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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

A Satirical Look at Life in the Fourth Estate : MY FAVORITE WAR by Christopher John Farley; Farrar, Straus & Giroux $20, 254 pages

August 07, 1996|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Thurgood Brinkman, graduate of a college so exclusive that John Harvard couldn't get his son admitted and had to start up a school of his own, is unhappy at the Washington newspaper he works for. Good writing is "universal," he tells us, yet his editors butcher his copy.

Asserting that Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway are his models, he immediately puts the claim in deepest doubt:

"I wanted to write stories so perfect, so gleaming and immaculate, that the most meddlesome editor wouldn't want to tinker with them. Instead, they'd be mute and overcome by the majesty of my words, tears streaming down their cheeks and clots of blood pouring from their ears, all from the raw, almost preternatural force of my prose."

Thank goodness for editors.

Christopher John Farley's satirical novel has some seriously angry things to say through Brinkman, a comfortably raised, highly educated black man struggling in the mainly white world of journalism. Farley tries to deliver them as a stream of epigrams voiced by a dandy: deadliness in a spray of lace. Oscar Wilde could manage the trick. Farley's protagonist lacks the timing, the shapely phrase and above all the restraint. Sledgehammers can be useful, but the author mistakes them for darts.

Brinkman works for The National Now! a takeoff on USA Today. It is all fluff--Brinkman does a piece on big vegetables that runs on the front page above the outbreak of the Gulf War--and it spends both lavishly and stingily. Brinkman has lived for years in a luxurious apartment provided by the paper, but he has to fight for his own computer.

The Now hires multiculturally, but since it treats all its employees as serfs and restricts them to writing short, inane features, they are either miserable or dumb. It is an equal-opportunity misery. The author, who was born in Jamaica, went to Harvard and works for Time magazine, has in mind more than journalism's minorities. He aims at satirizing American journalism as a whole, along with the inequities of American policy at home and abroad. His brush is so exceedingly broad that caricature turns to wall-splash.

Brinkman passionately admires the columns that Sojourner Truth Zapader, also black, writes for the rival Washington Post. He finds them gutsy, profound and everything that he would like to write. Farley's mistake is to give examples; they come out worthy but commonplace. (If the hero of your novel is a great poet, you had better not quote anything unless you are one too.)

Brinkman meets Sojourner and is bowled over. The Post hires him as her assistant and sends them to cover the Gulf War. Brinkman tells the very-much-told story of journalists penned up and spoon-fed by the military. He recounts his and Sojourner's defiant sortie into the desert, their capture by the Iraqis, the days they spend in a Baghdad hotel watching CNN and eventually making love, and what happens after they return to Washington.

The plot, the characters and the narrator's running commentary are extravagant, but that need not be a defect. Exaggeration is part of satire, and strict credibility is not the point. The point is satiric credibility, and Farley doesn't manage it.

His narrator has his witty moments. There is an acrid line on the neglected, torn-up streets in Washington's poor black neighborhoods. "Come visit our showroom at the corner of Nowhere Street and Used-to-Be Boulevard," a black shopkeeper is imagined as saying. When Brinkman complains about the discomfort of the Baghdad hotel, Sojourner tells him to "call room service and order a more comfortable war."

But most of the wit spurts wildly. Some of the epigrams are mismatched hybrids: "Journalism is to literature what gum is to filet mignon." Others are proffered from a pulpit: "This is what's wrong with the computer age. We have all these toys and no moral structure to govern them." Brinkman goes in for clattering verbal overkill: Ursula, his editor, "wasn't pushing 40, she was pulling it, dragging it up a steep hill like a garbage bag full of rotting meat." Ravished by the sight of Sojourner, he tells us that "her breasts were full and feminine, yet firm and feminist."

Farley may be intending to satirize his narrator along with everything else. If so, it doesn't work. Like Archimedes' planet-shifting lever, satire needs a still fulcrum, and Brinkman's hyperactive, misfiring fusillade blasts it away.

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