Small-Town Girl Battles TV Slime

WELCOME TO THE WORLD, BABY GIRL!

By Fannie Flagg

Random House

467 pp., $25.95

Fannie Flagg is the most shamelessly sentimental writer in America. She's also the most entertaining.

You'd have to be a stone to read "Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!" without laughing and crying. The clichs in this novel are deep-fat fried: not particularly nutritious, but entirely delicious.

Wandering back and forth through 40 years of history as though it were backyard gossip, Flagg tells the life story of Dena Nordstrom, America's most popular female newscaster.

Though she tries hard to forget it, Dena's roots are deeply planted in the small town of Elmwood Springs, Mo. Her mysterious mother took her away when she was only 4, but the good folks of Elmwood still follow her stellar career with complete devotion. No one holds the banner higher than her distant cousins, Macky and Norma Warren, and great-aunt Elner, who spends her quiet days firing at cats with a water pistol.

When Dena calls one night in a drunken stupor and announces she's coming home, Norma launches into panicked preparations - cleaning the rugs, painting the house, assembling back-up pastry choices, and checking the toilets for proper flushing action.

Of course, they're crushed when Dena calls later to cancel with a lie about flying to Russia. Unfortunately, Dena's gotten used to lying about her personal life. It seems life at the top isn't as fulfilling as she thought it would be. Though she hosts the highest-rated morning show on TV, she has no close friends, she's careening toward alcoholism, and she's downright unhappy. In the presence of Fannie Flagg, we know what this girl needs is a big dose of small-town America.

But for the moment, she's stuck in big bad New York City, where the forces of corrupt TV journalism are stalking. Her proverbial bottom-line producer, Ira Wallace, dismisses her journalistic principles with a cynical snort. As far as he's concerned, she can either dig up some celebrity dirt or get out of town.

Flagg's sustained attack on invasive, yellow journalism makes up in comedy what it lacks in subtlety. Dena seeks wise council from a Walter Cronkite character who editorializes about the destructive direction of TV news. The villain, Sidney Capello, a slimy investigative reporter, makes millions by inventing a trashy tabloid-news show, but ends up in the sewer - literally.

Dena wants to behave decently, but that's not easy in an industry that lives and dies by the rating numbers. She clawed her way to the top by believing in herself, but now that she's made it, she's not entirely sure who she is.

Worn down by her breakneck career, Dena finally visits a psychiatrist who helps her realize how much she's neglected her private life in the rush to construct a public life. The central aspect of her therapy - and the book's joy-ride plot - involves uncovering her mother's identity and learning how to love again.

The last thing Dena thinks she needs is the undying affection of Gerry O'Malley, a desperate romantic who's convinced she's The One. He's even willing to start watching television so they'll have something to talk about. When that's not sufficient, he rents out Carnegie Hall and puts on a private jazz concert for her.

It's not giving too much away to say Dena eventually realizes how she wants to spend her life. The implications for American journalism are dark, but Flagg's romantic portrayal of the small town is characteristically captivating. This is a comic novel to welcome home with open arms.

A LONG WAY FROM NEW YORK CITY

The best way to tell about a town, any town, is to listen deep in the night ... after every screen door has been slammed shut for the last time, every light turned off, every child tucked in. If you listen you will hear how everyone, even the chickens, who are the most nervous creatures on earth, sleep safe and sound through the night.

Elmwood Springs, Missouri, is not perfect by any means but as far as little towns go it is about as near perfect as you can get without having to get downright sentimental about it or making up a bunch of lies.

- From 'Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!'

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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