Jim Lehrer, himself a former Marine, perfectly captures the importance of presentation, or impersonation, in his Washington-based novel "The Phony Marine."
Lehrer dives into a highly controversial topic and delivers his most compelling character portrait to date. Late one night, Hugo Marder stumbles upon an online auction for a Silver Star, the medal awarded for bravery in battle. He bids and wins. But it is only after he places the lapel pin on his jacket that he realizes the enormity of his actions- Politics and Prose
Lehrer started work with PBS network in 1973, and in 1975 started The MacNeil/Lehrer Report with Robert MacNeil. The show was later renamed The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, and in its most recent incarnation is known as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Since he wasn't a very good baseball player, he turned to sports writing, then writing in general. As a member of what he's called "the Hemingway generation," he decided to support himself as a newspaper writer until he could make a living as a novelist.
After graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism, Lehrer served for three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, then began his career as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor in Dallas. His first novel, about a band of Mexican soldiers re-taking the Alamo, was published in 1966 and made into a movie. Lehrer quit his newspaper job in order to write more books, but was lured back into reporting after he accepted a part-time consulting job at the Dallas public television station. He was eventually made host and editor of a nightly news program at the station.
Lehrer then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as public affairs coordinator for PBS and as a correspondent for the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT). At NPACT, Lehrer teamed up with Robert MacNeil to provide live coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings, broadcast on PBS. It was the beginning of a partnership that would last more than 20 years, as Lehrer and MacNeil co-hosted The MacNeil/Lehrer Report (originally The Robert MacNeil Report) from 1976 to 1983, and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour from 1983 to 1995. In 1995, MacNeil left the show, but Lehrer soldiered on as solo anchor and executive editor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
When he wasn't busy hosting the country's first hour-long news program, Lehrer wrote and published books, including a series of mystery novels featuring his fictional lieutenant governor, One-Eyed Mack, and a political satire, The Last Debate. Lehrer surprised critics and won new readers with his breakout success, White Widow, the "tender and tragic" (Washington Post) tale of a small-town Texas bus driver. He followed it with the bestselling Purple Dots, a "high-spirited Beltway romp" (The New York Times Book Review), and The Special Prisoner, about a WWII bomber pilot whose brutal experiences in a Japanese P.O.W. camp come back to haunt him 50 years later. His recent novel No Certain Rest recounts the quest of a U.S. Parks Department archaeologist to solve a murder committed during the Civil War.
Across this wide range of subjects, Lehrer is known for his careful plotting and even more careful research. Clearly, this is a man who cares about good stories -- but which is more important to him, journalism or fiction? Lehrer once admitted that he's known as "the TV guy who also writes books. Someday, maybe it will go the other way and I'll be the novelist who also does television."
This evening, we're going to have a conversation about Jim Lehrer's 16th novel, asBarbara said. The Phony Marine. It's a very provocative title, and it's a concept Iimagined that's somewhat disturbing for Jim. As he served as a Marine. And I justrecently, just about an hour ago, actually, saw the address that Barbara referred to at theNational Museum of the Marine Corps. And I would add that the intimacy of thataddress was, to say the very least, poignant. Perhaps it's best to give just enoughsummary here to entice but not give too much away. So I quote:Hugo Martyr is about as unremarkable as they come. On the floor of the Washington,D.C. branch of Nash Brothers, one of the country's most respected men's stores, Hugo isa wise and reserved salesman. At home he is a solitary divorced 50 year old with a fewfriends and an eBay addiction. But he has always wanted to make more of his life,dreaming of becoming an artist, a cartoonist, and when he was younger, a marine. Thenlate one night Huge stumbles upon an online auction for a silver star. The medal awardedfor bravery in battle. He bids and wins. But it is only after he places the lapel pin on hisjacket that he realizes the enormity of his actions.And