Original Publication: The New York Times, November 26, 1989
BUSYBODIES By Patrick Anderson. 256 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $18.95.
Washington is a tough town for a satirist to get a grip on. It’s filled with walking cliches everyone can watch on C-Span, and recent reality boasts scenarios most authors wouldn’t dream of trying to peddle: a President who conducted high-level summitry with the Soviets based on astrological charts; a former barmaid who took eight years to graduate from college and was nonetheless put in charge of dispensing hundreds of millions of dollars of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s money; a brilliant Congressman in trouble for trying to fix the parking tickets of his male hooker. The list goes on.
Perhaps it was desperation in the face of such examples that drove Patrick Anderson to create a tortuous tale of Washington life. In ”Busybodies,” Mr. Anderson, a novelist and former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, begins with a witty premise: more than ambition, power or glory, what keeps ”the Capital of the World” spinning is gossip. Wicked Washington dishes the dirt while the rest of the country goes to the dogs for all the movers and shakers care. All day, all night, it’s gossip with a capital ”G.” One character even defines the ”G” word as ”the ultimate oral sex.” With that kind of a buildup, the gossip here had better be pretty good.
It’s not. The hapless hero, Tom Tullis, is supposed to be ”the most hated and feared gossipmonger in the civilized world.” He works for a weekly paper run by a ”somewhat crazed heiress with a fondness for young men and old whiskey” – the kind of fun-loving gal who utters cracks like, ”Kay Graham, you’re history!” Tullis, the self-proclaimed ”Proust of P Street,” proudly relates that ”it was I who broke the news of the Mississippi Congressmen who gambled away their uncomplaining spouses in a drunken poker game, and the Supreme Court nominee whose wife was a man.” Really. How does that compare with patriotic and dewy Fawn Hall admitting she stuffed classified documents into her cowboy boots by day and partied with a contra figure and snorted cocaine at night? Mr. Anderson’s imagination is simply outclassed by reality.
Only a dyed-in-the-wool Washington writer would assume that a civilian reader could stay awake through a convoluted plot hinging on a loophole in the campaign spending laws; that endless expositions about ”soft versus hard” money in Presidential campaigns delivered by evil but boring political operatives are sufficient cause to unleash a rather mundane story involving cocaine smuggling, money laundering, gay rights, Japan bashing and statutory rape. Is the line ”Her eyes glistened. I held her close and prayed she was strong enough for whatever lay ahead” intentional or unintentional satire? In this book it’s hard to know, but since ”Busybodies” is Patrick Anderson’s eighth novel we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Maureen Orth, who lives in Washington, is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and a columnist for New York Woman magazine.