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When Christopher John Farley arrived in Washington to write for USA Today, the recent Harvard grad had already gotten the perfect training: The year before, he’d helped put out Harvard Lampoon’s hilarious parody of the nation’s newspaper. Which begs the question: After Farley got to Rosslyn, could he tell the difference? “Well, there were definitely days when the similarities were there,” he acknowledges. “Like the famous Page One story on dental floss.” Er, was that in the Lampoon or the “real” USA Today? “Oh, that was the actual newspaper.”
Now Farley has published My Favorite War, a satirical novel offering a comic take on his five years in Washington in the early ’90s. (Farley is currently a music writer for Time in New York.) His protagonist is (as Farley was) a young black journalist trying to get his professional and social acts together, and he just happens to work for “a comic-book-colored newspaper” called National Now!, “The Nation’s Newsmaker.”
Farley’s tone is smart and self-deprecating as he riffs on such twentysomething targets as blind dates and group-house social dynamics, and he also delivers sharp takes on life in a city that’s still as racist as it is multiracial. But some of Farley’s cruelest zingers are reserved for National Now!, whose offices are located “in two metallic towers in Jeffersonville, Va., across the King Bridge from Washington, D.C.” Farley’s narrator reports that the paper “is housed there to avoid paying taxes to the Negroes who run Washington, D.C.,” and he paints a picture of a noxious work environment: “Imagine a coughing, wheezing wino with a mucus-filled nose, open skin sores, and syphilis. Now imagine this man is thirty-three stories tall. Now imagine crawling into this man’s urethra every morning at 9 a.m. and reporting to work in his colon.”
Is this a portrait of office life at McPaper? Farley pleads fictional license. “It’s all made up,” he says. “I was just trying to portray the world of newspapers today, where everybody’s owned by some big corporate superpower.” But pushed, Farley acknowledges that he did have “some problems with the atmosphere” in his building, and with occasional mysterious “dust storms.” Still, Farley insists he enjoyed his days at USA Today. “It was a young paper without strict hierarchies,” he says, “and they gave me some good chances. What other paper would have assigned a young guy fresh out of college to interview Spike Lee and Denzel Washington?”John DeVault