Cover image for Delancey's way
Delancey's way
McCourt, James, 1941-
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf, 2000.
Physical Description:
369 pages ; 22 cm
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An operatic, satirical romp through (high and low) Washington -- filled with politicos and pundits, divas and divine spirits -- by the greatly admired author of Time Remaining and the cult classic Mawrdew Czgowchwz ("Bravo, James McCourt, a literary countertenor, in the exacting tradition of Firbank and Nabokov" -- Susan Sontag). It opens with Delancey, a reporter for the East Hampton Star, being sent to cover the environmental budget wars of the 104th Congress, his copy of Henry Adams's Democracy in hand, for background on the farrago called overnment. It introduces us to le tout de Washington: the socialite (and exiled eighties New York party girl) Anastasia Harrington (a.k.a. Bam-Bam) and her billionaire husband, Max; a senator obsessed with the fall of the republic and with his rogue companion, an ex-hustler and congressional phone-sex virtuoso; the semiretired transvestite ballerina Odette O'Doyle and the diva (operatic and otherwise) Vana Sprezza; and Delancey's new friend, Ornette, a living antidote to the racism of our times, who sympathizes with the sexually profligate President (lovingly referred to as POTUS). From Delancey's trip on the Metroliner where it all begins, to a drink-soaked escapade in Key West, to soirees at the Harringtons' and the Cosmos Club, to the grand finale (an uproarious Venetian bal masqué at the Library of Congress), McCourt shows us the pyrotechnic power plays of the nineties, eerily parallel to (but far deadlier than) those portrayed in Adams's chronicle of earlier times. Here is Washington as it should be seen -- upside down, and inside right.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

McCourt's first long fiction since Time Remaining (1993) is a dizzying, outrageous view of the puzzle palaces on the Potomac, with politics as pornography and Washington, D.C., as a city of nothingness. Gay scribe Delancey of the East Hampton Star, in the company of O'Maurigan and transvestite Odette O'Doyle, is sent south--ostensibly to report on environmental legislation in the 104th Congress--where he is guided by wealthy industrialist mover-and-shaker Mix Harrington (husband of Delancey pal Anastasia, aka BamBam), a pair of African American Library of Congress staffers, and the canny, connected aide of a senator elected for having the name of an Ayn Rand hero. Delancey becomes more involved than he'd intended (although plot becomes submerged in verbiage), and hardly any of the real-life characters (including Senate majority leader "Blob Dull") get out unscathed, except for David Souter. For McCourt fans and those solidly grounded in the liberal arts, pop culture, and Washington itself, this may be a treat. Others may demur, since McCourt is not an easy read and--as in public library collections--there's something here to offend almost anyone. --Michele Leber

Library Journal Review

Sometimes this book is funny, and sometimes it's very funny. What it is, is an acidic romp through the political high and low roads of Washington, where the President is known as POTUS and Hillary (sometimes) as FLOTUS, with a wacky cast. The book is dense with allusion--political, literary, filmic, operatic, mythological, and more--uncommon in today's watery literary scene. The writing can veer from plain to stream-of-consciousness to labyrinthine. Thus, the same page can yield "Clinton is a masochistic hick out of Dogpatch turned high toned sadist," and "Clinton as Clint Eastwood--the quintessential Quantrill's Raiders personality." It is not so much a "story" as a set of rants in a loose narrative structure, and as such it can be sampled as well as read through, which might save one some annoyance with Delancey himself, the overly self-satisfied hip-gay narrator. Interesting, inspired, informed, and sometimes frustrating, this book will click with some, but it is not for the everyday library patron.--Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



