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What's a cuckold in love to do?
by Erik Tarloff
Review by Scott Sutherland
(SALON) -- One of the marketing hooks for the new political novel "Face-Time" will likely come in the form of a question, asked with a coyly arched eyebrow and a teasing lilt to the voice: Is it a roman à clef or isn't it?
"Face-Time," the tale of a young presidential speech writer whose fetching girlfriend strikes up an affair with the president, was written by first-time novelist Erik Tarloff. Like his cuckolded protagonist, Ben, Tarloff is a presidential wordsmith -- he's contributed to speeches made by President and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and others. And like Ben's girlfriend, Gretchen, whose worker-bee job in the White House puts her in close proximity to POTUS, Tarloff's wife, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, once enjoyed similar proximity as chair of the Council of Economic Advisors and the National Economic Council during Clinton's first term. When these unsettling parallels combine with our excruciatingly detailed knowledge of an administration marked by frat-house sexual antics, the result is a compound of disquieting associations -- which was undoubtedly part of Tarloff's strategy for cashing in. I, for one, would love to know what Tyson thinks of all this.
"Face-Time" kicks into gear when Ben finally confirms what he's suspected for months: that Gretchen is getting it on with his boss, Charles Sheffield, the strapping, womanizing and very popular new president from New Mexico. She refuses to break it off, arguing that the momentousness of what she's doing makes her a part of history. Both of them are political creatures and highly sensitive to the sexual charge of power, especially presidential power, which is why Ben, perversely, not only understands Gretchen's desire but grudgingly accepts it. Can't live with her, can't live without her: What's a cuckold in love to do?
Ben eventually gives Gretchen a him-or-me ultimatum, but not before torturing himself to distraction over his personal and professional conflicts -- and not before he's approached by British newspaperman Chris Partridge, hot on the story of a torrid presidential affair. Partridge's quest, and Ben's efforts to squelch it, provide the book with some of its best momentum, as well as a couple of meaty twists that are unfortunately diluted by a saccharine ending.
For the most part, Tarloff plays it straight, keeping his circle of characters small and his story brisk and superficial. Ben's irony-laced humor grates after a while, and his attempts at deep thoughts -- as when he views his situation in the context of social hierarchies among higher primates -- seem forced. The longer characters hang around, the more they start to sound like Ben, as the normally plain-spoken Gretchen does when she uses words like "propitious" and "sui generis" in casual conversation.
In Sheffield, though, Tarloff nails that combination of arrogance and moral ambiguity that has characterized Clinton's handling of the fallout over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. "There's a sexual component to leadership," Sheffield tells Ben, after admitting the affair. "Some modicum of sexual appeal comes with the territory, and a sexual aura surrounds it. Engulfs it. You want to fight that? Why not try to command the tides while you're at it? I'm not the first person in this position, you're not the first, and Gretchen's not the first." Such a breezy approach might work when the sex remains private, but in the bizarre Puritanical fever-dream of 1990s Washington, D.C., where sex is becoming increasingly public, all a request for "allowances" will get you are howls from your enemies demanding your head. You may forget your first Oval Office intern, but you never forget your first impeachment.
Scott Sutherland is a writer in Portland, Maine.
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