Dog Days

by Ana Marie Cox

Riverhead, 297 pp., $23.95

I HAD BEEN WONDERING WHY Wonkette, a witchy website devoted to mocking Washington politics in general, along with Washington Post columnist Tina Brown in particular, had grown so ghastly dull over the last months. I wasn't, mind you, wondering in a serious or methodical way; any website dragged into my personal Favorites column is practically guaranteed to turn into dross overnight. But still, the dissolution of its charm, the subsiding of its frothy send-ups of stuffy old pols, left me perplexed and faintly broken-hearted.

Now, of course, I understand completely what went wrong. Ana Marie Cox, the inspired wit behind Wonkette, was simply not concentrating. She was busy writing a novel. This was ill-advised. And not only for her website.

The heroine of Dog Days is named Melanie, or Mel, depending on the author's mood. And although the character's nominal job is that of a campaign worker for a Democratic candidate who resembles John Kerry in every particular ("Hillman did act like a robot sometimes"), right down to his romp-resistant yellow dog "who was about as excited about the Hillman campaign as most voters were," in fact Melanie has, according to her creator, other abilities:

She had learned the tricks of a covert carnal operator, and part of her was as proud of this new-found skill as she was of memorizing the names and faces of each senator before she came to town. She knew which hotels in Washington would guarantee a noon check-in, what restaurants had separate entrances to the garage, and how many pairs of underwear she could fit into the side pocket in her purse intended for a cell phone. . . . Having an affair was like having a second job, Melanie thought, but the benefits made it worthwhile.

Had this paragraph appeared--oh, anywhere within the first 100 pages of the novel, it might have provided straightaway the answers to a number of nagging literary questions. Such as: Why should we care where this person stashes her underwear? Or: Hey, so that's why Kerry lost Ohio! But as it appears for no apparent reason within a hair's breadth of the last page, the reader is left slogging along through scores of room service moments and acres of Blackberry missives (these especially) without the faintest idea of what it is that Melanie wants. A fine unmarried boyfriend? A victory for her candidate? Better relations with the press, whose egos and other delicate parts she is expected, as part of the "communications team," to stroke?

That the heroine shares our perplexity is no solace, believe me. She at least has the consolation of downing around eight martinis per paragraph. Or if martinis are in short supply, then a slug of bourbon, from which, Ms. Cox assures us, "the warmth ran jagged down her throat."

Nor is the jagged course of that throat her only physical ailment. In fact, despite her youth and evident beauty, it's obvious she is a medical mess. On one page, Melanie feels "a pressure on her chest like someone had tightened a belt around it." On the next, much the same calamity recurs: "All the air left her chest for an instant." It will take five full paragraphs--and no ambulance in sight--before: "Air filled her lungs again." But even then we are not out of the woods. Within short order, "The buzzy high of her anger dissipated. . . . Her shoulders were tight. Her jaw hurt. She felt like she had been in a fist fight."

Yes, there are moments of reprieve, even for Mel. Life is not all booze and beds and lousy polls. There are times she can even forget about the terrycloth robes at four star hotels with their too-short sleeves. She, after all, has a boyfriend with a miracle wardrobe ("the buttons on his shirt fumbled loose") and magnetic hands that seek her "heavy breasts." She also has the ears of a lynx. For how else to explain her ability to listen in on conversations at the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant while standing miles away from the tables? Never mind. To celebrate these assets she occasionally allows herself "a saucy toss of her head."

So, I'm really not sure about Ana Marie Cox anymore. Or maybe I am. This is just the kind of writing that Wonkette used to skewer. Perhaps Wonkette should have written this novel.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

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