A Romp Through the D.C. Underbrush

By Jamie Malanowski
Doubleday, 240 pages, $22.95

Jamie Malanowski’s debut novel about a palace coup in the White House has some sizable flaws, but for all the preposterousness of the plot—which pivots around a bachelor tech genius lothario Vice President, Gordon Pope, who can only exist in the wish-fulfillment fantasies of Al Gore—The Coup still manages to excavate an ugly and hilarious truth about Washington: For a city of egotists and nation-builders, we’re far too easily, absurdly, tragically pleased.

Here, for instance, is how Mr. Malanowski explains the low standards of entertainment in the capital: “Washington insiders seldom require a speaker to have exquisite comic abilities, and often admire a good performance by a game amateur much more than one by a polished pro.” And—a subset of the foregoing theme—a vision of the informal Washington ladies’ auxiliary: “Washington was full of women who were said to be beautiful, but most of these women were just poised and glossy versions of nice-looking girls, all with shellacked hair cut ten years behind how … women in Hollywood were styling theirs.” Perhaps my favorite throwaway small-bore observation concerns the Veep’s labored effort to procure an aide’s invitation to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, an annual ritual of mutual debasement greeted across the politico-pundit spectrum with such a combination of social anxiety and giddiness that is quite rightly referred to by attendees as “Prom.” The staffer, having procured an invitation to screen a movie with the President, is smug: “Once you come to one of these things,” he tells the Veep, “you’re in.”

The Coup is dusted with small social truths—like Washington in June, covered with pollen (not cherry blossoms). The cumulative effect of the comic set-pieces is humbling. They show that we’re impressed by proximity to power, that in any given social situation, we confuse acting “cool” with acting like we wish we could have acted when we were young. As Mr. Malanowski describes the scene at the dinner, “the floor … was now populated by … ordinarily somber, competent people in their late thirties who had booked the sitter until two and who were now intent on doing all the things that seemed like fun back in the days when they were young.” In other words, back when they wanted to do them but—because of work, because of ambition, because the boss was watching—couldn’t.

So I will I forgive him the off-key descriptions of the off-key political stumbles that supposedly drag the sitting President down to the kind of abysmal ratings enjoyed by our current officeholder (a nominee for attorney general is felled by having a suspiciously large number of prescriptions for Prozac … I guess it could happen). I forgive him the suave and single Vice President Pope—part Bill Gates, part Richard Branson—as I forgive him the libertarian-verging-on-fruitopian platform that almost gets Pope elected. It has to do with nanobots and “an implant behind your ear that will enable you to get E-mails in your head”; I think Mike Gravel has mentioned it, too. (Hell, I think Mike Gravel might have one.)

The plot, well, it’s a scheme to get the boring and inept President to resign so that the handsome and charismatic Veep can actually run things. The ploy Pope games out is complicated and clever, and its combination of impossibility (high-priced call girls with a yen for low-paid staffers), contemporary flourishes (a satellite deal to China!) and familiarity (a redneck President with a loose zipper) virtually guarantees we’ll see it in theaters. But it’s basically an excuse to portray a roll call of Washington types and precisely two characters.

The types fly by as quick sketches, most without enough detail to peg them as any boldfaced name or Situation Room guest in particular. There’s the aging, earnest newsweekly scribe, worried that the news is changing faster than she can: “Give her some complicated policy story, and she can decipher it …. Hand her a platinum-grade scandal, and she’s lost …. She wants a justification for wanting to find out what happened. She doesn’t realize that the game is to find out the story first, and roll out the justifications later.”

There’s a tantalizing portrait of a newsweekly editor (is it my boss or my ex-boss? or maybe his rival?), and a dozen small-scale extras: Nervous speechwriters, drawling party chairmen, over-the-hill columnists. In three quick pages, Mr. Malanowski plays whack-a-mole with the alter egos of, if I had to guess, Peggy Noonan (“self-consciously poetic … [whose] vacuous turns of phrase lived long after the vacuous presidents for whom she wrote them”), Sam Donaldson (“famous for braying questions at the president over the whirring blades of a helicopter”) and Tony Blankley (an editor for “Washington’s conservative Moonie paper”).

Against that backdrop, the two genuine characters stand out. First of all, that misplaced Vice President millionaire, for all his improbability, is at least real enough inside his own head. His motivations are alien to anyone who isn’t fantastically successful—he runs for President, it turns out, because he’s bored—but he’s human enough, especially when his Rube Goldberg plan to oust the President tangles him up with Newsbreak reporter Maggie Newbold, the other character who’s deeper than a high-end mobile phone. She’s a successful journalist whose scoops are marred by rumors that she sleeps with sources. The thing is, she does—including Pope. As they edge into becoming a couple, however, their banter is playful and real, their complicated professional situation simply a kind of ongoing inside joke: “Here it comes,” he sighs, head on the pillow, when she broaches a question clearly meant for the V.P. “The interview portion of the competition. Well, if I win, I’d like to help world peace.”

Mr. Malanowski is an editor for Playboy, a perch from which one sees much of women’s outsides and a bit of the inside, yet his exploration of Maggie’s interior is far from Hustler-esque. He describes like a native the capital’s underground romantic economy, which trades less on looks than secrets, less on charm than power. Maggie is less a slut than an entrepreneur: “She … had a thing for powerful men, not a weakness, but a taste,” he explains. “And it was simply true that time and again, her proximity to these men, her closeness, her ability to take a morsel from one and a tidbit from another allowed Maggie to end up nailing stories, good stories, important stories, that nobody else would have gotten.”

I don’t mean to sound naïve or antifeminist when I say that I’ve seen that happen—and that the best male reporters are just the same when it comes to seducing sources or being attracted to someone not because of who they are but what they know. It’s just that Bob Woodward never left his panties behind. (Though, really, you’d have to ask Dick Armitage to be sure.)

I won’t spoil the book’s ending. Suffice it to say that however grand the stakes are for the novel’s characters, the victories in The Coup are small and meaningful: spotting the difference between knowing something and displaying knowingness; knowing that it’s almost as much fun to get drunk on champagne as it is on power—and that both are better with a date.

Ana Marie Cox is the Washington editor for Time.com.

A Romp Through the D.C. Underbrush