The Webster Chronicle

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Overview

Terry Mathers is wading through life as editor of the nearly-bankrupt Webster Chronicle when he hears a rumor about allegations of child abuse at a prestigious local preschool. It's the scoop of a lifetime-a scandal that will surely light a fire under his floundering career. So he quickly grabs a notebook-and runs straight into the flames.

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Overview

Terry Mathers is wading through life as editor of the nearly-bankrupt Webster Chronicle when he hears a rumor about allegations of child abuse at a prestigious local preschool. It's the scoop of a lifetime-a scandal that will surely light a fire under his floundering career. So he quickly grabs a notebook-and runs straight into the flames.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A molestation incident in the day-care facility of a small town sends the community spinning out of control in Akst's complex, thought-provoking follow-up to his raucous, over-the-top debut, St. Burl's Obituary. Akst narrates the story through Terry Mathers, a major daily reporter turned editor of the weekly Webster Chronicle. Mathers becomes intrigued when an attractive expert on child abuse named Diana Shirley shows up at a town meeting, and her arrival quickly becomes significant when she unearths some questionable practices at the local day-care center. Mathers writes an editorial supporting her investigation, but their quest turns problematic when they fall into an affair while Mathers's wife also has an affair, with one of the paper's most prominent advertisers. The situation gets even more incestuous when Mathers's father, a prominent journalist and national pundit, runs with the story as the allegations spread to include a possible Satanic cult. Akst underplays the sensationalism of the case as it comes to trial, choosing instead to focus on the intricate ties of smalltown life; Webster comes apart, and Mathers begins to question his original editorial as the accusations spiral into a literal and figurative witchhunt. This book lacks the humor of Akst's masterful debut novel, and the absence of a child as a principal character is especially noticeable given the plot. But this book has its own special set of strengths, the most prominent being Akst's ability to take on a hot-button topic and create a memorable protagonist whose emotional decisions reveal him to be wise, flawed and all too deeply human. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Akst's second novel promises to garner the same respect as his first, St. Burl's Obituary (LJ 2/1/96). Fans of Richard Russo will be drawn to protagonist Terry Mathers as he struggles with the declining financial stability of the small-town newspaper he co-owns and edits, his failing marriage, and his long-suffering relationship with his successful television journalist father. While he fights his own demons, he must objectively cover crucial matters in the village of Webster including the threatened takeover of a local department store by a big chain and allegations of sexual abuse and Satanism at the local preschool (a plot line inspired by the famous McMartin case in California in the 1980s). Akst, a columnist for the Sunday New York Times, uses bold and descriptive language to tell a story that takes unexpected twists and turns. Even in small towns, people are perhaps not what they seem. Recommended for public libraries. Karen Traynor, Sullivan Free Lib., Chittenango, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425187616
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 12/1/1902
  • Edition description: FIRST
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Akst, a journalist, has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and Washington Monthly, and currently writes a monthly column in the Sunday New York Times.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One, The Webster Chronicle

Chapter One

Anniversaries are important to journalists, and so it was that on this, the fifth anniversary of his less-than-triumphant return to the town of his boyhood, Terri Mathers prepared himself for the ordeal of the night ahead by single-handedly smoking a reefer of Rastafarian proportions and heading hatless out into the night.

His destination filled him with dread. The YM-YWCA in Webster was near the former railroad station and just down from the old post office but distinguished itself from the other two by clinging even more tenaciously to what was left of its tattered dignity. Burdened by its Oz-like yellow brick and gewgaws and its redolently old-fashioned name, so suggestive of salvation and temperance and lye soap, the former Young Men's Christian Association (the words were carved with embarrassing permanence above the lintel) was bent now on rescuing itself from the downtown seediness in which it had joined so many of its counterparts in more significant places. It had workshops for middle-aged women, a support group for gay teenagers, an oral history project for the local seniors, low-impact aerobics for the lunchtime crowd, and even some silent films. "We need to matter more," the plump new director had told Terry in an earnest lunch the month before, her ruddy face aglow with hygiene and commitment. Always eager to remain unjaded, Terry had kept indulgence out of his smile and promised to take a closer look. Thus, a short while later, he couldn't wriggle out of an invitation to serve on an evening panel at the Y discussing the great question, "Whither Webster?"

