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Review: 'Dog Bites Man' lacks bite

"Dog Bites Man; City Shocked!"
By James Duffy
Simon & Schuster
320 pages

By L.D. Meagher
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- An author takes a big risk in attempting to tell a novel-length inside joke. There's a chance that readers who don't get it will resent being left on the outside. And even those readers who do get it might take umbrage at being the butt of the jibe.

James Duffy compounds that gamble by turning out of a tale of tabloid-fueled furor in New York at the same moment the tabs are in full throat over a juicy slice of real life. And there's nothing in his novel "Dog Bites Man; City Shocked!" that can compare to the actual headlines surrounding the impending divorce of the current mayor.

Duffy, who has published seven previous novels under the pseudonym Haughton Murphy, pokes fun at everything Gotham -- from politics to fashion to menus. He embroils his fictional mayor in a scandal that's just weird enough that it could actually happen. Egghead-turned-politician Eldon Hoagland staggers out of a friend's apartment one night and steps on a dog. The startled canine chomps on hizzoner's leg, prompting his bodyguards to shoot the beast. An ill-advised cover-up sets off a media frenzy.

The author strives to tell his story in a tone of wry understatement, punctuated by hyperbole. The result is an air of detachment that underscores the notion that it's all a joke. That's a serious flaw in a work of satire. The best examples of the genre don't telegraph their punch lines.

The writing is occasionally clever, but not always deft and rarely memorable. Duffy does manage to prick a few holes in the self-importance of some of his characters (actually, caricatures). He takes a formulaic approach to characterization. When he introduces a new player to the story, he begins with a brief biographical sketch -- almost a resume -- then plunges ahead with the action. The technique doesn't give the reader much chance to develop an understanding of the character. As a result, there's really no one in the book for the reader to root for -- especially not the besieged mayor, who, after all, got himself into this mess.

That's not to say there are no amusing moments in "Dog Bites Man". There are several. But Duffy wields his wit like a blunted rapier. He may score an occasional touché, but he rarely draws blood. An early example is his description of a kingmaker wannabe:

Wendy [Halstead] was a woman who fancied herself a combination of Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt and Pamela Harriman. She wasn't entirely wrong, as she had Dolley's amplitude, Mrs. Roosevelt's plain looks and Mrs. Harriman's rapacity.

While this is a promising character sketch, Ms. Halstead disappears entirely after the book's opening flashback scene.

"Dog Bites Man" breezes through its improbabilities at an ever-faster pace. It seems to lead to a major showdown between the mayor and his nemesis, the governor of New York. The final confrontation ends not with a bang, but a whimper that leaves the reader wondering, "What was the point?" Perhaps Duffy intended his journey, filled with pithy asides, to be more important than his destination. If so, the journey should have been inclusive enough to allow those of us outside the Five Boroughs to enjoy the ride. For in the end, "Dog Bites Man" is neither as ridiculous nor as entertaining as the real life targets of his satire.

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