From his curved-glass desk in a casino overlooking the Atlantic City boardwalk, Jackie "Disaster" Sesto—an ex-welterweight boxing champ and former top flack for the Atlantic City Police Department—has a great view of the hustlers he now makes his living nailing.
Jackie runs Allegation Sciences, a crisis management firm known for helping businesses with uncomfortably public problems. That's why Sally Naturale, America's deliciously loathsome doyenne of good taste and wholesome living, hires him after a pregnant South Jersey woman blames her miscarriage on Sally's organic soy milk.
Jackie doesn't buy the poor woman's story and, worse, he doesn't buy Sally Naturale's version either. His suspicions are confirmed when assassins from the Jersey Pine Barrens try to kill him one night in his sleep.
So with his band of subversives (a.k.a. the Imps), Jackie embarks on a gonzo damage control campaign to vindicate Sally and catch the folks who are trying to drag him down with her.
In turns suspenseful and hilarious, Jackie Disaster is a spin-till-you're dizzy dance through the mysteries of media manipulation and South Jersey.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Eric Dezenhall is the cofounder of Nichols-Dezenhall Communications Management Group, one of the nation's leading crisis management firms, and is the author of the acclaimed novel Money Wanders and the nonfiction study Nail ‘Em! Confronting High Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book of nonfiction, Nail ‘Em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises. The author novels such as Jackie Disaster, The Devil Himself and Spinning Dixie, he lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Read an Excerpt
Allegation Sciences, Atlantic City, New Jersey
"My job was to make bad news go away."
Is this class?"
This was more of a commandment than it was a question that Sally Naturale wielded to smite her customers. She signed off all of her television advertisements this way. From Cricket Crest, her baronial estate in South Jersey's Pine Barrens, Sally hawked promises ranging from organic food that would nurture a prizewinning fetus, to home furnishings, such as Naturale's Classware, that could be emblazoned with a customized family coat-of-arms "betraying your clan's noble lineage," which Sally pronounced in two syllables, LIN-yidge. This was the Philadelphia-South Jersey accent known as Phlersey. Class was pronounced klee-es; water was wudder. I spoke Phlersey myself and had not been aware that there was something odd about my speech until I made the mistake of "branching out" during college by leaving my local Glassboro State to become an exchange student at Notre Dame. A girl there, with whom I wrongly suspected I had been making progress, introduced me to another Fighting Irishwoman with the addendum, "Jackie De Sesto grew up in a place where they speak less than one language."
"Yes, Sally, it's klee-es," I answered with a touch of self-loathing, freezing the videotaped image of Sally gesturing toward the hemorrhaging vastness of Cricket Crest. In that frozen still, I made out swanlike people floating about in the background at a party that made one of Gatsby's affairs look like a tractor pull. Sally herself had sent me the reel of her ads via courier, as if it would explain why a Salem County woman, Murrin Connolly, was suing her. Murrin was claiming that Naturale's Real® Soy Milk had made her so sick that she lost her unborn baby. This was not an allegation she made frivolously. During the past few weeks, the most dangerous place to be in the Delaware Valley was midway between Murrin Connolly and a news camera. As a result of Murrin's media crusade, shares in Naturale's Real Living were plummeting.
Every news presentation of the controversy featured a wailing Murrin, her finger pointing somewhere unspecific, crucifix-a-swayin' (Murrin was a strict Catholic), juxtaposed with a stock photograph of Sally with her hands raised triumphantly toward the oak buttresses of Cricket Crest.
In a brief note, Sally asked me to call her as soon as I was done reviewing the tape. She wanted "a consultation," a term I associated more with interior design than my racket. She scribbled her private telephone number to underscore the sensitivity of the matter, and signed off with the observation, "A unique situation!" as if I didn't get the point. Unique situations, of course, were the kind that my firm, Allegation Sciences, Inc., was often called upon to, well, make a little less unique.
The truth was that, in my ghoulish specialty of damage control, all of my "complex" cases could be summarized in a moronic narrative that could be twisted into a vivid headline by a Pulitzer-horny reporter. I kept the headlines from my favorite cases on the corkboard beside my desk: ARTIFICIAL TESTICLE EXPLODES ... ANTI-DEPRESSANT ISN'T ... WASHING MACHINE LOSES QUARTER (GAINS ARM) ... CONCIERGE TRIPS PARAPLEGIC ... FAKE SWEETENER SOURS GENUINE COLON ... PILOT: "WHAT RUNWAY?" ... HAMBURGER GROWS TAIL ... SKANK SUES DEEJAY FOR CALLING HER "HOSEBAG" ... HUNGER STRIKER STARVES.
My job was to make bad news go away, which, in the age of the fabled spin doctor, was thought to be eminently doable with the right trick. To pull off disappearing acts, I needed to prove that the allegations against my corporate clients were false and that something other than justice motivated the charge. I then had to translate this intelligence into some form of communication for mass consumption — after all, my clients hired me because of the public relations implications of their problems. I accomplished these things with the help of a merry band of middle-aged adolescents who had prudently decided to work for me instead of going to prison after I nailed them in mid-con. Not that my clients appreciated what I did for them. People hate it when you save them, because it reminds them that they couldn't do it themselves.