One / Aperture I never went to bed early in my life. Until a minute ago . . . You might have known it would all start out that way. The first sentence I heard in my own head on the Metroliner to Washington. I'd put down Democracy (you know, the novel of Washington by "Anonymous" turned out to be written -- depending on your politics, or your psychic -- by either Henry or Clover Adams), gone to the back of the club car and from the window watched the tracks seeming to issue in two steel ribbons from underneath the train, then returned to my seat, a permeable signifier full of metaphoric dread, and succumbed to a little nap, tired of others' voices and of my own plans. No systematic chronicle, I told myself as I drifted off, but more a rambling disquisition, with copious historical discussion and many anecdotes. I never went to bed early in my life. Until a minute ago. Two lies, a sentence and a phrase, in the forced conjunction (or dual emphasis) of which there arises a tensile ambiguity -- between the stronger and the weaker force -- that sparks narrative. Always a forced conjunction, a duality, since what is a true sequence (this/that) if not an uninterrupted flow of conscious-radical-unconscious ideation-pulsation, lasting from the moment of birth until the moment of insanity and/or death? Nothing. Rearranging narrative, like dealing cards or holding on to a bunch of the dialogue balloons O'Maurigan and Patsy Southgate had said held the story's hot air (back then / back there, before the unspooling tracks, in the darkened offices of the East Hampton Star on the Sunday afternoon in early September when I'd decided to accept the assignment to go to Washington and report on the crucial environmental legislative battles in the 104th Congress), all of which -- balloons -- when pinpricked, would burst like Bazooka bubble gum, leaving a free mind (if maybe a funny-looking, Bazooka-bubble-gum-coated face . . . but then, why not?). Until a minute ago. It's supposed to make you nervous . The climax of Double Indemnity . Who can forget Stanwyck's shattering intonation . . . "until a minute ago" ? Enacting one of two things, maybe both: a sudden awakening and determination to say at least one true thing before dying -- the wicked woman's last-minute conversion, the perfect act of contrition that would save her from the maw of hell by the skin of her teeth; and/or a born hellion's last desperate (and, as it turns out, useless) ploy. (The narrative shuttle: it jerks back and forth, until it winds down, and then it winds up again and unwinds in crazy spools of dream life, as at the back of the train clacking along to Washington -- me out on the imaginary observation platform asking myself: Will my story wind up like Fred MacMurray's, scraping its guts up off the floor and pouring them into the ear of the Dictaphone, while the older man who loves me -- and still smokes cigars -- waits to deliver the tag line? It didn't: it ended up less than a year later back in the offices of the East Hampton Star , again on a sunny Sunday, with the shades drawn, at the debriefing that even as I speak you are reading. This is called interactive -- the Vice President is all for it.) "Every education is a kind of inward journey," he (the Vice President) had written in Earth in the Balance . "My study of the global environment has required a searching re-examination of the ways in which political motives and government policies have helped to create the crisis and now frustrate the solutions we need." (That I should have wanted to listen to him any further at all struck me as entirely improbable, but that in itself might well have been the reason.) So, to Washington -- and to politics. ("Show business for ugly people," the late-night-television clown had called it. Did he ever so much as glance at the Vice President?) Politics done with smoke and mirrors. Smoky backrooms in which the President -- POTUS -- may never have inhaled -- as the trick he's mastered of holding his breath until others turn blue seems to have ensured his survival. And the mirrors? Something like: Hamlet tells the Player King to hold the mirror up to nature, but the Player King remembers what Jackson Pollock snapped when similarly advised: "I am nature." POTUS has done the same, saying, "Think I'll just hold the mirror up to me, and you can look over my shoulder." "It seems to me" (Patsy S.) "you want to get as close as you can to the feeling the motion picture creates -- not that a story is about to be told, but that it has been told already -- that the readers have stumbled into a story they well know." O'Maurigan said, "All right then, let's start with the telephone call." September 1995, later that first Sunday afternoon. I was alone in Sagaponack. Phil, packing his circa-1957 Ceccone evening wear, had gone off a week earlier with Concha, the sister, in a black limo to the airport -- and from there to Sicily to investigate the possibility of opening the old homestead as a hotel. (I wanted Phil to sell out to her: we have more than enough, and Concha has always hated me -- wants to get Phil to go back to the old country for good.) I was about to turn the house over for the duration of my Washington stay to Concha's grandson Vinny (estranged from his father, Phil's nephew, a jerk, who also hates me, the rich uncle's faggot enchanter) and Vinny's boyfriend, Matt. I'd started writing Phil once a day, getting as many responses, which could