a more unsatisfactory, impressionable country boy been blinded by obelisks and bright lights.
He leaves old Buffalo behind in the dust, moves to D.C., starves, meets a British hooker named Zoe, who introduces him to "Deputy Secretary X" who mentors him along until he lands a wonk staff job at New Terrain, a wee but potent policy rag lorded over by one Tobias Goldenstein. The literary editor of New Terrain is Lionel Heftihed, "an arrogant sort." We're off and running.
Fame, success, and good seating at ghastly dinner'parties follow, along with love and sex. Sex is hard to write--especially Potomac sex, which too often comes with agendas instead of garter belts and crotchless panties--and Frank does these scenes wonderfully well. Brandon marries up, screws up, and having reached the dizzying top of the parabolic career trajectory, he begins his Icarus descent into Foggy Bottom. Splat.
How does the blurb go? This book is a stunner. Satire at its most exquisite. Wish I'd said that.
CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY5 latest novel is Little Green Men.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2001|
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