NY Times Book Review
Sun King: A Novelby David Ignatius
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius is one of the most highly regarded writers in the capital, an influential journalist and acclaimed novelist with a keen eye for the subtleties of power and politics. In The Sun King, Ignatius has written a love story for our time, a spellbinding portrait of the collision of ambition and sexual desire.
Sandy Galvin is a billionaire with a rare talent for taking risks and making people happy. Galvin arrives in a Washington suffering under a cloud of righteous misery and proceeds to turn the place upside down. He buys the city's most powerful newspaper, The Washington Sun and Tribune, and wields it like a sword, but in his path stands his old Harvard flame, Candace Ridgway, a beautiful and icy journalist known to her colleagues as the Mistress of Fact. Their fateful encounter, tangled in the mysteries of their past, is narrated by David Cantor, an acid-tongued reporter and Jerry Springer devotee who is drawn inexorably into the Sun King's orbit and is transformed by this unpredictable man.
In this wise and poignant novel, love is the final frontier for a generation of baby boomers at midlife—still young enough to reach for their dreams but old enough to glimpse the prospect of loss. The Sun King can light up a room, but can he melt the worldly bonds that constrain the Mistress of Fact? In The Sun King, David Ignatius proves with perceptive wit and haunting power that the phrase "Washington love story" isn't an oxymoron.
NY Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
I OWE MY INTRODUCTION TO SANDY GALVIN TO the one essential, irreducible requirement of being a magazine editor, which is that you have to fill the white space. Our features editor, Annabelle Paige, had quit—she called it a "resignation in protest," as if she were an aggrieved member of the President's Cabinet—because I had changed a picture caption she had written. The picture was of a woman in her sixties who was trying to defy age and gravity in a low-cut ball gown. Our features editor had written, "The always charming Mrs. Robert P. Edgerly trips the life fantastic at the Ambassador's Ball." I had crossed that out and written, "Barbie's mom? No, it's Mrs. Robert P. Edgerly at the Ambassador's Ball."
Nothing too mean about that. Some women might actually take it as a compliment. And besides, Annabelle Paige hadn't even gotten the cliché right. She was accident prone, our features editor—a blond former airline stewardess with a pert suburban accent that never quite concealed the awful truth that she was really from New Zealand. When she saw the change on the bluelines, she threw a three-alarm tantrum. She called the owner and burst into tears, saying that I was a cruel man who hated women and that she couldn't stand to work for me one more hour, and so she quit. She must have expected the owner to try and talk her out of it, but it was the wrong day to pick this particular fight, because our monthly magazine, Reveal: The Social Bible of Washington, was in such a deep hole financially that the owner had actually been considering whether to fire Annabelle Paige. And now she didn't have to. "Mmmm, delightful!" as Annabelle would say. The only thing our former features editor could do in retaliation was to pull the article she had written for the next issue—a profile of a man whose chief accomplishment, other than sucking up to Annabelle, was that he had been named northern Virginia's Car Dealer of the Year. That left me with a two-page hole to fill, but not with a heavy heart.
"Annabelle quit," I shouted down the hall to Pamela, my assistant. "She pulled her piece on the car dealer." Our office was a tiny walk-up in an old building on Connecticut Avenue. It was a dump, frankly. Once upon a time, before the owner's husband died, the office had been nicely decorated with attractive photographs and even a few paintings. But those had been sold off, and the best we could do now were old movie and travel posters tacked to the walls.
"Fuck!" said Pamela. She was a petite redhead, a recent graduate of American University who talked as if she had spent her life in the merchant marine. Her previous journalism experience consisted of one year on the college newspaper. "How are we supposed to fill the hole?" she demanded. "We're closing tonight, remember? And I have a date, so if you're expecting me to stay late, forget it."
"Do you have any suggestions?" I asked.
"How the hell should I know who to profile? I'm twenty-two years old."
I told Pamela not to worry. I was working the case. I would figure out a solution. But she was already on the phone, telling one of her friends what a loser I was.
And I couldn't really dispute that. I was a tall, thin, balding man, with oversize black glasses like the kind Buddy Holly used to wear. The joke in high school was that if I turned sideways, all you could see was a straight line. People like Pamela existed in three dimensions; they took up space. But I lived in two dimensions, on printed pages. I had no mass. Just words.
NOTHING IMPORTANT IN LIFE is simply an accident. To believe otherwise would be to accept a universe in which everything is accidental, the random collision of billiard balls on a table, with no event connected to any other except in time and space. I've never been able to accept that randomness, especially when it involves things that matter—like my collision that day with the heretofore unseen world of Sandy Galvin. So much happened as a result of that particular carom that I cannot imagine it not having occurred. It changed my life, and his too.
