by Jessica Cutler
Hyperion, 304 pp., $23
"HOW SAD IS THAT?" a young female character observes in Jessica Cutler's roman-à-clef, after spotting George Stephanopoulos and James Carville across a crowded Palm restaurant. "Those are the biggest celebrities Washington has to offer, and they're not even attractive."
A brief intake of breath here, the kind that always accompanies a rarely uttered truth (a commodity the novel celebrates), and then, just one line down, Cutler does it again. Washington, D.C., her main character points out, is "Hollywood for the Ugly." It's a place of such limited possibilities that "you can't really get famous working on the Hill. Unless you do something really bad." This is a goal Cutler's protagonist, a world-weary babe with Gucci shoes, innovative sexual habits, and a terrible job on Capitol Hill, is clearly gunning for. In fact, two other characters refer to her as a train wreck, although for most of the book, she is too preoccupied to peer down the track.
Like so many heroines before her, her vision is obscured. After a hot time in New York, she lands, like Gulliver, on a planet dominated by midgets. Nothing about Washington thrills her. The men are pathetic. The drugs even more so, and so difficult to come by that she has to hook up with bike messengers to acquire them. The clothes are dowdy.
Even those in Washington who have managed to achieve some measure of renown, she quickly discovers, are condemned to sort through only the most dispiriting forms of entertainment. "Senators got invited to a lot of lame parties, like receptions in honor of helicopters, and charity balls for revolting diseases I had never heard of," the author complains. "I would have killed myself if I had to go to all those dumb things, even with all the free booze."
In other words, this is a novel of uncommon candor, humor, and perspicacity, and I loved every page of it.
Those familiar with Cutler's short-lived nom de blog--in 2004, under the alias Washingtonienne, she chronicled electronically and with a fair degree of self-deprecation her voluminous love life ("S--t, I'm f--ing six guys. Ewwww . . . ")--may recall that on its dissemination in mainstream outlets, Cutler was fired from her other job, the one she could actually mention to her parents. Evidently, the office of Senator Mike DeWine, an obviously humorless Republican from Ohio, felt that Cutler couldn't be both a Senate staffer earning $25,000 a year by answering (or in the case of Cutler's alter-ego, not answering) crank letters from constituents and maintain her status as the Samuel Pepys of promiscuity.
But really, why not? It isn't as though these two careers are mutually exclusive. In fact, there was clearly plenty of time, in Cutler's view, to pursue both paths, albeit obviously not with the same degree of zeal. "Do you ever feel like you're not accomplishing anything at all? That's what working on the Hill was like," Cutler writes in her novel. And she should know.
Ever wonder why, when you phone your local congressman, no one, however low-level or clueless, bothers to answer? Cutler's book is full of dialogue that provides useful insights into this problem.
"If you're not taking calls, then I'm not, either," declares one pretty assistant hitting the Call Forward button so she can hash over the previous evening's engagements with an office mate. Another remarks of a perpetually occupied colleague, "Laura is a bicameral slut."
In Washingtonienne, congressional staffers do not waste precious flirting time (and here I am using the f-word most euphemistically) in order to compose press releases or analyze the latest Social Security proposal. Mornings are devoted to blogging the high points of the previous night. Afternoons to reruns of Law & Order on the office TV set. This very likely is what accounts for the endurance of the Republic.
Cutler's heroine, however, is more entrepreneurial than most, and one of her beaux--she calls him "Fred" and mentions, significantly, he's a great friend of George W. Bush--supplements her meager Hill income to the tune of an extra $20,000 per year. At which point, naturally, the guy morphs into Henry Higgins. This is chronicled in one of the book's more delightful passages.
He was always lecturing me about stuff and counting the number of times that I'd say the word like in a sentence. "It makes you sound unintelligent," he told me. "It's a lazy way of talking. People your age need to realize that it's not cool to be lazy." Like, since when? The guy was paying my rent and giving me an allowance for doing absolutely nothing.
Older men loved people my age when they were getting off on our hot young bodies. But then they'd always be so disappointed when they realized that we were so immature.
Like, duh, of course I was immature. I was half his age! That's why he was f--ing me instead of his wife, remember?
Yes, that's part of the joy of this novel. The rest stems from figuring out who in this novel is actually Who. Here the author displays a bracing lack of imagination. "I found him chatting up some drunk woman who looked like a goblin up close," Cutler writes of an aging lover who runs into a female network correspondent. "She had a beak of a nose, funny lips, and bad skin. The thick layer of makeup she was wearing did nothing to cover the horrible craters all over her cheeks."
Hmmm . . . Ever sleep with this gal? the heroine wonders. "Noo!" her boyfriend assures her. "Do you know who she's married to?"
Well, yes. I suspect I do. And apparently a former boyfriend named Robert Steinbuch, who works for Senator DeWine, experienced a similar sense of déjà vu when he read Cutler's blog, and launched an invasion of privacy lawsuit against Cutler just last month, in which he pretty much repeats all the steamy stuff we already read about him. Spanking. Hair pulling. Is he boasting or what?
Personally, I don't know what to make of our nation's capital any more. On the one hand, I agree with the author: It is a pretty dull town. It is crammed with a lot of badly dressed people who don't wear NARS lipstick or carry Kate Spade bags. On the other hand, it has Cutler, our own Françoise Sagan, and say what you will, she seems to have made the most of her time here.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.