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As a Novel, Starr Report Doesn't Make the Grade

Characters and Content Read Like a 'Cheesy, Cheap Melodrama,' Writers Say

September 17, 1998|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Long before she became a respected writer, Carolyn See developed an expertise in pornography. It grew out of her experiences as an expert witness in 1st Amendment literary trials and her graduate studies of the Hollywood novels.

So when she read independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on President Clinton, See felt right at home.

"I know soft porn when I see it, and this is it," said the Southern California novelist and critic. "The guys who wrote the report really have the knack--and that's because in soft porn nothing happens. 'He kissed her here. . . . She touched him there.' This is the poorest excuse for a sexual affair between two people that I've ever heard of."

Forget the pundits, lawyers and spinmeisters who have been parsing Starr's report ad nauseam. When it comes to sin, sex and redemption, the true experts are America's literary storytellers and bestselling writers. After all, numerous readers of Starr's report--admirers and critics alike--have compared it to a novel.

Publishing circles are abuzz with stories that Monica Lewinsky herself may soon sign a fat book deal for her memoirs--yet Starr's report has also yielded a bounty of gossip and literary analysis. While much has been made of the care with which the report was written by two attorneys, a sampling of prominent authors gives them failing marks for content and style.

To be sure, these novelists principally blame Clinton, Lewinsky and Starr for the national mess. But they all voice a wistful longing that the story could have been told so much more convincingly, if only a real writer had gotten involved.

"They [the Starr report authors] were trying to make a series of pathetic encounters between Clinton and Lewinsky into something romantic," See said. "They didn't come close."

Indeed, the 445-page document has gotten decidedly mixed reviews for its efforts to blend lurid sexual details with dryly written prose. As they meticulously document one X-rated encounter after another, the principal authors--attorneys Brett Kavanaugh and Stephen Bates--come dangerously close to self-parody.

The vignettes used to tell the story were intended for legal clarity, but they read to professionals like blackout sketches in a Beltway Opera Buffa. Elsewhere, the report sounds like a bad Broadway musical. When Lewinsky criticizes Clinton, advisor Vernon Jordan urges her to take out her anger on him and says--cue the orchestra--"You're in love, that's what your problem is."

"This report is a cheesy, cheap melodrama," said Susan Isaacs, the Long Island-based author of novels like "Compromising Positions." "Starr's voice, that of the narrator, is like the hypocritical reverend in a Hawthorne novel. Monica is an extortionist, as bad as Barbara Stanwyck in 'Double Indemnity.' And Bill Clinton, the most powerful man in the world, is brought to his knees."

Meanwhile, Linda Tripp "is a character out of pure pop psychology . . . she's a virago, overflowing with anger and self-importance," said Isaacs.

Five years ago, a manuscript like this would have been laughed out of every literary agent's office for being so cliched, said Southern California novelist Peter Lefcourt, author of the forthcoming "The Woody," a political satire about a Washington, D.C., politician who experiences political problems over ethics and impotence.

"Who could have believed details like the dress, and all of the ridiculous little presents they [Clinton and Monica] gave each other?" he asked. "She comes across as such an adolescent: the letters, the phone calls, the questions like, 'Are we breaking up?' And 'Will you leave your wife?' "

The tale falls flat, Lefcourt said, because no matter how cautious its writers may have been, it is impossible to reduce sexual activity to clinical legal terminology.

"You can't use Latin medical terms like 'manipulation' and 'penetration' for an act that is passionate and sweaty," he said.

Others, like Oscar Hijuelos, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," slam the report for being thin on psychology.

"If this were a novel, you'd wonder, where is the other side?" he said. "In the scene when she [Lewinsky] shows him her underwear, what is she really thinking? And what's going on with him? We don't know."

The story could have had archetypal dimensions, Hijuelos added, because Clinton's rise is a classic American story: "He's a poor boy, part Huck Finn and part Elvis Presley. He reaches the pinnacle, and then America humiliates him. It's great stuff, but you don't get that in the Starr report."

Can this manuscript be saved?

It needs work, said Cynthia Ozick, a critic and author of the novel "The Petermusser Papers," among others. And the key problem lies with the two main characters, who never seem to change, she noted.

"Every time we see Clinton he's unzipped, and every time we see Monica she's got her mouth open," Ozick said. "The narrator is dark, but there's no introspection, as there would be in a Hawthorne novel. If you want to view this as a literary tale, there's no search for meaning or a higher truth."

In other words, not even close, and certainly no cigar. But even though the writers are unsparing in their criticism, at least one sees some value in the report.

"If you read carefully, this is the tale of two slightly overweight people who desperately need to be validated," said Pam Houston, author of "Cowboys Are My Weakness." Literature succeeds when you read between the lines, she said, and what isn't on the page is often more illuminating than what is.

"These are people in real pain, like millions of other people in this country, and they need our compassion," Houston said. "So the big question is: Will we give it to them?"

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