Leonard Downie, Jr., the former executive editor of the Washington Post, read at P&P from his new Washington thriller, The Rules of the Game, his first venture into the world of fiction. I had many dog-eared pages to ask Len Downie about. The most obvious question was whether his female vice-president, who becomes president, was modeled after Sarah Palin. No, the character was conceived some five years ago, but Downie humorously brushed aside a suggestion that his predictions for the future were remarkably accurate. A customer asked whether the main character, a female investigative reporter who receives constant 4 a.m. phone calls from an anonymous source, was modeled on anyone, and Downie revealed that actually it was he who had been frequently awakened in the early hours of the morning, and warned about terrible consequences if the Post continued its coverage, when the Post was investigating Oliver North's role in Iran-Contra! Aside from these juicy tidbits about the rearrangement of the real world into fiction, Downie's The Rules of the Game is a great page-turner with an attendant higher purpose: the ethical conundrums of politics and journalism as they are both played out in Washington.
My one consolation from the folding of the Washington Post's "Book World" is that editor Marie Arana will have more time to write fiction now that she has taken off her green shade. Some two years ago, what I think is her first novel, Cellophane, appeared, a novel that I loved and have handsold to many customers. In rich, dense, sensuous writing about four generations a Peruvian family in the Amazon, Arana's imaginative story is memorable in its characters. Now I have finished Arana's second novel, the just-published Lima Nights. Just as I suspected, the characters are outsized and colorful; the story travels along with many unexpected twists and turns. Arana loves all her characters, and in writing about them she spreads her affections, even to meandering husbands. But what I loved most about Lima is the way in which Arana turned what could have been a moral tale into a bang-up ending featuring a lawyer, a psychiatrist, a fortune-teller, and a psychic all richly adding their interpretations to the failed relationship of our heroine, Maria.
Enlisting her research skills as a historian and her rhetorical arguments as a lawyer, Annette Gordon-Reed has written The Hemingses Of Monticello (W.W. Norton, $35), a revolutionary book that successfully topples the received wisdom of the white-male-historian establishment for two centuries. Such scholars as Dumas Malone and Joseph Ellis, who has since recanted, had rejected out-of-hand the possibility of any sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings or of the issue of any progeny. In refuting their rejections, Gordon-Reed builds on the 1997 DNA evidence of one instance of racial mixing between the Hemingses and the Jeffersons, but the strength of her argument resides in the rich oral histories she has uncovered in her research of African-American primary sources. These freshly discovered papers not only enrich our knowledge of the world of Monticello, but also of the development of slavery in Virginia during the 18th century. Gordon-Reed’s work is a milestone in historiography and has been nominated for the National Book Award.