Portrait of the artist as a sham

So you wanna be a writer? Wilton Barnhardt has written a cautionary tale for you — Show World (St. Martin’s Press, 1998) — one the author himself calls satire. But to be satire, shouldn’t it exaggerate?

Under autumn leaves, a wistful young woman named Samantha sits on a Central Park bench scratching notes for her first novel, begun when she was a Smith College undergraduate. Thus far, the project has amassed a title (A Woman of Promise), a first sentence, and the nebulous beginnings of a plot — a studied Edith Wharton-like tale of society’s strictures and a heroine’s struggle to break free — culminating in what? Samantha doesn’t yet know, except that it will be “great, great writing.”

Samantha’s best friend is Mimi, a captivating wisecracker-cum-fashion-plate, imbued with the fierce opinions of the recently liberal-arted ( “If El Greco was alive today he’d be painting Jesus and Elvis on black velvet for sale at roadstands in Ohio”). Having befriended one another at Smith, the two make plans to live together in New York City — Mimi will run an art gallery, and Samantha will write.

Fast-forward a dozen-odd years. Now a high-powered Hollywood agent, Mimi uses porn-film lingo as she wheels and deals on the phone: “Norm, I’m giving you the money shot and you go and leave the lens-cap on.”

Samantha watches from the office doorway — bemused yet detached, hopped up on caffeine and pills, fresh from an AA meeting. As the publicist for Mimi’s agency, her writing is now confined to the chirpy smarminess of press releases of the “Young starlet makes time for homeless children” variety, her novel long since stalled. Before the year is out, she and Mimi will be embroiled in a murder scandal so awash in sex, drugs and celebrity that it lands them smack-dab in the national limelight, the wreckage of their lives documented by paparazzi flashbulbs.

Far-fetched for a cautionary tale? Not after Barnhardt chronicles the missteps — some small, others cataclysmic — that constitute this fall from grace. Not surprisingly, this tale includes a stop in Washington, D.C., where Samantha works for Sen. “Family Frank” Shanker, a parody of the kind of ultra-right-winger who rails against pornography while a copy of Playboy sits on his desk.

Whatever the milieu, Barnhardt lampoons the posturings and manipulations behind what he posits as America’s brave new product: spin.

“‘The only growth industry in this country is media,'” a Show World character explodes at one point, after pointing out that Michael Jackson has as many people in his press office — 50 — as FDR once had on the entire White House staff. “‘You make a product. I hire ten people to advertise it, twenty lawyers to defend it against the lawsuits of twenty other lawyers, thirty people in a press office to issue p.r. lying about the product — cigarettes, breast implants, cars that explode on impact — and then I hire twenty consultants to meet with twenty focus groups and marketing surveys to better tailor my p.r. … That’s all there is for anyone bright to do anymore — fight for a place in the parade of press conferences and lawsuits.'”

Show World is a timely diatribe, hitting bookstores the same month as: Reporters at the New Republic and Boston Globe are nailed for manufacturing stories; intimate details of Bruce and Demi’s breakup are leaked just as, hmm, Bruce’s summer blockbuster is released in theaters; the most recent anti-tobacco bill is struck down in Washington; and the nation sits back and wonders — in the parlance of the playground — who died and made Kenneth Starr president.

Show World’s appearance also coincides with an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the July 6 issue of The New Yorker that — to boil down an awful lot of small-fonted columns — argues that the public has grown impervious to spin, skeptical of even the most bald-faced utterances (e.g., “Is this candor-as-spin?”). The sheer volume of spin, Gladwell says, is proof of its inefficacy.

Maybe, maybe not. Ironically, it’s exactly the appeal of salacious dirt on the stars that makes Show World, principled as it is, one helluva read: The scandal that spells Samantha’s downfall is as lurid as anything cooked up by Jackie Collins. Show World is abrim with insider gossip on the behind-the-scenes machinations of power, actual facts that the author says he trolled from well-placed friends and confidants.

Barnhardt himself has eschewed the Faustian career track of public relations and advertising for a more independent path. An instructor in Warren Wilson College’s MFA program, he spends a lot of time roaming the country by car, sometimes traveling 50,000 miles in a year. His novels, each vastly different from the last, reflect the variety of scenes he’s absorbed, and the shifting of his curiosities. Gospel is an intellectual thriller about tracking down the Bible’s original manuscripts; while Emma Who Saved My Life depicts a young man’s struggle to become an actor in New York City.

In the end, though, what’s most intriguing about Show World is not Barnhardt’s ease in describing Washington and Hollywood power plays, but his convincing handling of the friendship of his heroines: Samantha and Mimi’s banter about booze, weight and fickle sexual exploits rings as true as their fights, jealousies and insecurities. Flawed these two may be, but they’re also intensely likable and smart — just two players coming of age in the Age of Spin.

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