Allegations Sciences is anchored in a very simple principle: Not every attack on a successful business or public figure is noble, and not every defense of society's "Haves" is sleazy. This philosophy conflicts with everything that modern journalism and Naderite activism stands for, namely that the merchandising of grievance and, accordingly, the destruction of any target is God's work. Fact is, when facing a lynch mob, the businessman has nowhere to turn. The media hound him, the government extorts him, and the courts rob him. In my experience, while my clients are often flawed (and occasionally guilty), their critics are invariably worse, something that rarely gets out because, after all, they're each the virtuous "little guy" who always cries foul when I go after him. Myself a child of the Jersey-Shore working class, I learned long ago that it's possible to be both financially and morally bankrupt at the same time. Sometimes the little guy is just another grifter. I plead guilty to suffering from compassion fatigue, having a hair-trigger alarm for emotional sleight-of-hand, and smelling a Boardwalk hustle whenever I hear the word "empowerment." Anyhow, when my clients' enemies call me unethical, it just means I caught them.
Not only do I come up against blatantly awful corporate stalkers and extortionists, I was increasingly encountering an even more insidious predator among America's chronically violated, folks who wrapped up their dirty agendas in the mantle of the sanctified whistleblower. My clients are the biggest companies in the world, and they live in mortal terror of a nun with a guitar showing up at a shareholders meeting. There were, of course, the SNEGs (Subversive Nuns with Electric Guitars), who could give a CEO a stroke with one strum of a chord; ASPs (Armageddon Science Projects) done by precocious little shits who wanted to get into Princeton by leveling a hideous safety allegation against a conglomerate; the dreaded BLUCS (Bored, Loud Utopian Chicks from Suburbia), who never had a divorce that wasn't caused by a food additive; and occasionally a Rebel Without Applause, a twenty-something activist who didn't care what he railed against as long as it drew a crowd and got him laid. Most Rebels were rich kids, which I had used against them on more than one occasion. A few years ago, I disrupted a particularly worrisome protest by seeing to it that the lead Rebel — a young heir to a real estate fortune whose parents had set him up in a townhouse near Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square — didn't get his mail for a month. No trust fund check, no revolution. In addition to receiving two grand, the mailman got a bang out of it.
Sometimes my client work was improvised. A few years ago, a big pharmaceutical company called me in because somebody broke into their North Jersey plant where they made a drug to enhance sexual performance. They wanted me to help keep the break-in quiet, and discreetly investigate whether or not a competitor had been behind it. They were thinking about pursuing legal action. I had a different approach. Rather than engage in a long and fruitless investigation and lawsuit, I suggested that my client embrace the break-in and leak it to the press and online chat rooms. The endgame: Create a buzz that the drug was so hot that people were breaking in to steal it. The drug became a blockbuster. The company's ad agency got all the credit, but I didn't care; I got a bonus.
Allegation Sciences' offices were in Atlantic City's Golden Prospect Hotel & Casino. It may seem strange that a corporate consultant like me would rent offices in a casino, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Legalized gambling is far and away the fastest growing business in the U.S. Casinos are habitual targets of scams and shakedowns, everything from blackjack dealers with unfettered fingers to vacationers who conveniently slip on tiles by the swimming pool shortly after losing their mortgages at the baccarat table. All of these hustlers were convinced that their scams were original, and were stunned to discover that guys like me existed for the express purpose of stopping them. In the days when the gangster Mickey Price and his boys ran the Golden Prospect, accidents didn't happen. Nobody fell down. Nobody cheated. People must have been nicer then.
Everything changed when Mickey died a couple of years ago, and ownership passed from his gang to Ivy League MBAs who think skim is what you pour on your All-Bran. This includes Angela Vanni, who runs the place now. Angela was my original client. Even though her dad, Mario, was a stone-cold racketeer, Angela is all software and "focused marketing," a term I nodded at knowingly when she said it. In truth, I was distracted by that little dimple in her cheek that appeared and disappeared when she spoke. While the New Jersey Gaming Commission respected Angela's moral hygiene, the creepy crawlies that teemed beneath the boardwalk did not, and the Golden Prospect became a target for veteran scam artists.
This lurch in larceny had actually begun when Mickey Price's health declined in his final years, so he hired me to spread hideous stories about what was still happening to cheats under his rule. Given that my conventional media contacts were off-limits to gangster work, I used a gossip chain of degenerates that I had cultivated over the years. In return, Mickey shared a tip or two about how he had dissuaded cheats. Hint: The graphic leveraging of mob lore on the Internet and in the gambling community had more utility than actually killing people, something I didn't do because, as Richard Nixon once said, "That would be wrong."