be another book, besides the one in progress I was amazed he wrote every day. I love him more than I can say, as Judy sang. He wrote, for example, of the baroness Teresa Cordopatri dei Capece, in Calabria, whose brother was blown away for refusing to sell the last of their olive groves, and who is now a crusader. The Mafia in Sicily is more interested in tourism, according to Concha, who is a realist, I give her that. Nevertheless I worried; I said, "Why don't we go out and get you a cellular phone and I can call you once a day and tell you what's going on?" Phil said, "That's crazy." I said, "It's what everybody's doing now." He said, "In the first place I'll be talking Sicilian all day long, which puts me in what the kids today call 'a different head.'" I said, "The day the kids who said that said it in is not today, it was the sixties. Today those kids have kids: they all use the cellular." He said, "Look, Odette and the Mick will be with you, and this way I'll be sure everything's OK." I said, "He's an O', not a Mc." He said, "To me they're all micks; you know what I mean." (Well, there's the feeling of manly freedom-in-action; then there's the feeling you're being looked after. I prefer it.) Back to the telephone -- me picking it up. "Delancey, darling! A voice from out of the past." " Out of the Past is a movie," I remarked. "Would you ever guess who?" (From out of the storied past.) "I don't have to; there's only one voice -- " "Anastasia." "I was coming to that part." The voice of Anastasia Harrington, beautiful eighties New York party girl (I'd first encountered walking stark naked out of the surf at Sagaponack one fabulous summer afternoon looking like a dark-auburn version of the Botticelli Venus-on-the-half-shell) whose fortunes, due to a truly stunning talent for rubbing up against the nether parts of Gotham's markdown-Eurovagrant glitterati, had often turned on a dime. Exiled, it was said, after a spat with Brooke Astor over the financing of nothing less than her wedding . . . not of course to a Eurorat, but to Max Harrington (of the copper Harringtons, as Truman C. would have put it had he lived to bark out loud over it). Max was the kind of Harrington Gertrude Slescynski had in mind when she took the name (and Anastasia was a girl who wouldn't be caught dead in anything by Clovis Ruffin, and into money : "Money isn't everything -- it just goes with everything!") and had been described as "a strange amalgam of Armand Hammer, George Soros, and Steve Forbes." He was -- importantly, suddenly to somebody in my new role -- a supporter of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. I would have to be entertained by him while opposing him, for the Harrington family had branched out from copper into leaching gold, polluting Western rivers with cyanide, and hoarding the helium reserves, whatever they were. (Pay attention, they become significant.) How handy, in the nicest possible way, to have been a friend of his wife's -- on the Christmas card list, all that. Anastasia Harrington, Washington wife, had herself taken to the television airwaves, while hubby had stayed closeted (and that word, in another connection, had been circulating about him for years too, more frenetically since his marriage). I found her as camp as Hedda Lettuce -- that big-boned woman in the land of New York make-believe -- but others she made nervous. These were they with some experience of the instinctual internal combustion of her impressively primed hereditary Greek revenge engine, which, consequence of intensely vindictive file-keeping startling even to Gotham touts -- though not to those who recalled her late-sixties incarnation as a fascist kitten's paw in her native Athens -- had already earned her the nickname Stasi. (They didn't like her any better on television than in life.) "A voice," the voice continued, "from out of the past, but not a voice from the dead, thank God." "Good, I don't think I could handle one of those just at the moment." "This movie -- there's a woman in it, of course, who dies." "In Out of the Past they all die." "Darling, I woke you. You went to bed early." "I never went to bed early in my life." "Until a minute ago -- remember that? So, you are coming down to lobby? You are going to save the wetlands and your -- what's he called?" "The piping plover." "Ah, yes. I was quite put out at first, I confess it, to learn I could no longer get plovers' eggs, except on the black market." "The East Hampton Star is sending me -- to report on the defense of the Wetlands Act, and the environmental lobby." "I'm not surprised at all. What was that gay place you took me dancing -- when all the boys went gaga over my jewels, and refused to believe they were real? And you said, 'With Bam-Bam both the jewels and the orgasms are