|It’s hard to know just what to make of this strange book. Real-life journalist Barbara Fischkin has penned a debut novel about a fictional journalist named Barbara Fischkin, who is writing a novel about a fictional journalist named Barbara Fischkin. All of the above-mentioned Barbara Fischkins are married to larger-than life fellow journalist James Mulvaney. They banter, they become involved, they scoop each others’ stories, but does it all add up to anything other than confusion for the reader?
In the early 1980s Barbara Fischkin leaves her job at the Albany Knickerbocker News for a trial run at Long Island’s Newsday. It’s not exactly her dream job in Manhattan but it’s getting closer. She immediately meets blue-eyed boy-wonder Jim Mulvaney, who is such a great reporter that the Newsday editor, known only as Leisure Suit, forgives his rudeness and errant behavior. Barbara and Mulvaney bond during a strange night in Brooklyn when she has to bail her nice Jewish father out of jail for holding an illegal gambling night at his synagogue. But even after they become lovers, they aren’t big on things like trust and affection. In fact, Barbara believes they are completely incompatible. But when Mulvaney travels to Northern Ireland to cover the deadly troubles in Belfast, Barbara’s friends and family conspire together to make Barbara see the truth – this odd couple may not be able to stand each other, but they can’t stand being apart either.
The genesis of this unlikely romance is interspersed with framing scenes, 25 years later, of the still-fictional Barbara Fischkin trying to write a fictional account of her life while husband Mulvaney looks over her shoulder and criticizes. Although the book was Mulvaney’s idea (he hopes to sell it to Hollywood along with a screenplay), he isn’t happy with the choices his wife is making as she selects the episodes and characters to include, reject and/or embellish. Will their marriage survive the novel?
Okay, it’s a clever if somewhat surrealistic idea. But the author seems so busy trying to be cute that she doesn’t bother with much character development. Mulvaney is one of those stereotypical smooth-talking Irishmen; he acts first, thinks later and gets by on his charm and useful connections. We’re told he’s a great reporter but we’ll have to take his own word for it since we don’t see him doing any writing. Barbara is a smart-mouthed, cynical Jew, with a stereotypical busybody mother whose far-fetched antics include confronting the British police in Northern Ireland armed with nothing more than the indignation borne of 2,000 years of historical religious oppression. Besides those few quirks, what makes Barbara and Mulvaney tick (other than each other) is left unexplored.
It is tempting to guess how much of the novel – both the flashback scenes and the framing device – is real versus fictional, but it’s even more baffling to wonder why Fischkin didn’t bother to change her characters’ names. I couldn’t help recalling Thief of Words by husband-and-wife team John Jaffe, which was a wonderful semi-autobiographical novel about the courtship between a reporter and editor; at least there was some distance established by providing the fictional hero and heroine with their own names. Not doing so seems a tad narcissistic.
One area in which the book doesn’t disappoint is Barbara’s struggles with her journalistic ethics. She interviews subjects in Spain and Northern Ireland who are either revolutionaries or terrorists, depending on your views, and strives to remain objective while wondering if perhaps she should be more judgmental – and if she should notify the police. Those sections are the most heartfelt in the novel, leading me to believe that she probably is a good reporter.
Fischkin’s fictional alter ego freely admits that she is attempting to write a screwball comedy, and she name-drops Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man movies among other classics of the genre. I got a few chuckles out of this brief book, but for the most part it seemed like a big in-joke, and I was standing outside. Both the real Fischkin and her alter ego promise a sequel to Exclusive, but unless it contains more substance I’ll be happy to leave Fischkin and Mulvaney to their own devices.