thus this story is set in motion about a small thing leading to big damages, but also ithas an ancient motif about a sort of magical object, a talisman, which has both revelatoryand pernicious effects on whomever possesses it. This little pin.As for our format of course, I'd be a fool to attempt to formally interview a masterinterviewer. So, and I probably am one anyway, but we intend a more informaldiscussion. And with audience questions afterwards. If you will, about Jim Lehrer asnovelist. The writing life, and this new novel in particular.So I'm going to begin with a comment and a question.First, Jim, thanks for allowing me to share this evening with you. In equal measure, ThePhony Marine is part morality play, part character study of what Chekhov called "atentative human being." And part cautionary tale. But in my reading throughout thisbook, the novel is a kind of painfully ironic disquisition on heroism. Both of thecinematic and the day to day sort. Let alone heroism in the military. This protagonist ofyours, Hugo Martyr, he's really complicated. He's a really complicated guy. On the onehand, he's quite sympathetic and almost hapless, and on the other hand, there's at least atfirst something a little unhinged about him.And it could be argued that before he ends up saving someone's life in this book, oneworries that his actions are born of a kind of pathology, certainly a self delusion. As faras imaginative fiction is concerned, however, it's of far less interest to me whether or notHugo is even partially based on a real person, than the fact that you are an impressivestudent of people. And wanted this specific character of Hugo to be in the civilianpopulation in Washington D.C., where the book is set. So my extended question is, whathaunted you about this fellow's contradictions? What was provocative about Hugo'sexistential or certainly his psychological condition, to sustain you for the length of thisnovel? And how did this fellow stay with you so vividly, becausehe certainly stays with the reader very vividly.Well thank you, Howard. Thanks to all of you for coming tonight. In a nutshell, Ibecame Marine Corps, all that, is the manifestation of it. But I'm a big believer in whatexpectations to do human behavior. Somebody expects you to be smart, you tend to besmart, they expect you to be a jerk, you tend to be a jerk. I know, it all goes back tochildhood. Teacher expects you to do well, you tend to do better. Teacher expects you tobe a poor student, sometimes you turn out to be. You know, in other words, some peoplerebel against that, but expectation is a huge motivator, and what got me on this, on Hugo,was that he, without thinking, thinking it through, by just putting this lapel pin in his coat,raised the expectations among anybody who saw him, and saw the lapel pin and knewwhat it means, that he was heroic.So that's really what drove me through that, was that okay, Hugo, you're a hero. Yeah,you won this metal. So you get into a situation where a hero is required, you damn wellbetter act like a hero. And what fascinated me about this was the specifics of it and all ofthat, was that that's possible for any of us. In other words, the character of Hugo, I reallybelieve, is, there's the hero, there's a possibility, a potential for heroism in all of us.What might keep us from being heroes is that a situation never arose where we werecalled upon to test our ability to be heroes or test what we might do or whatever.This guy inadvertently asked for it. He said, I mean it isn't like most heroes in combatdon't set out to be heroes. All they do is set out to stay alive. And the training in amarine corps, most, a lot of people, do heroic acts instinctively, out of training, ratherthan "Oh my God, I've got to do something heroic, I've got to save somebody's life" orsomething. There's a hand grenade starts rolling your way, and there's five other marinesthere. And one guy just falls on it, blows himself up, saves the lives of the others. Imean, that's not something that has anything to do with other than you know it justhappened. So that's how most heroism happens. And it just choo! before you know it, ithappens. And Hugo is different, and that's what interests me.He's really an amazing character, um, he gets in over his head, I mean that's what I love,he finds himself in over his head. You know, the trajectory is he starts, or orders in asense his heroism on eBay, but he doesn't quite know it yet, you know, he doesn't quite know it yet.Yeah...he buys heroism.And he's been thinking about this selling clothes...I mean this has been building up in akind of meditative way, it's really funny and tragic at the same time. One of the things inthis novel, throughout the novel, almost from start to finish: movies, especially thebattlefield dramas starring John Wayne and Van