Jeffrey Frank's new novel puts Washington columnists on the horns of a dilemma. They could sue him for defamation, but first they'd have to admit that they see themselves as the pompous windbag at the center of his dark comedy.
Then again, Frank shouldn't worry. Notoriety is the coin of our age. If "The Columnist" garners enough fame, contestants on The McLaughlin Group will brag that they were his inspiration.
At the opening of this fictionalized memoir, Brandon Sladder claims that George Bush (the elder) encouraged him to write down the details of his remarkable life. "Haunted by the former President's suggestion," he complies for the sake of history, but we should thank him for the sake of comedy. The result is a classic satire of egotism.
"Even as a young man," Sladder begins, "I was frustrated by the smallness of my surroundings and a shortage of serious people." It's a challenge he never outgrows, along with the opposition of "strangers who unaccountably wanted to hurt me."
This obliviousness remains the staple of his life, a way of crashing over others without having to acknowledge the validity of their objections.
When he steals information from his father's business to write exposes in the local paper, his father is "inexplicably" upset. When he goes behind his editor's back, his editor is "mysteriously" ticked off. When he blackmails his boss, his boss develops an "irrational" hatred of him.
Every time another victim snarls at him, Sladder is "puzzled by this attitude," but he remains a prince of graciousness, wishing everyone well as he stomps on their heads to the next dinner party.
With an insatiable appetite for fame and sex, he uses a series of women for information. A blend of sycophancy, glibness, and ruthlessness raises him from a small Buffalo paper to a spunky opinion magazine just a few blocks from the White House (No, not The New Republic). From there, he leaps to a syndicated column, a spot on a PBS talk show, and finally a contract with NBC.
His commentary, heavily laced with quotations from other great writers and baseball metaphors (nothing personal, Mr. Will), is meant to shed light in the halls of power and in the golden fields of the heartland.
There may be nothing original about this bow-tied character (calm down, Mr. Schlesinger), but the precision of Frank's tone is relentlessly funny. Sladder waxes eloquent in phrases that are drenched in grandiosity, hackneyed metaphors, and sentimental cliches. "As a people, we Americans have come far from our sturdy frontier past," he notes. During his first year in D.C., "even the cherry blossoms that spring had a special glow."
His memoir becomes a chance to twist the knife in the bodies of past victims ("I had no real reason to doubt his commitment to heterosexuality....") and exaggerate his acquaintance with famous people (a perfunctory conversation with Kennedy becomes a warm friendship). He's the kind of infuriating jerk who skewers himself with every brag-filled line.
But as his life races along, "the center cannot hold," as Bill Yeats once told me. Tempted by his own thirst for influence, he begins writing speeches for a lecherous senator and then praising the senator's wisdom in his own widely syndicated column (nothing personal, Mr. Blumenthal).
When his professional life suddenly collapses, his personal life sinks even deeper into depravity. The descent is brutal and lurid, almost enough to elicit a little sympathy for this swinish man.
But no, that temptation passes the moment he rises again, reborn as a talking head on the nation's cable news shows. "I feel as if I'm everywhere at once," he writes, "talking into camera after camera about the world of today and yesterday, unblinking, my eyebrows perpetually raised."
The buzz around this book started months ago. A senior editor at The New Yorker, Frank is the sort of author who can count on help from a frequent contributor who's also the son of a real Washington columnist (Yes you, Mr. Buckley). He penned a puffy blurb for the dust jacket and then ran a rave review in the Washington Monthly. How better to market a book about the corruption of influence?
But I'll let more peevish critics mention that.
Frank has created a character that deserves to jump outside the Beltway and enter the language like "Uncle Tom," "Peter Pan," or "Scrooge." From now on, any ambitious windbag might hear the murmur in his wake: "There goes a real Sladder."
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor