Book Report: The Columnist by Jeffrey Frank (2001)

I bought this book from the 80% off book store last autumn and found that it had migrated to the second rank of my to-read bookshelves, which means I buy too many books over the course of the year.

This book might have been written too early; it serves as the fictional memoir that tracks the rise of a William Safire/George Will syndicated newspaper columnist from his humble beginnings at a college newspaper in the late 1950s to the stagnation of his career and life in the 1980s. As it was written before the rise of the blogosphere, one can only speculate about how it would have played out if all the cool bloggers had read it.

I enjoyed the book, although not without qualification. Brandon Sladder is an oblivious user of people, obnoxious and socially climbing. He crosses women, he backstabs his employees, he alienates his “friends” and describes them in his memoir as too busy to confab with him. But we can laugh at his obliviousness and wonder if perhaps he does know but is putting a good face on it.

But as the book turns the final corner into the finish line, we discover that both of his wives have cheated on Sladder, who’s a clod but cloddishness doesn’t excuse adultery except to certain elements from amoral cosmpolitan areas. The final sex scandal, tacked on, seems too much, and the downfall of Brandon Sladder seems abrupt. Of course, given the voice of the book, it would have to be abrupt and inexplicable, but it shouldn’t actually seem that way to readers of the novel.

And although Brandon Sladder, at the end, almost achieves self-awareness, he does not, and Jeffrey Frank does not yield any sort of redemption. So at the end, Brandon Sladder is as self-absorbed and oblivious as at the beginning of the book. Ultimately, that strips the book of its humor, as all along we weren’t laughing with a character recounting his past flaws, but laughing at a lesser person. The end completely changes the tenor of all that came before it and ultimately made the book completely disappoint me.

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