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

By Louis Bayard
Monday, February 15, 2010; C01

THE ROOM AND THE CHAIR

By Lorraine Adams

Knopf. 315 pp. $25.95

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"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."

Adams lives up to her end of the bargain by spinning the action between geopolitical hot spots and by introducing, yes, a top-secret military program operating outside government boundaries. What becomes clearer, though, as the book goes along is that Adams isn't playing by all the hackneyed rules. Indeed, she is almost perverse in denying us the genre's received pleasures: sexual consummations, First Amendment triumphs, evil held at arm's length. No readers will rejoice at this story's conclusion, and no A-list actors will be clamoring to play any of its compromised people.

On the page, though, they make for good company: Hoseyn, an uxorious Iranian nuclear engineer who stages his own death and then has to keep dying; Mary Goodwin, the pilot of that downed plane, fleeing from one danger zone to the next, realizing too late her that heart belongs to another; the night editor, a mixed-race bachelor passing as white, "dull as foot soles," and yet somehow the soul of his newspaper.

Adams doesn't grant the same interiority to the characters she despises -- Don Grady, for instance, remains pretty much a cipher. Nor is her poetic diction always precise. (I've read the phrase "narrow as pencils in fat, angry oceans" several times, and I'm still not sure what it means.) Nor is her rather literary style always well suited to the rough labor of pushing a thriller plot forward.

The result is a book that can feel both overwritten and underwritten. And yet if "The Room and the Chair" isn't a complete success, it manages to be more interesting than many genre novels that do succeed because Adams is so smart about how official Washington works and because, like Don DeLillo in "Underworld," she is so fascinated by how information conceals the world from us.

The big newspapers, she argues, are missing the big stories because all they can see are the words in front of their faces, the "written reports from government men" that constitute "the Room's preferred language." "There were pretty much two ways to find out things," the night editor explains. "People and paper. People . . . could fudge. Paper, made by government -- courts, agencies, committees -- was worse. You had to use both, flawed as they were, and find where they met, where there was some kind of coinciding about what might possibly have actually happened. But even that wasn't enough. . . . You had to take time to feel your way along the edges back to the center, and to wonder, past the point of patience, what it was you still couldn't quite believe."

As Adams must realize, this is an often unattainable ideal for a daily newspaper or, in these direly transitional times, for any mainstream media outlet. We can best read her critique, then, as a testament to her own journey: a journalist running up against the limits of journalism and realizing why fiction exists in the first place -- to help us find the "something, somewhere, in some inch of some infinity" that lies hidden.

Bayard is a novelist and reviewer in Washington.

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