To hear him tell it, crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall is something of a square.
The self-described “exercise freak” rarely stays up past 9 p.m. (what he terms “an act of degeneracy”); can measure in one glass his cumulative, life alcoholic consumption; and much to his chagrin has “utterly failed to get involved in a major sex scandal” in 22 years in Washington.
Unlike most card-carrying “squares,” however, the 41-year-old married father of two has a fictional alter ego in the person of Jonah Eastman, a disgraced Republican pollster who regularly breaks many, if not all, of the rules in the pursuit of extracting high-profile clients — ranging from a Mafia boss to a domestic diva — from viscous situations.
“One of the things about fiction is you can take a guy very much like yourself and make him tougher, smarter, handsomer,” Dezenhall quips in reference to his literary doppelganger.
And in Dezenhall’s latest release, “Shakedown Beach,” Eastman, who also appeared in Dezenhall’s earlier novels, “Money Wanders” and “Jackie Disaster,” is once again tasked with damage control duty. This time, however, the client is a former Philadelphia 76ers basketball player turned New Jersey governor caught in a tight race for U.S. Senate and with more than a few skeletons in his closet.
At its core, “Shakedown Beach,” much like Dezenhall’s previous books, is pure madcap mystery adventure, set against an Atlantic City backdrop and packed with colorful underworld characters (mainly benevolent), scantily clad vixens and scheming political handlers, not to mention a plot that clips along with all the velocity of Smarty Jones, pre-Belmont Stakes.
“I like the idea of pollster as action hero because it makes me laugh,” notes Dezenhall, who says his most recent book is a must read for “anyone who has ever worked in politics and wanted to strangle their boss.”
On the surface, Dezenhall has much in common with his protagonist Eastman. Both grew up in South Jersey, attended Dartmouth, and worked for then-President Ronald Reagan — though Dezenhall points out that his posts in the White House offices of communication and presidential personnel were relatively low level. (“I don’t want to imply that I was a great power in the White House — although the end of the Cold War, that was totally my idea,” he jokes.)
And while Dezenhall may not have been the scion of a “legendary Atlantic City gangster” as is Eastman, he readily concedes that many of his extended family members likely had “contacts” with unsavory individuals.
“The beauty of my family is you don’t have to be particularly creative, you just have to bring a pad.”
At the tender age of “8 or 10” he recalls meeting a friend of one relative who later served as inspiration for a character who appeared on the first two seasons of the popular HBO mob drama “The Sopranos.”
Oh, really, and which character was that? Dezenhall demurs. “I’m really sort of prudish around women.”
No, go ahead, it’s OK.
“Big Pussy,” he finally divulges, after about 30 seconds of prodding. “He was loosely based on a big guy [Pussy Russo] who had that name and one of my uncles was very close to him.