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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 ...
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.
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.
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
Posted August 13, 2011
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