PETER MAAS SPECIALIZES in tales of corruption and redemption--inspiring stories that celebrate the victories of lone Davids fighting and felling the Goliaths of greed and deceit. His books are successful not only because they repackage newspaper headlines, thus penetrating the anonymous "objectivity" of the news, but because they are political morality plays. In using standard commercial vehicles that seem ready-made for movie and television spin- offs, Maas also serves a greater ambition: he tries to prove that, despite its most egregious failures, the system can, in fact, be made to work.
To this end, Maas has pursued and portrayed Serpico, the dogged, dedicated cop who refused to accept pay-offs and risked the loss of his friends, lover, even his life, to uncover massive corruption in the New York City Police Department. In his latest book Marie: A True Story, Maas changes the scene of the crime and the sex of the protagonist to chronicle a young woman's battle against the rampant corruption several years ago in the administration of Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton.
When she became chairman of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles in Tennessee, Marie Ragghianti was a former beauty queen and divorced mother of three. According to Maas, she soon discovered that under the Blanton administration, pardons and paroles were being sold to murderers, rapists, drug pushers and assorted thieves. Marie went to the FBI with her information, thus launching an investigation that ultimately incriminated some of the governor's top political appointees, Blanton himself and even Democratic politicians in Washington. The governor and his cronies fought back with a smear campaign, accusing Marie Ragghianti of everything from promiscuity and alcoholism to negligence and fraud. Finally, with a great display of righteous indignation, Blanton dismissed her.
The "old boy network" expected all this to crush Marie and quash the FBI investigation. Sexist through and through, they had appointed her only to serve as a symbol of Blanton's alleged commitment to equal opportunity for women. They were therefore certain that she would do more than smile on cue: she would collapse on demand. They also expected the public to buy their argument that any woman who achieves success has only slept her way to the top. If she accuses an official of misconduct, it's because he has scorned her and she, in turn, is retaliating with false charges.
What Blanton and his henchmen did not consider was that Marie Ragghianti was a formidable opponent--a natural rebel whose life had steeled her to overcome adversity. A devout Catholic, she had enormous reserves of faith that, Maas tells us, helped her weather her parents unhappy marriage; survive the attacks of a violently jealous husband who frequently beat her (she eventually left him); and cope with doctors who refused to believe that her son's nearly fatal illness wasn't due to some rare lung disease but occurred after he swallowed a pistachio shell (following months of harrowing medical treatment, they finally found the shell and he was cured).
Marie wasn't only a "knock-out," she was a feisty young woman who worked, went to college, raised three children and landed a top executive position because she truly deserved the job. While in government, she refused to function as a figurehead and fought hard to reform the Pardons and Paroles Board. Her problems began when she questioned why convicts with money or good political connections were routinely released from state prison-- and even pardoned--shortly after they were jailed. And when Blanton counter-attacked, Marie did not give up: she sued Blanton for acting in an arbitrary and capricious manner when he dismissed her.
Maas' story would ordinarily be riveting. After a slow beginning, we soon begin to identify with Marie and follow with fascination the Byzantine tangle of a Tennessee political scandal that introduces us to the underworld, rivalries between Southern Democrats and Republicans, and the workings of a major FBI investigation. Several key witnesses are murdered along the way and we are constantly worried about the safety of our heroine. When Marie finally wins the law suit against Blanton, thereby vindicating her reputation, we heartily applaud her victory.
But it is the force of Marie's personality rather than Maas' literary skill or the moral of his story that carries the reader along. The author, of course, makes no pretentions to literature, but instead of shaping his material he simply throws it at us helter skelter. Each chapter is divided into subsections which contain brief vignettes. Sometimes a subsection is a few pages long; sometimes we get only a paragraph or several sentences. When relating an odd episode or observation, Maas simply finds an empty slot and fills the hole. To give us a summary of Blanton's career, the public reaction to Marie's dismissal or a progress report on her trial, Maas relies on the out- dated cinematic technique of flashing a long list of newspaper headlines and leads across the page. The net effect is a hodge podge of material that suggests a total abdication of the story-teller's art.
Maas' moral is, finally, the most unsatisfactory part of this long and rambling account. He explains Marie's mysterious "dedication" in exposing corruption in religious terms. "One day," he writes at the beginning of the tale, "I asked Marie how she manasged to hang in, and she said, 'Well, you know, I believed in the system and I had to find out if I was right.' " Near the end of the book, the reader is once again reminded of "this deep, abiding belief in the democratic process, in the system, akin to her religious faith."
While one can only applaud an individual's determination to make sure that good prevails over evil, there is something suspicious about this attempt to find the observance in the breech. Over and over again, we are told that "the system works" because a courageous soul had the guts to blow the whistle on criminals in public office. Serpico fingered the NYPD, Woodward and Bernstein nailed Nixon, Marie got Blanton. But do these exceptional cases really vindicate our social and political institutions or do they merely vindicate the whistle-blowers who weren't afraid to ferret out the truth and bring it to light?
There is, of course, nothing wrong with telling their stories and heralding their victories. But what Maas and others do these days seems a much more misleading enterprise. For in focusing so exclusively on the courage and dedication of one determined individual, they distract attention both from the systemic roots of wrong-doing in government, and from our own responsibility, as citizens, for letting it flourish. Political corruption, after all, isn't just nourished by the greed of corrupt polticians, it is also fed by our persistent belief that we don't have to worry about fighting City Hall ourselves because someone, somewhere else can be counted on to do it for us.