COCO BURMAN, 37 year old Washington working wife and mother of four, will never get a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Her electrical appliances -- from the dishwasher to the 22 speed blender -- are on the fritz; the roof leaks; dust balls as big as mice reside under her radiators; small atrocities ring the inside of her bathtub. Did I forget to say that her husband is also nonfunctioning? -- in the sex department, that is. Not to mention that he's a nag and the kind of fiend who leaves the car on "empty." Things are equally messy over at the Social Science Institute where Coco edits the National Infelicity Index and where she suspects her boss is jiggering the figures to make Americans look happy when obviously Americans are miserable (and who knows that better than Coco?). Coco's own head is not exactly all together; She hates herself for spending her best years hauling appliances to the service center and acting as a keeper to her loutish husband and demanding kids. To take her mind off these and other domestic disasters, Coco decides to have an affair with John Canada, who's just been named to President Carter's Council of Economic Advisers. But a funny thing happens on the way to their first assignation -- they blunder into the kidnaping of a debonair Iranian ambassador (rather like one who used to live here) and get taken hostage in a garage on 18th street with the whole world watching and President Carter himself negotiating their release. That's when Coco, the Jewish American Princess, finds out that a totalitarian Muslim can be a good guy, a WASPY Brahmin can be a heel and she has more clout than she thought.
Now there is probably a good and funny novel in this story, told by Barbara Raskin, a Washington writer who knows the territory well. The trouble is she flattens it with a steam roller when a delicate hand iron is called for. Occasionally, the tale of Coco Burman made me laugh or wince the way a satire should. But mostly Barbara Raskin's overwhelming attention to the grungy details in Coco's life -- pubic hairs in the bathtub, dog doo on the floor, bladder trouble, Pap smears, yeast infections and failing gonads -- brought forth reactions more on the order of moan, groan, yuk and retch. As the book opens, Coco and her husband are working on his sexual dysfunction (I'll spare you the details) while they simultaneously run through their catalogue of household decay. The bumps, grinds, drips, leaks, splatters and stains described here are so relentlessly repulsive that it could turn you off sex and housekeeping, not to mention this book, forever.
Which is a pity, because Coco Burman is a flaky heroine who shows quite a lot of promise. She's the kind of kook who thinks shrimp grow up to be scampis and mice grow up to be rats, and is onto this thing called "national malaise" before Pat Caddell and President Carter ever thought of it. And she does have her entertaining moments. So numbed is she by the minutiae of keeping house that she daydreams about taking the rich ambassador as a lover so he can shower her with intimate goodies like "a new set of tires for her car or a heavy duty industrial vacuum for her home." In the face of death, she writes a farewell message to her husband reminding him to pay her parking ticket before it doubles and not to let the kids eat anything containing red food dye No. 2. Alas, Raskin hits the mark like that all too seldom.
I can see that Barbara Raskin is Making A Statement about some of the evils of our society -- built in obsolescence, the lousiness of woman's lot and the unfair distribution of power. There is probably also supposed to be a message (beyond her simple lust for John Canada) in the fact that Coco sees almost everything in sexual metaphors. But what that message is beats me. For example: blue jeans are stuck to the inside of the dryer "like a fibroid cyst on a uterine wall"; "reality exposed itself to Coco like a flasher"; a gas station attendant raises the hood of the car "as if he were lifting up and looking under COCO'S skirt," and carries the gasoline hose "extended in front of his groin like the squared off organ of an Arabian stallion"; Coco's hanging plants "remained inside their pots like undescended testicles." And many more, too gamy to be repeated here. Not that there is anything inherently bad about a literary eye focused on the crotch (one of Raskin's very favorite words), it's just that it must be either funny or erotic -- or, in the best of worlds, both -- if it is not to become monotonous and finally a bore.
Even the sharpest satirical novel requires a subtle touch. This one is so blunt and frontal that reading it is like being tickled until it hurts.