THANK God for "Scooter" Libby. It isn't only Democrats who write terrible novels. "Dog Days," the first from Ana Marie Cox, creator of the website Wonkette, isn't any worse than Libby's "The Apprentice." On the other hand, it makes Bill O'Reilly's 1998 mystery, "Those Who Trespass," look like Proust. OK, not Proust -- but passable Grisham. No, wait. I take it all back. If any bloggers, columnists, television personalities and appointed government officials need a more personal creative release, I recommend pottery. Someone they know must need an ashtray.
"Dog Days" is billed as a "lighthearted romp" through a presidential campaign in $350 Charles David sandals. Melanie Thorton, a young communications staffer, plucked from the Illinois ACLU and brought to Washington to put some positive spin on the campaign, gets outed in an affair with a married newsman. What's a girl to do? And at the same time, her candidate is the object of a smear campaign that is gaining credence. Add that to the lousy martinis at a Washington book party and it's all just too much. No wonder poor Melanie has a headache page after page.
Why couldn't I just get with the wisecracking, confidential tone of this book and have fun? Why did I find it so offensive? Like Melanie, I was a 20ish aide in Washington, D.C., who worked for the losing side in a presidential race. I too can tell anecdotes about Ted Kennedy and Bob Shrum. I was also inappropriately sleeping with someone on another staff and drinking too much and traveling across the country day after day in the same old tired suit.
I thought "Dog Days" would be the real story, since Kristin Gore, in "Sammy's Hill," sugarcoated everything. In Gore's novel, the good girl gets the guy, and the good side wins the election -- how could any of us believe that? I thought the Wonkette, whose blog is funny, snide and smart, would tell us what the campaign trenches are really like.
But "Dog Days" is predictable and, worst of all, mean-spirited. By Page 4, I disliked Melanie a lot. She's open about using lies and manipulation as well as her breast size to get what she wants. That's Washington, pal. But it's her superiority complex that is most loathsome. Melanie makes fun of speechwriters, reporters, consultants and everybody else inside the Beltway who isn't as bored and cynical as she is. "Oh, please, congressmen? They're like interns. Why bother learning their names?" Melanie sleeps with her highly successful boyfriend but complains that he is "campaign-white and campaign-soft."
She continues, "During an election year D.C.'s standards of attractiveness -- already graded on a generous curve -- tracked to availability and not physical beauty. It's like the Special Olympics of sex, Melanie thought, everyone's a winner!" Too bad some people actually have to work during a presidential race and can't get to the gym.
"Dog Days" is chick lit at its most hackneyed. Just substitute the Oval Office for the corner CEO's office in any fashion or publishing empire. Melanie has a "wacky boss" who makes unreasonable demands -- like asking her to come into work. Her married lover is unattainable and, what a surprise, he doesn't recognize "Melanie's true worth." Her best girlfriend, Julie, chatters about men, clothes and political strategy as if she's on an episode of the WB's "Gilmore Girls" (and with as much depth).
Everyone skates on a very clever surface. Early in the novel, Cox delineates the problem with this novel -- and probably with the minds of many Americans these days. Melanie is reading the newspaper: "But after a while the paper moved too slowly for her. She couldn't resist wading into whatever the chatter was online."
Cox finds the whole novel form too slow. She doesn't like it, but she wants to capitalize on it. She and her publisher must assume if we read her blog and watch her on the talk shows that, of course, we'll buy her novel. In her blog, she's terrific with a one-liner or turn-of-phrase. This novel seems like an overwrought online entry, a mishmash of stories, name-dropping and sex. She works way too hard to get to the zingers: "The room was crowded with junior staff, their young faces drawn into serious, thoughtful expressions that seemed a little too rehearsed to Melanie, like the facial equivalent of playing dress-up. They wore expressions they had stolen from actors on 'The West Wing.' "
Whoosh. What a buildup for that joke. Then, not long after, her wacky boss says: "I don't know where they grow them. They're eager to be here, sure, but they think they're auditioning for 'West Wing,' not working on a real campaign."
And when the inappropriate male love object quotes Karl Rove to Melanie -- "Never apologize. Never explain." -- it's actually funny as foreplay. Unfortunately, two pages later, Cox finds it necessary to remind us how amusing it was: " 'He actually quoted Karl Rove?' Julie laughed so hard the mike on her cellphone headset picked up as pure buzz."
Finally, is Melanie redeemed? I don't want to give away the thrilling conclusion, but let me just say I fell asleep 20 pages from the end.
OK, plenty of novelists who consider it their full-time job, not just a hobby, write badly or tell stupid stories or don't make much sense. Not every novel about politics should be like Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent." Things in Washington are depressing enough without that. But I object to people who are celebrities in another field selling novels and getting lots of attention -- including reviews in papers like this one -- they don't deserve. Sorry, Ana, but I'd rather see your ashtray. *