By Jeffrey Frank
Simon & Schuster. 225 pp. $24
The 2000 presidential election looms large but gets barely a mention in Jeffrey Frank's Washington, D.C. satire Trudy Hopedale. And the election is but one of several elephants in the room in this frothily entertaining novel. The primary characters are so mightily self-absorbed that they hardly notice the political currents churning around them, at least until outlying ripples threaten their personal and social lives.
Covering the period from spring 2000 to late summer 2001, the novel is narrated in the alternating voices of Donald Frizzé, a self-proclaimed vice-presidential historian, and the titular Trudy, a society wife and hostess of a local television talk show. Donald, whose reputation seems to be based mainly on his flowing locks and dreamy good looks, is struggling to write a biography of William McKinley's first vice president while also contending with a spurned Washington Post reporter, accusations of plagiarism, rumors about his sexuality and an extremely suspicious-looking mosquito bite on his wrist.
Trudy, who prides herself on her dinner parties and historic home, is dealing with demons of her own: hints that she may be replaced on her show by a younger, more telegenic model, an affair with a senator that seems more arduous than ardor-filled, and the potentially humiliating novel that her husband, Roger, is secretly writing and she is secretly reading. Roger, a 40-year veteran of the foreign service, has titled the manuscript "Desks of Power," and, as Donald diplomatically puts it, "Roger . . . had a talent for this sort of thing -- the Washington thriller -- but not quite enough of it." Sections of the abysmal "Desks of Power," dripping with excessive adjectives and heaving bosoms, constitute a third voice interspersed with Donald's ditherings and Trudy's twitterings.
Neither narrator is particularly likable. Fortunately, Frank's writing is consistently funny, and he keeps the story moving along at a brisk clip. Much of the humor is that of polite understatement: "It looked like their conversation was not all that friendly," relates Trudy at one point, "not the way their arms were waving." Trudy's insensitivity can be morbidly hilarious: She obsesses over the guest list for a funeral and at a benefit for the "horrible rare disease we were all celebrating and raising money for," she focuses on who gets the prime seating assignments. Frank gets a lot of mileage out of well-chosen names: There's journalist Jennifer Pouch, for example, whose name grows ever more ickily suggestive with repetition, and there's the appropriately named Royal Arsine. And, of course, there's Donald Frizzé, whose name suggests either a frilly salad ingredient or a bad hair day.
But the source of much of the novel's humor -- the characters' self-absorption -- is also something of a handicap. The novel takes place during one of the most contentious periods of recent American politics, and yet Trudy's only concern is how it will affect her social calendar. She reflects that "the Christmas decorations along Wisconsin Avenue made me think of the parties ahead and the season and of course the arrival of a new administration, whoever was going to be in charge." In the summer of 2001, she says of the election, "It's time to put all that bitterness behind us and look ahead, to show some hospitality. . . . Naturally I understand why some people are furious, but there are amazing men and women in both parties who only want what's best for the country. Deep down, I really believe that. Or I think I do."
Donald is equally oblivious; he enjoys the rantings of a right-wing radio host because "Bucky's swift nasal dialogue had a way of calming me," but fails to absorb any of the content. "He spoke of some international foe (I didn't quite get the foe's name)," Donald recalls. Clearly, Frank is making a point about American attitudes during this relatively innocent pre-9/11 period. But his characters' willful blindness and self-centered isolation make it difficult to place them in a larger context.
It can also be difficult for us to sympathize with characters when we know more than they do. We have the benefit of the multiple points of view, a fuller picture than that allowed to each of the participants. And Trudy and Donald are so transparent that we can peer through layers of self-delusion and denial, to truths that they themselves refuse to acknowledge. This inequality makes it harder to sympathize with the characters but easier to laugh at them -- the book does provide laughs in abundance. Furthermore, readers have the advantage of hindsight, of knowing what lies ahead, adding piquancy to moments such as the one in which Donald, who has a penchant for overlooked and inconsequential vice presidents, muses, "I'm thinking of writing a biography of Dick Cheney -- I'd be the first. What do you think?" ·
Judy Budnitz's most recent book is the story collection "Nice Big American Baby."