Hefflin are not only frequently referredto, but movies in this novel serve as a kind of intensifying element to the plot, because ata certain point, Hugo actually sort of studies these movies to try to gain knowledge ofhow a marine might, how a marine should comport himself. It's part of his, he's an autodidect in a way, he privately does this.Sends himself to his own boot camp.He sends himself to his own boot camp. He does, not quite as rigorous physically as ityou know as it would be but...but by doing this he adds a kind of verisimilitude to hisfraudulence. Because he's a fraud on a certain level. And in this regard it struck me thatthis novel speaks to, in a sense, to the rather uncanny effects of celebrity. Because in away, Hugo, in his own way, is an actor. At least his-- the pin sort of requires of him toplay a role. And his role is as a wounded veteran of the Vietnam war.And this role actually for awhile, before shame and revelation catch up with him, rewardshim with a kind of ego fulfillment, it rewards him with pride and admiration and eroticcharge and so forth. And I bring all this up because in The Phony Marine, you have avery unusual and eclectic narrative strategy. I'd even call it cinematic, but I don't meanthat in just in the sense of visuals. Be-- While your descriptions are very visual, I'mthinking more of the cutting between comic tableaus andmenacing things that happen, real violence.There's a dream sequence, for instance, which I consider absolutely vital to this book,which comes fairly close to the beginning, and in that dream as a matter of fact, moviemarines show up in the dream. There's scenes that have a sort of slapstick choreographysuch as in the restaurant, which end up to be very violent, or potentially very violent.And your dialogue is definitely a form of action, it keeps the pace up. And lest you thinkthat I'm being judgmental on a literary level by calling something cinematic, let me saythat none other than Graham Greene admitted that he, and this is a quote, "Cinema moodsand cinematic techniques are my greatest influence as a novel." That's from Graham Greene.Sometimes a novelist discovers his strategy after the fact. When writing The PhonyMarine, were you conscious of how much cinematic compression there was to yourchapters, and does film, as it did for Graham Greene, have an influence at all on yourcomposition, or how you see these very very clearly visual scenes that you write?Well, I think Howard put, rather than, I think the way I would state it is that the influence,the main influence has to do with more with scenes than from film scenes. In otherwords, I had a, I had written some plays, and I became a muchbetter novelist as a result of writing plays.I didn't know that.Yeah. Not very good plays. But that's neither here nor there.No, but it, it means you had--You think in terms of scenes. And the restaurant scene you mentioned, there's a scene atthe D.C. courthouse, these are all, these things could have been on a stage, even though Ididn't think in those terms, but I think when I wrote them I thought in those terms, in other words--You did.When people come to hear the things it's like on a stage, and so I always, it is just partand parcel how I do it now, I don't think, I guess I'm thinking of the story and all theother things you're supposed to think of, the character development and all that, but I'malso moving back and forth and around small scenes, big scenes, scenes that seem to beirrelevant in one moment that hopefully will seem relevant later, but I think many manybeginnings, middles and ends. And that's what gets me to the bigbeginning and the big middle and the big end.Yeah, I mean the restaurant scene, which I don't want to give it away, in a way, but youtake sort of a familiar places and then they suddenly turn un-familiar, because what yousee on the surface is not what's really going on. The same in the courtroom, where the,where Hugo's heroism really, you know, is tested. And so that's what I mean more by cinematic.Well, you're absolutely right, I mean that's, it is, the movie thing specifically, marinemovies that Hugo gets to look at, and he doesn't know, he's never met a marine, he'snever been around a marine, the only marines he knows are the ones that are in themovies, so he goes back and refreshes his memory. John Wayne, Van Hefflin, and some others...He gets his posture from it.Yeah, he gets his posture. And he eventually because he's gone, as you say, gets carriedaway, in addition to just having a silver star he decides he's going to be a marine. So hegets his head shaved, and...He gets buff.He gets in shape, right. Learns how to really cuss really well. And does all the other,starts learning the jargon and history and creates his own personal story that he took rightoff of eBay, with the metal that he