Veteran Scribe Bites Feeding Hand.
UPI Newshawk's Novel Flays Fourth Estate.
So might the headlines read if this antic novel were announced in the pages of the Capital Register & Press -- the madcap midwestern daily invented by Arnold Sawislak to house his comical, compact and thoughtful satire of the newspaper business.
As the story opens, the CR&P is a torpid and obsequious sheet whose acronym long has been lamentably apt: "The Garden Club election," the aging editor is reminding the staff, "goes above the fold." But those initials prove even more appropriate when the newspaper is purchased by a mysterious absentee consortium bent on boosting circulation.
A new publisher appears in the person of Shigetsu "Shiggy" Shiu, an enigmatic and nefarious Asian-American "well over four feet tall" (but with a towering libido) who flies an Army transport helicopter and likes big blonds. A new editor arrives in the form of Granville Swift ("lean and tweedy" with a "beaked nose sharp enough to slice cheese"), a ferocious scandal-tout and smut-meister who mastered his craft in the British tabloids. Draconian sanctions accompany the shift to computerized word processing and the promise of "summary discharge" is dangled for those deficient in "enthusiastic cooperation" with the new regime.
Whose journalistic philosophy is promptly revealed to be yellower than Rupert Murdoch in a lemon grove full of canaries at noon. Huge lurid headlines -- "Nude Nut Kills Cop" -- squall across the front page where late the Garden Club bloomed. "Arabs Won't Say Yasser" appears over an account of PLO chief Arafat. And the story of a jail inmate who escapes in a garbage truck only to find himself in the rubbish crusher is topped with "Breakout Fails; Con -- Pacted."
All of which is noted, with deepening comic rancor, by Sawislak's hero, Bob Wartovsky, the CR&P's hard-drinking, pan-lascivious and brusquely competent statehouse correspondent whose first-person narrative gives the prose its irascible tone and the plot its itinerant structure. By every evidence, we are embarked on a solid and sophisticated lampoon that threatens to rattle the rib cage.
If the novel delivers somewhat less than that, it is because Sawislak disperses his vituperative zeal too soon and too wide. After all, the excesses of the tabloid press are a pretty easy target for satire, bordering as they frequently do on self-parody. The author, a senior editor at United Press International, senses this early on and begins loading up the story with episodic humor and a gaggle of concurrent subplots. As a result, midway through the book he is biting more hands than a famished Doberman could comfortably chew.
There is an investigative reporter probing mob ownership of the paper; a detailed description of a statehouse corruption scoop; a long, scathing and very funny portrait of a libel-prone political "color" writer named Naughton "Knocko" Newton, who rather eerily resembles Hunter Thompson; a presidential primary including, among others, a retired general who wants retirees to form a military "home guard" or lose their Social Security and bellows, "If we can require Jap cars sold in this country to have American parts, we can oblige the Huns to use American grain in their beer and bottle it over here."
There's a Woodstockish rock concert -- featuring the hit punk group, Post-Partum Repression -- which makes the headline that gives the book its title. There are Wartovsky's oddly bloodless and perfunctory beddings of a computer bimbo and the investigative reporter's daughter. There are district attorneys, sheriffs, gunfire and mayhem. In short, about 50 pounds of material for this five-pound bag of a novel, all culminating in a hasty ex machina conclusion clamping together the myriad plot strands that it would take 400 pages to knit more solidly.
Not surprisingly, that kind of enforced concision breeds caricature, and readers expecting such fictional amenities as thematic subtlety, imagistic nuance or character development had best browse elsewhere. Yet Sawislak is not without compensating virtues. He has a newsman's practiced talent for the fast phrase (a rock impresario has "enough gold chain around his neck to moor the Love Boat"), as well as a good ear for cynical pressroom dialogue and an agreeably deadpan way of winding up a slapstick anecdote. "There's enough women in kimonos down at the lockup to cast a Japanese opera."
Moreover, he knows how to sandbag the reader with unexpected pathos, as when the paper discovers that a high school football star is gay. Or with ironic ambiguity, as when Swift delivers a pleonastic tirade on the virtues of the yellow press, with apparent authorial approval. "It makes mass-circulation newspapers possible," he inveighs, and "made people who wouldn't otherwise pay attention to anything other than their own immediate personal concerns and needs at least partially aware of what was going on . . . We can prattle all we want about the holy mission of journalism and about the people's right to know, but at bottom we succeed only when we serve the perceived needs of those who plunk down a quarter for what we produce."
And like the best satirists in any era, the author both knows and loves his subject -- a quality that gives even the most biting censure a redemptive aura. Those who plunk down their quarters will find that Sawislak is well above the fold.