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Except for the fact that all of his works of fiction are set in New Jersey, Eric Dezenhall writes Washington novels. In Money Wanders, Jackie Disaster, and his recently published latest, Shakedown Beach, “gangland pollster” Jonah Eastman traverses the Garden State in the company of mobsters, politicians, gold diggers, washed-up athletes, hired goons, players, and would-be players, all in various stages of denial and deceit.
The specific settings may be Atlantic City and the Pine Barrens, but the broader issues are pure D.C.: power, politics, and public image—and the corruption and conflagrations that often result when they meet. Dezenhall calls them “damage-control novels,” and their keen insights into human behavior both good and bad—OK, mostly bad—were obviously gained through some real-life experience.
Or, at the very least, through Dezenhall’s day job. For the past 17 years, the 41-year-old Bethesda resident has worked as a consultant specializing in, as his firm’s Web site has it, “helping clients through crisis, conflict and controversy. We are typically brought in when the stakes are high, risks severe and competition at its most fierce.”
“One of the reasons I write is to deal with the frustrations of my day job,” Dezenhall admits, sitting in the dramatically underlit conference room of Dezenhall Resources on Connecticut Avenue NW.
“This is a rough business,” he adds. “And it is a negative business. Contrary to what the PR industry would have you believe, a crisis is not an opportunity. You hear this nonsense being peddled by the industry.”
Dezenhall is not one for nonsense—unless the story absolutely calls for it. His first book, 1999’s nonfictional Nail ’Em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses, is a clear-eyed examination of a scandal-obsessed media culture that unapologetically takes the side of the beautiful people and the fat cats. As Jonah muses in Shakedown Beach, “I have never seen ‘the little guy’ as the noblest of figures. If you want to impress me, split an atom.”
Clearly, the man has a soft spot for the Man. He calls CEOs in trouble “wounded animals,” and he treats his clients to an “evangelical” code of silence. As Dezenhall explains, if he’s doing his job right, the rest of us will most likely never hear of his successes on behalf of besieged corporations and celebs.
Unless, of course, we read his novels—and even then, Dezenhall warns, we shouldn’t think that he’s dishing any individualized dirt. “There’s no violation of a contract by creating archetypes,” he says. “[In Shakedown Beach], I have a mob boss, a domestic diva, a governor, a politician. The next novel is gonna deal with a rock star flaming out. So fiction allows me to reveal secrets without it being tied to any particular case.”
Fiction also allows the author, he says, to “play God”—especially with himself. The recurring character of Jonah, for example, is an admitted Dezenhall stand-in who tends to express the various lessons his creator has learned dealing with the press and public. In Shakedown Beach, those include “The other guy is scared, too,” “Nobody has thick skin,” and “When you turn the other cheek, you get bitten in the ass.”
“Every fiction writer is writing his life story, even if he’s making it up,” Dezenhall says. “One of the things that I have to keep reminding people is that I do make stuff up.”
Like Jonah, Dezenhall grew up in South Jersey, a direct descendent of the type of folks we see on The Sopranos. Not Tony, perhaps, but the guys sitting around the tables—the guys on the edges.
“People ask me questions, ‘Well, how do you know what your grandfather really did?’” says Dezenhall. “And the answer is you don’t.” Indeed, there were enough mysteries about what Dezenhall’s grandfather and uncles did for a living to arouse young Eric’s imagination—and to provide continuing inspiration for adult Eric’s stories and characters.
“One of the things that’s always fascinated me is the theme of family and how we all have—whether it’s mobsters, or divorces, or adultery, or alcoholism—we all have something,” he says. “And how do you deal with that?”
In some measure, Dezenhall deals with it with humor. Though it’s as gritty as the crime genre demands, Shakedown Beach also has its share of funny lines. The New York Times complimented the author’s “[r]eal wit….Here’s proof that politics is funny when it isn’t even trying.” The New Republic has crowned him the new Carl Hiaasen, “king of the funky crime novel.” And Dezenhall Resources co-worker Christian Josi, who lent his name to a sculptor in Beach who will be “brutally murdered” in the next book, says, “He’s that funny in real life. He comes up with the wildest stuff on a daily basis.” Not, of course, during client meetings.
“I really am not of the Ashcroft apocalyptic school,” Dezenhall says. “Even though I think very negatively, I would much rather have people laugh and say, ‘You know, he’s right,’ than get depressed [and] say, ‘He’s right, but I never want to read his stuff ever again.’”