bought for $85, and eventually as you say, we don'twant to give away too much, but we do want to say one thing Howard, pick up on a thing,a point you made earlier about how it transforms himand what it did to his ego gratification and all that.One of the germs that led to this book was, I was introduced by a guy at a speakingengagement here in Washington, and he was a Vietnam veteran, and he had picked meup. I was going to his place, the place where I was going to make the speech was close tomy house. He picked me up and he said, he was in the army in Vietnam, and he said, "Iwas just reading your bio, Jim, I never realized you were a marine." And I said yeah, andhe said..., I said, "Well the Korean war was on," I told him, and I only got about twothirds through the story when we arrived at the location of the speech.So then he gets up, and I'm sitting down, just like you did or Barbara did, introduced me,and he says to the crowd, there were about 200 people there, they all worked at theNational Parks Service. And he says, "You know about Jimmy Charles wah wah here,he's this and this," he said, "One thing you don't know is that he was"...listen to this..."He was a combat infantry officer of the United States marine corps in the Korean War."Wrong. I looked out on the faces of those people and I have never felt a wave of admiration...And the point is, I didn't want to correct him.I was 50% there. I had been an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, but I was never incombat, it was between the Korean War and Vietnam. I didn't want to correct him, Howard.That's what Faulkner, Faulkner says we write fiction in order to remember the truth moreaccurately. That's probably what you did. That's what you did. So that moment, I mean...I didn't want to, I did, but I didn't want to. I wanted that wave, and Hugo--That's a great anecdote.Put the finger on it, I mean that's what. Hugo, when he got, whenpeople first started, my God it's a terrific thing.Actually I don't think that would work, would have worked as graphically or aspowerfully had he not had the profession he had. Now I run the risk here of disparagingsomething, I don't mean to, but the sort of tranquility of his profession, of serving otherpeople in that regard and dressing in a certain way, a certain predictability and rotequality to that life, as contrasted by his dreams of heroism, his literal dreams of heroism,but also his actions finally...I don't think it would have worked as well had you not begunwith that kind of thing. It was beautifully done.Um, we do understand, you mentioned childhood before, something comes fromchildhood. You do mention in the novel, some of Hugo's background. And you haveHugo Martyr attend Michigan Western State College, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And inthat turbulent period, and I find this kind of emblematic of Hugo's ambivalence towardlife in general, Hugo didn't really care either way, one way or the other, about the war.The Vietnam war. He didn't care enough to protest it, nor to advocate it on patrioticgrounds or for any other reason. Now, Jim, you are a marine. And I don't want ourfriendship to end right here. But I need to tell you that I graduated...just when I'dgraduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo I attended the Institute forthe Study of Nonviolence, which was sponsored by Iris--I've been set up obviously.Which was sponsored by Iris Handpearl, and who studied with Gandhi and Joan Baez,and I traveled for weeks, actually, with Joan Baez and her husband David Harris, whofamously went to prison for resisting the draft. I was, believe it or not, their staffphotographer, although I was only capable with a Bownie Instamatic. And when mybirthday came up third on the draft line, I layed down in front of a draft board and wasthrown into a paddy wagon and hauled off to Fort Wayne in Detroit, at which point Iopened up my shirt and revealed a t shirt with a picture of Gandhi on it, and I wassummarily dismissed. And I, like many people of mygeneration and my inclinations, really hated that war.And I bring this up because nothing's simple. And there's nothing simple really in yourbook. Because there's three names from my high school on the Vietnam Memorial, andmy closest friend at the time came back wounded, a very badly wounded, veteran, andspoke out against the war. And when he did I felt that his credibility meant somethingtruly profound. And I felt that his anguish spoke volumes. And that in effect, he became,along with others like him, a moral conscience of our nation, because he spoke for the dead.And in regard to your novel, I'm thinking of the actual real life medal winner, Lt. RonaldCunningham. Whom this character Hugo Martyr kind of channels, in a way, to dubiouseffect. To my mind, it's one of the most impressive qualities