LYDIA MILLET GIVES me hope. Days before the newly local author's novel happened across my desk, I was muttering over lunch that satire was dead. "There isn't enough goodwill left in public life to support it," I'd said. "Cynicism has made us literalists...literalists with no sense of humor, armed with protective impulses that are both lightning quick and accurate as a sawed-off shotgun."
Then Lydia's cheery New York City publicist left a message on my voice mail, which I promptly deleted.
And yet, just in time for Valentine's Day, almost by accident I discovered the Romance That Dare Not Speak Its Name: George Bush, Dark Prince Of Love, a disturbing, sordid little tale about an ex-con in a single-wide who puts her considerable weight behind her man, President 41.
A combination of political fact, television sound-bite and pure fiction, Dark Prince is that rare epitaph to a public figure recalled by many but remembered by few. Millet exhumes several precious contradictions and faux pas of the Bush Administration, from his $25-million inauguration to defining statements about the Iran-Contra affair, Tiananmen Square, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, the nomination of Clarence Thomas for Supreme Court Justice, waxing philosophical on economic recession, and Gorbachev's resignation. It's a tongue-in-cheek primer of the '90s packaged in a palatable 159 pages.
But all is filtered through the unenviable sieve of protagonist Rosemary's mind. Rosemary -- whose eating habits, amorous pursuits and delusions of grandeur have been unrivaled since Ignacious crash-landed in John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces -- is both absurdist and eloquent. As her ardor is fueled by the continuous, cathode glow of the spindly leader of the Free World on CNN, one can't help but fear and be fascinated by her increasingly outrageous ideas, which are never without their own kind of logic and ethics.
"When G.B. exhorted us to 'as a society...rise up united and express our intolerance,' I was intrigued," she says during his inaugural speech. "I saw myself in the vanguard of an intolerant army, cutting a wide swath across forested lands with bulldozers as we headed for the Capitol to mass beneath the West Front terrace where he spoke. With the soapy taste of cheap champagne in my mouth, I wasn't sure what we were intolerant of, but this seemed less important than the call to arms."
As her infatuation grows from trailer park bender and factory-line fantasy to impassioned letter-writing and an eventual move to Washington, D.C. (to assume her rightful place at the elbow of her beloved, vulnerable "G.B."), we're treated to insights that cleanly and irreverently juxtapose language and circumstance. Our narrator is reprehensible, but her clear-thinking author never misses a beat.
"G.B.'s loyalty to his friends [like Dick Cheney] was admirable," Rosemary says in November of 1990. "But I sometimes thought he'd gone fishing for them in a stagnant pool. What separates me from the leaders of this great country isn't character or mental acuity. I feel just as entitled to make snap decisions that affect the General Public as they do. And when I'm threatened, I take the same approach to defense, too: there are a lot of people in this world, and the way I see it, none of the others are me...
"No, what separates them from me is history. And at times, I admit, I resent that."
Millet's love story is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish. Though a work of pure fiction, it combines P.J. O'Rourke's passion for history and Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo sensibilities with something wholly original to the increasingly anemic arena of punchy satire: a distinctly female voice.
Despite appearances though, Millet's book is more populist than partisan in outlook. It's the same brand of cheap, caricatured fun Primary Colors had to offer, with the exception that its resemblance to an actual president is entirely incidental. Written some three years ago, pre-Monicagate, Millet recalls, "When that all came to pass, I thought my fire had been stolen. The story is not at all the same, but (there's) the notion of scandal, this extra-marital romance with a president...the tawdriness of it."
Even now, though she isn't complaining, Millet appears obliged to point out that neither the book itself, nor the timing of its release has anything to do with electoral politics. After all, "There's a difference between publishing and journalism," as former St. Martin's senior editor Jim Rosenthal defended during a recent 60 Minutes interview (in reference to the publishing of the disputed George W. exposé, Fortunate Son). It's a point anecdotally reinforced by the fact that Millet and the former prez actually do have one thing in common: Scribner, which is the proud publisher of both Dark Prince and last October's All the Best, George Bush: My Life and Other Writings.
Though everything in Millet's novel that speaks directly of President 41, his aides, or actual events is part of public record, researched by Millet in transcripts and online through Lexus-Nexus, Dark Prince remains more about the world of remote possibility than the world that is. (Though for more real-life fun at the former president's expense, keep an eye on used bookstore shelves for the slim volume Bushisms, compiled in 1992 by the editors of The New Republic.)
"I am in no way an expert on George Bush," she says emphatically. "For instance, I haven't read his book, or I should say anything he's had written for him. I'm sure he hasn't written anything himself."
The 31-year-old author seems more interested in the American society she inherited after moving from Toronto post-high-school. While Dark Prince is technically her second novel (the first being a small-press, satirical coming-of-age story now out of print), it ought to prove a promising debut to a wider, more mainstream audience.
"This tries to speak to people who read more down home stuff like David Sadaris, who are more MOR (middle of the road). I don't know if it succeeds in those terms. I think it was Publisher's Weekly who said something like, 'This is a great book if you agree with Millet's politics.' For me, the politics of the book are so innocuous I feel like I actually run the risk of being misunderstood as a vaguely cynical sort of liberal, which I'm not... I'm left of liberal. Liberal to my people is a bad word."
"I just love people with delusions of grandeur," Millet says with true affection. "It's kind of a pet thing of mine. To me, the illusion of personal significance is simultaneously the most poignant and most glorious thing. I couldn't live without my delusions."
Lydia Millet holds a master's degree from Duke University's School of the Environment. She is a freelance writer, author of Omnivores (Algonquin Books), and works for the Center for Biodiversity in Tucson.
Millet reads from George Bush, Dark Prince of Love at 7 p.m. Friday, March 3, at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. The reading is free, and will be followed by an informal reception and booksigning. For details, call 792-3715.