- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

DOG DAYS

By Ana Marie Cox

Riverhead, $23.95, 274 pages

REVIEWED BY KELLY JANE TORRANCE

Being a celebrity must have its disadvantages. Take the temptations, for example. When you’re in demand, it must be difficult not to explore just how badly you can behave or try to exact free drinks, clothes or women. Or to turn down the quickie book deal.

Unfortunately, it seems the talented Ana Marie Cox has succumbed to that last one. Ms. Cox was, until recently, the writer behind the snarky and salacious deep-inside-the-Beltway gossip blog Wonkette. Her droll voice won her many fans, so it was no surprise she scored a contract to write a novel. Unfortunately, the result relies too much on the sort of insider tattle that made Ms. Cox famous.

Wonkette is best known for unleashing Jessica Cutler onto the world. Ms. Cutler was a low-level Senate aide who detailed her exploits with political staffers and appointees — many of whom paid for the privilege of sleeping with her — on her pseudonymous blog, Washingtonienne.

Ms. Cox outed Ms. Cutler and the two became fast friends. It probably didn’t hurt that the exposure raised Ms. Cox’s profile and gained the newly unemployed Ms. Cutler a spread in Playboy and a book deal of her own.

Ms. Cutler’s The Washingtonienne was a thinly fictionalized account of her life. Ms. Cox has, surprisingly, gotten inspiration from Ms. Cutler’s life, too. When the Washingtonienne blog first made headlines, many observers wondered if Ms. Cox had made it all up. “Dog Days” imagines what might have happened if someone had.

Its heroine, 28-year-old idealist Melanie Thorton, is a communications staffer on the campaign of Democrat presidential nominee John Hillman. It’s August, and the convention’s just ended on a high note. Melanie’s looking forward to a little break. She’ll spend some time with her boyfriend, who just happens to be one of the country’s most powerful political journalists — and married.

It’s a disaster waiting to happen, of course. First the campaign — based on that of John Kerry — becomes plagued by accusations that Hillman is some sort of Manchurian Candidate who underwent mind control experiments. Then a gossip columnist publishes a blind item revealing Melanie’s affair. What to do? Follow Bill Clinton’s example and “wag the dog.”

To deflect attention, Melanie and her best friend, a highly paid consultant, concoct a scandal much more interesting than those that threaten her job and romance. They invent Capitolette, a Washington blogger with a very interesting little black book. And when the stakes are upped, they actually manage to produce her, after scouring the bars of DC for a suitably sexy candidate.

Much of political Washington is probably reading — or at least skimming — “Dog Days,” wondering if they’ll recognize themselves therein. It won’t be hard. Ms. Cox has lifted much from life, and most of the time she doesn’t even try that hard to conceal it.

Conservative pundit Marilyn Talcum is obviously Michelle Malkin, who has criticized Ms. Cox and Ms. Cutler’s brand of girl power. Blog Swamp City becomes Swamp Thing — never mind that the original title made sense (this city being built on a swamp) and the barely fictionalized one does not. Perhaps Ms. Cox, in a rush to capitalize on her success, didn’t have time to make many changes.

This reviewer, it must be admitted, felt a certain frisson at reading the description of a party — right down to the musical selections — once attended.

Savvy readers won’t just recognize names. Ms. Cox’s job for the last couple years was, after all, to study the city. Many women will nod their heads in recognition at lines like these:

“She had noticed that Washington was full of these born-again bachelors, men whose success in the sober field of politics or political journalism somehow freed them to behave like the high-school lotharios they couldn’t be at eighteen, when they were too busy getting their lunch money stolen and passing student council resolutions against depantsing.”

In fact, many women will find much to empathize with here: broken heels and broken hearts. For underneath this supposed satire of the capital, lies a chick-lit novel that’s simply set in the capital. Melanie is “uncomfortably aware of how her clothes were always striver brands rather than arrived brands.” And those brands are mentioned. Often.

As in: “She’d shimmied into a Banana Republic sheath that approximated something Gucci had done last year.” So many brands, bars, and songs are mentioned that this book is certain to become dated in just a few years. It’s too bad, because Ms. Cox probably has it in her to write something lasting. She knows Washington.

And every now and then a gem of a line will jump off the page: “Clothes hung out of Melanie’s suitcase like they had been shot trying to escape.”

But the book isn’t as funny as the marketing promises. Which is surprising, given the story’s shenanigans. Perhaps the problem is that Ms. Cox comes off as just a little too earnest. She really wanted to write a serious book.

Nobody just has sex in Washington, for example. They “enter into strategic relationships or they sign nondisclosure agreements or at the very least they pretend to forget it ever happened.” Of course, hundreds of young people here from all over the country could contradict her.

The plot is supposed to spin into motion because Melanie will do almost anything to see the Kerry stand-in elected. But Ms. Cox doesn’t even try to show the reader how this man could save the country. We never even meet him. She simply assumes the reader buys into his liberal program — so no explanation is necessary.

But if you don’t, the protagonist’s easy lies come off as merely self-serving. We keep hearing that “the fate of the free world” is at stake. Melanie thinks of Capitolette, “And if she can keep her pants on, we could all get nationalized health care.”

If only the world were that simple. In between the Prada pantsuits and U Street bars, Ms. Cox wants to teach us a lesson. If her incarnation of Wonkette were still around, she could offer the author some sage advice: Nobody should take herself too seriously.

Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of Doublethink, arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a book columnist for The American Enterprise Online.

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