of your novel, how veryconspicuous this Lt. Cunningham is by his absence. He's like one of Shakespeare'smuted ghosts, because in the more conventional literary sense, you don't substantiallydevelop him as a character, and yet my question is, does it make any sense to you, I meanthat this Lt. Cunningham serves as a kind of presiding consciousness over this tale you've told.I mean, I wondered if he served...was, in other words, a real marine kind of looking overyour shoulder as you wrote it. That could have been you. I'm speaking about too. He is,he looms very, in the second reading of this book, I felt that this person who's hardly onstage at all loomed very large. I mean, is he being treated well, is he being treated badly,a man who has no control over events. And I just felt that there was a moral or ethicalquality to that...you know, I may be oblique about this, but I thought I would risk it, because he...I must say Howard, it's a great complement to me that you've just paid. It is, I didn'tconsciously think of that as I wrote the book, and for you to say that and to have seen thatin there gives me great pleasure.It's all throughout the book.Well, I know, but as you know, novelists think about that sort of stuff too, like writing anovel, and you forget that you're there to tell a story. And once you tell a story about areal character, then these kinds of things can come out of it, and people can read that inthere. But I didn't think, I never had a conscious thought, I will explore this in my mind,but you know later, I do not standing here right now remember ever thinking thatCunningham existed as a real character, as an influence on Hugoor to help...to play the role you just outlined.He was somebody who didn't really exist except on the internet, you see.Yeah, an anonymous figure, Hugo takes his story and becomes Ron Cunningham. Butyou've raised something that I just find delicious. Thank you.Because if I did it, I did it inadvertently, you see what I mean?See, that's what makes you an intuitive writer.No, what it makes is somebody who just tells a story and just hopes there's somethingthere more than the story, and you've just confirmed it and I'm a very happy person.I like Chekhov's thought that one's mind is the worst place to discover one'sconsciousness. So I think it's like, don't think about it too much.Just go on to write. Um, lastly, I have, in rereading all of your novels in the last couple months, um...I only wrote 16.You're paying for drinks afterwards.Anyway, I heard the rumor that you have a day job, or I guess an afternoon and eveningjob, more like. And if I remember right, in this compartmentalized, disciplined way thatwriters have to construct their writing lives, I figure that the phony marine was probablycompleted a year or so ago...roughly...I think so. Yeah, there are parts I'd been working on off and on for some time. So abouta year ago, yeah. About a year and a half ago, I think, yeah.And so given your enviable concentration and prolificness, I think for the audience atleast it might be an interesting question to say, what's now, what's next, and if you wantto just say "another novel," that's fine, but um...No, the next novel is done, and it's...I knew it!It's actually in copy-edit as we speak. Just up for publication in October 2007. You'rereally going to get annoyed with me.I know, no, it's terrible to be jealous in front of so many people.It's called Eureka, and it's interesting, it's also about a man of the same age, who's theCEO of a little insurance company in Kansas, has some bad news...some interestingthings happen to him, I mean he decides to, he sees an antique toy fire engine at anantique show, one that he wanted as a little boy and couldn't have and he buys it, and thenhe buys a Daisy Air Rifle, and then he buys a football helmet that he couldn't and then hebuys a cushion of a motor scooter, and he runs away from home.Yeah. So you have...you're building up obsessively. You have a guy with a job that's in a sense...Doesn't work.Doesn't work for him.And more importantly, a life that doesn't work for him. And realizes it rather late in life.The insurance guy is about to turn 60, and it's too late to start over, or is it. What do youdo about it. You've already accumulated a life and all the accouterments of a life, like afamily and a this and a that, responsibilities, what do you do. And assuming that you'renot crazy, in other words, it's not a lunatic's reaction, it's a normal person with somequestions about his or her life at the moment, and that's, I guess I hadn't thought of it tillthis very moment, but I guess I'm interested in that, these guys are essentially of mygeneration. They're younger than I am, but yeah. So yeah, yeah.Terrific. Well um, I'm going to sit down and turn it over to the audience, thank you so much, Jim.