Weld's 'Mackerel': scorched earth

September 27, 1998|By Maggie Gallagher | Maggie Gallagher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Mackerel by Moonlight," by William Weld. Simon and Schuster. 238 pages. $23.

Mackerel by Moonlight" is a hardboiled detective fiction, minus the detective. Instead, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld offers us for the hero a former prosecutor turned politician Terry Mullaly - who likes to hunt big game: sometimes it's deer; Sometimes its crooks. And sometimes it's a dame.

In today's climate, it's perhaps best to go straight to point: Judging by the way he writes about women (which admittedly may be an unfair measure), Weld has been faithful to his wife. "Emma was waiting in the vestibule ... I noticed one of her temples had surrendered to the air a crenellation of blond hair."

Emma is the least successful of his characters, less a person than a not very subtle distillation of male longing: woman as "a life force," as Mullally actually calls her. Emma, a society girl unofficially separated from her Chinese husband who may or may not have been a gangster, blurts out things like "'I love those rusting car hulks.' she enthused. 'They're so organic.'" She's the sort of girl who while gutting a fish expertly in the canoe will give "an anguished cry at the sight of the roe - all those babies - but she tore the gills out by hand," like a pro.

The theme of "Mackerel by Moonlight" (like a politician's record: "it shines and it stinks") is the timely topic, "What is corruption?" Is it a "good" DA who keeps quiet about a subordinate's illegal evidence gathering, so the bad guys won't get out of jail? A cop who fails to arrest a criminal because he's a prolific "source."

Is it a politician who, like Mullally pretends to be less liberal than he is on social issues? When his opponent in a Senate race accuses him of failing to support the Defense of Marriage Act, Mullally tells us, "I was tempted to argue the merits with him, but I remembered I wanted to win too much, so I got my game face back on. I explained this was merely a legal matter, of course I considered the union between man and woman sacrosanct."

The only group other than the gangsters that never appears, even fleetingly, as good guys in Weld's fictional world, is the press, who are consistently portrayed as lazy, mindless, cheap, hypocritical, self-aggrandizing and devoid of principle other than self-promotion: "'Reason we get along, DA' one reporter tells Mullally, 'has nothing to do with tilting at windmills. It's you guys understand we're in the same business. . .'

"'Oh? What's that?'

"'The entertainment business. Welcome to the stage.'" But the novel's exploration of corruption is marred by its "scorched earth" ending. Weld tries to leave the reader, in classic noir style, with the feeling that nothing is as it seems, that you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, even with a program.

As Lanny, his campaign manager, puts it, "Boss, this whole DTC process is calculated to make honest men act like felons. Sooner we absorb all that, the better." If there's no solution, there's no problem.

Weld scripts a furious finish, but its attempted emotional punch hits nothing but air, in part because the narrator fails to make good on the liberally inserted hints of disaster. Too much foreshadow and not enough climax, in other words.

Still the basic problem with writing a novel if you are former Gov. Bill Weld is that reviewers will be awfully tempted to say things like "This is a surprisingly good novel - for a former governor." And so it is.

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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