The Room and the Chair
by Lorraine Adams, Alfred A. Knopf, 315 pages
This is a daunting world — a fact reinforced in chapter after chapter of Lorraine Adams’ excellent
The Room and the Chair. Adams’ second novel is about an influential newspaper (seemingly modeled on the Washington Post, where she worked for many years) and the national security agencies it covers. The intersection of these provides Adams with plenty of inspiration. With keen reportorial insight, she writes about the sometimes-cynical way that news is gathered and the treachery our leaders often employ in the name of fending off the nation’s enemies. Scariest, though, is Adams’ depiction of the unique-to-this-century dread that comes from living in an era of vast technological advances that have made life at once more manageable and less safe. This is a book that news junkies and conspiracy enthusiasts will love.
The first part of the book’s title refers to the newsroom of the Washington Spectator, the paper of record in the capital. The “Chair” of the title is a young veteran named Will Holmes, who is perhaps the single most powerful person nobody has ever heard of. His tip-top-secret job involves classified military operations meant to elude the notice of a nosy public, not to mention Spectator reporters and editors.
The novel opens with the crash landing of an Air Force F-16 in a Washington, D.C., park. Piloted by Mary Goodwin, a flier of great competence, the plane has gone down for what appears to be no reason. But this much is clear: top government officials want the incident hushed up, and Adam Sanger, the paper’s executive editor, is resigned to putting his duty as a citizen ahead of his responsibilities to his profession. In the life of Sanger and the Spectator, Adams writes, it “was only one of many instances when someone at the White House or Pentagon told Sanger that blood and treasure — how he despised the words — would be lost if he didn’t hide information that might or might not have been factual.”
Sanger’s dilemma is one small part of Adams’ absorbing depiction of a newspaper trying to navigate a media world undergoing changes of historic proportions. The Spectator saga revolves around Sanger and two of his contemporaries, Stanley Belson and Don Grady. Each of the men joined the paper in the early 1970s, but their paths quickly diverged.
As Sanger rose to top management, Grady became one of the reporters who “proved the president a crook.” Lately, however, he has been more concerned with writing what he immodestly describes as important books and has been withholding timely facts that should be published in the
Spectator. Belson is the troubled soul of the novel, a smart but not terribly charismatic editor who mans the newspaper’s overnight desk. Belson’s chance at personal glory may be gone, but his guidance of a young reporter who is obsessed with the plane crash may provide him with a deserved bit of professional satisfaction.
These newspaper lifers work in an irrevocably changed climate. They have seen the Spectator reduced from God-like status to just another news outlet, scavenging for bits and pieces of stories that they once wholly owned. Sanger and Belson regularly meet in a local church to discuss things bigger than that day’s news budget, and it’s in these scenes that the reader gets a closer look at the existential crisis of 21st-century journalism.
In the era of internet saturation, Adams writes, Sanger’s “idea of newspapering” had become “this impossible fiction, a fantasy that was dissolving into gossamer and dust with each reportorial scandal, every blogging tiddly-bit, each of the millions upon millions of disaffected subscribers busy with the abandon of leaving the world to others.”
Adams surely absorbed such truths during her decade-plus as a Post staffer, but her knowledge of modern military technologies and bureaucracies must have come through old-fashioned reporting: asking lots of questions and doing lots of listening. Her grasp of what goes on in a pilot’s head when a complicated craft like an F-16 begins plummeting to the earth is extensive — one feels that Adams herself must have flown.
She also has a great appreciation for the human side of military service. She uses Goodwin to explore bravery, evolving gender roles, and the way a person’s life can be manipulated by unknown factors. Novelists often forget that their fictional creations are supposed to seem like real people. Adams remembers this, though, and Goodwin ultimately is more authentic than any of the forces pitted against her.