The corruption, the graft, the waste — these are the least of Washington’s irritations. Once you move to the District, what really grates is the sweaty envy, the cloying eagerness, the frantic trading of acronyms by those nerdy student council members you once mocked in high school. Now ruling the world from their nouveau Versailles, this army of civil servants jockeys tirelessly for position, for the teeny-tiniest anecdotes about People in Power. Only here would a lunch companion interrupt to say in hushed excitement, “Don’t look now, but that’s the deputy undersecretary of agriculture!”
Jennifer Close knows this city — and your pain. Her new book, “The Hopefuls,” is a hilarious gripefest about what it feels like to be caught in the gravitational pull of Washington. For you, the haters of D.C. who were dragged to the capital by spouses or necessity or mistaken idealism, here, finally, is a novel witty enough to match your secret loathing — and tenderhearted enough to make you realize how much you love this damned cesspool after all.
Close drew the basic plotline directly from her own experience. An editor for Condé Nast, she left New York to follow her husband, who was working on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. In the same way, her narrator, Beth, settles into their new apartment off Dupont Circle and tries to enjoy herself, but their new acquaintances don’t make it easy. “We went to a dinner party,” Beth says, “where everyone — I swear to God — went around the table and announced their level of security clearance.” She tries to adjust, she tries to be positive, but she can’t help it: “I hated everything about D.C.”:
●The way people ask, “Who do you work for?”
●The shorthand people use to talk about their jobs.
●How the motorcades stop traffic.
●How young and eager everyone is.
●That all the women look like they just left Ann Taylor.
●That everyone wears an ID card around their necks.
●In summer, the crippling heat, and then in winter the crazy overreaction to the first snowflake.
●The carpet in the Metro, the depth of the Metro, the rule against eating on the Metro. “I especially hated that everyone obeyed the rule.”
Beth’s husband, Matt, a smart and infinitely patient campaign worker, tells her that it’s impossible to hate so many things about Washington. But she assures him: “It’s not impossible. It’s hard. And it takes a lot of energy, but it’s not impossible.”
That winking humor and especially the real affection between Beth and Matt make “The Hopefuls” a pleasure to read. Close, who teaches writing at George Washington University, has a light, precise touch about the way a young marriage works when the partners are caught between old ideals and new realities. (Her first novel, “Girls in White Dresses,” followed young women finding their way in the world.) Despite their right attitudes about the equal value of each other’s career, Beth finds herself shunted into the role of cheerful, stay-at-home spouse. “What kind of wife would I have been otherwise?” she asks. After all, her husband is helping Obama change the world!
There’s nothing about Beth’s frustrating experience that Close can’t turn to comic effect, which is essential to keeping the novel from sinking into a long whine. Beth is particularly funny about the required vacations with her boorish in-laws. “It was like spending a week at a weird adult athletic camp,” she says, “with highly competitive campers.” And when Beth finally gets a job at a website called DCLOVE — “like ‘Page Six’ and Politico had a baby that’s not quite right in the head” — Close offers up delectable satire about the inanities of web journalism.
But the real heart of “The Hopefuls” is the tension between idealism and cynicism inherent to politics. Beth watches with alarm as her husband grows increasingly concerned about his status, his influence, his access — the oxygen of life in Washington. “I never thought of my husband as an anxious person, but DC had turned him into one,” she says. “I hadn’t been in a place where everyone was so scrutinized since college.” Soon, encouraged by his obnoxious mother, he even starts worrying aloud about his “legacy.”
That sounds grandiose (to most of us), but public service is a strange mixture of altruism and egotism, as many novels about politicians have shown. Close’s special contribution is to explore that theme from the viewpoint of a concerned spouse who doesn’t hear the seductive melody of political power. The city that seems so exciting and expansive to Matt strikes Beth as claustrophobic and incestuous. “It started to make me feel tired,” she admits, “how intertwined everything and everyone was.”
Washington readers will be disappointed that the second half of the novel shifts to Houston, where Matt serves as the campaign manager for a charismatic friend he knew in the White House. Unfortunately, leaving D.C. robs the novel of its rich satirical milieu — the Texas setting is not as entertaining — and it cramps the story into the narrow confines of a souring friendship.
And yet it’s here, in a race for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, that Close so effectively lays out the grinding tedium of running for office: the exhausting travel, the endless glad-handing, the Talmudic analysis of voter data and the constant, degrading pleas for cash. What’s most distressing, though, is the disconnect between the qualities necessary for campaigning effectively and the qualities necessary for governing wisely. Beth’s bright husband may know everything there is to know about fracking, the oil industry and pipeline safety, but his words charm only when channeled through the handsome candidate he’s working for.
“Where do people get the ability to do this?” Beth wonders. “What is it that makes some politicians so attractive? Why did people like Hillary so much more when she cried? Why is it that Obama sings and it’s amazing, but Mitt Romney sings and looks like a nightmare you’d have about a wax figure come to life? And why, in God’s green earth, could Sarah Palin wink and talk about pigs and somehow make everyone around her forget that she’d basically admitted she didn’t read?”
Who isn’t asking those questions during the dark night of our horrific presidential campaign? It’s hard to find much comfort in this brewing national disaster, but “The Hopefuls” offers a welcome mixture of humor and wisdom about the good people who run this country — or, for some reason, want to.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On July 20 at 7 p.m., Jennifer Close will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Jennifer Close
Knopf. 303 pp. $26.95