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Review: 'Jennifer' ungoverned

By Porter Anderson

"Jennifer Government"
By Max Barry
336 pages

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(CNN) -- It may be older than Gutenberg, but the proverb about not judging a book by its cover still has a way of biting moderns in the aspirations. Take a look at Max Barry's novel "Jennifer Government."

Michael J. Windsor and Shasti O'Leary have created a post-"A Clockwork Orange" cover image of the title character's eye. It nails you with its green iris, then slaps you with its bar-code tattoo. Turn the book over to see the handsome back cover Doubleday has commissioned from Windsor: It's a "World Map of United States Federated Economic Blocs," noting that Australia is "newly acquired" and in the European Union, "here be tariffs."

All this should send any geo-corporational fantasy lover tearing away that dust cover to get at what's inside. This, of course, also will send flying Barry's biographical note that tells us the author likes to write "while wearing only boxer shorts."

And, as you hurl yourself into the text, you're of course titillated even more by the Author's Note up front disclaiming, "Some people (whom we shall call 'lawyers') get very uptight when you describe large corporations masterminding murders. So let's be clear: this is a work of fiction." Dicey stuff ahead.

But the problem with "Jennifer Government" is that its basic plot -- in which corporations go to any lengths to build profits -- is as far as it goes. And it goes there for 320 pages.

Corporate last names

In Barry's world, employees' last names are their companies'. One company, Nike (yes, Nike), orders some of its sneaker customers assassinated in order to get buzz on its latest footwear, the Nike Mercury. As one character says, "We take out ten customers, make it look like ghetto kids, and we've got street cred coming out our ..." (you remember where old proverbs bite us). Now, Nike is ready to dump 400,000 pairs into stores at $2,500 per.

Meanwhile, the government for which our heroine Jennifer works turns out to be only one player in a world of colliding multinational entities that form even bigger cartels. US Alliance and Team Advantage are the NATO and Warsaw Pact of Barry's new day, ruthlessly trying to seize each other's customers -- who are less people than profit potential to these companies.

It's a clever idea. After all, the scenario of global dominion by a few major outfits is part of the concern driving objections this week to the FCC's green light to new mergers among media companies. (Full story)

But the brave new worldview Barry has tried to float into the culture's consciousness washes right back to shore on waves of cliché: Jennifer, whose character never quite lives and breathes, is a reformed marketing whiz and the ex-wife of arch-corporatchik John Nike. The reason Jennifer seems to become progressively influenced by those pedestrian personal connections is that the bash and clash of Pepsico and ExxonMobil just aren't enough.

Well, of course corporate governance is shot through with lust-for bucks corruption, ask any corporate employee. We hold these truths to be self-evident, don't we? Barry, in his late 20s, seems only now to have discovered them.

By the time the story ends in the only possible setting, a shopping mall, all hope for the thing has long since run out and the tale has devolved into chase scenes, shootouts and stare-downs.

Good humor

However, Barry and his work are peculiarly likable. His writing in this book isn't anything you might hum on the way to the bookstore, but a visit to his Web site shows him to have a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, a playful joy in his work and a lot of heart, offering hard-earned lessons of his own to would-be fellow writers.

A good screenwriting team could make something of "Jennifer Government" that might sell a lot of popcorn. (It's been optioned by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's Section Eight production company.) And that Windsor-O'Leary cover image is so good that it will be a corporate crime if it's not used for the film poster.

Max Barry's earlier book was the 1999 "Syrup," which he wrote while working as a sales rep for Hewlett-Packard. Like "Jennifer Government," it was satire. And maybe that's the key: The third book could be the charm for this talented writer if he can consider leaving the satiric hijinks behind and do something more thoughtful. He can still write while wearing only his boxers if he likes.

A tougher, less sass-the-brass tone might just allow Barry to concentrate on his message more and his mode less. Otherwise, he may, as he's done in "Jennifer Government," keep buying his own parables' PR -- and serve up more sizzle than steak.

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