Thus the presence in Shakedown Beach of the Dames, a trio of former wrestlers who help Jonah. They have matching outfits and imposing monikers such as Sheik Abu Heinous, the Viking, and Chief Willie Thundercloud. Dezenhall is amused by “the whole idea of these wild men who have jobs by day and do dirty tricks by night. Jonah needs his own mob. And this is the mob he gets—a bunch of aging, ’70s-era wrestlers.
“It was important to me to have characters who got their own joke,” explains Dezenhall. This is because so many of his clients and most of the residents of his adopted hometown do not get their own jokes.
“There is a sense in Washington that what I am doing, what I am working on, is of unique global significance,” Dezenhall says. “On any given day, you can walk into the Palm and you can see somebody smirking the smirk of Zeus. As if whatever just happened in the news was due to their engineering. I have a lot of fun with that.”
Politics has long fascinated Dezenhall, who admits he grew up “worshipping” JFK. (“To me, what was politics about?” he asks. “It was being charismatic and having people cheer for you.”) He went to work in the White House press office for the Reagan administration in the early ’80s, before graduating from Dartmouth with a degree in political science in 1984.
At the White House, he says, his “naiveté” about politics wore off—though he admits that his own experiences as a mere 22-year-old aide are less important to his writing than Jonah’s fictional ones. “But the great thing about writing fiction,” he says, “is that you get to take a guy very much like yourself and obscenely exaggerate his significance in the universe—which I do shamelessly.
“The irony of [Jonah’s] life is that, despite the fact that he is seen as vastly immoral—and is capable of it when pushed—by and large he is obsessed with right and wrong.”
As is Dezenhall, having spent nearly two decades building a business to confront what he believes are unfair assaults on the rich and famous—not that he believes they can ever be resolved “in a slick, clever, and complete way. There’s going to be debris, and that’s painful. It’s hard to see people suffer.
“It’s hard for me not to save them,” he adds. “And what you’ll see with all of my books is that Jonah succeeds on some accounts and fails on others. And that’s real life. The difference between the movie The Natural and the book The Natural is that at the end of the book, Roy Hobbs does not save the day.”
One might expect that dealing with the crises of major corporations every day would leave little time for crafting crime books. But Dezenhall says that he’s “always writing.”
“When you spend two decades in airports, hotel rooms, and trains, and you despise travel, it’s amazing what you can get done,” he explains. “I’m a very bad traveler. I loathe being away from my family. I basically go into a trance and write extensively when I travel….But also I’m not a great sleeper. I’m not one of life’s contented characters. I carry a recorder and talk into it. When I exercise, I have a device I talk into.”
Dezenhall’s trim build indicates that he’s exercising—and talking—a lot. So does his prolific output. His first two novels were released in 2002 and 2003, with Shakedown Beach arriving this year. And his next is already in the works.
That book, Turnpike Flameout, involves a former child actor/rock star who had a brief moment of glory outselling Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. “If I had my druthers, I would get involved in the occasional celebrity case for the sheer lunacy of it,” says Dezenhall. “Businesspeople, while not always rational, at least have something sustainable that they’re trying to preserve, whereas celebrity expectations are so obscene.
“What they want is, ‘Give me an Oscar right now!’ And there will always be somebody in line to go, ‘OK.’ ‘Well, where is it?’ ‘Well, I don’t have it right here…’ ‘You’re fired.’ I don’t know how a person lives that way.”
If Turnpike Flameout promises to be, as one Amazon.com poster enthused about Shakedown Beach, “[a] fun, fast read on a summer weekend,” Dezenhall won’t mind. But he does point out that his current book is apparently a “guilty pleasure” with the boys and girls on the bus this election season.
Of course, it’s no surprise that journalists are especially picked on in Shakedown Beach, given that Dezenhall spends so much of his time dealing with them. One investigative reporter is none too subtly nicknamed “Barium Enema,” and Jonah’s nemesis is the weaselly, self-absorbed rival pollster Abel Petz, who is shown on TV spouting glib instant analysis.
Such pundits are one of Dezenhall’s “great frustrations….They pressure you into getting on TV and giving very simplistic answers to things that aren’t going to be resolved simply. One of the things I do tell clients is that given the choice between a good strategy and a good spokesman, always go with the good spokesman. Because the strategy often is, Who’s talking?”
In the end, Jonah/Dezenhall sics the Dames on poor Petz, who suffers a dramatically appropriate but non-life-threatening humiliation involving fake firemen. “That was my favorite,” the author says with a smile. “I had fun with that. It gave me great pleasure, and it’s something I would like to do to someone in real life.”
“But,” he adds after a slight hesitation, “as Nixon said, ‘That would be wrong.’”CP