real?' It was called the Swamp, no?" "You have a good memory; that was a long time ago." "Yes it was -- before I was even a wife. And now you must let that very fact assist you as you once assisted me." (I was interested. Max's senator, the only independent in the Senate, was a rabid western wildlife conservationist, champion of Indian rights and advocate of DOE reparations for the Wind River Shoshone.) "You have Indians near you, too, do you not?" "The Shinnecock." "I remember them: divine name." (As I said to O'Maurigan, the head was in the hand.) "Never mind," he'd counseled. "On the plus side, the neo-Georgian Waddy Wood Harrington pile in Kalorama is worth a detour if not the trip itself, and you could hardly find a longer, more operative D.C. pedigree these days. The Harringtons have been Washingtonian presences for over a century. And Max put a lot of the family's resources into the helium reserves and Bahamanian dollar Laundromats." In that Harrington D.C., Anastasia had become a favorite subject for the newspaper once owned by the daughter of her new husband's grandfather's poker partner -- who herself used to own, and wear, the Hope Diamond -- in the style pages of which references abounded to her decked out in jewelry by Ann Hand: things like the American eagle in diamonds clutching in its talon a pearl. Which had made me laugh out loud alone. In my time with her in New York, she'd tended to trample that fine line between sizzling allure and good-heavens-where-is-the-rest-of-your-dress? Old Money was particularly severe with her. Let one ogress's summation suffice: "Rubens indeed ! My dear, I don't care where she went to school, or who dresses her -- stripped of those silks, she is pure Eilshemius on the hoof. And that entourage of hers! I can never quite understand how such people imagine that sexual intercourse in the balcony at Studio 54 can possibly be grounds for a social introduction at the Waltzers !" It was the jewelry that did it. Making a shrewd wear-for-promo deal, she'd festooned herself with the Byzantine parure of a Florentine known as Adriana -- to whom Vana Sprezza, tempestuous diva and controversial wife of Italy's condom kingpin (pay attention again: she's on her way into the story), also gave her custom -- and so was a good dress match for Max, in his dark Savile Row suits, Hermès ties, and gold Audemars Piguet watch. ("From Ayn Rand to Ann Hand," Odette quipped.) "We have nothing to do with the House, of course," Bam-Bam was assuring me. "Max can't even talk about Gingrich without comparing him -- unfavorably -- with Benny Hill. Although we agree with him when he tells the poor that they must learn new habits, that the habit of being poor no longer works. But I will introduce you to our senator -- we call him Senator Shoshone, but of course you know his real name is Galt." (I'd heard the legend. Elected as an independent from a western state to the House in '58 entirely on the strength of his name: identical to that of the hero of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged , John Galt. Wooed by Democrats, he entered the Senate in '60 on New Frontier rhetoric, and progressed therein until edged out by Sam Nunn for majority whip, which turned him into a bazooka Reaganite. Hating Bush -- as did Reagan -- he went Clinton, but might switch to Dole. Keen on creating self-sufficient Indian communities by means other than gambling franchises.) "And also to the Vice President, who is the president of the Senate, you know." (I did.) "And passionate." "Don't you mean com passionate?" "That too, of course -- although he is perhaps not quite so compassionate as we are planning on becoming after the socialist welfare state is dismantled in this Congress. Tough love, you know." "Are you offering trial subscriptions to Policy Review ?" "Oh, darling, you and I are not going to argue politics. But besides being terribly handsome and personable -- the Vice President, I mean -- and -- well, he is passionate about the environment. You knew he was -- you must. You would, no?" (I would; I did.) "What about the President?" "POTUS? Oh, darling, he is ridiculous ." (I said to myself, This woman is nervous.) "Anyway, we are becoming more and more disenchanted with the government, and more interested in the bubble-up theory and in the National Commission for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal." "Does that mean less jewelry at parties?" "No, darling -- different jewelry. Are you bringing the cat with you?" "I am, although Sylvester's environmental concerns are distinctly Republican." "Well, darling, you will be in the middle of a revolution, you know. The Republican revolution. I must ring off now, darling. Till soon!" "A revolution!" Odette snorted. "I hardly think so. Not with that little twerp from