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The Phony Marine

The Phony Marine

4.0 3
by Jim Lehrer

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Veteran newsman and acclaimed novelist Jim Lehrer exposes worlds both intimate and universal, builds suspense with an accomplished hand, and reveals a savvy understanding of the modern social landscape. With The Phony Marine, Lehrer dives into a highly controversial topic–and delivers his most compelling character portrait to date.

Hugo Marder is about as


Veteran newsman and acclaimed novelist Jim Lehrer exposes worlds both intimate and universal, builds suspense with an accomplished hand, and reveals a savvy understanding of the modern social landscape. With The Phony Marine, Lehrer dives into a highly controversial topic–and delivers his most compelling character portrait to date.

Hugo Marder is about as unremarkable as they come. On the floor of the Washington, D.C., branch of Nash Brothers, one of the country’s most respected men’s stores, Hugo is a wise, reserved salesman. At home, he is a solitary, divorced fifty-year-old with few friends and an eBay addiction. But he has always wanted to make more of his life, dreaming of becoming an artist or a cartoonist. When he was younger, he’d always wanted to be a marine.

Late one night, Hugo stumbles upon an online auction for a Silver Star, the medal awarded for bravery in battle. He bids and wins. But it is only after he places the lapel pin on his jacket that he realizes the enormity of his actions. Suddenly, ordinary people begin to treat him differently, with dignity and respect. Is he really going to pretend the honor is his own?

As Hugo wrestles with his conscience, a transformation begins to take place. He studies the life of a marine, learns the military terminology, body-builds at the gym, even gets a crew cut. When he is reborn as a former marine, his life immediately changes. Is it possible that his deception has unlocked the man he always wanted to be? Through numerous challenges and more than one terrifying ordeal, Hugo Marder must prove his worth. And in the end, he must ask himself: What is a hero?

Alive with detail, emotional depth, and unexpected twists of plot, The Phony Marine is a tense, revelatory work of fiction that will cause every reader to consider his or her own stance on what truly makes someone great.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The uncharacteristically impulsive online purchase of a Silver Star medal once belonging to a marine lieutenant sets Hugo Marder, a successful middle-aged suit salesman at an upmarket Washington, D.C., store, on the path to his 15 minutes of fame in PBS's News Hour anchor Lehrer's 16th novel. Once Marder starts wearing the medal's accompanying lapel button in public, he receives deferential treatment from everybody he meets, spurring him to forge an alternate persona: he shaves his head, starts working out, trains himself to think the way he thinks a marine would think and, most importantly, learns to cuss. Things get hairy when he runs into his ex-wife, Emily, while on jury duty. She's on to his deception, but his heroic actions during a courthouse shooting propel him to instant fame. Ever ambitious, she attaches her wagon to his rising star and floats the idea of getting married again. As Hugo accumulates an ever larger entourage of admirers and his public stock rises, his conscience gets louder and louder. Lehrer, himself a former marine, does an admirable job of creating a pathetic yet sympathetic character in Hugo, though the supporting cast is emotionally anemic and exists solely to push Hugo along on his journey of self-discovery and self-deception. Lehrer's fans will appreciate his latest, but it may be too simple a yarn to attract new readers. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Hugo Marder excels as a salesman at an upscale Washington, DC, men's clothing store. Yet he goes unnoticed by those around him, even his ambitious ex-wife. As he turns 50, he mourns the death of his youthful dreams. Then one night, Hugo bids on eBay for a Silver Star pin in mint condition. It arrives; he places it on his lapel and goes for a walk. Now the people he meets treat him differently for the first time, others see Hugo as the hero he yearns to be. He remakes himself to match the medal, but his infatuation brings unforeseen consequences, including a one-time opportunity to be a real hero. In his 16th novel, Lehrer, anchor of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, keenly and eloquently observes human hopes and foibles: Hugo is in most respects like us but wants desperately to be more. The theme and mood here resemble Lehrer's lovely White Widow. Enthusiastically recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/06.] David Keymer, Modesto, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Washington newsman's 16th novel portrays the misadventures of a "straight and dull clothing salesman" who fabricates a new life that he can't fit comfortably into. Middle-aged Hugo Marder, a suit salesman at upscale Washington, D.C., store Nash Brothers, impulsively purchases on eBay a Silver Star awarded for heroism to a Vietnam veteran. Wearing its lapel pin in public, he's immediately congratulated and admired by one and all-and, to his gratified surprise, Hugo's "childhood dream" of becoming a Marine appears to be coming true (though false). Barely surviving a challenging conversation with a real Marine in a Thai restaurant (where some quick thinking on Hugo's part defuses a potentially violent situation), he allows himself to believe he may actually be a hero. He exercises, loses weight, shaves his head and struts convincingly. Attending a "Semper Fidelis seminar" at the Smithsonian, he commands praise from luminaries like Art Buchwald and Mark Russell. Then, reporting for jury duty, Hugo encounters his hardnosed ex-wife Emily, a political secretary with urgent ambitions. She seems about to unmask him, until a threatened courtroom shootout inspires Hugo to act in a manner consistent with his newly created image. The D.C. Medal of Honor is presented to him (along with Emily's rekindled sexual attention), and-lo and behold-Conscience appears. Requesting and receiving a transfer to Nash Brothers' Dallas branch, Hugo finds more challenges, and eventually resolves to Make Things Right. But the culture (and, more particularly, the media) needs heroes-and he's left to live unhappily and guiltily ever after. If the irony that attends this novel's denouement had been anywhere present inthe slack, name-dropping, meandering pages leading up to it, the story might have managed a semblance of credibility. No such luck. Bad news indeed: unconvincing and instantly forgettable.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.06(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.61(d)

