A New Yorker’s Take on D.C.

Frank Masters the Washington Character

Posted July 9, 2007 at 3:38pm

Plumbing Washington, D.C., archetypes is what Jeffrey Frank does best.

From the safety of Manhattan, of course.

“Simply not being in it makes it much easier to step back and see the larger picture,” asserts Frank, a native Washingtonian.

The composite view of the nation’s capital that the longtime author and senior editor at The New Yorker presents in his comic novels certainly isn’t all that flattering.

Frank’s Washington, at least the part that matters, is a jargon-heavy place populated by shallow, ambition-consumed people who don’t really care for one another

They live tenuous — nearly paranoid — lives that rise and fall based on their proximity to those who run “this town.” They are the sort of people who are privately gleeful whenever scandal fells yet another “dear friend,” but are congenitally unable to come to terms with their own ethical lapses — large or small.

It’s a world encapsulated by feckless characters such as the supercilious, bow-tie-wearing scribe Brandon Sladder, star of Frank’s 2001 fictional memoir “The Columnist,” who wrecks a remarkable string of lives in his relentless push for self-promotion. And it’s the same world that can be brutally punishing to the formerly important as the ensemble cast of political has-beens in “Bad Publicity,” Frank’s follow-up novel, discovers.

The books “are all about careerism. They are all about ambition. And they are also all about in a way people who are defeated by their ambitions,” Frank avers.

The socially ambitious title character of Frank’s new release, “Trudy Hopedale,” which hits bookstores this week, certainly is no exception.

Trudy is a woman of a certain age, the second, comparatively younger wife of a washed-up Foreign Service officer, whose energies revolve around hosting a TV chatfest and planning the guest list for her next dinner party. Except that thanks to a confluence of factors — ranging from her ill-considered affair with a corpulent Senator to the machinations of a conniving co-worker to the unwanted interest her husband’s titillating book project attracts from a shadowy character from his past — her delicate perch “in the vortex of history and destiny” is in danger of being upended.

Set during the waning days of the Clinton administration and the early months of the current Bush White House, and told from the point of view of Trudy and her “dear friend” and frequent party guest Donald Frizzé — a sexually ambiguous historian with attribution issues who can never quite seem to finish his book on Vice President Garret Augustus Hobart — the novel practically pullulates with the pedestrian inanities of the pre-Sept. 11, 2001, chattering classes. (And yes, there are references to a “slimy congressman and his disappearing intern” and “shark attacks.”)

Frank, who grew up in 1950s and ’60s Washington and worked for The Washington Post and the now-defunct Washington Star before moving to New York in 1995, is at his best when he draws on his considerable powers of observation to deliver a pitch-perfect sendup of the ways and thinking of a certain element in the Washington caste system.

“I think the language in Washington is hilarious,” Frank says. “I never heard anybody use the word ‘tasking’ before I heard it out of Washington.”

And Trudy’s Barbie-doll-style internal monologue is so un-self-consciously self- absorbed it makes you want to laugh out loud — probably because if you’ve patronized enough Washington events you’ve seen aspects of Trudy all over town.

Here’s Trudy around Thanksgiving time mindlessly ticking off a list of blessings that includes: “my friends, my career, my good fortune to be living in a place that’s so vital to the entire world.” Pondering the newly revived career of a fellow partygoer, Trudy says: “I tried to imagine what sort of guest he’d make at one of our dinners.” Later, when her mother-in-law dies — a woman she secretly despises — Trudy notes: “I think we arrived at a very good selection of men and women to celebrate Henrietta’s rich life.”

Then there are the pithy takes on this “perpetually soiled” town, as Donald dubs it.

The Hopedales’ “essential” July Fourth barbecue was a place where “just about everyone shows up. Members of past administrations cling to Washington like rings on the inside of a tub, and in two or three hours, it is possible to move through several decades,” Donald observes. At one point, a defense expert contemplates “taking up the oboe if” Al Gore wins the 2000 presidential election. “It’s amazing, the difference between being inside the teepee and being out,” another character guffaws.

Frank says the inspiration for “Trudy Hopedale,” the third installment of his trilogy of Washington novels, came to him by chance one day as a way to “deal with … vapid, social Washington.”

“I’m fascinated by what happens to people when they get so close. When they know they are having dinner with a Supreme Court justice, with a secretary of Defense. Why does that matter to them? I don’t know. But it matters a lot,” he says.

Although Frank points out that he has many friends in Washington and even family — his sister, Janet Frank, is a cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra — he doesn’t see much to recommend on the real-life D.C. landscape.

Ask Frank about the laudatory aspects of the city and he points to things such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Maybe the Nationals. “I hope that Washington becomes a place I can’t satirize anymore,” he says.

As for the most “terrifying” aspect of his latest work, that would have to be striking the right tone for Trudy’s voice.

“I was really nervous about channeling a woman, but the thing that saved me is I’m married to a woman, my agent is a woman and my editor is a woman,” Frank says. “And if I got it past all of them, I said, ‘OK, fine, I guess it’s OK.’ … The line I’m proudest of, it was a line about looking at her toes through her new shoes.”

Jeffrey Frank will read and sign copies of “Trudy Hopedale” at 7 p.m. July 26 at Olsson’s Penn Quarter, 418 Seventh St. NW.