Man about Town: A Novel

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A congressional adviser and habitué of a cozy circuit of bars inside the Beltway, Joel Lingeman never quite felt middle-aged. At least not until he was abandoned by his partner of fifteen years and suddenly thrust into a dating scene with men half his age and no discernible trace of love handles. But this unexpected hole in his life inspires Joel's search for a 1964 edition ofan Esquire-like magazine that contained a swimsuit ad that obsessed and haunted him throughout his youth. Determined to find out what ...

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Man About Town: A Novel

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A congressional adviser and habitué of a cozy circuit of bars inside the Beltway, Joel Lingeman never quite felt middle-aged. At least not until he was abandoned by his partner of fifteen years and suddenly thrust into a dating scene with men half his age and no discernible trace of love handles. But this unexpected hole in his life inspires Joel's search for a 1964 edition ofan Esquire-like magazine that contained a swimsuit ad that obsessed and haunted him throughout his youth. Determined to find out what happened to the model shown in the ad, Joel slowly begins to understand what has happened to his own life. Sexy, smart, and deftly observed, Man About Town is a new twist on the idea that the personal is political and a must read for anyone who's ever wondered what happened to that first crush.

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Editorial Reviews

David Leavitt
“A sorrowful, cathartic novel.”
“Stunningly good…haunting, funny, and masterfully written, American Studies provides keen insight into our own history and our lives.”
New York Times Book Review
“Merlis deftly sketches two distinct societies in Washington: Capitol Hill…and the city’s gay singles scene….compelling.”
The Advocate
“Clever, perceptive and reader friendly.”
Book Marks
“An uncommonly grown-up fiction by a writer with a keen, affectionate eye for gay foibles and failings.”
Chicago Tribune
“Sharp and convincing.”
Gay City News
“Brims with characters, events and ideas that, besides being greatly entertaining, stimulate discussion
Washington Blade
“A pungently insightful tale.”
Out Magazine
“Uncluttered, intelligent…a compelling read.”
Los Angeles Times
“A book that transcends genre in portraying the abyss that divides one ostracized human soul from all others.”
Seattle Times
“An unexpected kind of gay fiction, especially with its insider’s look at the legislative process...different and ambitious.”
Washington Post Book World
“Merlis treats both his characters and readers as if they are smart.”
Los Angeles Times on American Studies
“A book that transcends genre in portraying the abyss that divides one ostracized human soul from all others.”
The New York Times
In his biting third novel, Mark Merlis deftly sketches two distinct societies in Washington: Capitol Hill, where lawmakers and their aides toil in ridiculous formality and futility; and the city's gay singles scene, with its triviality and treachery on display. — Chris Marquis
Publishers Weekly
Joel Lingeman, the protagonist of the third novel by Washington insider-cum-novelist Merlis (American Studies), is, at 45, a man in full, with a high-profile job as a health policy adviser to Congress, a long-term lover and a tightly knit circle of like-minded friends. Still, he is unable to avoid the eternal question of "what if?" His mind wanders off medicare and HMOs, drifting back to his high school years, yearning for another chance to correct his juvenile mistakes, to chart a different course in life. Change, however, is thrust upon him when Sam, his lover of 15 years, leaves him for a younger man. Lingeman's world implodes, and he is thrown back into the scene of Washington's gay bars, seeking reaffirmation and companionship. His sudden change of status propels him into an obsession with one of his boyhood fantasies, a model in an ad he saw in a magazine as a child. Lingeman is so engrossed by this ephemeral man that he misses a more obvious and tangible potential lover. Cleverly, Lingeman's career echoes his romantic life, as he finds himself disgusted with the opportunism and cynicism of Washington politics. Merlis's staccato style, stinging and insightful, puts the reader inside Lingeman's head as he treads the fine line between fantasy and reality, between the superficial and the meaningful. Merlis is able to move from describing a certain assistant's dress as one "an organ grinder might have chosen for his monkey" to the deepest contemplations of commitment, couplehood and the importance of candor. He creates a protagonist with broad appeal, proving beyond doubt that the personal is political and vice versa. (May 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For Joel Lingeman, life is pretty cushy, if a bit dull. At 45, he's an overpaid consultant to Congress on the healthcare industry. A typical day ends with a few too many drinks at a Capital Hill bar, then home to cook dinner for Sam, his partner of 15 years. It's a middle-aged holding pattern that Joel could have sustained to retirement, until the night that Sam takes off with a new boyfriend-a flat-stomached 23-year-old. It's a story we know well, albeit told with husbands and wives, but in Merlis's skilled hands it is somehow new again. Joel's reinvention of himself takes him in several directions. Some are expected and wryly comic, like dating again. But one direction is darker: the pursuit of a dazzling swimwear model from an advertisement Joel remembers from his youth-who is now surely an old man. It's all a fantasy and pretty destructive as well, but who can blame Joel? Not only has Sam left but Congress is considering a bill that would deny Medicare to people with HIV who engaged in high-risk behavior ("Personal Responsibility Act"), and the one guy he likes has a habit of stealing money from his wallet. Merlis is a skilled realist who employs an understated humor-especially in depicting the Washington bureaucracy. Not as ambitious as his earlier American Life or the boldly inventive An Arrow's Flight, Merlis's third novel is a more questioning and ultimately more disturbing work. For all popular fiction collections.-Brian Kenney, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
When his partner of 15 years leaves him, middle-aged gay Joel Lingeman is forced to come to terms with his past fantasies and reexamine things as they are. Joel has lived on autopilot for years, sleepwalking through a passionless relationship and working in a dull Capitol Hill job that would offend his political sensibilities if he took it more seriously. But when Sam, his live-in lover, walks out, Joel is jolted into consciousness. In fits and starts, he attempts to build a new social life and to speak up at work. It isn't easy to get back into the DC dating scene; he was never adept at meeting guys, and now-overweight, unkempt, and a bit long in the tooth-he's having an even harder time. Meanwhile, on the Hill, nasty antigay legislation inches closer to becoming law, but Joel fails to appreciate the danger until it's too late. Though he can't muster the moxie to fix his love life or come out to Congress, Joel shows surprising determination in tracking down a swimsuit model who appeared in an ad in 1964, fueling Joel's adolescent dreams and shaping his adult notions of physical desire. What he hopes to find by locating this man is a mystery, but the search itself helps him discover how he ended up where he did. Sometimes, Merlis posits, it's necessary to look backward and make peace with our former selves to move forward. Less insightful than his dazzling debut, American Studies (1994), and less ambitious than An Arrow's Flight (1998), but, still, this is carefully worded, with the author's flair for subtle introspection and keen observation. The characters' outward interactions may seem unremarkable, and the settings-Congress and gay bars-alternately comic and tragic, but Merlis reachesa level of thoughtful reflection that sings with poignancy. A small tale about an ordinary man-though one with unusual resonance for gay men who've outgrown "the scene."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780007156122
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/27/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Merlis grew up in Baltimore and attended Wesleyan and Brown Universities. He now lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

