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The Phony Marine

The Phony Marine

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 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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812975512
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/08/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.61(d)

About 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.


Washington, D.C.

Date of Birth:

May 19, 1934

Place of Birth:

Wichita, Kansas


A.A., Victoria College; B.J., University of Missouri, 1956

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 “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—” 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.

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