Len Downie Novel Gets Hammered: 'J-School Literature'

03/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Tomasky's delicious review of Len Downie's novel, The Rules Of The Game, begins with a long preamble about an unsalable story: a president, a great calamity, the exploitation thereof, a supine press, a marginalized class of truth-tellers, a disastrous war, and failure after failure, culminating in...well, not much exactly!

But basically--no dramatic tension, no plucky heroes, no climactic showdown in which the forces of light prevail. The nation is left in chaos, and the president limps home to a cosseted retirement.

As Tomasky notes, "Who would want to read that?"

The non-fiction version, I mean the actual historical record, of how Washington acquitted itself in the Bush years is not a flattering story. Congress, the media, the foreign policy establishment--Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and (many) liberals--far too often enabled an administration that will clearly go down in history as one of our most incompetent and mendacious. But fortunately God made novels. And in fiction, people ... well, they are intelligent, well-meaning, dedicated to the public weal, and simply not that timorous. In novels, they do stand up. Truth, justice, and the American way prevail.

Boy, do they prevail in The Rules of the Game, Leonard Downie Jr.'s novel of contemporary Washington. Even the bad guy is good when it counts. Plagued by guilt and shame, he commits suicide, but before doing so he takes care to wrap all the incriminating documents in a nice little package, just like Tim Robbins did in The Shawshank Redemption--Downie is definitely thinking screenplay!--so the crusading reporter at "The Washington Capital" can spill the beans.

Tomasky refers to the resulting novel as "J-School literature," but frankly, it sounds to me like J-School porn! A Washington where everyone's extra-marital affairs have career-advancing angles, all the surnames are marketably goy, and where a passel of Deep Throats stand waiting around for tables at Lauriol Plaza. Tomasky describes one exchange, between the novels nominal heroine, and, of Washington's many mystery-cloaked figures:

Page is barely two or three months on her new beat when she breaks a big story about Tucker's corporate clients and lobbyist connections, an angle that up to this point had evidently not occurred to any of Washington's most experienced journalists to explore. Page is at the gym--I mean "the well-appointed health club near Washington's Cleveland Park neighborhood"--when a fellow walks up to her in fine Hal Holbrook-style: "It was a good story. But you've only found the tip of the iceberg. There's more, a lot more. And it gets nasty. Very nasty."

I think people, upon recognizing a newspaper reporter, should just walk up to them and say, "It was a good story. But you've only found the tip of the iceberg. BWA-HAHA!" and then walk away -- mysteriously! -- on general principle. But that's just me. I do this all the time, mostly to food critics.

Apparently, the big reveal is rather banal: the government has been outsourcing torture! Sounds like the sort of thing Dana Priest would knock out of the park, no? All the same, Tomasky cannot put me off wanting to read this book, because even if the destination is lame, the journey is mind-bending! Sources get murdered! Deus ex machinae emerge! There is an "orgy," apparently, in "Arlington," of which my fellow Arlingtonians have been keeping me in the dark!

And the strong message appears to be that if one lone reporter can just blaze a shiny enough beacon of intrepidness, the whole system will self-correct itself. I am ordering my copy of this book right now. And why not spin a tale? The banal truth is that Downie's heroine, in real life, would have just had her stories shoved to the back of the A-section by Liz Spayd. Because who would want to read that?

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