Read an Excerpt

Hugo Marder returned to his Dupont Circle town house to find two small packages among the normal clutter of mail. There was also a D.C. superior court jury summons. Both of the boxes were book-size “Fly Like an Eagle” Priority Mail boxes from the U.S. Postal Service. He knew they were eBay auction purchases. The return address on one signaled that a pair of cuff links were inside that featured a plastic-enclosed miniature black-and-white photo of Mike Nichols on one, Elaine May on the other. Hugo had paid fifty-one dollars, plus five dollars for shipping and insurance. He had truly loved Nichols and May’s humor when he was in college in the sixties, but it was their pictures on cuff links that interested him now. Hugo was a collector of antique and unusual cuff links, a hobby that had sprung naturally out of his early interest in graphics and, now, from his work at Nash Brothers, America’s leading merchant of quality men’s clothes. It was the other package that really interested him. He knew what was in it, too, because it came from “J. Wayne, 134 West Mistletoe, San Diego, California.” He first took a hard look at the jury notice and, after noting the summons date to be four weeks away, carried it with the San Diego box to his desk in the den. He wrote the court day in his calendar and clipped the printed notice to the page. He knew the district’s juror drill, having been called three times to serve. Then he picked up the package. His hands shook slightly as he ripped back the box lid. He was not usually a person who quivered and shook with emotional anticipation—not on birthdays or Christmas mornings as a kid, or even before marrying or divorcing Emily. He retrieved a clump of bubble wrap. The case was down there inside the bubbles. He could see it. The wrap came off easily, and suddenly, he was holding the case in his two hands. It resembled a jewelry box, about seven inches long, three and half or so wide, maybe an inch thick. As the auction description had said, the case was covered in imitation black leather with two wavy gold-leaf lines around the edge, a half inch apart, creating a frame effect. In the center, also in gold, were the words silver star medal. “Silver Star medal,” he read out loud. And then, as if making an announcement on a train station PA, he said again, “Silver Star medal.” Here was a Silver Star medal. He was holding a case with a Silver Star medal inside. Hugo lifted the lid, which was lined in off-white silk. There was a tiny metal lapel button. A small rectangle ribbon for regular uniform use. And then the real medal—the pendant and full ribbon. The auction listing had said only that the lapel pin appeared to have never been taken out of its case and that all three items were in excellent condition. That had certainly turned out to be true. They were mounted on a bed of peach-colored felt. They were perfect. Hugo touched the pendant, which was hanging from a piece of red, white, and blue ribbon. It was a five-pointed gold star, an inch and a half in diameter, with a laurel wreath in the middle and a quarter-inch-size silver star in the center of the wreath. He turned it over. On the back was engraved: for gallantry in action. Below that, in slanted type: Ronald Derby Cunningham. Hugo slipped the medal out and held the whole thing in his right palm. The eBay listing had said Cunningham performed his act of heroism while serving as a U.S. Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War, but there were no specifics about what he had done. Hugo also had no idea what route this exquisite piece of ribbon and metal had taken from Cunningham to him. He wondered seriously now, as he had only slightly before, why anybody would be selling Cunningham’s—or anybody else’s—Silver Star? Hugo had no military experience, having avoided service during the Vietnam War. It was a fact of his early life’s experience that he had, somewhat to his surprise, grown increasingly and obsessively to regret. The drive of U.S. troops toward Baghdad right now had served to heighten that feeling. Abruptly, he regretted possessing this medal of another man’s heroism. There was something not right about auctioning off or buying a medal that Ronald Derby Cunningham, whoever he was, had surely risked his life to win. Hugo comforted himself with the thought that he had bought this Silver Star on eBay impulse, almost by accident. He set the medal down on the desk and lifted the smaller uniform ribbon and the even smaller lapel pin out of the case. The pin was a tiny—five eighths of an inch long, only an eighth wide—enameled replica of the red, white, and blue ribbon. Hugo went to his computer, opened it to his deleted e-mail file, and fired off a message to jwayne@net.com. “I just received the Silver Star medal set—eBay item #52613835. I am interested in its history. Would you mind e-mailing me any details concerning how it came to be on the market, etc.? Thanks. Hugo Marder—goodsuit@aol.com.” And he waited, virtually motionless. After thirty-five minutes with no response, he clicked on