Peter Lefcourt Struggles To Upstage The Starr Report With The Election-Day Release Of 'The Woody.'
By Tom Danehy
NOVEMBER 30, 1998:
The Woody, by Peter Lefcourt (Simon & Schuster). Cloth, $23.
SUPERMARKET TABLOID sales are down. At first it would seem odd that scandal sheets would suffer in this time of near-constant scandal; but reportedly sales of the National Enquirer are off nearly 50 percent since its peak in the early '90s. And it's an industry-wide phenomenon--sales are plunging across the board.
Actually, the explanation is simple: Scandal has gone mainstream. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that all the news that's fit to print includes bedroom shenanigans and choice of intoxicant. The New York Times, which used to consider itself "the paper of record," runs front-page articles on (ugh) the sex life of Henry Hyde. And the Arizona Daily Star, which used to consider itself Tucson's paper, printed a special section containing every last disgusting word of the Starr Report.
The mainstreaming of scandal has had two major side-effects. For one, the tabloids are now in the process of re-defining their mission. Sure, there will still be pictures of a space alien and Ross Perot (no, that's not redundant) on the cover of The Weekly World News. But the Enquirer and others have been running, for some time now, respectable investigative pieces (like real newspapers used to do).
The other is that the scandal bar has been raised to ridiculous heights as our collective shock meter gets skewed ever higher. This makes the reporting of important, yet comparatively mundane, news a much harder sell. And it also has the effect of making the writing of good fictional scandal infinitely more difficult as the outrageous becomes just another episode of the nightly news. It's a shame, really (for fiction readers, that is). Reading a good scandal is like eating an eclair: light, airy and easy to swallow, while being wholly unfulfilling and not at all good for you. In other words, the good stuff. Which in the hands of a deft writer can be really good stuff.
While the reality-based Primary Colors seemed tame and so-what, Barry Levinson was able to pull it off with the prescient Wag The Dog. So what next?
We must feel bad for author Peter Lefcourt. He's written a very funny book about politics, which falls short of superb simply due to its untimely debut. Nothing done by any of the colorful cast of characters in The Woody is able to elicit a gasp, grimace or wince from the reader. It's all very bizarre, but just not shocking while Starr is there testifying on the telly.
Woody covers a year in the life of its title character, U.S. Senator from Vermont, Woodrow Wilson White. Nearing the end of his second term and locked in a bitter battle for re-election, White has been thoroughly corrupted by 12 years of arm-twisting and butt-kissing in Washington. He's totally consumed with his own survival, and everything is fair play.
But boy, does he have trouble. His (second) trophy wife, with whom he ostensibly cohabitates but in actuality only communicates with via fax, is having an affair with a Finnish female Ice Capades skater who's in the country illegally. His biggest contributor is the secret head of the Vermont Maple Sugar Mafia. And his second biggest contributor is the Republic of Togo, which is funneling illegal campaign contributions through a fake PAC known as NAPTOTS (the National Association for the Prevention and Treatment of Tourette's Syndrome).
The Vermont mob leader goes by the name of John Quincy Adams and shares a small farmhouse with his companion, Elbridge Gerry (named for the man for whom gerrymandering was named). People who cross them get tied to a tractor and dragged through the mud over the septic tank out back.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, Woody is having trouble with his. Once a legendary cocksman, he must now resort to an elaborate foreplay routine involving surgical tape and razor blades (please don't ask).
Woody's whole world is caving in. The guy assigned to ghost-write his autobiography is digging too deeply, uncovering his druggie son, his religious fanatic daughter, and his bitter, greedy first wife. Woody is in a protracted battle with Trent Lott, whose vehicle Woody damaged in a parking-lot accident. And then there's Ishmael, the staff chief who must pretend to be gay so that he can hang out with the really important Senatorial aides.
To Lefcourt's credit, his main character is a clod, but not totally unlikable. While he continues to hit new lows, he keeps fighting back. And we almost cheer for him. He sics the INS on his wife's lover, but then uses it as leverage to get his wife to appear with him at campaign rallies. He keeps the Maple Mob at arm's length, and wages a surprisingly effective battle against the Washington press corps.
It's cleverly written and moves along at a brisk pace, but I have to admit I kept wondering what Carl Hiaasen would have done with this material. (Hiaasen created the greatest political character of all time in Skink, a towering, one-eyed former governor of Florida who dropped out of society to become basically the Yeti of the Everglades.)
Lefcourt's The Woody, which somewhat heavy-handedly was released on Election Day, is raucous, politically insightful, and sometimes quite funny. I just wish it had been more scandalous.
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