PRETENDER by Steve Piacente


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A disgraced political journalist sees a chance to revive his reputation when he receives a cryptic note from the racist South Carolina senator he helped put in jail.

Dan Patragno, former Washington, D.C., reporter, now manager of Alfie’s Washing Well laundromat, returns as lead protagonist in Piacente’s third novel, a sequel to Bootlicker (2012). Dan’s last big story, a blockbuster piece about an Army coverup of a friendly fire death, became his undoing when it was discovered he had been sleeping with Bella Moss, the soldier’s widow. The affair almost destroyed his marriage. But Dan and his wife, Ellie, reconciled, and although money is tight and his ego is bruised, he is grateful to be back with his wife and son. Managing a laundromat, he decided, is especially appropriate: “It would be cathartic to report each day to a place committed to erasing stains, starting fresh and smelling good.” But his career trajectory may shift again. He gets a letter from former Sen. Mac McCauley, the 84-year-old segregationist who is 10 years into a 20-year sentence for lynching a young black man in 1959, over 40 years ago. The motive is simple. The senator tells him, “No one knows the real story, hotshot. You oughta tell it ’fore I kick off.” It’s an irresistible offer, and McCauley’s secret may put Dan back in the game. The full cast includes quirky minor players at the laundromat and the central figures of the scandal McCauley is about to reveal, especially the beautiful activist Haryette Coleman. Although Piacente recounts much of the drama that was the subject of his earlier volume, the plot remains an immersive trip back to the segregated South and the 1960s civil rights movement; it’s the meat within the overall tale of Dan’s personal journey back to respectability. Piacente’s prose and dialogue are crisp but need a little copy editing, e.g., “He watch a few plays.” The author’s own background in journalism adds texture to a fully developed, likable protagonist.

A well-paced, enjoyable read; haunting in today’s political environment.

Page count: 360pp
Program: Kirkus Indie
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