Google, the Internet search engine he used most often. In its Search box, he typed “San Diego.” After a couple of beats, a list of directories and websites came up. He clicked on “City Directory” and typed “134 West Mistletoe.” Soon came a name, “V. Heflin,” and a phone number. Hugo dialed the number. Somebody with a hoarse male voice answered. He said there was no person by the name of V. Heflin at this number—or the Mistletoe Street address, when Hugo followed up—and there never had been. “You must be Mr. Wayne, then, right?” “He died,” said the man. Hugo expressed sympathy and asked if somebody there, by any name, had sold a Silver Star medal via eBay to a Hugo Marder in Washington, D.C. “Nope,” said the voice, the volume now down to near zero. “But if anybody did, it wouldn’t be against the law. Everything except the Medal of Honor. Tradin’ in ’em is illegal. But the Navy Cross on down, no problem. Iraq’s causin’ business to go up again. You a medal cop?” Hugo said he was not a cop of any kind, and legality was not the problem—not the reason he was calling. “I just want to know out of simple curiosity how it came to be on the market,” he said. “I bought it, and now I want to know what happened to Mr. Cunningham, the marine who won the medal, and how it came to be up for auction—” Hugo heard the phone click dead at the other end. It was followed by the dial tone. The nonconversation about Ronald Derby Cunningham’s Silver Star was over. Hugo figured the guy in San Diego, whoever he really was, had borrowed the names of John Wayne and Van Heflin, two of the most famous movie marines, for his eBay business. The Washington Post had run a story recently about people using phony names online, some to protect their privacy and others to pull fast ones. Hugo’s childhood dream had been to be a U.S. Marine. He had seen John Wayne as Sergeant Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima and Van Heflin as Major Sam Huxley in Battle Cry several times. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would get on to doing something about this Silver Star. He would think about—and decide—what he might do to find out about the medal—my medal . . . My medal? That was not a good and healthy thought. Even having considered such a thing now brought warmth to Hugo’s face. This Silver Star would always belong to Ronald Derby Cunningham, whoever and wherever he was. On the other hand. There it was. That medal lay right in front of Hugo, here on this desk. He had purchased it for eighty-five dollars plus postage and insurance from somebody in California with a phony name. As the guy had said, it was all perfectly legal. Hugo picked up the little lapel button and stuck it in his buttonhole. He was wearing a charcoal-gray poplin two-button suit, the same one he had worn at work all day. He had been so anxious to open the package that he had failed to take off his coat, something he usually did the moment he walked in the house. Quality clothes needed and deserved quality care. He went into the entrance hall. There was a narrow full-length mirror on one wall that he looked at automatically each morning as he left for the store. Nash Brothers insisted that its salesmen—sales associates, they were called officially—dress in Nash Brothers clothes, and that they wear those clothes well. “Could there be a better advertisement for our merchandise and our soul than that?” said the man who had trained Hugo. The Silver Star lapel button looked good—natural, at ease—against the charcoal-gray background. Hugo chose to ignore the additional non-marine mirror image of a balding, slightly overweight man in his mid fifties. He decided to go for a walk and maybe get a sandwich from one of the take-out establishments in the neighborhood. He didn’t have anything in the house to eat. There was a new Greek place specializing in gyro sandwiches; it had opened only a few weeks ago. Hugo had been meaning to give it a try. Why not tonight? Why not take a stroll over to it right now and pick up a gyro? What could be the harm in that? Hugo’s home on Nineteenth Street, Northwest, was a narrow three-story brick structure with a front door painted crimson red. The door had been red when he bought the place three years ago, and he had originally intended to paint it gray or beige—something more ordinary, more him. “More Hugo,” in the annoying words of Emily, his runaway ex-wife. But the flash of the red, to his surprise, began to grow on him, and eventually he had repainted it an even brighter red. He was also probably making a statement—or, more coarsely, a form of shooting the finger—to Emily. She never would have thought of Hugo, the straight and dull clothing salesman, as somebody who would live behind a red door. Only people from her exciting, important world of Congress, the government, and war-and-peace, would do such a wild and crazy thing. Hugo had even considered using his cartooning skills to draw a giant grinning face in black on top of the red. That would have really gotten to Emily. Now, with that red door closed behind