From the halls of Nash Bros. to the shores of D.C.

Review Novel

December 31, 2006|By Kai Maristed | Kai Maristed,Los Angeles Times

The Phony Marine

Jim Lehrer

Random House / 212 pages / $23.95

Hugo Marder leads a life of mind-boggling dullness. After a mildly bitter divorce that ended a childless marriage, the 54-year-old marks his days as a sales associate at Nash Brothers (your grandfather's haberdasher, remember?). This protagonist of newsman Jim Lehrer's new novel carries on without friends, vices or passions, quietly going to seed. He disdains politics despite the fact that - or because - he lives near Dupont Circle in Washington. He doesn't even have a pet. Hugo's consolation is eBay, where he bids on such things as cuff links.

Hugo seems pleased to float toward the end of his days in this sea of blandness. After all, things could be worse. Then, in a series of online-auction coincidences, this uber-nebbish buys the equivalent of a religious relic: a U.S. Marine's Silver Star. And there, as the song says, the trouble and sorrow begin, because Hugo, the Nobody who had dreamed of leatherneck glory but took a college deferment instead, can't resist the temptation to pin the medal to his lapel. He saunters forth as Somebody and finds instant unearned respect that goes to his head like bubbles in a champagne glass. Soon enough, as his masquerade becomes more complicated, he'll be gulping down plenty of these, too.

In Lehrer's The Phony Marine, the world, especially the District of Columbia, reveals itself to be starved for heroes. After the briefest of moral struggles, Hugo obliges: He goes on the "Semper Fit" diet, works out to Marine Corps videotapes, shaves his balding head. He buys uniforms and gear, practices a striding walk and the jargon. Reflexes and imagination thus honed, Hugo actually commits a witnessed act or two of heroism!

But some folks smell a rat, like the real ex-Marine employed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife who dines undercover in Asian restaurants to ferret out contraband animal parts. Naturally, Hugo's ex-wife doesn't buy the fictional past either. Suspense mounts. How long can our triumphant new Hugo evade public defrocking?

The executive editor and anchor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS writes novels the way a lot of novelists play baseball - in other words, with enthusiasm, high spirits and a few moments of glaring awkwardness. More ebullient and comic than many of its predecessors, this book, Lehrer's 16th, shares with them certain qualities: the overly explanatory prose style, cartoonish characters, the plot glinting through the narrative like a clothes hanger shining through thin cloth. What seem to be autobiographical details don't always stick well to the character. And a lengthy set piece at a USMC symposium at the Smithsonian, quoting such luminary former Marines as Art Buchwald and Mark Russell, reads as if transcribed from a reporter's notebook.

The novel harbors a more insidious potential for reader discomfort: the premise itself. With Marines stretched thin in Iraq, where more than 2,900 U.S. troops have been killed since the war began, and with many more suffering battlefield injuries, illness and psychological problems, a cozy comedy about the perks of wearing an unearned Silver Star can leave one gritting one's teeth. Even Hugo hits this wall of realization - but only near the book's end.

As a former Marine, Lehrer does enjoy an insider's license to tell jokes on his tribe. And perhaps he wrote this short novel to offer laughs instead of tears. Whatever the inspiration, The Phony Marine is a hortatory fairy tale for adults, complete with military flair, moral dilemma and happy ending. Maybe that's what readers want and need in this dawning but already exhausted 21st century.

Kai Maristed is the author of the novels "Broken Ground" and "Out After Dark" and the story collection "Belong to Me." A longer version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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