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First Chapter

Man About Town
Chapter One

It was almost six o'clock, so Joel Lingeman wanted a drink. Senator Flanagan did, too, probably. He looked attentive enough. He had his head tilted more or less in the direction of Senator Harris, who was trying to explain something about Medicare hospital payments. Only the solitary, pudgy finger beating rhythmically on the arm of his chair betrayed that Flanagan's thoughts were the same as Joel's: they weren't going to finish that evening, there were about fifty more amendments, and the big ones late on the list. The Republic would not be imperiled if the Finance Committee recessed until tomorrow and everybody went off and had a drink.

Joel could almost hear Flanagan say it, the way he used to when he was chairman. "Let us recess until the morrow." How Flanagan used to love to say "the morrow," relishing and at the same time mocking its formality, drawing out the last syllable into a round mantra of transcendental self-esteem. Except he wasn't the chairman any more; a Republican was the chairman. So Flanagan didn't getto say when the committee would recess, no more than Joel did


Flanagan gazed out at the room now, over half-moon glasses that somehow clung to the very tip of his prodigious whiskey nose. He scanned the little audience of staffers and Administration satraps gathered for the hearing, and his eyes met Joel's. Joel had worked on the Hill twenty years, Flanagan must have seen him a thousand times, but of course a senator wouldn't recognize Joel. Still, for a moment there passed between them a look such as might have been exchanged by the Sun King and a serving boy, each in his way held captive at some interminable dinner


The committee had been marking up the chairman's Medicare proposals since about three -- that was the phrase, marking up, as if each senator had come with his own little blue pencil. Three hours already, if you didn't count the long breaks when senators left for a floor vote, three hours of deliberation on gripping subjects like clinical laboratory reimbursement.

Even a senator, whose entire job was just to keep his eyes open at sessions like this one, might have been forgiven if he had once or twice nodded off. But Flanagan dutifully turned back to Senator Harris, one eyebrow raised, his thin bluish lips curled in the little Buddha smile he always wore as he listened indulgently to a jerk.

Senator Harris was still expatiating about hospital payments in Montana. Joe Harris -- that was how senators styled themselves now, Joe or Dick or Bob -- had to be the most vacuous whore in the Senate. No one had ever heard a sensible word from him, nor detected a principle he would not abandon for a three-course lunch, unless making sure he never had a hair out of place was a principle. But he was kind of cute.

