Smart, Decent Mayor Elected! (Okay, So It’s a Comic Novel)

Dog Bites Man: City Shocked! , by James Duffy. Simon and Schuster, 302 pages, $24.

There will be only three New York City newspapers that matter a couple of years from now, according to James Duffy’s entertaining comic novel about the downfall of our next Mayor. One is The Times , thank goodness, which will remain “restrained and fair.” The second will be called The Post-News –a merger of the two tabloids. That name is the occasion for some amusing swipes from Mr. Duffy, including the observation that one might see “‘postnews’ as a subset of postmodernism.” But the real player in town will be an “irreverent weekly newspaper, The Surveyor ,” which manages to be “hip, jazzy and crusading,” all at the same time–and all for a dollar. This town could use a paper like that.

The Surveyor , it emerges, is the engine that makes the city run. The book opens with one of those Park Avenue dinner parties at which all important urban affairs are apparently decided. The editor of The Surveyor is there, naturally. He and the other guests, in jest at first and then in earnest, propose to support a Columbia professor named Eldon Hoagland for Mayor. He’s an expert in urban affairs and is smart, thoughtful, witty and decent to boot–which is to say he’d be a terrible Mayor, and has shortcomings as the central character in a novel, too.

Once Hoagland agrees to run, The Surveyor comes “to resemble a campaign handbill with its lavish praise of the dream candidate.” He wins, having campaigned on “sensible, innovative, incremental programs for enriching education, creating jobs and jump-starting the city’s economy.” Hey, it’s a novel. And just to confirm it’s a fantasy, Mr. Duffy has the press collectively buy “the line that the new mayor was a class act and that the city was the beneficiary of a sort of meritocratic noblesse oblige.”

Mr. Duffy has Hoagland reflect on what made him run: “A sense of duty? Yes, that was it. Princeton in the Nation’s Service: Woodrow Wilson ’79, Adlai Stevenson ’22, Eldon Hoagland ’54.” Mr. Duffy, it will not surprise you to learn, is a Princeton man, too (’56).

Hoagland does have a flaw: He likes to get together with a college crony every once in a while and get plastered. The aftermath of such an evening sets the book’s plot in motion. Mr. Duffy concocts a suitably absurd little scandal involving a dog, firearms and a cover-up. The key incident, which involves gunplay, happens before midnight on Fifth Avenue around 62nd Street, and the reader must accept that there was no one around to take note. Mr. Duffy must get to bed early.

He may be a little fatigued: After practicing corporate law at Cravath, Swaine & Moore for 30 years, he has done quite a bit of writing. Mr. Duffy is the author of a series of mysteries under the pen name Haughton Murphy; they feature a genteel, retired corporate lawyer and amateur sleuth named Reuben Frost and bear titles like Murders and Acquisitions .

This is Mr. Duffy’s first novel under his own name. He knows his way around New York City’s establishment and curious political landscape. He is a fluid and lively writer, which is a good thing, because he has chosen a difficult genre for this quasi-debut. The comic novel of contemporary politics and manners is a hell of a tough thing to pull off. Mr. Duffy aims for a middle ground between the assertively transgressive Tom Wolfe of The Bonfire of the Vanities and the lighter, jokier novels of Christopher Buckley.

Mr. Duffy strays into Wolfe territory in his vivid and decidedly politically incorrect portrayals of a Native American socialite, her Albanian dog-walker and lover, and various other minor characters of one and another ethnicity. But it’s not clear that his heart is in it. He lacks Mr. Wolfe’s fiery disdain, and there is something rote and almost required about the stereotyping. It’s as though a certain kind of satire requires the offhand ethnic put-down to show its independence from the ruling orthodoxies.

Mr. Duffy does exhibit an entirely earnest appreciation for the “old New York names and possessors of old money,” who do not receive the civic attention accorded to “members of more vocal and conspicuous minorities.”

But Mr. Duffy doesn’t really lay into, say, the figure of Artemis Payne, his black Public Advocate, except to note that he “graduated from City College and Cardozo Law School” and had “never succeeded in developing a practice that prospered, a hard task for any lawyer without a staff of junior lawyers and paralegals.” Coming from a Princeton and Harvard Law man, and a former Cravath partner, that’s tough stuff.

The book might have benefited from a little less coyness. Names are changed or omitted for no especially good reason. A little reality might have grounded the farce in a closer approximation of our world. In discussing the term-limit law that gives Hoagland his shot, for instance, Mr. Duffy notes that it was “enacted through the efforts and expenditures of a wealthy ‘civic reformer’ who mistakenly thought that shorter terms for incumbents would eventually give him a chance for elective office.” The reference is plainly to Ronald S. Lauder; was there a reason not to say so?

Similarly, the slightly too-good-to-be-true Hoagland talks about a former Mayor who can only be Rudolph W. Giuliani: “Don’t forget,” he tells the police commissioner, “I promised in the campaign that City Hall would no longer be the Kremlin, as my beloved predecessor had made it. And I said we’d get rid of all the fascist gimmicks he used to suppress dissent. Remember?”

Dog Bites Man is punctuated with mock newspaper articles set off in boldface. While Mr. Duffy’s ear for newspaper writing is not always perfect, the device is diverting and sometimes moves the story forward in surprising ways. The Surveyor leads the attack against Hoagland, causing a reporter there to muse about the vagaries of the newspaper business: “Shamelessly boosting Eldon Hoagland for months and then turning on him when the chance for a hot headline came along–is that what journalism was about?” Some questions answer themselves.

Fueled by a more-than-ample supply of plot, the book chugs along. The narrative sometimes seems a little too brisk and linear, and you appreciate the moments when Mr. Duffy pauses to give a fuller sense of an occasion. On benefit dinners, for instance: “Their banal sameness was predictable: an execrable dinner in a badly ventilated hotel ballroom, hackneyed and overlong speeches extolling the honoree of the evening (read: a successful C.E.O. whose corporation had taken two or three pricey tables to support the sponsoring charity).” Albany, he writes, is “the snowbound Brasilia.” A low-wattage politician is “an appreciative dais sitter.”

The denouement of Dog Bites Man is the product, of all things, of various statutes entirely of a piece with the over-the-top goings-on in the rest of the book. I was sure they were fanciful creations of a retired lawyer’s imagination, and rather admired Mr. Duffy’s craft in drafting them. But since Mr. Duffy went so far as to provide fake-sounding citations–just the thing to keep the comedy humming!–the dutiful reviewer went and checked. Suffice it to say that Mr. Duffy has here overcome his coyness.

It turns out that Section 353 of the Agriculture and Markets Law does allow prosecution of anyone who “causes, procures or permits” the killing of an animal, which is not so surprising unless you’re a butcher or a hunter. But did you know that Section 371 of that same law allows the ASPCA to perform arrests? Better still, did you know that Section 33 of the State Public Officers Law allows the Governor to remove mayors essentially at will? Do you suppose Governor Pataki has ever been tempted?

Adam Liptak is a lawyer at The New York Times.