The Ruling Crass
by Jonathan Yardley
First appeared in The Washington Post, Nov 18, 1998
BIG GOVERNMENT By Ev Ehrlich Warner. 278 pp. $25
This first novel, described by its publisher as "a burlesque of American politics," is an agreeable surprise. One would hardly expect its author, Ev Ehrlich, whose entire career has been spent in politics, government and business -- including four years as undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration -- to be a novelist at all, much less a moderately polished one, but this in fact is what he turns out to be. "Big Government" is not (again to quote its publisher) "the funniest literary debut since Christopher Buckley's," but on its own terms it is fine.
Its strengths lie in its author's knowledge of, and deep cynicism about, the workings of political Washington. His plot is tangled to excess, and his characters rarely struggle out of their cardboard containers, but he has a keen eye for the hypocrisy, opportunism and utter lack of conviction that drive the engines of this city's major industry. Beyond that, having done more than his share of time in the bureaucracy, he has an equally sharp nose for the bizarre contortions of law and regulation, and he can be quite amusing in spoofing them.
Of the many (too many) people who wander through these pages, two are central. Ezra T. Wheezle, representing the 4th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, "a small man with sparse gray hair waxed over a balding dome, well past sixty but animated by a certain nervous energy," is "the second most senior Democratic congressman on the Committee on National Economic Affairs" and, naturally, wants "to be the most senior." His pursuit of this ambition provides the thread upon which one of the novel's two plot lines is strung.
The other involves Dickie Vanderhaltz, a graduate student in geophysics at the South Florida Institute of Technology whose long string of academic failures leads him, in time, to the offices of Sen. Luther A. Moss, Republican of Florida, a smooth operator formerly in real-estate law who has learned that serving in the Senate "relied on the same abilities: drinking while remaining conversant, getting along with people disliked by one's wife, getting mad only when its histrionic value was high, and keeping a stiff left arm through your approach to the tee."
These men, and other men (and women) as well, soon are involved in the progress of two major pieces of legislation. One, "the equipment-that-doesn't-work tax credit," is a boondoggle for companies engaged in research and development. The other, "the Universal Daylight Saving Time Act," is sponsored behind the scenes by the electric utilities, which figure that year-round daylight saving -- plus an added hour in the summer months -- "would increase the demand for electricity and stop utilities from going broke."
This is the foundation on which Ehrlich constructs his tale. In short order it involves more people than a Million Man March. Among them are Rep. Senior Younger, the 114-year-old committee chairman whom Wheezle wants to replace; Cody Clark, a televangelist who preaches that "God is our Father and our Banker, and He wants us to be saved and He wants us to be solvent"; Miriam Moskowitz, an ambitious and fetching member of Sen. Moss's staff; Laslo Schange, publisher of Modern Weapons magazine and proponent of "principled naturalism" ("as opposed to literal naturalism"); and Lenny Keeler, legislative assistant to Wheezle and the only likable person in the whole menagerie.
All operate in an environment of surpassing cynicism, as epitomized by Miriam Moskowitz: "She came to Washington with her own beliefs, of which she was quickly cured. After a year with the committee she had remade herself. She gave up searching her soul for what was right and substituted searching the public for trends. In fact, so had most of the people she knew, in one way or another. The only difference she could see was that the sane ones were aware of what they were doing, and set their beliefs aside in the hope that they would one day be reunited with them."
Or, as Lenny Keeler discovers in the presence of a candidate for the presidency, "there was no belief, no conviction, no heartfelt truth that could not be turned into a message for public consumption, a group-tested banner, a headline, a slogan." This is accurate, heaven knows, but despairing as well, which seems to explain the antidote that Ehrlich offers at the end: a denouement more sentimental than plausible. Most readers are likely to agree that satire is the novel's real meat and that Ehrlich is almost always good at it.
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