The Capital of Comedy
By KYLE SMITH
July 13, 2007; Page W5
Loyalty in Washington? You'd have an easier time finding a monster truck rally in Paris. Two wicked new novels give detailed lessons in the art of D.C. jujitsu -- simultaneously shaking someone's hand, passing him a drink and stabbing him in the back.
"The Coup," by Playboy managing editor Jamie Malanowski, out-Buckleys Christopher Buckley with its foul-mouthed honchos, twisted strivers and snaky reporters, all of them slightly less deserving of respect than their counterparts in real life (or so one hopes). The plot springs from the exasperated ambition of Godwin Pope -- wonderful sanctimony in that name -- a software mogul who, caught by a passing wave of outsider adulation, finds himself running for president.
Pope flames out in debate, though, because his folksy rival, Jack Mahone, answers one point with the catchphrase, "How come there's no almonds in my chocolate bar?" This riposte wins a campaign-altering laugh and disqualifies the puzzled Pope for the office of chief executive on the grounds of insufficient knowledge of Hershey's TV commercials.
Pope, bored, winds up as Mahone's vice president but not his friend, all the while carefully storing his humiliation. Glancing at the characters around him at a ritually dull party, Pope conceives in a flash a plan that could result in the impeachment of the president, who has done nothing wrong, and give Pope a promotion.
The one-man coup is so fiendishly plausible that explaining it would give away the central pleasure of Mr. Malanowski's fast-paced and entertaining fable. But even if "The Coup" didn't offer such machine-tooled plotting, it would be a delight for its punchy dialogue and such cheerfully sordid characters as Maggie, the "shimmering" reporter who is accustomed to getting her scoops in bed and, having been caught out, is given one more chance by a disgusted boss. "Half the leaders in the Middle East kept your panties as a souvenir," says the editor accusingly. Maggie mutters in return, "It's just not true." But she is merely thinking, Mr. Malanowski observes, "that no empirical investigation would ever show that half the leaders in the Middle East, an exact 50 percent, had kept her panties as a souvenir. Hell, to a lot of those kinds of meetings in those years, Maggie hadn't even worn panties."
"The Coup" is savvy on the sophistication of modern polling techniques. At one point the president is told that "fifty-eight percent think you should resign, sixty-five percent say you should be impeached, and sixty-six percent say both." The novel is also clear-eyed about the way great legislation is made: "You don't bribe these people to do something," a mogul explains. "You go to jail for that. What you got to do is figure out how to give them money all year long, then maybe they think of you when your issue comes up. One gift, one time -- that's bribery. Lots of gifts over a long time -- that's politics." In such an atmosphere, Godwin Pope is not some outlier up to no good but a familiar species of smooth opportunist, part of the fauna of Washington's peculiar habitat.
If "The Coup" is cool, Jeffrey Frank's "Trudy Hopedale" is chilly, taking us on a brief journey through a few months in the capital-city lives of two unreliable narrators: the title character, a Washington hostess and television personality given to fawning dinner parties and extreme unction; and one of her favorite guests, Donald Frizzé, a stuffy young historian whose books, about forgotten vice presidents, are in no danger of being read. Each of these people has a few secrets that it wouldn't be proper to mention aloud -- whispering is so much better. They try to preserve their regal pretensions with self-important, exquisitely reserved interior monologues that are belied by failings they can't quite hide. As the book opens, it is spring 2000, and news programs compete for Frizzé's sober comments on the Gore-Bush presidential race even as Frizzé struggles with his latest project, a book about Garret Hobart, the vice president to William McKinley who wisely died to make way for Teddy Roosevelt.
The novel's historical moment -- the book ends in August 2001 -- is a signal for end-of-innocence nostalgia, and several characters refer to what now seem frivolous topics, such as the Bill Clinton follies or the shark attacks that captivated the media that summer. A Republican is said to be "thinking of taking up the oboe if Gore won," neatly summing up the micro-stakes of a pre-9/11 world.
Mr. Frank, an editor at the New Yorker who previously wrote the novels "Bad Publicity" and "The Columnist," doesn't force the point, though; "Trudy Hopedale" is a society novel that could take place at any time, though the Lewinsky circus makes undignified noises in the distance. The plot turns on the efforts of both Trudy and Donald to maintain their respective positions as each faces potential ruin from scandal. Describing such maneuverings, Mr. Frank can be as delicately lethal as Edith Wharton or Henry James. He constructs a tale of status reversals and lies avenged, leaving several major events to happen in a hush offstage as though it would be unseemly for us to witness them.
Part of the novel's appeal is Mr. Frank's stealthy wit. He stands as stone-faced as a butler in the background while his characters feast on self-delusion. Trudy's husband, Roger, is an eminence grise who has written books like "The Edge of American Power: The Paradox of Supremacy," which, as Mr. Frank drily puts it, "few took note of, probably because dozens of other books had roughly the same title." Roger inspires threats from an old spook, who thinks that Roger's latest book, an iridescently awful attempt at spy fiction, might contain classified information. Mr. Frank has great fun peeking at its actual contents ("Mitch nibbled the nubs of Tootsie's mottled nipples"). Roger boasts that the book is in the tradition of John Grisham -- and John Updike. "The two Johns," he says. "They're my chief influences."
The names in the novel capture both Washington's stolid pomposity and its feral bloodlust. The spook is called Royal Arsine; a rapacious talk-radio host, Bucky Ravenschlag; a heavy-thighed reporter, Jennifer Pouch. Perhaps because of the planetary pull of Bill Clinton's scandals, sex seems to alter every orbit in "Trudy Hopedale." Even Trudy's mother-in-law is now claiming that she bedded Harry Truman. It isn't long before Trudy herself, for all her affectation of a high-society upbringing, says to herself, contemplating a blackmail threat: "I'm not ashamed... of the few months I spent dancing at a bar in Detroit, where I took off some of my clothes, but not all of them, and definitely never the bottoms." It is comforting to know that, even in the Clinton era, some principles remained important. Or did they? As Trudy says of another Washington ideal: "Deep down, I really believe that. Or I think I do."
Mr. Smith is a film critic for The New York Post who blogs at kylesmithonline.com1
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By Jamie Malanowski
(Doubleday, 240 pages, $22.95)
By Jeffrey Frank
(Simon & Schuster, 225 pages, $24)