The Columnist , by Jeffrey Frank. Simon & Schuster, 237 pages, $22.
Deep into middle age, New Yorker senior editor Jeffrey Frank has squeezed out a short, clever novel. Readers might expect two things from it. First–since Mr. Frank spent years at The Washington Post and the Washington Star , and since the book’s protagonist is an arrogant and substanceless D.C. pundit–that The Columnist will be sociology in disguise, a send-up à clef of The Way Washingtonians Live (or pretend to live) Now. Second–since Simon & Schuster has blanketed the dust jacket with preemptive raves from Susan Orlean, Christopher Buckley, Kurt Andersen and others who owe a big part of either their livelihoods or their reputations to the magazine Mr. Frank serves–that the book will stink.
Wrong on both counts. The Columnist is a parody of sorts, following the “Great Men I Have Known, Including Myself” model of Washington autobiography. Narrator Brandon Sladder may have George Will’s bow tie, Sidney Blumenthal’s habit of lauding in print the speeches he has secretly written himself, and Lloyd Bentsen’s belief that a single handshake allows one to say one “knew” “Jack” Kennedy. But Sladder is more (and worse) than that. He’s a kind of maleficent Candide, who blackmails, lies, betrays, cheats, fucks, namedrops, marries and blunders his way to the top–and assumes no one will notice. This rare combination of megalomania and naïveté vaults The Columnist right out of the Washington-book genre, so that the capital winds up as little more than the setting for a spectacularly realized English-style humor novel.
The humor arises from Sladder’s unreliability. His dishonesty is so thoroughgoing that he lies even to himself, pompously recasting his sleaziest misdeeds as acts of moral bravery, and mistaking his immediate desires for categorical imperatives. He makes his name at a Buffalo, N.Y., paper with an article on arson that he “researches” by stealing records from his father, an insurance agent. (“I respected my father as the sort of white-collar personage who forms the spine of America,” Sladder recalls.) The act costs Dad Sladder his job. Worse, it condemns him to a penurious old age that embarrasses his social-climbing son. So when Brandon marries into a horse-y Virginia family, he doesn’t invite his parents to the wedding: “I wanted to spare them the strain of a major social event far from home–or, for that matter, the strain of having to decide whether to attend such an event.”
Sladder’s road to national fame starts when he catches his editor in flagrante during a reporting trip to Washington. “When I gave notice,” he recalls, “I had but two small favors to ask: a letter of credential and a few months’ salary to tide me over.” That gets him to D.C., where he interviews a deputy secretary and–oops!–drops the name of a prostitute they both frequent. The classified information he gathers wins him the kudos of publication in New Terrain magazine. He gets his column in the Washington Telegram through his wife’s family, and runs roughshod over the journalists who work there. Sladder reflects, bemused, “I did not develop many lasting friendships in my first year or so in Washington.”
To the habit of condescending to those who are worth 10 of him, Sladder adds a weakness for stupid, self-satisfied, wrong bons mots. He recalls that one beat reporter in Buffalo “had been drafted after high school and had gone to Korea, an experience that certainly shaped his view that the unexamined life is greatly to be preferred.” His cruelest attacks are for those who see through him, like the literary editor Lionel Heftihed, “whose shoddy book about journalism will forever embarrass the critics who praised it and the Pulitzer board that dishonored itself.” Sladder inflicts this mudslinging even on his own family. When his teenage son Branny turns to drugs, he complains that his wife “would accuse me of alienating my son. But it was my distinct impression that the reverse was true–after all, Branny had been alienating me for fifteen years.”
Sladder lacks every evidence of humanity. He has no pity. He sees J.F.K.’s assassination as a chance to get his byline into New Terrain again; when the editor’s daughter wails, “I’m so upset, I’m so upset,” he assumes she’s referring to her unrequited love for him. Like most prudish people, he has no vision of sexuality beyond the pornographic. These pages are full of “peachlike breasts” and “heated hurryings” and “nature’s urgent grip” (and a good thing, too, since “to leave out the firm breast, the moist coupling, the soft descent of lips, would be unfair to readers”). He has no ear: To impress a plain-spoken editor, he laces his conversation with misplaced profanities (“My fucking talents might lie elsewhere …. You see right the fuck through me.”) He has no political curiosity and no reportorial instincts (his idea of a probing Vietnam War question is: “It sounds as if you still believe there is light at the end of that tunnel”), and has so little writing ability that he causes editors to burst out laughing. (“I loved to watch her pencil,” he writes of one, “homing in on the poor phrase, the flawed metaphor, giggling merrily when she saw that it pleased me.”) And finally, he has no irony. “In this community,” he says of his Georgetown set, “I became ever more persuaded that rewards naturally fall to the most accomplished.”
Brandon Sladder, in other words, is a monstrous kind of anti- mensch . Whether Washington creates such people or merely attracts them, all Washingtonians know a Brandon Sladder (or a dozen) and will recognize the crud-rises-to-the-top world he inhabits. Mr. Frank includes enough detail to show he knows this world cold. There is, for instance, Sladder’s bizarre belief, almost universal among Washington writers, that the measure of one’s importance is how many neologisms one can coin (“Gretchen, to my regret, did not … notice when I called for a ‘cathartic consensus’ and introduced that phrase to the language”); the prissy solemnity that baseball seems to elicit in Washington pundits (“the World Series, that autumnal ballet”); the tendency of all Washington memoirists to include one “stunning revelation” (in this case, L.B.J. pulling out his privates and saying, “Brandon, tell me: What is Charles de Gaulle against this?”) that is neither stunning nor a revelation–nor even, in all likelihood, true.
But The Columnist is not really a Washington novel. Sladder’s hypocrisy is a matter of generic human vanity, not of ideology. His politics are vaguely conservative, but basic doltishness, rather than opportunistic inconsistency, is their great failing–as when he urges a politician friend to present himself to poorer constituents as “an ambassador from the nation of learning.” This is not really even an American novel so much as a Victorian satire. Its humor–like that of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889) or George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (1892)–lies in tone and misdirection. Mr. Frank doesn’t strain to be “major.” He makes no clumsy attempts to sneak big truths in through the back door. And he has managed a feat that few besides Kingsley Amis have pulled off in recent decades: He has written an extremely funny book around a character who is, down to the very pith of his being, a bore.
Christopher Caldwell writes a weekly Washington column for the New York Press and is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.