Washington crisis-management expert Eric Dezenhall’s latest novel brings back Jonah Eastman, hero of his previous books Shakedown Beach and Turnpike Flameout.
The story opens as Jonah receives a double dose of bad news: He’s been fired as presidential press secretary after making politically incorrect comments regarding terrorists, and he’s received a mysterious message that an ex-girlfriend is summoning him to her Tennessee plantation.
The story is told in two parts, cutting between 1980—the summer of love Jonah spent with his high-school sweetheart, Claudine Polk, at Rattle & Snap plantation—and the present day. One problem: The fortysomething Jonah doesn’t appear to be much more emotionally mature in 2005 than in 1980.
The first-person narration is peppered with laugh-out-loud one-liners. “Washington likes to think it finds candor refreshing,” Jonah says, “but honesty in this town is a novelty mint, not sustenance.” Some subplots, such as Jonah’s assistant’s “relationship” with a White House higher-up, evoke memories of Monica Lewinsky: They seem totally plausible and deserving of eye-rolling. Others, such as Jonah’s threats against J.T. Hilliard, Claudine’s husband and Jonah’s former rival—involving fighter jets and elaborate disguises—are far-fetched.
For every secondary character who sparkles—Jonah’s Jewish grandmother with “showgirl legs” or Indy Six, Claudine’s younger brother, with whom he becomes close friends—there’s another who rings flat and untrue, such as Elijah, a descendant of former Rattle & Snap slaves and an uncomfortable racial stereotype of the “wise black man.”
Several convoluted plot threads—particularly one involving the Freemasons—ineffectively attempt to add depth to this lighthearted novel. The possibility of a love child born to Jonah and Claudine simply makes their present-day relationship appear tawdry and cheapens the “love” Jonah remembers from their summer at Rattle & Snap.
And what is “happily married” Jonah telling his wife during his travels between DC and Tennessee? I didn’t know if I was witnessing the beginning of an affair or a bizarre midlife crisis. In the end, I was unsure why anyone would go out of his way to help Claudine, a Scarlett O’Hara-esque character who lacks O’Hara’s pragmatism and determination.
Spinning Dixie is entertaining for Dezenhall fans eager to continue the Eastman saga but is a dissatisfying introduction to it. By turns amusing and downright absurd, it’s like a partly cloudy day: You know the sun is there, but it never really breaks through.
Thomas Dunne Books