So it could not have been mere chance that I called my friend Hugo Bell, the real estate snoop, for suggestions about whom to profile in place of the car dealer. And it could not have been mere chance that he had just noticed in some title records that a man had recently purchased a mansion in McLean, overlooking the Potomac River, and another mansion in Georgetown. Two trophy houses in one month—this was Reveal's dream come true! And surely it could not have been mere chance that this multidomiciled man was named Carl S. Galvin, and that my friend happened to have his Virginia phone number on his desk.
I DIDN'T EXPECT HIM to answer the phone. The man had two mansions, after all. Why should he answer his own phone? "Hi!" I said brightly. "My name is David Cantor and I'm the editor of Reveal: The Social Bible of Washington. Is Mr. Galvin there?"
"What do you want?" answered the voice at the other end. "Mr. Galvin is busy." He was clipped, dismissive; some sort of butler, I thought.
"We'd like to profile him in our next issue. A thousand words, with a nice picture. His comments about moving
to Washington, inspirational thoughts for the kids. Instant celebrity!"
"He's not interested," said the voice. He was about to hang up.
"How do you know he's not interested?" I did not relish the prospect of having to search for another profile subject that afternoon from among the limited galaxy of Washington's rich and famous.
"Because I am Galvin. And I don't want to be profiled by anything called Reveal. It sounds like a complete waste of time."
"I hate that name too," I said hastily. "I want to change it, but the owner won't let me. The magazine used to be called Enjoy! And that was even worse, in my opinion. I wanted to rename it The Savant, which is what we aspire to be, but
the owner said no—too obscure--so we compromised on Reveal. But I agree, it's a terrible name. It's a good magazine, however, and it will be good for you if we profile you. I promise."
I was babbling. I was desperate. And as I said before, it was fate. He couldn't say no. I wouldn't let him.
"Why will it be good for me?" asked Galvin. There was a hint of mirth in his voice now. He was enjoying listening to my desperate pitch.
"Because we'll make you famous. At least modestly so. You're already rich, obviously, if you've bought two houses—that's right, isn't it? You did buy two houses, didn't you?—so now, presumably, you want to be famous. That's why people move to Washington. And our magazine is the gatekeeper. We tell people who they should be interested in, and if we profile you—boom!—you're interesting. And there's another reason you should say yes. We only do favorable profiles. I should probably be embarrassed by that, but I'm not. It's a fact."
He was chuckling out loud now, at my absurd begging. That's one thing in my favor as an editor and as a human being. I have never been too proud to beg.
"Come by my house tonight and we'll talk about it," Galvin said. "I'm having a little party by the river. Seven to nine. We'll see if you're as ridiculous as you sound."
"Which house?" I asked, but he had hung up. It had to be Virginia. I was home free. Even if he threw me out of the party, I already had enough to fill the white space.
I CALLED THE OWNER of Reveal before I left, to make sure she approved of my plan to sub Galvin for the car dealer. I liked her better now that she was a widow. Her late husband had bought the magazine for her as a kind of toy, but she had grown to love it and fought to keep it when the estate was settled. "I believe in journalism," she told me earnestly, and she meant it, in her way. Her only rule was that we write nice things about her friends. Otherwise she didn't care, so long as people complimented the magazine at parties. Which they always did, because they wanted her to print their pictures.
People may scoff at Reveal now, but in its day, everybody read it. And I know why. Because in a city where everything is serious and low in cholesterol, we were a big, gooey chocolate sundae. We fawned over the things people pretended they weren't interested in—money, fancy clothes, big houses, cosmetic surgery—and we had just enough of a sneer to convey that we were better than that, too. I understood the rules of the game, when to grovel and when to sneer. And I never, ever picked fights with the owner's friends. I knew, for example, that she didn't like Jane Edgerly. Otherwise I would never have called her Barbie's mom.
"We're running a profile of a new arrival in town," I explained to the owner. "A man named Galvin."
"What does he do?" She sounded far away. I could hear the television in the background.
"I don't know. But he's very rich. He owns two mansions. And he appears to be unmarried, since he bought both places in his own name." I knew that would interest her. She was still on the rebound, looking for Mr. Rich.
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. "Is he, uh . . . you know . . ."
The owner was getting sensitive about that subject. A few weeks ago she had received a postcard whose only message was "Too many Jews!!!" I tried to tell her it wasn't our fault. The Jews were the ones making the money and going to the charity balls. The WASPs were losing it. Going to seed. Their children were staying at the summer house all year round. That was reality, but it made the owner nervous, so she had suggested a quota system for the photo spreads—a one-to-one ratio, chosen and unchosen. Believe me, it was hard finding enough dopey, pink-faced WASPs to fill out our pages. For the owner, it had become sort of an unmentionable subject, except that she mentioned it all the time. Like me, she was a secret member of the tribe. I wanted to reassure her.
