Below the Beltway
By Gene Weingarte
Sunday February 16, 2003; Page W03
I am on the phone with Robert Burrows, author of the recently published political novel Great American Parade. This book has sold only 400 copies nationwide, and Burrows seems flabbergasted to be hearing from me. The most prestigious newspaper to have shown any interest so far is the Daily Student at Indiana University.
I tell Burrows that if he is willing to submit to an interview, I am willing to review his book at length in The Washington Post. The only catch, I said, is that I am going to say that it is, in my professional judgment, the worst novel ever published in the English language.
"My review will reach 2 million people," I said.
"Okay," he said.
I have said this before, and I'll say it again. I really love my job.
'Burrows, a keen-witted 79, is a retired University of Wisconsin English professor. He published the book himself, printing 2,000 copies, scattershotting them out to America's media in the hope that positive reviews would turn it into a big seller.
Me: Why did you think that anyone would want to read a novel whose central point is that the Bush tax cuts are imprudent fiscal policy? Do you think that E.L. Doctorow would write a book like that?
Burrows: Frankly, other people wondered about this, too. My wife asked me that. So did Warren Buffett, when I asked him for a blurb. He wrote a nice letter back on the bottom of my letter, saying he didn't think a novel was a proper vehicle for my ideas.
Me: I think it might be because you write badly. The Daily Cardinal of the University of Wisconsin-Madison called this "simply an awful book." The Wayne State University newspaper calls you "unskilled," and says the book is "an agonizingly slow read" that is "naive," "dull" and "uneventful."
Burrows: I am not terribly depressed by the reviews. I am disappointed, of course. I was hoping that discerning people might find it, and it would begin to catch on.
Me: It is possible that some people might have found the plot a little improbable. They might find it hard to believe that, in order to garner political support for his tax cuts, George W. Bush would secretly arrange a giant parade in Washington honoring the richest people in America, who would march front to back in order of their net worth. Or that a cadre of earnest, teetotaling college students would get wind of this and, encouraged by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, rise up to stage a heroic counter-parade honoring basic American values like morality and hard work. Was this perhaps deft satire, a nifty Swiftian touch?
Burrows: My idea of the novel is that the concentration of wealth among a small percentage of Americans is inimical to democracy. When primogeniture was outlawed in the Constitution, the Founding Fathers didn't foresee the development of colossal fortunes in stocks and bonds. You used to be able to see the accumulation of land among the wealthy, but you cannot see stocks and bonds. Cutting the tax on the wealthy from 39.6 percent to 33 percent was a terrible idea, even though Congress compromised at 35.1 percent.
Me: Your characters don't seem to have personalities.
Burrows: This was a novel of ideas. I didn't go into personal relationships.
Me: You have people speaking in paragraphs, using words like "indeed" in casual conversation. After your protagonist, Joan Milton, watches the planes hitting the World Trade Center, she turns away in horror and says to her friends: "What an almost unbelievable tragedy! It will take a great resolve to overcome this terrible blow." My question is, have you ever heard real human beings speak?
Burrows: This is the way I speak. In my circle, I am regarded as a fascinating conversationalist. I have a dinner group that has been meeting for maybe 30 years. I admit that may be a little limiting.
Me: Your only black character, who is named Jesse Jackson Jones, expresses his concurrence by saying, "Right on!"
Me: Okay! Well, do you think your book might be made into a motion picture?
Burrows: I never thought of that. That would be fun.
Me: Are you planning another book?
Burrows: Yes. It will be about Bush's plan to exempt stock dividends in perpetuity from taxes.
Me: As you know, I think Great American Parade is a wretchedly terrible product that shames the American publishing industry. Is it available in stores?
Burrows: People can buy it directly from me. I live in Whitewater, Wisconsin. I'm in the phone book. I appreciate this opportunity.
Me: You're welcome. Your book is printed on very white, shiny paper.
Burrows: They did a nice job.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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