James McCourt’s first novel was Mawrdew Czgowchwz, a camp masterpiece about opera fanatics. His second was a tour de force combination of the sentimental and the slapstick, Time Remaining, in which the survivors of a group of gay men, the “Eleven Against Heaven,” mourn and celebrate their flamboyant comrades dead of AIDS. For that novel McCourt invented a quiet narrator, Delancey, whose steady relationship with (the mainly invisible) Phil makes him partly an outsider observing the wilder erotic adventures of his transvestite friends. In order to honor the dead, he becomes a performance artist, but his tribute to their memory is never described, since it cannot compete with the lurid and eloquent Joycean monologue he listens to from “Odette T. O’Doyle,” a transvestite Irish Catholic, which fills the last half of the novel. The manic chatter of McCourt’s first novel is sustained—“My life has become so private, I have trouble getting into it”—defiant and inspired, and thrown against the dark advance of AIDS.
In his new novel, Delancey’s Way, McCourt has the brilliant idea of sending the quietly observant Delancey down to Washington in 1995, where Odette and her friends introduce him to the gay “underground,” which is more an overground, a Cloudcuckooland hovering above the Washington Monument, from which the scurrying of politicians can be observed. Delancey’s sober assignment, to lobby for an endangered species on Long Island (the piping plover) and report back to his local newspaper, makes him unconsciously comic in his very seriousness among the unnatural creatures who fill Congress and the agencies. Delancey reads Henry Adams’s Democracy on the train down to Washington, and thinks of himself as the Madeleine Lee of that novel, gazing in naive astonishment at what makes the nation run permanently off the rails. His exotic friends look almost normal in such company.
Delancey’s friends describe for him the gays in and out of Washington closets, including Max Harrington, a millionaire whose wife, Anastasia Harrington, earlier became famous by “a truly stunning talent for rubbing up against the nether parts of Gotham’s markdown-Eurovagrant glitterati.” We learn that “the instinctual internal combustion of her impressively primed hereditary Greek revenge engine” earns her the nickname Stasi. Anastasia Harrington is prominent in the Washington Delancey enters since she is promoting the Gingrich revolution (which Delancey’s friends call “the Newt Deal”) as he arrives.
Gingrich—“Mr. Squeaker,” who looks like Benny Hill—is wheeling his “congressional-freshmen Jacobins” into place as the novel begins. Max Harrington is celebrating the triumph of the moral fiber argument against welfare:
The country had lost a war, and the returning drug-addicted failures were offing themselves more effectively than a firing squad after a deserters’ court-martial. We told the nation, “OK we can’t validate you as conquerors anymore, but this we can do to make you feel American: be too proud to accept assistance.” And it worked.
Max, amazed at his wife’s shamelessness, quotes her to his gay friends with awe:
When I told my wife Alan Green- span had told me Ayn Rand liked fucking in fur coats, she laughed, calling it simply overefficient. “Most women separate the two—working hard at the one and luxuriating in the other. For her fucking in the coats was simply a celebration of work—entirely consistent with her view of self-interested capitalism. She supplied her own demand; many women do, darling.”
Delancey stays in Washington past the national conventions of 1996. He departs having failed at his mission on behalf of the endangered species. For the politician, he has learned, “an endangered species is not the spotted owl or the piping plover so much as his daughters at Brearley and his sons at Choate.” But at least Delancey’s friends have survived the Gingrich era, and they are confident that Blob Dull will lose to Clinton’s way of “body-surfing the electorate.” After all, he has “his platform—loyalty to the electorate’s inner needs.” Delancey listens to a cinéaste from the French embassy explain why the French understand Clinton—and Jerry Lewis—better than Americans do:
We believe that what we see is a master politician at work at last in America. When he was elected, he seemed to be promoting a romantic vehicle for two charismatic stars. We do not think what happened thereafter was an accident, but intentionally designed to show the American public for once what life is. Clinton has shaken Washington up not only with his plot switches, but he, as it were, shoots with multiple cameras throughout, hands out dialogue only at the last minute, and picks unforeseen, even inhospitable, locations. The results are powerful, and disorienting; we commend him—and hope for more.
Delancey uses a line in the television show he produces in Washington that might explain the 1996 election even more succinctly: “I see no reason to change whores in mid-dream.”
