IT SEEMS THAT LIFE in the newsroom of the Great Metropolitan Daily is still much the same. The pervading atmosphere remains one of white-hot ambition mixed with cut-throat competition. Ulcers are soothed, and perhaps even avoided, by generous doses of Maalox, booze, sex, and a reasonable amount of dope.
And over there against the farthest wall sits the specter. The specter is gray. His jacket is shabby, its lapels too wide. He brings his lunch--or his bottle--in a brown paper bag. His alimony payments are overdue. He is 55 years old, possibly 56. He writes obituaries and sometimes, for a treat, Chamber of Commerce handouts. His name, of course, is Failure. Jack Failure.
The specter figures, although not prominently, in all three of these novels about life and work on big city dailies. Two of the novels are set in New York; the other in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia paper is called the Times- Herald and it has a partriarchal owner. The New York papers are called the Star and, quite simply, The Newspaper, and they both have matriarchal owners. The owners are wise. The unions they must deal with are more or less venal. The editors are crusty. The reporters are hardbitten but sensitive. Everyone seems more than a trifle insecure.
Of the three novels, the one I liked best is Mary Breasted's I Shouldn't Be Telling You This, probably because her style is witty and her tone refreshingly irreverent. Sarah Makepeace, the novel's heroine, is a young woman who feels that the '60s passed her by. "You might say I had missed my generation. And there were times when I believed I had missed it by several decades." Makepeace believes she would have done well as either an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War or as a Wobbly organizer. Instead, she does social work up in Harlem, lives in Greenwich Village, writes occasionally for a counterculture weekly called The Evil Eye, and lands a job--more or less by fluke--on The Newspaper whose readers take its word "for the word of God on their chances for getting heart attacks, cancer, gallstones, a centrist president, Asian flu Part One or Part Two, LSD flashbacks, tinnitus, or schizophrenic delusions."
With no appreciable journalism training, Makepeace, of course, gets the Big Story (a scandal about a presidential nominee) and wins a modest amount of fame and a rather unlikely promotion. Breasted is a good writer with a pleasingly wicked eye for detail and a keen ear for dialogue.
Bernard Weinraub is also a good writer and in his Bylines we get off to a literally flying start when he has the managing editor of The New York Star jump naked from the 14th floor of his Fifth Avenue apartment to the courtyard below. The burning question, of course, is who will replace the dead managing editor?
Well, the candidates are the female national editor; the black Washington bureau chief; the Jewish city editor; the WASP foreign editor, and the likeable deputy managing editor, who sometimes drinks too much. It's all rather like the cast of a B-26 flight crew in a World War II movie.
Why would anyone want to be managing editor? Ambition, naturally. And power. After all, as Weinraub tells us, "The managing editor controlled the salaries, careers, even marriages of his staff . . . and he made it plain that he wanted his correspondents to marry pliant types who followed meekly behind their husband, like veiled Moslem women in purdah." And then, too, it is the managing editor who decides who will and won't turn into a specter sitting over there against the farthest wall.
The five candidates for the job decide separately that if only he or she can come up with the Big Story, he or she just might get the nod. So off they go in mad pursuit elbowing each other along the way. And good Lord, what stories!Scandal. Treachery. Intrigue. International crisis. The mind reels.
Weinraub writes a walloping good yarn, which will do absolutely nothing to reduce next fall's enrollment in the nation's journalism schools. After all, who wouldn't study for a job that promises adventure, travel, intrigue, fame and an astonishing amount of richly varied sex. On The New York Star it's difficult to keep straight who's hopping into whose bed because they do so with almost alarming frequency. But since Weinraub works for The New York Times I must asume that he knows whereof he speaks.
Desmond Ryan also writes with considerable authority about what it's like to be a somewhat driven reporter in Philadelphia where his novel, Deadlines is laid. This time Jimmy Darcy is the reporter as hero and the villain is a corrupt congressman who has the temerity to want to be a senator. If Darcy can get the goods on the congressman, he won't go to the Senate and the Republic will be saved.
Without betraying too much of the plot, I can say that Darcy does dig up the congressman's wretched past only to have his paper refuse to print the story. How he finally manages to get the story into print is the book's clever climax. Ryan writes a nice, crisp prose and is particularly good at complicated exposition. All in all, a well-crafted novel.
Perhaps one day some gifted author will write a novel about a fine newspaper that died and a brilliant reporter who failed and wound up writing obituaries over there against the farthest wall. It might not be as entertaining and as melodramatic as Bylines, Deadlines, and I Shouldn't Be Telling You This, but it might give us a deeper insight into the newspaper business. On second thought, it might not.