Peter Lefcourt's 'Woody': steam-room lounging

November 01, 1998|By David Rakoff | David Rakoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Woody," by Peter Lefcourt. Simon and Schuster. 318 pages. $23. From the misbegotten use of the definite article in the title, it seems that "The Woody" is a novel that suffers, like its protagonist, Senator Woodrow "Woody" Wilson White, from needless performance anxiety.

Luckily enough, it's actually terrific. The very funny Peter Lefcourt (a man whose book "The Dreyfus Affair," about two gay major leaguers, taught me everything I know about baseball) has crafted a hilarious narrative about the Job-like trials of the erratically tumescent, completely unprincipled, borderline-vacuous, and ultimately strangely likable senator from Vermont, seeking re-election.

Worlds smarter about the exigencies of politics than the faux-cynical "Wag the Dog" - that toothless satire that would have us believe that no one knows where Albania is - "The Woody" is in the best, most cinematic way, kinetic, sprightly and filled with pleasures, among them the slow dismemberment of Woody's kidnapped dachshund (always good for a laugh) and the closet heterosexual who hides his true orientation from Washington's network of gay Senate aides so as not to "be left to wander around making contacts with the straight Senate aides, who, by and large, didn't know what the hell was going on."

But I just wish Lefcourt had left well enough alone in places, instead of larding his narrative with overreaching gags, like naming the Senator's chief of staff Ishmael Leibowitz so that he could begin the book with the words, "Call me, Ishmael."

Alas, not that funny, and Jews, particularly Holocaust survivors, as this character's parents are, simply don't name their boys Ishmael. An unfortunate woman with Tourette's syndrome is named Miss Meiskeit (Yiddish for "ugly thing"); an investigator named Forensic; a crack lawyer named Armature; you get the picture ... it's allegory.

But if that's the case - and it's perfectly fine if it is, God knows Lefcourt is skilled enough to pull it off - then I wish he had set the book in some mythic present-day D.C., instead of relying quite so heavily on current events, saddling "The Woody" with an unjustified "best before" date.

Sometimes the book's timeliness works very well; an ongoing traffic altercation with Trent Lott and a viciously spot-on indictment of Alfonse D'Amato's ethics are indispensable. But referring to the nation's capital as "Post-Packwood Washington," while factually correct, now seems as quaint as calling it "Post-Taft Washington." Ken Starr's failure to appear until page 216 merely ends up feeling more like a missed boat than actual restraint.

How much better it would have been for Lefcourt to rely upon his fTC prodigious gifts as an Aristophenean humorist, as he does in his skillful comic creation of a Greek Chorus of betoweled, gray-haired senators, lounging in the steam room of the Senate health facility.

Given the stranger-than-fiction goings-on in Washington, one can hardly blame Peter Lefcourt for thinking he had to make mention of the headlines as a means of enlarging - and consequently legitimizing - the scope of a perfectly wonderful novel. But, to use a congressional metaphor, it just seemed like so much pork and slowed down my enjoyment. And, as everyone knows, it's not the meat, it's the motion.

David Rakoff is a panelist on Slate magazine's Daily News Quiz and is a correspondent for Outside magazine. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, Salon, and on National Public Radio's "This American Life," among others.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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