Georgia in charge. Hardly a Danton, Marat, or Robespierre -- except the Robespierre who was on Baby Snooks . And no guillotine -- not that one wants one; one doesn't. All one wants -- metaphorically speaking -- is a nice Italian stiletto, to serve, as it were, as a paper knife for your book." "My book" (I sighed), "do you envision a nonfiction roman à clef?, or something like what O'Maurigan has given me to read on the train?" "As I recall" (Odette), "you were always losing your keys -- in the old days that was." (That were , I thought.) "There's a movie house," O'Maurigan mused, "called the Key -- in Georgetown." "I see," Patsy S. declared, "an article more along the lines of a nonfiction roman à keyhole." I liked it -- and asked her what she had in mind. "Well, a roman à clef pretends to show the whole picture of figment-people -- whereas the roman à keyhole, nonfiction variety, lets you picture the nonfictional flashing verifiable credentials while proceeding along the very same skid-risk course: lets you frame it all more from the point of view of the peeping servants, crouched at the keyhole watching characters in the library move to and fro -- left to right, right to left. We did a lot of that as children." (Patsy's father had been chief of protocol at the Roosevelt White House -- which made it like knowing somebody who'd been at Versailles, talking of the time before guillotines and terrible little people in Washington.) "In the moments in which the characters stand still talking," she offered, "the resultant configuration leads to greater depth of focus. The trouble with most young writers these days is they're too timid to thrust themselves into the world, pitching instead wan trips through their own tetchy-tortured egos. Not true of you." (Because unlike most young writers, I'm not young.) "Don't," O'Maurigan advised me, "let focus groups, smart-bomb surveys, or wedge issues stop you either. That you are the intimate of the fabulous cannot be held against you if you never substitute milieu for matter. Don't try to write a Washington book. Democracy is one thing, but today's Washington book -- whether the crap tell-alls or the crap fictions that garner proxy votes in off-years -- are no more contributions to literature than diet books, self-help books, or those tetchy memoirs of Patsy's." " I never wrote tetchy memoirs!" Patsy gibed. "You know what I mean," O'Maurigan rejoined. "Why not," Odette challenged, "a Delancey Goes to Washington ?" "I'm not," I protested, "that asshole in the Capra movie!" "No," the O' agreed, "I don't see you walking in a stupefied access of patriotic elation out of Union Station right onto a bus, or socking it in the jaw to every reporter in D.C. who tries to make a fool of you -- but wrath comes into it. Anger is not always ignoble. It inspired the oldest epic in the canon, the Iliad ." "I dislike the Iliad ," I protested. "I know, so did Valéry. And of course the Greeks of the Iliad heard commanding voices, while those of the Odyssey made their own plans. But Achilles' fury makes him appear larger than life, and comes close to being a prophetic attribute." "But," I objected, "by the time I'm finished, I'll only be retailing the stories behind yesterday's headlines." "It seems people find them a relief; no one knows exactly why. You will," O'Maurigan declared, "take notes in Washington, imbedding motive taggants in situational raw material." "Notes on the way politicians take us for a ride?" "Oh, I never minded that," Patsy chimed in. "The more they did it, the more they at least seemed to be driving , rather than driven -- the Incumbent's big problem. He may occasionally seem to be in the driver's seat, but the situation turns out to be bumper cars, or one of those driving games they had before computers. You sat at the wheel and nothing but zany obstacles were flung at you and you had all you could do to keep your eye on the road divider. What would Proust," she added, "have done with D.C., one wonders?" "Oddly," O'Maurigan remarked, "there is a Swann Street in Northwest -- it lies between S and T." "Actually," Odette declared with finality, "the whole problem of politics is an exaggerated version of the problem of show business." "For ugly people?" I put in. "For everyone ," Odette declared gravely. "And yet it may be harder on the ugly. Nothing is more universal than love and the submission of another's will -- over which show business and politics are in relentless and unceasing competition." "I never minded," Patsy continued, "them taking us for long rides, not even in the days when the road was pretty evenly divided between scenery and billboards. But now there's something else going on. They've taken the billboards away." "There are fewer and fewer, certainly," O'Maurigan agreed, "and none