EMPIRE BLUES by Taylor Branch


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First-novelist Branch (a Washington columnist/editor) is hip as can be, loaded with talent (chiefly satiric), and bursting with ideas for a half-dozen novels. Unfortunately, he has heaved all those ideas into one boggy, epically uneven book, linking up two very different worlds through a rather bland and passive main character--David Howell, a youngish writer for Washington magazine. By far the more distinctive of those two worlds is the near-plotless sexual, political, and hugely verbal comedy of Howell's D.C. circle: an eccentric sampling of 35-ish reporters, activists, feminists, and government types--poker pals, chums, and lovers who complete circuits "in the great Washington penis-vagina network." Principal figures in this whip-smart group: just-divorced, disillusioned Senate aide Henry Woodruff, who chaotically moves into Howell's apartment-- where he announces flaky theories of sex and politics, maniacally constructs obscene, symbolic Rube Goldberg contraptions, and broods over his ex-wife while pursuing unlikely women; Haven Pinder, Howell's loving neighbor, who's into bologna-and-potato-chip sandwiches and masterminds the rescue of another neighbor (ancient Miss Lily Snow) from a nursing home; rival reporters from the Times and the D.C. Post; and the violently incompatible but oddly complementary editors of Howell's magazine. Branch has a firm, satiric fix on these aging Sixties-bred juveniles, on their dialogue, mannerisms, mating habits, jealousies; and, despite the casual sex and terminal coolness, his ironic, exaggerated, yet whimsically compassionate view of a mini-society is reminiscent, believe it or not, of the late Barbara Pym. Too bad, then, that these characters are so spottily developed and so disjointedly presented--with uncoordinated clumps of plot or talk, with lapses into cuteness or sentimentality or routine, crude farce (Woodruff's near self-castration with his pants zipper). And a far more serious problem is the fact that Branch devotes about half the book to a whole other, much more clichéd world: the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, drug dealers, and narcs in Miami--a slapstick-violent tangle which Howell is investigating for his magazine. True, the Miami plot--which centers on a clever, totally cynical Cuban spy/cocaine-king who uses politics and murder to manipulate all--finally leads to the murder of Howell's pal Woodruff (whose latest cause is recognition of Castro's regime). But this, like Branch's other efforts to link his two stories, is annoyingly contrived, devoid of reality on any level. And the novel's overall theme--idealism vs. cynicism--remains too fuzzy to bring the chaos of digressions together. So: only readers with a special interest in the Washington-journalism scene are likely to wade through this overlong mess for the sake of its shrewd, fanciful insights. But Branch is spirited, imaginative, and brightly wicked with words--and we can only hope that he hasn't thrown all his best material into this under-edited, over-ambitious, fatally unfocused debut.
Pub Date: April 13th, 1981
ISBN: 0671230964
Page count: 408pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1981


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