By Julia Slavin
Norton. 296 pp. $23.95This immensely appealing first novel starts out drop-dead funny, then a bit past the halfway mark does a 180 and turns drop-dead serious. The change is sudden and disconcerting, and it's a safe bet that if Julia Slavin's manuscript had landed on the desk of a rigid, literal-minded editor, she'd have been ordered to fix things up. Fortunately, though, whoever edited Carnivore Diet had the wisdom to let Slavin be Slavin, with the result that Carnivore Diet is more than a little bit messy, but it's also loaded with energy, humor, irreverence, intelligence, compassion -- and dialogue that's as snappy as anything you'll hear on Comedy Central.
Slavin is news to me, and very good news. Her previous book, The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and Other Stories (1999), was favorably received and seems to have acquired something of a cult following, but Carnivore Diet is the book that's really going to get her going. For one thing it's only a few minutes behind the news -- its chief plot line clearly was inspired by the sniper attacks that terrorized Washington three years ago -- and for another it's a Washington satire to rank with Christopher Buckley's The White House Mess and Thank You for Smoking, though apart from being funny and smart and set in Washington it has little in common with either.
The great Latin American novelists who are glibly pigeon-holed as practicing "magical realism" loathe the term and go out of their way to avoid being tarred by it, yet it's hard to think of a phrase that more succinctly describes Carnivore Diet. It's set in a Washington that's real and recognizable, but over and over it veers off in the direction of the fantastic, the absurd, the magical. By contrast, say, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fictional land of Macondo, Washington is probably the least magical place on the face of the Earth, yet Slavin turns it into a crazy funhouse, with distorting mirrors and fat ladies and tunnels of love and wild roller-coaster rides.
Okay: not literally. It just seems that way. For starters, the city and its suburbs are under siege not by human snipers but by an incredible beast, the chagwa, with "black eyes the size of softballs . . . gashes of stripes on one side, bludgeons of spots on the other, a nose triangular on one side, smashed in on the other . . . a five-hundred pound knife with paws." The chagwa prowls not in the jungle where he clearly belongs but in Washington's leafy 'burbs, in particular one called Ruth Bay, somewhere around Chevy Chase and Bethesda, where Wendy and Matt Dunleavy live with their son, Dylan.
Actually, Matt's not there now. A congressman from the heartland, he's in federal prison on trumped-up charges, "framed" by some of the nastier elements on Capitol Hill and its lobbying adjuncts. So Wendy and Dylan are on their own, and it isn't easy. Dylan is about to lose his job as the voice of "rat boy" on a television cartoon filmed at a studio nearby called Gold Street, and Wendy is strung out on pills:
"We were unable to go to the market without sedatives, unable to sleep without meds. Even on the maximum dose of Solisan we couldn't chase [the chagwa] out of our dreams. In our peripheral vision we saw him and the smallest sounds made us jump, the metal door closing on a truck, the school bus backfiring on the highway. We developed facial tics and worry lines. We got our priorities straight. We fixed up our homes, renewed old connections, then remembered why we'd broken those connections and ended them again. But the threat of a beast hovering made everyone wittier, enlivened. Ruth Bay was the center of the universe."
Which is pretty much the way it felt around here three years ago, with everyone on tiptoe, emotions intensified and heightened. The difference is that for much of the way Slavin plays it for comedy, and she scores ace after ace. When Wendy goes to the hospital, it's called Our Lady of Incumbency, and the school nearby is Our Lady of the Highways. At the "annual client bash" of a law firm called Wobley & Fowell & Coolidge & Shank & Worburn, the talk is echt Washington: "It's not the shark you gotta outswim, it's the guy in the water next to you"; "I told him sixty grand more, he'd be our new ambassador to Nigeria"; "You have a greater likelihood of winning a Section 42 dispute with the IRS than coming into contact with the chagwa." Ditto for a party held by Trip Vernon, former secretary of commerce, and his wife, Linney: "an executive VP who does nothing but write checks for people like us"; "he got so damn emotional losing those planes"; "military-industrial complex: God love it"; "tack it on the end of the milk bill." As for the party:
"In the center of the flagstone patio, I saw Birdwell McGrath, the former Labor chief, chatting away with Galloway Bradfield, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. By the dog-shaped boxwood stood Mo Condon, former senator from New Hampshire. Blessed with below-average intelligence, he could maintain hours of superficial conversation. Annabelle Straub, the former senator from Wisconsin, was back to back with Manny Rice, the former White House Chief of Staff. Paul Winterson, the former congressman from Detroit, was held hostage in conversation with Goosey Keegan, the former wife of George Keegan, the former Secretary of State. . . . I pointed out Sukey Van Hazen, the former correspondent from LMN. I'd admired her when she was on NPR, the toughest interviewer in the business who used her wiles to get anyone to hang himself by the cord of her magic mike. Then she went to TV. Then she went native, showing up at parties like this with the very people she spent a career vilifying."
The temptation to quote endlessly from Carnivore Diet is, as you can see, irresistible; again and again, Slavin is smack in the middle of the bull's eye. She gives us a lecherous senator, older than Methuselah and meaner than a coyote, who'll do anything, legal or otherwise, for "my hometown, my constituents." There's the hyper-liberal activist, Ben Sotterburg, a man for all of Washington's seasons: "Desegregationist. Civil rights lawyer under four presidents. War hero. Philanthropist. Best-selling author. Real-estate mogul. Painter. Counterterrorist expert. Single father. Filmmaker. Gourmet cook. Hostage negotiator." Not to mention "billiards champ," "hell of a cellist," "negotiated Moske treaty," and for good measure when he and Wendy end up in bed together it's the funniest sex (or non-sex) scene I've read in a long, long time. It can't be quoted in a family newspaper, so take a hint from Ben: "It happens to the best of us."
That gets us close to the midpoint of Carnivore Diet, and then things begin to change. Dylan becomes friendly with a celebrated former high-school basketball player, Rahim Wilson, and when they and a bunch of other kids do something stupid it's the black kid who pays the price; this often happens in the real world, to be sure, but somehow it's too easy and obvious in a book that mostly avoids both. The chagwa heads to the center of the city, its pursuers overreact, and chaos ensues; predictable, perhaps, in a city where law enforcement now overreacts to everything, but, again, too easy and obvious. Then, in the very end, Slavin wraps things up just a tad too tidily, with a bit of magic that isn't really all that magical.
But how much better it is for the reader to bear with these comparatively minor shortcomings than to see Carnivore Diet tamed into something conventional: nicely written and smart, but ordinary. There's almost nothing ordinary about Carnivore Diet, and that's a large part of its appeal. Julia Slavin is daring, sassy and imaginative. Her next novel is most definitely something to anticipate with pleasure, but in the meantime I'm going right out to get my hands on a copy of The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.