THE VERY FIRST LADY by Steve Dunleavy

THE VERY FIRST LADY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Maybe first-novelist Dunleavy should have just written about Boston's Irish Mafia--because that's the only convincing material in this long, slow, often amateurish foolishness about a politician's psychotic wife who becomes the first woman president. It's 1985, and Pres. Rose Keogh is being sworn in, while totally paralyzed husband Sean cornily leads us into the past: ""He thought far back to when it had all started, so many years ago. . . so many years ago."" And the first half of the flashback, despite clichÉ dialogue abounding, is mostly pretty good: we follow the 1960s climb of South Boston's Sean--a lad who wins his mob spurs by unknowingly setting up a man to be killed (a source of huge guilt ever after), survives a feud (saintly Ma is killed), rises in the organization, and then shocks Boston by getting elected Southie assemblyman as a Republican. He also goes on to control a newspaper and handle NY/Boston gangwars (thanks to his henchmen's secret blackmail/murder tactics). But what Sean doesn't know is that demure, petite wife Rose--a self-sacrificing nurse whose ma was a loony--is really a scheming psycho who hates Sean's paternalistic guts and is conspiring with two of his aides (one is her ""ravaging"" lover) to bring Sean down. And when Rose starts cooking, the novel becomes a festival of implausibilities, the least of which is that notoriously mob-tied Sean sweeps into the 1980 Senate with his past ""rarely mentioned"" by anyone. No, the real clinkers mount up as Sean goes for the White House in '84: ludicrous coincidences involving the wife and daughter of that man whom teenage Sean set up to be killed; a running-mate who's a fugitive financier (there's a bloody, convoluted scheme to make him a national hero); Rose's attempt to murder Sean by locking him in a steambath (blind son Terrence does the dirty work); Rose's nomination (""It does sound crazy, but. . . it could just work"") when the steambath bit leaves Sean paralyzed; and, after Rose's inauguration, a miracle operation to cure Sean. . . and send Rose to the nuthouse. Dumb, dumb plotting--delivered in tabloid-pulp purple with nonstop stereotypes (would you believe every Jewish character is named Cohen?). And as for the crucial Rose characterization--well, you can hardly expect psychological credibility from an author who hasn't bothered to learn that ""schizophrenia"" doesn't mean dual personality. Still: those opening Boston sections are lively, violent, and straight-ahead; so some readers may be sufficiently sucked in to hang around through the silly, seamy goings-on that ploddingly follow.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Simon & Schuster