Twilight Times Books, 2009 Author Website.
Summary: Dialogue-driven & decidedly old-fashioned morality tale about an underdog DC journalist trying to break a government scandal. Sometimes the dialogue slows down the action, but the book raises interesting & unsettling questions about journalism.
Rating: 4 Stars.
Recommended if you like: Henry Adams’ Democracy, Sinclair Lewis, Dashell Hammett, All the President’s Men
Solomon Scandals is a decidedly old-fashioned morality tale which pits an underdog DC journalist in the 1970s against a powerful coterie of politicians. Stone suspects that Solomon, the head of the General Services Administration, has been defrauding the government by building substandard buildings and pocketing the difference. It starts out as a hunch, and Stone must try to talk to various bureaucrats to find the real story. In the meantime, his newspaper editor is convinced that Stone is chasing after a nonstory and making people mad in the process. A society columnist (Wendy Blevin) is somehow involved, but we’re never sure until the end how the pieces fit together. As we follow Stone’s path to hunt down information (remember, this was the 70s before Google and FOIA and even cellphones), we get a sense of how hard genuine reporting was (and still is).
Solomon Scandals is not a mystery or even a political thriller. It is a fast dialogue-driven story between Stone and the various functionaries he interviews, laced with cynical and caustic asides. (Perhaps the book could be subtitled “How low-level bureaucrats hinder and help the lone journalist”). These functionaries don’t serve allegorical purposes in the way they do in a Kafka novel; they are simply people caught in the middle of things. These bureaucrats aren’t exactly hostile to Stone’s mission, but have egotistical and almost petty motives; the wrong kind of leak could cost a person his job. In a way, the low level bureaucrats don’t mind helping out the lowly journalist because their social status is basically the same. This kind of bureaucrat likes feeling important and able to influence media portrayals; a few of them even feel genuine disgust at the corruption they have to turn a blind eye to. One issue not broached by this book (but might have been) is what ethical framework should a journalist adopt when pursuing a story? Is it right to deceive an official about your true intentions? Is it right to flatter or to pretend to be interested in the bureaucrat’s grandstanding in the hopes that he might accidentally reveal a telling detail?
This novel is ostensibly about journalists in the 1970s. Does this kind of intrepid reporter even exist today? Taking the time to uncover such a long and tangled series of improprieties requires dedication, time and resources — increasingly that role is performed by crusading bloggers and amateur citizen journalists instead of professionals (Indeed, although Rothman started out as a professional journalist, over the last decade he has blogged about libraries here and here). Maybe there are enough journalists lying around in Washington D.C. to smell a story out, but what about Austin? Baton Rouge? Columbus? Albany? Even a newspaper with considerable resources and seasoned journalists like the Telegram (presumably modeled after the Washington Post) might have doubts about sending reporters to report things which are still unproven or are likely to ruffle the feathers of important people around town (or worse yet, scare away advertising dollars). Stone is surprised to find that the biggest opponents of his writing the story is the newspaper itself – caught in the frantic and futile attempt to balance news with infotainment. Probably the book’s most intriguing character is society reporter Wendy Blevin –- who writes a popular column of no substance whatsoever. Stone is cynical about her columns though he admits that she is good at what she does. But when newspaper reporting is dominated by who is dating whom and who has the most friends and best parties, journalists become nothing more than paparazzis.
Think for a moment. Would you really want to read a newspaper expose about the GSA? Had you even heard of it before reading this review? A lot of newspaper stories may seem incredibly dry and arcane to casual newspaper readers. They can drown the casual reader in minutiae – especially when it mentions a theoretical harm instead of a real one. Sure, people really care about a story once a disaster happens (witness BP). If anything, Solomon Scandals calls attention to how hard it can be to convince the public (and even media corporations) that an injustice or malfeasance urgently requires public attention. The horrifying thing is that often reporters do get around to writing that expose – and nobody bothers to notice. With BP, reporters were already on the story about BP safety violations and corruption at MMS; do these kinds of scandals only matter when people die and you have good television?
While reading this novel, I chuckled to myself at how dated it seems – how much it feels like rereading All the President’s Men. Surely, in an age of instantaneous information and Wikileaks data dumps, journalists are better able to influence public understanding. But over time I have decided that the situation has not really changed. Sure, the modern crusading blogger/journalist has easier access to information, and officials are only an email away, but things are neither better or worse – just different. Insiders are still speaking off the record or not speaking at all, and the public generally ignores all but the most egregious of scandals, preferring instead to fill their heads with lurid irrelevancies.
Stylistically, the novel sometimes sounds too preachy (that is Stone’s inner voice after all) and at times it seems too self-aware (in good postmodern form). The book is framed as a historical record found several decades later and published more for curiosity’s sake. This framing device (only a few pages long) was interesting but not really needed because the story speaks for itself. Throughout the book, the narrator seems aware of how later generations may view this campaign to expose Sy’s misdeeds; I confess I sometimes had trouble keeping track of names and details. Also, some of the characters seem too glibly drawn. The mean-spirited Telegraph editor seems too glib a caricature. Still, Stone is an affable guy, and the book does a good job of conveying political vernacular of unknown bureaucrats working for a little-known agency.
I leave the novel wondering which details of the scandal would matter to later generations. How much do politicians or officials really matter? One more scandal, one more fallen official. Eventually they blur together. I am tempted to say that later generations of historians care more about things which appear in the gossip pages(and I suspect that the book’s gossip columnist would be a subject of endless fascination to historians). Or maybe not. Stone believes (correctly, I think) that historians give undue importance to the newspaper’s account of historical events — when in fact the real story never really is told in the newspaper. Perhaps Stone’s mistake was in working for a daily newspaper (those bastards!) Maybe instead he should have just written the story into a novel or screenplay.
Which of course is what David Rothman does here.
See Also: This disclaimer about reviewing books.