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If some of the names in Eric Dezenhall’s latest mystery seem eerily familiar, there’s good reason.
“So many folks have joked about being characters in my books,” Dezenhall says. “I said, ‘I’m happy to do it, but you realize I have to criminalize you.’”
So for his fourth installment of the Jonah Eastman series, “Turnpike Flameout” (due out next month), Dezenhall has obliged, turning many of his high-profile Washington, D.C., buddies into the colorful, New Jersey characters who have become the calling card of his “pollster as action hero” books. (Though for the record, not all of his fictional cast is crooked.)
In the novel, Eastman, a damage control denizen with a penchant for Saul Bellow novels, must untangle the web of obfuscation and insanity spun by his latest client, washed-up former child star and rocker Turnpike Bobby Chin. Chin survives a plane crash only to find himself under suspicion after the sculptor employed to memorialize him in bronze mysteriously disappears, and the police suspect foul play. Eastman is brought in to develop a “plausible alternative scenario” for the sculptor’s death.
The sculptor in question is Christian Josi, who in real life toils as a senior vice president at Dezenhall Resources, the author’s eponymous crisis management firm.
Josi says he gave the initial greenlight to name the sculptor in Dezenhall’s previous release “Shakedown Beach” after himself under one condition. “I said, ‘I want him brutally murdered.’ [Dezenhall] said, ‘It’s too late in this book.’ He’s kept his promise in a big way. I didn’t think he’d write a whole book about it. I was thinking a drive by.”
Josi’s tickled to be immortalized in such a manner. As a joke he even added the tagline “R.I.P.” to his name on his personal Web site along with a link to “Turnpike Flameout.” (Josi, who’s released two CDs, sometimes moonlights as a jazz singer.) “One of the music fans didn’t get the joke and started calling and e-mailing other people asking what I died of,” Josi recalls.
Hot on the trail of Josi’s killer is Rich Galen, a GOP strategist and former flak for Newt Gingrich and Dan Quayle, who appears in the book as a hard-nosed New Jersey detective. Galen, who said he’d completely forgotten his name was in the book until contacted for this story, concedes that his life to date has exhibited few similarities to that of his literary doppelganger “other than when I was shooting people up in Iraq.”
Well, actually “that’s a lie,” he says. In reality, Galen spent a stint in 2003-2004 as a Department of Defense civilian employee working “to get non-combatant news from Iraq back to the United States,” though “I did have a gun,” he says.
But on second thought, maybe his background is a little more rough-and-tumble than it appears, Galen asserts.
“If you were Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich’s press secretary you are damn right you are hard-bitten,” he laughs.
Also in the hard-bitten category is “Mustang Sally,” the “teeny-tiny” psychiatrist with a thing for breast implants, cadavers and stilettos who specializes in treating “performers in tribute bands” in her dive digs in a Jersey Shore motel and serves as Eastman’s sounding board in his quest to understand what makes Chin tick.
Dezenhall modeled the character after aspects of American Enterprise Institute scholar and psychiatrist Sally Satel, author of “PC, M.D. How Political Correctness is Corrupting Medicine” and a close friend of Dezenhall’s.
Reached by phone at her office, Satel jokes that “Stang is kind of my inner showgirl, hard-bitten with a heart of gold. She’s seen it all and done it all. She has a keen laser-like vision into the souls of deranged criminals.” But Satel is quick to add: “I’m just an inspiration. It’s not a roman a clef.”
Like her character, the 5-foot, 1-inch Satel, who Dezenhall also calls “Stang,” frequently comes in contact with a broad range of tough characters in her nonfiction work at a Northeast Washington methadone clinic. She also admits to a fascination “with gross anatomy.” Back in graduate school at the University of Chicago, Satel remembers teaching human “dissections by day and cocktail waitressing by night.”
Satel says Dezenhall frequently bounces ideas off her for his novels, which can sometimes mean answering such sensitive questions as: “If you were going to get implants for the character what would you get?” (For the record, Satel is implant-free, though her literary alter ego settles on a pair of 34Cs.)
Finally, AEI scholar and Roll Call contributor Norm Ornstein pops up as the music industry racketeer Norm “Doo-Wop” Ornstein with eyes “warm like herbal tea” and a hankering for 1950s-era tunes. “I don’t mind at all having my name attached ... to an earthy, somewhat disreputable character,” says Ornstein, adding that he harbors a “secret desire” to be the actor Steve Buscemi, who often plays “loser figures or thugs.”
“I just glommed onto this character,” Ornstein says.
Ornstein earlier appeared as a long-suffering, though brilliant, campaign manager in comedian Al Franken’s 1999 satire of the Franken presidency, “Why Not Me?” “I’m an eclectic guy,” Ornstein laughs.
And then there’s Dezenhall himself, who readily acknowledges a few broad-brush similarities to his protagonist Eastman. Both grew up in South Jersey, attended Dartmouth and spent time in the late President Ronald Reagan’s White House. And while Dezenhall isn’t related to a prominent Atlantic City gangster, as is Eastman, he has admitted to members of his family tree having had “contacts” with unsavory characters.
“Jonah Eastman allows me to tell stories that I really can’t tell about my own life,” he says. “He gives me a veil to hide behind.”
Chin is a “composite of the megalomaniacs I run into in that world,” adds Dezenhall, whose firm has had its share of celebrity clients.
However, the general idea for the book sprung from Dezenhall’s childhood, when he was frequently mistaken for Brandon Cruz, the young star of the 1960s/1970s sitcom “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”
“Ever since that time I’ve become obsessed with the notion of imagining what it would be like to be a child star and then the fame evaporates never to return,” he says. “What do you do with the rest of your life?”
As for Eastman, Dezenhall says he’ll be back in 2007’s “Rattle and Snap,” in which our hero returns to the Washington landscape as presidential press secretary only to “ignite a modern-day civil war” in the process of helping a former flame “win her family property back.”
Dezenhall shrugs it off.
“The things we do to impress old girlfriends,” he quips.