Okay. Okay I'll admit there were clues the book wasn't going to be a runaway best seller.
There were no review copies floating around the office and the publisher was in Lanham, not exactly the heart of the publishing industry, even for academic books such as this one. Then there was the title, "Power and Influence in a Southern City" -- not much of a grabber.
Still, if you're hooked on case studies of local power structures -- who the power brokers are in Anytown, USA -- and have spent five years in Norfolk, the chance to read a book on who runs that city is too much to resist.
So I rushed my $8.50 off to University Press of America for a paperback copy of Professor James B. Haugh's book on Virginia's largest city. Three days later it arrived and I knew why the book would never be on the best seller lists.
After all, few literary block-busters open with a photograph of the author and his family and close with another picture of the author, alone and in one of those Victorian-looking ovals.
There were other clues:
The author, an assistant professor at Norfolk's Old Dominion Unversity had decided not to call Norfolk by its rightful name. In the best tradition of sociological jargon, it was dubbed "Colonial City." i
No doubt that it was Norfolk. Haugh, who holds a PhD from the University of Akron in Ohio, described "Colonial City" as "first of all a Navy town . . . a Virginia port town of about 300,000 people. . . ."
But the clincher was the map of "Colonial City" -- you know, the city in southeastern Virginia that's sandwiched between "Resort City" (Virginia Beach) and "River City" (Portsmouth). It looked strangely familiar.
Baffled, but undaunted, I read on, and unearthed a crucial finding on Page 121: "For best results (in conducting interview), use a remote microphone placed close to the respondent . . . . The better the recorder, microphone and tape, the better the recording."
Ah ha, I thought, the interviews. That's it: The meat of the book will be there. I quickly flipped the pages.
Egads! The good Dr. Haugh not only had renamed the city, but everyone in town.
Lawyer Charles Kaufman, the man widely recognized as Norfolk's most influential citizen was there -- but under the colorless name of "Edward E. Evans." My old boss, newspaper publisher Frank Batten, had become "James Johnson." And the wonderful appellations of the Darden brothers, former governor Colgate Darden and retired auto dealer Pretlow Darden, had been transformed into "Jefferson J. Davis Jr." and "Donald Davis Sr."
Nothing escaped Haugh's penchant for new names. The Virginia National Bank Building was the "Old Dominion National Bank Building." The Lafayette River was "French River" and the Elizabeth River became the "River of Queens," giving the Old Dominion -- the real one, that is -- the flavor of riverboat gamblers instead of the richness of its colonial history.
Despite the meticulous attention to microphone technique, the interviews were a crushing disappointment. Strangely, no one said anything controversial about the Norfolk power structure, at least when they discussed it with Haugh. Indeed, all of the informatioin had been reported in the Norfolk papers, where editors insisted that their reporters use the real name of the city and its citizens.
If anyone had a right to be upset by the book, it was Norfolk's sizable black community, about one-third of city population. Haugh gave them two paragraphs in his 144-page book.
"It is not possible at this juncture even to speculate on the arrangements of power and influence in the black community of Colonial City, Virginia," Haugh wrote. "It is not known whether those who were interviewed (five black people in all) are respected by blacks as leaders of the black community, or whether they are viewed as 'agents' of the white community."
Aw, come on, Professor Haugh. Surely Old Dominion University is not that isolated from its hometown.
The real Norfolk can be fascinating and charming. Even though it is Virginia's largest city in terms of population, in many ways it is a small, Southern town, run by a small clique of white businessmen and tolerated by its residents, who are largely Navy personnel and who, like the fleet docked at the city's edge, are simply passing through.
"Norfolk," David Rice, head of the city's redevelopment authority, once said, "is the only town I know where you can meet everyone you need to know at two cocktail parties."
Despite Haugh's apparent failure to capture the spirit of the town, the most troublesome aspect of his work is not addressed in the book: If this is what passes for academic research in Virginia, then the state's schools, or at least Old Dominion, are in trouble.