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Breaking newsmen

August 10, 2008|David L. Ulin

Journalism HAS always been a desperate business. That's the subtext of P.G. Wodehouse's 1915 novel "Psmith, Journalist" (Overlook Press: 222 pp., $18.95), which has just been reissued as part of the "Everyman Wodehouse," a project meant to preserve all of the author's 90-something books.

Wodehouse, of course, is best known for his novels about the butler Jeeves and his dandy, Bertie Wooster, parodies of English manor life. Psmith, though, was a recurring early character, an overstuffed British public school product who blunders in and out of extreme situations yet is actually much smarter than he looks. That personality is on full display here as Psmith comes to Manhattan and gets involved with a bland family newspaper called Cosy Moments, which, in collaboration with its fill-in editor Billy Windsor, he turns into a muckraking rag par excellence.

Given the trend in contemporary news to go in a softer direction, it's refreshing to read about a pair of journalists who want to stir up trouble; the main action of the novel involves the conflict between Cosy Moments and a particularly nasty slumlord who calls in the gangs of New York in an effort to shut the paper down. This being farce, there is no real sense of risk, and Wodehouse delights in all sorts of narrative devices -- he especially loves a deus ex machina -- but the ride is so enjoyable we hardly care.

There's also a bit of a moral lesson here: Muckraking can pay the bills. As Psmith says, toward the end of the novel, "Examine the returns, and you will see that the circulation has gone up every week. Cosy Moments was never so prosperous and flourishing."

-- David L. Ulin

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david.ulin@latimes.com

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