Now that the day had come, he was a wreck.He was conscious of trying to look nonchalant, of keeping up appearances, and he blamed his sudden violent diarrhea on the takeout he'd ordered in from the Middle Eastern place around the corner. The babaghanouz, the lettuce-he thought with a chill of the terrible E. coli outbreak he had covered at the county fair during the summer. But he couldn't really fool himself. He always ate vegetarian takeout from the Middle Eastern place. He only got sick when he knew he would have to speak in public.

It was all because he stuttered. Sitting in his drafty, disorderly office earlier in the evening, he closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. It was just another meeting after all. What was one more gathering in such an assembly-minded community? His evenings were filled with board meetings, civic functions, and lectures of every kind; lectures seemed to multiply, in fact, even as the word lecture itself had disappeared, its place usurped by workshop or seminar or talk. Lecturing was the terrible thing his stepdaughter, Phoebe, accused him of doing sometimes, the kind of thing that was done in the days when Webster was the home of young Christian men. Yet the men and women of modern-day Webster loved these things, craving them like sunshine. This never-ending round of civic convocation had been a burden at first, unsustainable additional punishment after the Rotary dinners and church potlucks and so forth. He'd sent housewives as stringers, or when his own attendance seemed mandatory photocopied the New York Tribune crossword puzzle and kept it shuffled among the agendas, draft resolutions, and other paper effluvium of town government, an amulet from that other world intended to ward off sleep. Nowadays, of course, he was just glad to get out of an evening and sometimes even went to school board meetings, the most dreaded variety of all, where despite the killing piety, the pretty young mothers could divert you from the droning of the trustees.

Terry Mathers liked to think he was appealing to women and, for most of his life, had cultivated a shuffling, boyish persona he felt was in keeping with the speech impediment that often made him feel like a frustrated adolescent anyway. He was a tall man, athletic, with a broad, ingratiating face and wavy dark hair thinning only at the top, too high for most other people to see but sufficient anyway to make him cover it with a baseball cap most of the time. Like many tall men, he slouched and, at Webster's many meetings, often slumped deep into his chair, as if in hiding from some larger earnestness he feared might eclipse his own. Or was this posture a holdover from his school days, when he shrank from the terror of being called upon? As a boy, nothing could render him more completely mute than a sudden, public demand that he speak, and so he had pretended in class not to know the answers, no matter how obvious they might be, for had he been asked his own name he couldn't speak that either. Couldn't speak that especially, for some reason. He was better now and through constant vigilance had achieved an uneasy coexistence with whatever power it was that wanted to chain his tongue, but he never forgot that his mysterious demon stood ready to gag him the minute he let down his guard. Nowadays he succumbed mainly when he was most emotional, another reason he worked so hard to control himself. "It's OK," Abigail would say during their protracted phone conversations when Terry got so worked up. "Just breathe." It was his curse that spontaneity and calm were the only cures and that striving for them only pushed them farther away. To stutter still at forty was humiliating; he was surprised that lately he was finding it more embarrassing rather than less, and whenever possible he avoided speaking in public. When there was no choice, he adopted a regimen of humming, singing, and elaborately prepared remarks (practiced to sound offhand). But the only truly effective remedy he had found over the years was marijuana, or so he had come to believe, and as time went on and stresses mounted, he had come to make a habit of it.

—From The Webster Chronicle, by Daniel Akst. (c) August 2001 , G. P. Putnam & Sons, used by permission.

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
When my wife was pregnant, a guy we know who sells gourmet mushrooms told her he was brimming with optimism about the next generation. "Now that we've all been through therapy and so forth," he said cheerfully, "we won't have the kinds of problems we used to."

This is, of course, devastating news for novelists, who have known ever since Tolstoy that all happy families are alike (and therefore ineligible for fiction), whereas every unhappy family is unhappy in its own gloriously unique way. On the other hand, our friend might have been smoking his wares instead of just eating them, and life may well remain the slough of heartbreak, futility, and incomprehension it has always been.

