The Room and the Chair

by Lor­raine Adams, Al­fred A. Knopf, 315 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Kevin Can­field

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.

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