After setting the Golden Prospect straight, word got around in the broader business community that I didn't screw around. My skills at stopping casino maggots turned out to be transferable to squelching a growing mob of anti-corporate hustlers. Make fun of New Jersey all you want, but just off those turnpike exit ramps lie the most powerful corporations in the world: After decades of legalized shakedowns by trial lawyers, activists and labor unions, the boys and girls of Business Casual had stopped screwing around, too, thus my opportunistic formation of Allegation Sciences. As I once told my priest, Father Ignacio, I spend my life in search of a lower truth.
Sure, I had gotten offers over the years to work directly for a big corporate client, but during the few all-day "business meetings" I had attended during my career, all I kept thinking as I looked around the conference table was, It's twelve forty-five in the afternoon, where's the fucking food? Corporate people didn't eat, they didn't have human needs. I'm Italian. I did.
Among other criteria, I specialized in companies that were close to home, companies like Naturale's Real Living, which was a short drive away. In addition to my general opposition to new experiences, I would not fly to meet clients, and for good reason: I didn't think I'd ever get there. Friends always told me that my fear of flying was irrational, that driving was more dangerous. Bullshit — what are the chances that I was going to plummet thirty thousand feet into the side of a mountain while driving my Cadillac on the Atlantic City Expressway? Besides, working for industry as I did, I knew that companies — say, airlines — offset their investments in safety against the low probability that bad things would happen. In other words, they played the odds, which was very different from guaranteeing that flying was safe. Given the horrors that had already befallen me in my life, I calculated that the odds of being pulverized into rose-hued pus were pretty damned good.
The thing I liked best about my job — in addition to the fact that when clients needed me, they needed me so badly that they didn't quibble about invoices — was my office. From my vantage point behind a curved glass cockpit of a desk, a huge window was on my right overlooking the boardwalk where the May morning sunlight, greasy illusions and the scent of roasted peanuts indistinguishably mingled. I had never been comfortable with Atlantic City by day. I always preferred it in the night, when neon made the town look like a giant dessert counter, all sparkling toppings — jimmies, Gummi Bears and M&Ms. Maybe Atlantic City by day made me so anxious because the place didn't look so great beneath sunlight. In the evening, even homelessness had the patina of mystery, a man with a past. There was nothing romantic about a bum pissing on a mailbox as he squinted into the morning sun.
Sometimes I would stare out at the ocean for a long time. I had always been fascinated with pirates. Ever since I was a little kid cutting catechism and fearing Hell, I would sneak books on pirates out of the library and then stare at the waves rolling in, thinking that if I hung around long enough I'd see Blackbeard's galleon wash ashore. It's embarrassing to admit, but I actually thought about stuff like this. My dad did, too, in a way, but he liked shipwrecks in particular, and memorized the big ones that sunk off of New Jersey. There had been many.
Beyond my guest chairs was an interior window — a one-way mirror, really, that offered a panoramic view of the winking casino floor. I didn't really spy out the casino or the boardwalk from my office, but the design conveyed a certain omniscience, and I played it to my advantage. Consulting was three quarters optics: Any consultant who wasn't on amphetamines knew damned well that the key to marketing was implying that you had some influence in things that would have happened anyway. For moral support, I kept a quotation from the Bible (Book of Samuel) above my office's exit: "Thou art the man."
Behind my desk, there was a solid beige wall centered by a giant photo of my brother, Tommy, who was pumping a fist moments after winning the welterweight title that qualified him for the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team in 1992. He was shooting that DeSesto snarl that we shared. The Death Snarl, as The Philadelphia Bulletin had once called it. Not long before he was set to fly out to become an Olympian, he died in the ring during a routine sparring session. Tommy's wife responded by jumping off the Ben Franklin Bridge (on the Jersey side), leaving me to raise their infant daughter, Emma, who was now ten. I had done this without the benefit of a wife or kids of my own. I framed every painting and drawing that Emma had ever made for me, and displayed them inside a cabinet that I kept closed when I had guests. I didn't like people to know I cared about anything.
I had been a decent boxer, but the highest official title I ever held was Golden Gloves Welterweight Champion of South Jersey. There had been some buzz about my eligibility for the 1980 Olympic trials, but I was disqualified after I got into an unscheduled fight with a guy on the boardwalk over something stupid. Boxers aren't supposed to beat the crap out of random mopes, so the Boxing Commission slapped a conduct sanction on me. I honestly don't think I would have made it into the Olympics anyway, but my brother — they used to play the theme music to the rock opera Tommy when he climbed into the ring ... well, I turned my back on Tommy.
I promised Sally Naturale via voice mail that I could be at her headquarters in Medford Lakes by noon. If I left by eleven, it would be a straight shot down the Atlantic City Expressway, barring no breakdowns by big-assed casino bus convoys. Right now, it was about ten-thirty, and two of the shore's remaining mafiosi spread like fleshy plagues across my squat guest chairs.
Excerpted from "Jackie Disaster"
Copyright © 2003 Eric Dezenhall.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.