- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 4, 2006


By William F. Gavin

St. Martin’s, $24.95, 304 pages


The Nixon presidency is maligned in many quarters as a matter of course. However, the unstinting critics of the Nixon administration rarely consider some of its signature virtues. One of them, at least to my eye, was that administration’s ability, for much of Nixon’s tenure, to craft a phrase that deftly cut through the heart of a problem and broke it down in terms that Middle America — his “Silent Majority” — could understand.

Time and again, in spite of media and governmental opposition not just to his programs but to the person himself, President Nixon perservered and triumphed. His administration would not have been able to do so, of course, without its speechwriters, the quality and timber of whose product stands up next to that of any Presidential writing team since.

William Safire, Patrick J. Buchanan and William Gavin, the author of the book currently under discussion, are three of those writers who served President Nixon with distinction early in their memorable Washington careers.

Mr. Gavin’s second novel is many things. It is a book about a singular Washington blend of ambition and excess and an amped-up satire of a DC where even the political fringes are manned by opportunists on the make.

As well, and most successfully, “The Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara School for Wayward Girls: A Novel of Politics” is an examination of the tortured life of an inside-the-Beltway speechwriter whose creative spark is lit, time and time again, by the twained pleasures of Richard Wagner’s Teutonic operas and Eva Morales’ marching powder. Perhaps most trenchantly, however, the novel is a novel about loss.

The reader meets the protagonist of the novel, a former speechwriter for a centrist Democratic president, well into the downward slope of his career arc. Peter Holmes Dickinson is a well-connected sort with the right bloodlines, but the unraveling of his existence speaks to his basic flaws. Namely, he is getting a little older, a little softer, and a little less careful.

Dickinson lost his position in the White House after making a very public break from the president via an op-ed in a major national newspaper. Having made that decision, he was ineluctably forced to confront the consequences; among them, a series of gigs freelancing for a variety of organizations across the spectrum, none of which jibe with Dickinson’s own political views.

The passages in the book dealing with Dickinson’s professional odyssey contain some of the sharpest writing and insights in the novel. He is constantly reminded, by himself and others, that “speechwriting isn’t real writing,” so much as the mixing and matching of platitudes, abstract language, rhetorical sucrose and intellectual treacle.

In a memorable scene where the protagonist attempts to pick up a prostitute at a party, Mr. Gavin pithily draws out certain parallels between turning tricks and writing speeches. These insights and others along these lines are worth the price of the book on their own.

Sharp-eyed observers of the scene inside the Beltway might recognize more than a few notable people and Washington institutions reinvented here by Mr. Gavin.

This mode of reinvention was used to similar effect by former left-liberal Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox in her recent novel, and as in her book, it creates a welcome and necessary verisimilitude that never detracts from the genuinely comic moments here. In this sense, comparisons to Christopher Buckley’s tour de force novel “Thank You For Smoking” are justified.

If there are any flaws to the book, they are to be found in the plot — or more accurately, the intertwining subplots. To this reviewer, the interplay between the various ancillary stories in the book was reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” and as in that comic novel from last decade, some of the subplots are more interesting than others.

That said, by the time the reader reaches the end of the book, he likely will find that his investment in the volume was justified by more than a few laughs and, more importantly, an insight into Washington’s myriad darksides.

Mr. Gavin’s second book neatly sidesteps the sophomore novelist’s jinx with a combination of penetrating insights and a droll wit that survives repeated readings. This volume is recommended to all those who seek insight into what drives Washington professionals to do what they do, moral ambiguities be damned.

A.G. Gancarski freelances from Jacksonville, Fla.

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