A Tang to the Warm Spit

By Louis Bayard,
a novelist and critic
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

THE COUP

By Jamie Malanowski

Doubleday. 240 pp. $22.95

"One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president," said Dan Quayle. "And that one word is . . . 'to be prepared.' "

Well, no one has quite prepared Godwin Pope. He's a software tycoon, an Ivy League grad, a leading intellectual light and one of the world's most eligible bachelors. But against his better judgment, he's agreed to take a job that Harry Truman once compared to "a cow's fifth teat" and that John Adams said was "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." As if that weren't bad enough, Pope is playing No. 2 to the promiscuous, diabolically slick Jack Mahone, "a Louisiana man, Baton Rouge, fifty-nine years old, ex-governor, ex-senator, passably handsome, garrulous, louche, a man who possessed a common touch, a man of the people."

That last quality explains why it's Mahone and not Pope hearing "Hail to the Chief" everywhere he goes. "They like me," explains the president. "That's the thing. They don't think I'm so brilliant and they're not sure if I'm all that trustworthy, but they like me. They may not always know it when they meet me, but sooner or later, they will like me." Unfortunately, it's taken Mahone just 13 months to squander that goodwill, plunging to the lowest favorability ratings in history. And now his resentful and ignored veep has the opening he's been waiting for. By weaving together such disparate parties as a Chinese American prostitute, a disgruntled White House speechwriter, an Indonesian banker and the president's own brother, Pope sets out to steal Mahone's job out from under him.

"This wasn't going to be easy," Pope acknowledges. "The whole fantastic idea was still a long shot. But if things worked out the way they could, Jack Mahone would soon be accused of treason against his own country, and despite having committed no treason, he would find himself confronted by a web of circumstantial evidence that would hang a saint."

Is it just me, or does a book premised on evicting the president smack of wish fulfillment? At the very least, Jamie Malanowski's satirical novel will be required summer reading for C-SPAN watchers, who will happily sniff out the veiled allusions to, oh, Dennis Hastert, Sam Donaldson, Arlen Specter, Michael Beschloss, Peggy Noonan, Bill Gates, Arianna Huffington, Matt Drudge and on and on. (Surely, novels like these should start providing indexes.)

Fortunately, if the gawkers read a bit more closely, they will also find a knowing dissection of the media-politics nexus. Nobody, to my knowledge, has better nailed the fatuity of the White House Correspondents' Association dinner: "The media spent 364 days a year actively gunning for Washington's officials, then on the 365th, everybody on each side put on tuxedos and party dresses and pretended to lavish respect on one another, which they did by pointedly mocking the foibles, errors, and gaffes of the other."

I also enjoyed this weary protest from a Chinese spy: "Every time somebody in Los Alamos leaves a memo on a copier, they start smelling chow mein." And there's a Hecht-MacArthur tang to this smackdown of a senior official: "It looks to me like the Titanic's in real danger of going down, and what's more, Leonardo DiCaprio ain't playing you in the movie." That line comes courtesy of Maggie Newbold, a Newsbreak reporter seduced and exploited by Pope, and if her general babeliciousness doesn't tip you off, her habit of sleeping with sources to get all her stories should alert you that she is the creation of a male writer. As should the following sequence: " 'Come on,' she said, reaching for his crotch, 'let's put some vice in this vice presidency.' " This is followed by "a volcanically shuddering nooner," and it spoils nothing to say that the book's concluding act takes place atop the Oval Office desk (and is interspersed with plugs for African infant mortality relief).

So yes, at regular intervals, "The Coup" threatens to slide into the vale of trash, but Malanowski, the managing editor of Playboy and a former Spy columnist, is too savvy an observer and too skillful a plotsmith to lose his grip entirely. All the same, there's a curiously ancien régime quality to this story, with its Clintonesque president and its notion that vice presidents need to seize the West Wing to take over the country. One need only examine the office's current occupant to see how quaint that idea really is. As the reporting of this newspaper has made clear, America's No. 2 guy has spent the past six years single-mindedly accumulating power -- and leaving scarcely a ripple. In Dick Cheney we behold a warmaker who has never gone to war, believes "torture" is one thing and "cruelty" another, claims executive privilege and, in the same breath, denies he is part of the executive branch, and gives aid and comfort to both his lesbian daughter and the most fiercely homophobic administration in American history. Even so knowing a writer as Jamie Malanowski could never have invented such a contradictory and alarming character. Once again, politics has slipped out of fiction's reach.


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