This stream of consciencelessness skewers politician after politician. Since most of the transvestites in the group are Irish Catholic, they are quick to savage their own—choirboy-prone Cardinal Spellman, for instance. Or JFK: “Jack, with that head full of speed and pigshit Irish contempt for everybody who ever passed his exams and wrote his books for him.” The Democrat David Bonior is a special target: “Gephardt, Bonior, and Obey, the Winken, Blinken, and Nod of anti-free-trade economic theorizing—especially Bonior, champion of the unwashed, with the preternaturally Clorox-clean hands of a failed priest.” Their fellow gay Catholic Andrew Sullivan is mocked for having a chapel in his apartment. But it is an Irish Protestant, “Maude MacGown,” who uses Catholic imagery when describing Hillary Clinton: “She is not my idea of a thoroughly principled woman, but, Protestant that I am, the idea that she might, like the Virgin, crush the serpent’s head of Republican male conceit fills me to the brim with forbidden pleasure.”
The more sacred the institution, the greater the relish with which this buzzing hive goes after it. For the fabled “wise men” of Washington, McCourt borrows the Greek term sebastocrators (which might be glossed, in his own style, as “awe-tocrats”), who read entrails in their Auguriculum:
The Mac Bundys and McNamaras and the McNaughtons of whatever era, who every few years rear their empty heads. Having with their entourages worn paths paved with optimum intention and the investments of special interests to and from the Auguriculum of the Great Republic to solemnly assure the dumb sonofabitch in the White House—whoever he may be—that the time has come for harder choices, when the hardest choices they’d ever made, once they got through multiple choice in college, were listed on menus and wine lists—and who, some of them, survive a generation more in order to lament their hysterical judgments and cry crocodile tears under the bright light of renewed attention.
The Eugene McCarthy (or Bill Bradley) type is instantly recognizable: “Liberal politicians in particular do nothing—a lot of it—so as to foster the idea that it is possible to do nothing and be worthy, in some mystical sense.” Real people get skewered (Al Gore, Steve Forbes, Sidney Blumenthal, and others) and so do types—the political orator, campaign consultants (“rented strangers”), the down-to-earth preacher (“God will bless your socks off“). Clichés are punctured, including the idea of “the Beltway”:
Washington is summoned, as it were, out of the abyss of nonexistence merely by talking about it—so wherever you are, if you’re talking about Washington, that’s Washington. It’s a concept—like “Hellas” or “Christendom.” Another way it is summoned is by voting it in. Washington is Las Vegas in slow motion.
The novel is stretched across a recognizable time span (with reference to actual events of the period, like the popular Vermeer exhibit at the National Gallery) and a realistic geography (carefully described, down to the radiating avenues “like dropped pickup sticks”) with landmark locales (the Library of Congress, the Arboretum, the Cosmos Club), only to set off the surreal chatter of the polymath gay self-celebrants and self-satirists as they draw the political world through the looking glass into their “extremophile” company. We hear of “proustitutes” and inventive transvestite performers—one is “a bad-boy version of the Shulamite woman…a kind of Shulamite catamite.” Puns come in several languages: “Une certaine jeunesse…eh quoi!” or “roman à keyhole.” The “hard right” is pitted against the “easy wrong.” One friend of the gay men’s circle is a woman married to the world’s leading manufacturer of condoms—she is in Washington to persuade Christo to wrap the Washington Monument in a giant condom to promote her husband’s business.
The storm of brilliant bitchery that pummels Delancey’s head leads to a play with and against time that owes more to Swann’s Way than to Democracy. Often the reader cannot distinguish when Delancey is reporting a conversation as it happens, recalling it for his “debriefing” by friends back on Long Island, or looking forward to other uses he will put it to. “Context” gets filled in by stages as the conversations race by. Only after a long telephone conversation with a gay black researcher in the Library of Congress has come to an end do we learn that the research he is reporting on—how Jefferson and Madison used to make love in the Rotunda room at Monticello—is one of the regular fantasies he supplies to a congressman as a form of phone sex. Opera gossip, movie arcana, Catholic doctrines exfoliate sneakily through the verbal labyrinth. When someone expounds the tripartite form of our government to Delancey, he remembers his schooling in the 1940s:
The Religion monk let me know the government was like the Trinity (it comes up a lot in anything written by a Catholic) complete with the Second Person (Congress) partaking in the hypostatic union between the godlike Senate and the all-too-human House. The Supreme Court was the Holy Ghost (and like the dove, all white). The problem came with me imagining God the Father not in a white beard, but in the funny little hat Harry Truman wore on his morning constitutional (not to mention what to make of Bess and Margaret).
The pace and inventiveness never let up. Indeed, the only structural flaw in the novel is the way its fireworks, blossoming on all sides from the very start, admit of no climax. Nonetheless, the reader is easily induced to treat the book as Clinton does the electorate—body-surfing its wild surges.
June 15, 2000