"No," I said. "I don't think he's Jewish. It didn't come up, actually."
"It's all right," she said with a sigh. "It doesn't matter. Ask him to buy an ad in the next issue."
NO ONE WAS LESS suited to chronicle Washington life than I, so I liked to think, and I consoled myself with that inner unsuitability long after I had become a creature of the nation's capital.
I had come to Washington from the Midwest—a North Side suburb of Chicago, actually; not exactly corn country—but I had always felt like an outsider in the East. My father had been a lawyer, and he had assumed I would do the same, go to law school, come home to Highland Park and do the right thing. But he had actually done the wrong thing, it turned out, in terms of taking care of himself, and he died when I was in college. I wouldn't have come home anyway, but his early death made it easier to explain why I was choosing the rootless, bootless life of a journalist. I didn't want to end up like my dad, with a law practice and a country club membership and the good wishes of my friends on the holidays but dead at forty-five.
My father lived to see me go off to Harvard, which probably added to his sense of security and well-being but had the opposite effect on me. That's Harvard's secret, if you didn't know. Yale or Princeton or Stanford make a man feel good about himself, comfortable, secure in the world. Harvard deliberately inculcates the opposite sensation. You think you're smart? Well, look around, sonny boy. Smart people, wall-to-wall, as far as the eye can see. You're nothing. Less than nothing. You can't even get laid on the weekend, the way those blockheads from Yale and Princeton and Stanford do. The message is, You may be smart, but so what? You're still a loser. That's why Harvard graduates do so well in the world. They are creatures of insecurity.
And I suspect that's also why so many Harvard grads ended up in Washington. We understood the place. It was pure anxiety, one big SAT test. Everyone was an outsider here; no one really belonged—except for those aging pink-faced alcoholics in Reveal's Around the Whirl section, whose fathers' fathers had gone to the right prep schools but whose own sons couldn't get in because the blood was running a little thin. They belonged, the pink faces, but everyone else was insecure, impermanent, newly arrived. That's what the Nigerian cabdrivers had in common with the K Street lawyers and the real estate developers and the journalistic vipers-in-waiting. None of us belonged. We were all struggling to make it. The city's esteemed, somnambulant newspaper, The Washington Sun and Tribune, treated us like picaresque vagrants. But my magazine, God bless it, wanted to show us the way.
My appreciation of anxiety as a lifestyle has shaped my philosophy of magazines, which I can summarize as follows: Write about the A's—but for the B's. The people who really are movers and shakers don't have time to read society magazines, and they don't need instruction in how to be rich and famous—because they already are. But everyone else is dying to know the secrets—in anticipation of the day when they too will be asked to serve as cochair of the Leukemia Ball, or get appointed ambassador to Luxembourg, or marry the twenty-nine-year-old ex-model who looks so delectable in that beaded Emanuel Ungaro cocktail dress. That was why it was so important to have the newly rich represented in our pages—so that our readers could see themselves taking that step up. They could see the real estate developer, whose biggest claim to fame heretofore had been building the big shopping mall outside Annapolis, standing next to the secretary of state, for God's sake—he and his wife looking a little nervous, but being there, taking that step up from B-dom to A-dom. And we were there too, as chroniclers and voyeurs.
My only real question about Galvin was whether he was a B or an A. Was he a car dealer wanting to get his picture taken next to the President? Or was he one of nature's aristocrats—a man who truly was indifferent whether Reveal ran a story about him—and for that reason absolutely, positively the one we wanted? I knew nothing about him, other than the fact that he owned two huge houses. But I had the odd feeling you get standing by the railroad tracks, when the rails begin to hum and the birds twitter in the trees and you know, even though you can't see it yet, that there is a big train coming.
Meet the Author
David Ignatius is the author of four acclaimed novels, the most recent of which is A Firing Offense. Currently an op-ed columnist at The Washington Post, he has also been a reporter and war correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He is a graduate of Harvard University and Cambridge University and lives in Washington, D.C.
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And OK read, The Sun King starts well. The characters are believable, and it is fun to learn the inside scoop about how Washington functions. But it runs out of steam when one character buys the paper they all work at. And there is no doubt in the last 100 pages how it is going to end, it has its own spoilers. What is alarming is the strange, misogynistic page where the lead, male character imagines that the Sun King's downfall was all due to the "lure" of a woman - when it's very clear to the reader that this is incredibly untrue. Not sure what the author was trying to pull with that one. Not a great book, but interesting.