Leaving aside the mushroom man's faith in the power of therapy, he does raise an interesting question: What is the role of the novel in times such as these? We live lives that are safer, longer, and more autonomous than ever, in the richest and most powerful society in the history of the world. Does the traditional realistic novel -- "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it," in Randall Jarrell's famous formulation -- have any use in a culture so excruciatingly self-aware, so thoroughly suffused by other media, so willing to come out with even its deepest, darkest secrets?

I may be biased, but I happen to think this is the novel's time. With all our cars and houses, our openness and our "closure," it turns out that hearts still break. Culture still matters. Injustice, alas, remains plentiful. Even if we're all free at last to pursue happiness as doggedly as we want, free to hunt it down single-mindedly until finally it drops exhausted in the snow, still we feel the want of something more. Something's missing, some kind of collective self-knowledge that doesn't come from Hallmark or TV or the latest feel-good blockbuster.

In a largely secular culture, only the novel is simultaneously spacious and intimate enough to fill the bill. In a culture that is corporate in the fullest sense of the term -- one in which even writing becomes an occasion for the togetherness of workshops and support groups -- the novel is just about the last mass medium in which an individual vision can become fully realized. Movies and television are almost completely creatures of popular desire, while poetry has drifted so far from the discipline of the marketplace that its practitioners often seem to speak only to themselves, and in tongues.

The novel, on the other hand, remains a form uniquely suited to uncovering our inner lives, buried of late beneath so many layers of marketing and branding and other such bushwa that we barely know who we are any more. Yet it's equally well suited to illuminating the culture we live in by placing our inner lives in a social context. The worst thing that ever happened to the novel was the kind of literary narcissism encouraged by the romantic tradition; you know, the writer as a living shrine of consciousness, looking inward only to explore the deepest reaches of the soul. The novelist William Kennedy reminds us that even the dead live in neighborhoods. The living, too, form societies, and these are gifts to any novelist wise enough to accept them -- and return them in kind.

In a roundabout way, this is how I came to write The Webster Chronicle, which conflates Cotton Mather and Jerry Mathers in a book about the satanic child abuse hysteria of the 1980s. Oh, it's about much more, of course: marriage, money, and media; infidelity; fathers and sons; and whether any of us can really be good without God, whose new Mr. Nice Guy style would have been Cotton's big problem had he lived in New England 300 years later than he did. Except maybe for traffic, I suppose.

Like all writers who set their characters wrestling with large social forces, I burn with envy at those studious cartographers of the human heart whose protagonists fraternize with despair, while the rest of the world is just a backdrop for crumbling marriages and alienated children. Someday, I swear, I'll try that kind of thing. Yet here was the country, during the 1980s, consumed by strange fevers -- the rehabilitation of wealth as an ideal, for instance, or the notion that our children were being ravished at their preschools. How could there not be a novel here? And how did it happen that the novelists ceded the strangest and largest events in our culture to the movies? Or as William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, once put it, "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?" (Daniel Akst)

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    spotlights the role of the media in the justice system

    Terry and Abigail Mathers are the owners of the town¿s weekly newspaper THE WEBSTER CHRONICLE. Even though the couple is separated and have significant others, they still care about each other and have the paper and a child tying them together. Terry has always lived in his father¿s shadow, a Walter Cronkite type figure who is a top gun on television. While he can¿t beat his father on the national level, he hopes his hometown will have a hot story that will make his name a household word too. <P>Terry¿s chance comes when the owners of the Alphabet School pre-school and their employees are accused by two of the townsfolk of child abuse and molestation. The gossip spreads like wildfire and more parents who have placed their children in the preschool come forth with tales that their children have told them. Terry starts out by being an objective journalist but as he plunges deeper into the story, he crosses the line that separates the watcher from the participant. <P>THE WEBSTER CHRONICLE is a fabulous work that demonstrates how rumors, innuendoes, and accusations quickly can turn into a very ugly witch hunt. Daniel Akst has written a credible yet frightening story that spotlights the role the media has on the justice system. This insightful work is worthy of award nominations. <P>Harriet Klausner

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