To say that Clinton White House veteran Erlich's characters are cardboard is not a criticism: this debut novel, a rollicking parody of current American political life, works like a puppet show. The Being There plot follows the elevation of naive incompetents through the self-serving machinations of soulless politicos. Many of the scenes are brilliantly absurd, as when one Senator Moss is eaten by an alligator while wooing a militant naturalist for campaign support, or when the campaign staff of ailing Senator Wheezle restricts media access because being in a coma 'is usually perceived as a negative.' There are hilarious lampoons of political double-think, e.g., the 'universal daylight savings time initiative,' a pork barrel for the electric companies, and the 'equipment that doesn't work tax credit,' baldly subsidizing businesses for giving away things they never needed in the first place. All the men in power speak like the puppet Punch, unashamedly full of themselves, generally to hilarious effect. ('No, it's absolutely legal,' says one, 'and we can always give the money back if we're caught.') On the other hand, Ehrlich is given to excessive exposition and summary narrative, as if he doubted the readers' ability to appreciate the satire in the action itself. Some interior monologues militate against the total effect, and, because the characters are so thin, it's sometimes too easy to confuse them for one another as the novel jumps from one crazy subplot to another. In the last few pages, Ehrlich tries to draw an uplifting moral that is not at all warranted by the horrific picture he has painted: everyone is for sale, and only fools and losers have scruples.
Imagine the U.S. Congress inflamed by upcoming elections when a string of unexpected events occurs: a sitting president resigns to go fishing, and two members of Congress cannot continue their campaigns. One aide, assigned to monitor a dingbat crusade for universal daylight savings time, vaults to the front lines as a candidate, while another aide's conscientious striving gets him within sneezing distance of a candidacy for himself. This is an extravagantly funny entry into the ranks of the Washington novel by a Clinton administration staffer. Silent on Whitewater and Lewinsky, he nevertheless reels through current sagas such as the story of the 114-year-old senator and the grisly death (with a tip of the hat to Carl Hiassen's Miami riffs) of Florida's senator. One of the sweet subtleties is Ehrlich's successful delivery of the traditional message of hope about the wacky but working American system of government, even as his nonstop silly-season stuff provokes tears of laughter. For all public libraries.--Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress, Falls Church, VA
Absurdist farce about Congressional aides whose zeal, stupidity, and occasional flashes of insight take on great significance in an out-of-control Beltway bureaucracy. Idealistic Lenny Keeler joins the staff of Pennsylvania Congressman Ezra Wheezle—but only after he's enlivened Wheezle's boring speech by jumping into a river to save a girl from drowning. Meanwhile, airhead Dickie Vanderholz, an inept academic who holds a Ph.D. in volcanos, becomes an irresistible political force when, as a useless researcher on a senatorial committee, he begins a crusade to make daylight savings time a permanent, year-round affair. Miriam Moskowitz, Vanderholz's cynical supervisor, rival, and, finally, swooning lover, discovers that a passionately advocated single issue understood by no one, such as the equipment-that-does-not-work tax credit, can pitch a washed-up hack like Wheezle into the Oval Office. With a nod to the paranoid paradoxes of Heller's classic Catch-22, first-novelist Ehrlich's Capitol characters appear as the victims of a vast, incomprehensibly foolish anthill of craven ambition and blatant greed. The only winners here are people like handsome, vacuous President Wade F. Hoak, who, after realizing that 'making history is interesting work, but, the fact is, we all can't be Nixons,' happily quits after his third year in office, in exchange for a $50-million going-away present from his wealthy backers. Included among the denizens helped, or hurt, by Ehrlich's trio of plucky slaves are tough-talking House Speaker Rollo Plank, a 114-year-old Idaho congressman, and TV preacher Colonel Cody Clark, a smarmy faith healer of spiritually delinquent bodies, souls, and stock portfolios.A beguiling satire of Washington's wacky ways and means that, for all its dead-on delights, lacks bite. Funny, but featherweight.