Young Politicos in Love: Flip-Flops Along Spin Alley

Political Animal, by David Mizner. Soho Press, 293 pages, $24.

David Mizner’s Political Animal may be the only novel this year that derives significant dramatic tension from the sending of a press release. Will the young campaign staffer torpedo (or perhaps bolster) his boss’ senatorial ambitions by firing off a brave but controversial position paper? Will he lose his job as a consequence? And will he win the girl he doesn’t really deserve?

As plots go, this doesn’t sound like promising stuff. A novel about the personal travails of a shallow and self-loathing deputy communications director for a New York Congressman doesn’t exactly have “Big, Important Book” written all over it.

But though Mr. Mizner’s novel is neither big nor important, it’s consistently funny and sometimes hilarious. Even better, this briskly paced debut does an admirable job of grappling with the political complexities of race and the death penalty and the problems facing the American left.

It’s tough to know exactly how much of an authentic insider the author once was—his bio says only that he “worked on political campaigns and for political organizations in California, Iowa, Washington, D.C., and New York.” This much is obvious: Mr. Mizner is as savvy about politics as his hero—Ben Bergin—is clueless about women.

Ben Bergin is a talented guy in his 20’s, a Congressional aide and an able speechwriter; his counsel (lifted directly from the Ronald Reagan “There you go again” school of putting an opponent on the defensive) has caught the eye of U.S. Senate hopeful Arnie Schecter. (The fictional candidate’s bio is, at least superficially, similar to that of New York’s senior Senator, Chuck Schumer. Both are Jewish and both have degrees in law; both were longtime outer-borough Congressman before running for the Senate. Schecter’s race is set in 1998; Mr. Schumer won election to the Senate in ’98. Schecter’s opponent, the incumbent Republican Senator, is “conservative, but unconventional enough to keep winning elections in liberal-leaning New York.” That sounds a lot like Al D’Amato, who lost his Senate seat to Mr. Schumer.) Our hero Bergin is also a hapless loser—a heavy drinker whose ignorance and blind spots have left him terrified of, well, you name it.

“What am I afraid of?” he asks, beginning an absurdist rant prompted by a question about his would-be girlfriend. “Getting hurt, maybe? Hurting her. Yes, hurting her, being depended on. Not being free. Freedom, too, I’m definitely scared of that. Doubt. Difficulty. Doubt. Did I mention doubt? Having power. Not feeling power. Feeling too much. Not having enough. Failure. Sex. That’s a big one: sex, impotence. Looking stupid. Being boring. Going crazy. Flying. Dying. Living.”

From a candidate’s point of view, Bergin is the worst kind of campaign worker: very smart, but also very skeptical of his boss’ motives. While Schecter is busy doing what pols will do—exploiting race, family, sports affiliations and the like to win votes—his least-content underling is busy plotting. It’s come to light that an African-American death-row inmate might not be guilty. Though it’s becoming a significant issue in the campaign, Schecter and his top advisors are determined to avoid taking a stand on the convict’s right to a new trial. For his part, Bergin is bent on seeing to it that the con is not executed; ever the tortured idealist, he wonders if he should upend the entire campaign apple cart in the process.

Political Animal takes place in the late 90’s, the Clinton-Lewinsky mess casting an outsized shadow over the nation’s political and social life. It may seem like a cop-out to set a novel of this sort in the pre-9/11 era; not having to deal with the hysteria over terrorism allows a writer to wallow unencumbered in his characters’ petty obsessions. As it is, Mr. Mizner reminds the reader that many of us were just as neurotic six years ago as we are now.

Bergin is a late 20th-century everyman: a brooder who admits that there’s a “chasm between the person I am and the person I want to be.” A bright kid—a Democratic Party operative who can quote extended Pat Buchanan riffs—he’s also a shallow fool. He’s the kind of guy who downgrades a woman’s dateability because her ankles are too veiny, the kind of guy who forgets to fasten his zipper.

He embodies the worst of us, but Mr. Mizner also manages to make him a compelling figure, difficult to get a read on. Is Bergin a fiery, blinders-on liberal? His stridency with regard to capital punishment—”I remember the moment in college when it dawned on me that the death penalty was wrong. Always wrong. Like a good bad mystery novel, the issue just fell into place, the clarity felt almost sexual”—would suggest as much. But his condemnation of an acquaintance’s weak, reflexive leftist faith makes one wonder about his inner turmoil. “She was politically active in the sixties; now all she does is send a check to the Southern Poverty Law Center,” Mr. Mizner writes. “She claims to believe that people in her income bracket should pay high taxes but hires an accountant who makes sure she doesn’t.”

Bergin’s cohorts are carefully drawn. A black campaign staffer is among the book’s most sensible characters—until he goes off on a Jesus rant. Bergin’s direct superior, the staff communications director, is hilariously crass and always on the make; he plays Billy Ocean CD’s because he’s convinced that that’s what women like. Bergin’s best friend is engaged in a strange filmmaking project that sounds like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. And his on-again, off-again girlfriend/friend/conspirator, the wonderfully named Calliope Berkowitz, is a fragile and irresistible eccentric.

Mr. Mizner nails the insipid nature of office talk and has a perfect read on the insecurities of a beta male in an alpha world—at one point, Bergin frets that his answering machine voice makes him “sound like a gay dead person.”

But this is less a funny novel about politics than a political novel that happens to be very funny. Late in the book, Calliope is on the verge of confessing her love for Ben. She’s also worried that he’s too egocentric—but, she adds, “I don’t want to call you selfish; that has too negative a spin.” Is this how young politicos talk about matters of the heart? Do they confuse the bedroom with Spin Alley? If so, then Political Animal is surely the most appropriately titled book of the year.

Kevin Canfield has reviewed books for the San Francisco Chronicle, the National Post of Canada and other publications.