New York Times columnist Akst, in a news-smart and doggedly workmanlike second novel (St. Burl’s Obituary, not reviewed), limns an entire country’s Reagan-era fall from grace, all starting with the spanking of a preschool child.
Webster is the medium-sized northeastern hometown where Terry Mathers, a stutterer still at 40 and former New York City journalist, has returned with his lawyer wife, Abigail, to buy and run the local paper. But the marriage is rocky (Terry has moved out, though their sex is hotter); the Webster Chronicle is losing money; and the couple can’t pay back their loan from Terry’s father, a highly visible national news host who delivers “bite-sized sermons from the pulpit of television.” News of a spanking at Webster’s revered Alphabet Soup preschool is quickly compounded by the children’s testimony that the owners indulged not only in sexual abuse but satanic practices. As accusations and indictments fly, the town (and, later, all of America) verges on something like a nervous breakdown. Selling the story to the public is irresistible, of course, and while Terry struggles with the ethics of taking sides in the newspaper (and falls in love with the county’s child sex-abuse specialist, Diana Shirley), Abigail is sleeping with her advertisers and his father is stealing the biggest story of Terry’s career from under him. Akst, whose tale moves swiftly and in alternating points of view, knows (in the manner of Colin Harrison) his characters’ opinions in everything from politics to sex positions to preschool. Yet he often simplifies his people for the sake of tidy political points (the rich are greedy, TV personalities shallow, mothers with small children dull, with bad hair cuts), and his ending becomes a predictably cynical statement on America’s silliness.
Such blemishes aside, though: an always-interesting novel of opinions fashioned more to goad than move its readers.