him, Hugo walked in the early-evening crispness south to the corner and then west on R Street toward Connecticut Avenue. It was only a few minutes before six-thirty, and there was still some daylight left. He passed no other pedestrians in the first block. But in the next block, here came a couple in their late twenties, fairly well dressed. Congressional aides, no doubt. Maybe interns, maybe think-tank assistants. As they passed, Hugo made no eye contact with either of them, although it seemed to him that the young man glanced at his lapel button. But with no recognition. That figured. Nobody that kid’s age would know about a Silver Star medal. The most recent wars, including the first with Iraq, had not aroused such interest. Maybe this second Iraq war would. At Connecticut Avenue, he turned right, toward the new Greek place. Hugo figured this area around Dupont Circle had more places to eat per square inch than any comparable space in Washington, if not the civilized world. They ranged from fancy restaurants with high-class menus, chefs, and prices that served cabinet secretaries and media personalities, to cheap dives with blackboard menus, microwaves, and for-student prices that served from behind walk-up counters. Even in nearly six years in the neighborhood—including the time he rented—Hugo had barely scratched the surface of what was available. He passed a Thai restaurant that was known as one of the best and most exotic in Washington. The large red, green, and yellow neon sign above the door announced the establishment’s name as the house on the klong. He was no big fan of Thai food, so he had never been inside. But he had read that it was supposedly patterned after a house in Bangkok that once belonged to Jim Thompson, the silk king. Hugo knew about Thompson. There was a high-quality line of Jim Thompson silk ties that were made especially for Nash Brothers, most featuring tiny elephants in various patterns and colors. The sidewalks along Connecticut, as was true most evenings, were loaded with people. Again, the youngest ones paid no attention to the Silver Star button in his lapel, but a few of the older men did. A man who appeared to be in his early sixties actually nodded in a kind of Episcopal motion to the cross. Good for you, sir, thought Hugo. He came to one of his favorite places, a French brasserie named after the Belgian writer Georges Simenon. Its specialties were heavy lentil-and-goose dishes and strong after-dinner liqueurs, particularly calvados, a brandy made from apples. Hugo had a large glass one night and paid for it dearly the next day with a hammering headache and nausea that would not go away. Thank God it had been a Sunday morning, so it didn’t affect his performance on the floor at the store. He was almost to the Washington Hilton, where John Hinkley shot Ronald Reagan and Jim Brady, and the gigantic statue of Union general George McClellan on horseback in full dress regalia. Hugo didn’t know or care much about the Civil War, but he had a vague notion that Abraham Lincoln had considered McClellan a risk-averse jerk who should have won more battles than he did. But why, then, was there a statue of him in such a prominent place in Washington? This was also where the restaurants and other shops ran out and apartments and embassies and embassy residences began. Farther on was the William Howard Taft Bridge, which crossed high above Rock Creek and Rock Creek Parkway and was known mostly for the two huge lions sitting royally on their haunches on either side of the entrance. Through the years, several people, some of them reasonably prominent, had climbed over the bridge’s chest-high metal railings and jumped to their death into the creek, the tall trees of the park, or the road two hundred feet below. After crossing Connecticut by the Hilton, Hugo headed back south toward the Greek deli. The San Antonio Café was on the corner. The Tex-Mex place looked festive inside—men in suits, but with their shirt collars open, and women in very short skirts, most in large groups at large tables, laughing and smoking and drinking margaritas.

Meet the Author

Jim Lehrer served as a Marine Corps infantry officer in the 1950s. His father and brother were also marines. This is his sixteenth novel. He’s also the author of two memoirs and three plays and is the executive editor and anchor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his novelist wife, Kate. They have three daughters.

Brief Biography

Washington, D.C.
Date of Birth:
May 19, 1934
Place of Birth:
Wichita, Kansas
A.A., Victoria College; B.J., University of Missouri, 1956

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Phony Marine 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this was a good book, it was veary easy to fallow. I recomend this book to anyone who just wants to read somthing over the weekend
DevilDog55 More than 1 year ago
I liked it; I'm an ex-marine and he did some research obviously to me. An easy reading experience and very creative. d.j.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago