Friday, June 13, 2014

Right-Wing Romance and the Media Machine Mess

Michael Smerconish, Talk: A Novel

Political pundits and novelists communicate in completely different ways. Pundits explain everything unambiguously, because they need informed audiences; mass media pundits explain everything repeatedly, because they cannot expect today’s audience saw yesterday’s show. Novelists make choices regarding what merits the audience’s time. Michael Smerconish isn’t the first pundit to attempt novel writing. And he isn’t the first to write new styles in old, wrong, mind-numbing ways.

Stan Powers dominates drive-time talk radio in Tampa, Florida. But Powers has a secret: he’s a moderate-minded political neophyte named Stanislaw Pawlowski. He created the far-right Powers persona for the media influence and six-figure salary. When circumstance gives his I-4 Corridor audience control of a presidential election, Powers becomes an unintentional kingmaker. He must decide: does his high-powered, high-salaried job justify submarining the only woman he’s ever loved?

Smerconish, a former Republican media kingfish whose conscience unseated him in 2008, seems uniquely poised to tell this story. It’s impossible to say how specifically autobiographical Smerconish’s novel is, though it probably reflects his own Obama-era reinvention as a moderate. Unfortunately, he writes like a pundit. Nothing keeps happening, because Smerconish spends chapter after chapter unwinding Powers’ intricate backstory, emphasizing his lies and pricy self-renovation. His story never quite starts.

Pawlowski’s twenty-year career in classic rock radio taught him important interview skills. Rule Number One: let the subjects talk, they’ll give you enough rope to hang them later. Pure luck drops Pawlowski into his Powers role. $300,000 annually stifles Pawlowski’s moral qualms, at first; but with unprecedented authority to sway national affairs, and platoons of single-issue voters hanging off his every word, Powers increasingly doubts his cocky ratings-driven agenda.

Rather than let Powers’ story unfold through action and dialogue, Smerconish permits Powers, our first-person narrator, to engage in really, really long expository discursions. To cite just one example, over twenty years ago, Pawlowski had a summer fling which changed his life. But the story takes so long, and plays to such an inevitably “surprising” final reveal, that once it finally arrives, seasoned readers have grown bored waiting.

The resulting long, talky tone isn’t helped by Smerconish’s cast of thousands. Besides Powers, we get his studio entourage and corporate overlords; the full, detailed slate of Republican and Democratic challengers; Powers’ friends; his current and former loves; and a walk-on ensemble of Tea Party stereotypes so interchangeable, Powers never learns their names. Make notes on the endpaper, because nobody could manage Smerconish’s massive, intricate retinue without a cheat sheet.

And Smerconish, an attorney, inexplicably makes Powers a college washout and semi-reformed slacker. Smerconish’s attempts at Powers’ faux Beatnik rap mainly involve intrusive cuss words and frequent references to Powers’ sexual history. Smerconish—educated, married, moderate—sounds really fakey spinning Powers’ self-taught, reprobate, conservative argot. We can forgive this as inexperience, but then we ask: is Smerconish’s character building, and by extension his fiction, even necessary?

Despite my qualms, Smerconish offers plenty of red meat in his rambling, discursive story. Powers’ authority has covered his conscience like burn scars. He, and his corporate masters, cynically disparage the listeners who pay his bills, and he carefully swallows any hint of nuance. Powers admits his casual misogyny, and covert racism percolates beneath that. Powers’ descent into opportunism, and his slowly reawakening conscience, are certainly timely.

Yet one wonders why Smerconish wrote a novel. There’s nothing particularly novel-ish about Powers’ struggles, especially if Powers is Smerconish’s thinly disguised confessional mouthpiece. Many former ├╝ber-Republican professionals, like John Perkins and David Brock, have published well-received conversion memoirs. Smerconish, whose hybrid positions have made him one of the few pundits to guest-host both Fox News and MSNBC, could’ve told his own story and sold a million.

Smerconish offers copious thoughts and controversies regarding the far-right media chorus he formerly occupied. Both politicians and pundits, he writes, “get rewarded for simplicity and lack of independent thought.” I believe him. But as a novel, this book feels like a contrivance chugging slowly and going nowhere. Smerconish would rather lecture his readers than create characters or situations. He’d rather pontificate than tell a story. And we can tell.

At almost exactly the halfway mark, Stan has a bizarre encounter that mainly lets him reminisce, flinging fist-sized clods of backstory, while obstructing the narrative altogether. He finally asks himself: “What the fuck just happened?” I felt likewise. Around page 160 (of 270), Stan commences yet another unnecessarily long, detailed exposition, and I tossed the book disgustedly on the table. Now I can’t bring myself to pick it up again.

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