Joel had been noticing lately that there were a couple of cute senators. This was a function of his own aging, of course: when he had started in this job, all the senators were old men. Majestic, distant figures named Everett or Hubert who strode through the corridors talking gravely about matters of state.

Some time when Joel wasn't looking, there had arrived these brisk, trim, thirty-something nonentities, each with his little White House dream.

Whereas Joel was forty-five and had arrived at his terminal placement. This didn't bother him especially; he didn't mind being forty-five, he didn't mind his placement. But it was eerie, sitting in a committee room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and watching these juveniles acting like senators, as if they were in a high-school play. Joel's generation had taken over the world. The generation after Joel's really -- in the person of moderately cute Joe Harris.

Harris looked even younger than most, with the faintly deranged perkiness of a Dan Quayle or a John Kasich. It was hard for him to look grown-up and serious as he presented some amendment he didn't understand to help some constituents he didn't care about. He was just finishing his prepared remarks about it, and he had the relieved look of a school kid who has delivered his book report without throwing up.

Senator Altman had a question. Senator Altman always came up with a question, just to show off, as if he were still the valedictorian at the High School of Science. Flanagan turned with histrionic ponderousness and looked at Altman with frustration and contempt -- somehow conveying all this without breaking his smile. Nobody cared about the amendment, the chairman had already okayed it, it affected about three goddamn hospitals in Montana. They didn't have to take half an hour on it just so Altman could display his earnestness and intellect. Of course, Flanagan used to spend whole afternoons in similar self-display back when he was in charge. But he never ran over into the cocktail hour.

Harris couldn't answer the question. He raised his hand over his right shoulder, serenely confident that his legislative aide would already be hovering behind him with the relevant piece of paper. The LA, a tiny, harried-looking woman, was there.

Harris took the paper without looking at her or thanking her. They said he sometimes threw things at his aides. Papers, books, once a telephone. This primordial management technique evidently worked: the LA not only had the precise piece of paper he needed, but had a copy all ready for Altman. Harris's paper was some sort of spreadsheet; Altman and Harris slogged through it together, column by column. They were, respectively, the junior Democrat and junior Republican on Finance, so they faced each other from the two extremities of the horseshoe-shaped committee desk at whose apex were the chairman and Flanagan.

Harris couldn't figure out what the different columns in his spreadsheet were. Altman peppered him with questions, and he was too proud to turn to his LA, who was literally kneeling behind him, for the answers. He stammered, got more and more confused, turned red with embarrassment and anger; this would be a phone-throwing night.

Flanagan stood up, exasperated, and darted out through the little door behind the dais. Headed for his hideaway, probably, and a shot or two of Irish whiskey. Senators could leave the room when they felt like it; Joel couldn't.

No, that wasn't right. Joel was a free adult, as free as Flanagan. He could have left if he'd wanted to, he wasn't strapped to his chair. Probably no one would have missed him if he had got up, like Flanagan, and had run off to his own hideaway -- the Hill Club, just a few blocks away -- for a quick one. Except then this would be the night, wouldn't it, when someone would have a question only he could answer. "What the hell happened to Lingeman? He was right here . . ." What then?

Man About Town. Copyright © by Mark Merlis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Interviews & Essays

A Note from the Author

It's a pleasure to come out from behind the curtain and have a chance to speak to my readers in my own voice. Having pushed me onto the stage, my keepers think I should tell you why I wrote Man About Town. As if I knew! It takes me so long to finish a book that, by the time I come to the end, I can't remember why I started or where I thought I was going.

You get some idea while you're standing in line at the bank machine, you make the silly but sacred promise to spend the next few years of your life fleshing it out. You seem to cut three paragraphs for every one you write, until your hard drive is overflowing with false starts, wrong turns, characters whom you love but who will have to find a life in some other novel. And all this time your life is going on, you are changing, and the book you need to write changes with you. Until you find that you have made something you never planned on--in this case a sort of anti-memoir.

Usually fledgling writers start out telling their own stories and get around to the rest of the world later. I waited till my third novel-and deep middle age-to start exploring my life, and even then in a way that's more or less upside down. The usual recipe for autobiographical fiction is to tell things that really happened to you and just stick a wig and a false nose on the central character. I take a character who's an awful lot like me and send him on roads I've never taken.

I worked for Congress for a while, Joel Lingeman works for Congress. I've been in an interracial relationship for many years, living with all the paradoxes of that, and Joel drifts into one in the course of the book. I spend a little more time than is healthy thinking about my adolescence and Joel winds up actually plunging back into his-trying to recapture some innocence or wonderment he thinks he's lost for good. Joel goes off on a crazy quest, and I get to just tag along: that's the fun of writing.

Joel and I both come out a little wiser at the end. I hope you will, too, but even more I hope you'll laugh. Mark Merlis

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