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EW review: 'Secret Man' works despite itself

By Mark Harris
Entertainment Weekly

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YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

Bob Woodward
Carl Bernstein
Terry McMillan

(Entertainment Weekly) -- Spoiler alert! Read no further if you haven't heard that Deep Throat, the man who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reveal the Watergate conspiracy that brought down Richard Nixon, was FBI second-in-command W. Mark Felt.

Beyond that, if you're hungry for news, "The Secret Man," Woodward's awkward, overstretched account of his encounters with Felt, may disappoint you.

Looking for specifics? Well, you'll learn how Felt taught Woodward to avoid being followed to their meetings in an underground garage. (Hint: It helps to be careful.) Eager for psychological insights? ''There was little tendency or time to consider the motive of our sources,'' warns the author, who later elaborates (sort of): ''I am disappointed and a little angry at both myself and him for never digging out a more exacting explanation'' of those motives.

As for juicy secrets, there are so few that I can't swear Woodward tells us what the ''W.'' in Felt's name stands for.

Here's the surprise: None of that matters. "The Secret Man" is a stirring, sometimes even moving book, a lucid footnote to "All the President's Men" that, in its very stiffness and honorable refusal to push beyond facts into guesswork, reminds us that the world is remade by flawed, ordinary men as often as by heroes. And since history is written by the victors, you can't expect narrative dynamism when the plodders defeat the plotters.

As soon as Felt's identity was revealed last May, the right's cadre of professional blabbermouths -- nattering neo-nabobs of negativism -- sought to discredit him as a revenge-seeker sullen about his inability to get the FBI's top job. (In some quarters, character assassination never goes out of style.) But the Felt who emerges here is a cipher whose reasons finally mattered less than his actions, which were to expose criminality.

Woodward contrasts that shadow figure with a modest self-portrait of an unseasoned, often stymied young reporter trudging through a tough story and working (and overworking) a source who intimidated him.

It's easy to twit this patchy account for its meanderings and rehashes. It's harder to smirk when one tallies the number of journalists who owe their decision to enter the profession in part to Woodward.

And it is, of course, impossible to read "Secret Man" as anything but a ringing defense of the importance of confidential sources, and to wonder what turns history might have taken if Felt -- who the author makes clear protected his identity with a fierce and wily instinct for self-preservation -- had stayed silent.

Woodward, always the dutiful reporter, never the analyst, doesn't speculate; he doesn't even use the ''aggressive, interpretive language'' that he admits made its way into the Post's Watergate stories. But he's smart enough to leave us with one great, wrenching scene: a visit with Felt, by then in his late 80s and suffering from dementia. Woodward tries to tease memories out of his failing source, but they're gone. Deep Throat, who spent 30 years hiding from the world, is lost even to himself. And Woodward is left to tell the small part of the story that he can, with a subject who remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a really good nickname.

EW Grade: B

'The Interruption of Everything,' Terry McMillan

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

"The Interruption of Everything" is a haphazard jumble sale of a novel.

Between the gaudy midlife crises of upper-middle-class, perimenopausal wife and mother Marilyn Grimes, her noisy extended family, and her wiseacre girlfriends who meet regularly for the kind of snappy pity parties that photograph so well in movie adaptations, Terry McMillan puts a buy-in-bulk price on just about every issue a modern woman might face in a year's subscription to Redbook.

That includes the agony of increased body fat, unsatisfying husbands, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and aging parents who show symptoms of Alzheimer's, as well as the ecstasy of the home-decorating craze known as crafting. McMillan the positive thinker endorses yoga for stress relief, physical exercise for cardiovascular health, and educational courses that free the artist within, while McMillan the distracted author wanders from character to chandelier-making tip with forced bonhomie.

Not that Marilyn's discontents aren't serious, or noteworthy; they're both, especially the latter. For a population of female baby boomers now classifiable as hens rather than chicks, the challenges (and, as glib gurus put it, the opportunities) of midlife womanhood are of utmost literary interest, whether in soothing self-help books or diversionary fiction.

And McMillan, who created a trend-setting genre of warmhearted, fast-moving African-American Sister Lit with 1992's "Waiting to Exhale," craftily adapts some of the universal plaints of her sex in middle age to particular aspects of the African-American experience.

That experience, though, is primarily represented by Marilyn's sister -- a strung-out drug addict and neglectful mother, kicked around by the author solely to season the heroine's fortunate life with tragedy -- and by her mother-in-law, a caricature of a garrulous church lady out of a Tyler Perry production. (As for Marilyn's husband -- well, it's always difficult to locate the real in a McMillan man, whether lout or lover.)

Really, what Marilyn wants to do is talk about beads and glue guns; everything else is an interruption.

EW Grade: C


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