A talker's foray into fiction
A Novel of Politics and the Media
By Michael Smerconish
Cider Mill Press. 272 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Bob Hoover
Facing a jury of his peers - those boisterous political talk-show hosts - Michael Smerconish would have no defense against charges that his debut novel has roughed them all up - right- and left-wing alike. There's a greater chance, though, that a panel of novelists would find him guilty of writing a book that reads more like journalism than fiction.
The evidence is Smerconish's Talk, the tale of a cynical hypocrite who goes by the nom de radio Stan Powers and who parlays his right-wing radio show into a seat at the table of political influence peddlers, one of a clutch of dubious premises in the book.
Smerconish, a University of Pennsylvania Law School grad, radio and TV host, and Inquirer columnist, is also the author of five nonfiction books. His foray into fiction, however, can't break free from his opinionated view of politics and those who comment upon that carnival of winners and losers.
Rather than using a novel's infinite capacity to embrace life's many dimensions, Smerconish focuses too tightly on the small world of the political talk-show business and its jaded view of American government. His hero has no life outside the radio studio, no interests but his own ego, and no shades between black and white in his character.
The book feels scribbled down among its author's myriad pursuits and would have benefited from a slower pace and the greater attention to detail that more contemplation would have given it.
Aspects of fiction writing - pacing, nuance, multidimensional characters, natural dialogue - take a breather as the author concentrates on educating his readers about the World According to Michael Smerconish. In fact, it sounds more like a memoir, or perhaps wishful thinking.
On the plus side, Talk is filled with jokes, funny asides, and a cast of conniving politicians drawn from real life that provides lots of entertaining moments.
With loud echoes of Lonesome Rhodes, the manipulative media star of Elia Kazan's prescient 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, Stan (real name Stanislaw Pawlowsky) is an uneducated, disinterested nobody, but a smooth talker.
As Smerconish tells us, Stan is not alone in the talk-show business:
"Think about the big names in the business . . . . You're not going to find a depth of education and experience in the subject area for which they are now known. Instead you're going to find individuals who didn't vote, did serious drugs, and worked construction."
Stan was a bartender who "progressed" from rock DJ to the tea party's main man at a Tampa, Fla., station owned by Christian fundamentalists. Otherwise, he gets plastered every Tuesday night at a dive bar with pals and enjoys expensive dinners with girlfriend Debbie, a lawyer who sees through his phoniness but sticks with him because she believes that Powers is a good guy beneath all that hot air and one-sided rhetoric.
That's as far as character development goes, because Stan is Smerconish's mouthpiece for his primer on how talk shows work, even down to the advertising deals. Between his Radio 101 lessons, the author tosses in rude asides about politics and tries to convince us his hero is a good guy at heart even though he enjoys the money and fame of selling out too much to be honest.
Stan gets his marching orders from the disembodied voice of a consultant named Phil whose regular phone calls keep him on point with his small but devout band of listeners, a crew of predictable imbeciles who react to the right-wing buzzwords and catchphrases like trained seals barking for fish.
"In talk radio," advises Stan, "letting the other side speak, showing respect and facilitating civil conversation = death."
Smerconish's bare bones of a plot is a tale of opportunistic candidates who try to lure Stan through bribes of access and - what an original idea - sex, to do their bidding. He accepts all offers, then reminds us that he's really conflicted while doing the bidding of one particularly odious politician and taking advantage of another one's wife.
Somewhere around page 250, Smerconish abruptly rushes his chronicle of deception, hypocrisy, and cynicism into a slam-bang conclusion that seems all too pat and even as cynical as his hero, his colleagues, and the politicians they feast on.
Bob Hoover is the former books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.