of the anecdotal resonance of yesteryear. And somewhere over there behind the utility roads and the rest stops are the hills and dales -- but nearly all you see are the malls and the marts, the filling stations and the generic rest areas of politics. No wonder people have taken to flying over the issues, such as they are. "No," he continued, returning his gaze to me, "you are not like the moron in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , but you are something like the heroine of Democracy . She is a Magdalen -- Maud to her sister -- who never goes to church, although she's given to reading things like the last symposium on the sympathies of Eternal Punishment." "What I remember about that character," Patsy offered, "is that she arrives in D.C. unable, in Philadelphia, Boston, or New York, she avows, to have found anything bigger than six inches." "What?" "Something sizable -- casting a long shadow." "She's also," O'Maurigan put in, "a nice woman who visits prisons and workhouses, without a thought of hosing any of the inmates down and taking them home." "That's me?" "It is not unlike your AIDS work -- something you have in common with Anastasia, although her style is not yours." "I find it hard," Odette interrupted, "to believe she -- " "It's true," O'Maurigan sighed. "She glides through the AIDS wards and the rehab centers of Washington in the manner perfected by her new role model, the Princess of Wales, hoping to touch and cure -- not as the English kings did scrofula, by the actual laying-on of gloved hands, but by a kind of radiant social influence ." "Any Washington book," Odette suddenly declared, "must wrestle with the big issues: passion, power, love, death, et cetera." "Wrestle?" I protested. "Well, hand -wrestle, anyway -- and so far as psychology is concerned, esprit de finesse rather than esprit de système . It must make -- and be -- its own set of plans. Something, I've just realized, as we sit here, I must set about doing myself." ( Plotline. ) "Rather than only listen to voices," Patsy-the-newspaperwoman advised, "just plug in to the first thing you hear -- you are yourself the blank page -- and understand that Washington is for people who look upon life as a rumor." Thus was the notion formed, there in the darkened offices of the East Hampton Star , that I was going to D.C. to fight the Congress that wanted to gut the Endangered Species Act, destroy government, and take all poor children and put them into orphanages (like they did me). "Your perspective will be unique," Patsy declared. "Yes," O'Maurigan declared. "Rather like that production of The Flying Dutchman presented as the Steersman's dream." (To me it seemed more likely to turn into a production of Aida in which the whole show -- "Guerra" chorus, temple boudoir, triumphal, Nile, judgment, and tomb scenes -- was imagined in response to il Messaggero coming in and announcing the battle successes of the Ethiopians over the Egyptians, and all as if followed at a score desk: seeing the performers only when they came to the apron and stood wailing over the prompter's box.) "When I told Phil I might turn out to be the Ernie Pyle of the congressional budget wars, he said, 'That's not so good; Ernie Pyle never came back.'" "You will come back," O'Maurigan insisted, "in your chariot of Hermes, and with your calendar full of incident: your revolutionary calendar, organized around certain concepts ." "Concepts?" "Yes. Let us begin with Aperture -- and proceed until that telling moment when the hourglass is turned, dexterously upside down as in jiujitsu. The odd thing is that in the second telling the grains of sand slip through at something like twice the speed -- rather like the way they do in the second half of life itself." "Ain't it the truth," Patsy chipped in, as the sun passed over the roof and the shadows faded on the window shades and on the calendar on the wall. So I was off, in Aperture, on my Chariot of Hermes, the Metroliner. On it I met no stranger, and I took Sylvester along -- as in Dick Whittington and His Cat . ("Dick Whittington" could almost be the generic WASP name of every undergraduate -- they were all Dicks to me -- I used to seduce out of his brogues at the Astor Bar, and sometimes kept on calling up long after . . . their lusts eroding year after year with meaningless jobs and four-martini lunches. Thoroughbreds in pointless races: as surely the performing chattel of their overseers in advertising and public relations as Nashua was of Billy Woodward or in the boys of the New York City Ballet -- both the dancers and the touts -- were of Lincoln Kirstein. Lots of them -- the undergrads, not the balletomanes -- went into politics.) Excerpted from Delancey's Way by James McCourt All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.