PARTY FAVOURS By Jean Doe (Harp er Collins, 228 pages, $28)
One of the truisms about political life in Canada is this: to divine what will be fashionable in Ottawa in a year, examine what is now happening in Washington. That is true on almost every front, whether the issue in question is the ethics of trade with China, how to appoint a Supreme Court justice, or why it is still considered chic to wear a yellow tie with a blue suit.
Perhaps that made it inevitable in the wake of the hugely successful Primary Colors, a fictionalized account by an initially anonymous author of Bill Clinton’s rise to power, that a Canadian would try something similar. The result is Party Favours, a wanna-be roman à clef that proves—at least in this case— that while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it can result in a remarkably silly book.
The author, laboring under the pen name of Jean Doe, is described in publicity blurbs as “an Ottawa insider.” That is deeply worrisome for all Canadians, because Party Favours says much more about the shortcomings of the author than those of his or her intended targets. Perhaps the only thing clear through an otherwise muddled plot is the effort to create parallels to real-life characters, including federal cabinet ministers, members of the press gallery (including this reviewer) and assorted hangers-on.
The multitude of literary sins starts with ham-handed prose and a plotline that has about as much credibility as Liberal promises to scrap the Goods and Services Tax. It revolves around the sinister efforts of finance minister Jean Rioux, a Montreal native and millionaire businessman, to steal power from the prime minister, the deceptively rough-hewn and lovable Robert (Bobby) Laurier. The cast of one-dimensional characters is led by the narrator and action-man hero, idealistic young Canadian Press wire-service reporter Chris O’Reilly. Before the book is done, O’Reilly has cultivated his own Deep Throat informer, shrugged off all manner of threats and intimidation, uncovered a dastardly plot involving a murdered lawyer, kick-
backs and a plan to overthrow the prime minister, saved the day for democracy—and bedded the most beautiful woman in Ottawa (who just happens to work for the prime minister, and becomes a convenient source). James Bond seldom has better days, and 007 usually works more exotic locales.
Even more remarkable for reallife Ottawa, O’Reilly is assiduously courted by every politician, has his telephone calls answered at once, is invited to off-record chats with the prime minister, and receives spontaneous visits at home from cabinet ministers eager to share secrets. His highly professional but always underestimated colleagues at the real-life CP will be amazed to discover their clout is so large.
In addition to that, everyone in the book speaks in leaden dialogue that by comparison makes Ottawa’s most self-important bureaucrats sound eloquent. The Deep Throat character, “Igor,” says he turned informer because “fundamentally, I am a democrat [and] I am unenthusiastic when I see the opposite at work.” He chooses O’Reilly because “I was told you could be trusted.” O’Reilly’s best friend, veteran Southam News hack Joey Myers, who is intended to be likable, spends the book trailing after the hero, calling him “my boy” and “young friend" and squealing with delight at his achievements—a literary version of the comic character Dame Edna on steroids. By the time Myers is fired by his new boss, rightwing Southam press lord Carswell Spence, the reader is near-desperate to thank Spence.
And on it goes, devoid of humor or redeeming insight, through 228 pages that carry all the sparkle and flair of a final report of a royal commission. Primary Colors succeeded because its author, later unmasked as journalist Joe Klein, wrote with a savage but subtle wit that left all of Washington desperate to know who had skewered them. The book brought Klein critical acclaim, millions of dollars in royalties, and, after he was “outed,” unwanted notoriety. For Jean Doe, anonymity offers a different reward—blessed refuge from the snickering that awaits if ever he or she is found out.
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