Book review: Louis Bayard reviews "The Room and the Chair" by Lorraine Adams

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By Louis Bayard
Monday, February 15, 2010

THE ROOM AND THE CHAIR

By Lorraine Adams

Knopf. 315 pp. $25.95

"This is a work of fiction," reads the small-print legal boilerplate just after the title page. "Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental."

This is easily the most fictional part of any novel. Writers are as much a prisoner of their history as anyone else and maybe even more inclined to take prisoners themselves. In Lorraine Adams's new novel, we meet a famous reporter named Don Grady, whose editing career was derailed by the Janet Cooke scandal and who salvaged his reputation with books about national security built on his "unimpeachable access to power's highest balconies." And who has developed a habit of hoarding scoops for his own purposes.

And who, yeah, broke the Watergate scandal.

And he's not Bernstein.

Bob Woodward is, in fact, just one of the real-life figures who may or may not be receiving earthly justice at the hands of Lorraine Adams. Is the Georgetown salon hostess meant to be a caricature of columnist Sally Quinn? Could the stiff, unimaginative chief editor be a slap at former Post honcho Len Downie? And what about that passing snipe about "the book-review section, what was left of it"? Could that be . . . ?

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Adams toiled for more than a decade in the Post trenches (her last piece for The Post was published in 2005). And while the newsroom of her title (does anyone really call it "The Room"?) ostensibly belongs to something called the Washington Spectator, we can be pretty certain where it resides. The rest is mostly guesswork -- and also, it must be said, a disservice to this strange and compelling novel, which certainly has scores to settle but which grows into something more lasting than a roman à clef. Lorraine Adams, as readers of her first novel, "Harbor," can attest, is a real writer, with a story to tell.

The book begins with an apparent accident: A Viper aircraft veers out of control and crashes into the Potomac River, not far from the Watergate. Why did the plane crash? What happened to its pilot? Why is the White House chief of staff telling the newspaper's executive editor to sit on the story? And why doesn't the editor tell him to stuff it?

Good gray establishment guy that he is, the editor is too happy to oblige, limiting his paper's coverage to a few thin follow-ups. But a night editor and his idealistic young reporter smell the lies and set about finding the truth for themselves, and even as I type it, my brain seethes with a thousand political melodramas. Or as one of Adams's characters catechizes the genre: "mailbox drops, trench coats on a bench at the Lincoln, parking-garage meetings, one foxy assassin."


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