Ellen Hawley takes the premise of the movie "Wag the Dog" and turns it upside down. In the film, a Washington spin doctor needs to turn the public's attention away from a sex scandal involving a president who is running for reelection. He hires a Hollywood producer to "document" a phony war that exists only on-screen.
In "Open Line," radio talk-show host Annette Majoris (the former Annie Minor) gets fed up with a sanctimonious caller who goes on and on about the Vietnam War, how botched it was and and how it was "the beginning of the end of America's greatness." Unable to take another second of his blather, she leans into the mike and finds herself saying, in her sexiest voice, "This is what the government doesn't want you to know: There was no Vietnam War. It never happened."
Movie and book are outrageously funny, but the satire now cuts a little too close to the bone. We've come a long way, unfortunately, since 1997. The executive branch has developed into a spin factory that manufactures what we used to call "reality."
Once the fateful words are out of Annette's mouth, all hell breaks loose and the plot races down a slippery slope.
The station manager calls her on the carpet, but Annette, rattled, at first can think about nothing but his bare, enormous desk: "the Russian steppes, sweeping uninterrupted to the horizon." She defends herself by maintaining that she's not planting false ideas in people's minds: She's only raising a question. Of course, her sleepy little late-night Minneapolis show explodes in fireworks as the incoming calls light up the board.
Advertisers want in; her program attracts so much attention that she's moved to a prime-time slot. At first, callers are outraged. Vets who feel insulted give her blow-by-blow accounts of battles, ask her about all the photographs of maimed bodies. Annette smoothly counters that photos can be doctored. What she first meant as a joke has taken on monstrous proportions. Pretty soon the tide shifts in her favor as veterans call in with similar stories of being in tunnels with flashing lights, of not clearly remembering anything about the war, or obversely, remembering killing their own buddies.
To keep her sanity, and preserve a shred of moral dignity, Annette convinces herself that the war really was a vast government experiment in mind control.
By this time, she has become a national lightning rod, a reverse Ann Coulter, who takes her show on the road, inviting veterans to speak. Many break down and thank her for lifting the heavy burden of guilt from them.
She also becomes a pawn in a political struggle. Stan Marlin, head of the Minnesota Liberty Constructive, an extreme Libertarian group, hears her program. He wants to make the Constructives an effective group and sees Annette's campaign as a way to gain visibility and influence. He begins to feed her with documents that "prove" her mind-control thesis; for example, quoting a reporter as saying at the time that despite the heavy bombings, "Hanoi, Haiphong & the surrounding countryside are 'almost completely unscathed.'"
Annette has gained a lot: a bigger program in Chicago, a rich lover who is a major power broker in Minnesota politics, dinners with the Minnesota governor who is ready to use her Vietnam story to launch himself into presidential politics. That no good will come of any of it is a foregone conclusion. After a bloody climax, Annette is hiding in her apartment, surrounded by snowy mounds of Kleenex.
Hawley, who lives in Minneapolis, gives Annette and Stan some priceless metaphors. Here is Stan observing his roommate: "Flambard picked through Del Reiss's books like a four-year-old picking through chow mein for the chicken bits, shoving everything else to one side of his plate." Annette notices that her lover's mansion "was Hansel and Gretel meet Frank Lloyd Wright and they all get introduced by Donald Trump."
Hawley keeps up a brisk pace. If the plot gets repetitive in the middle -- Annette doing her thing over and over -- the satiric observations and crackling dialogue keep us from fidgeting. The book is great comedy, but it also is challenging and sobering, leaving us to wonder just how far reality can be bent out of shape.
Brigitte Frase of Minneapolis also reviews books for the Los Angeles Times.