Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Michael McGuire’s first novel Never a True Word tells the story of the day by day life of a political adviser to a senior Cabinet Minister. McGuire’s knowledge of the relationship between politics and the media is encyclopaedic. He writes about toxic personalities and underhand schemes designed to keep the information the government gives to the media under tight control.
We learn that McGuire is an award winning journalist but, since that title can be, and is, appended to anyone who has done something laudable in the media industry it doesn’t help us much. That he has worked for more than two decades at The Australian newspaper in Sydney and is currently a senior writer at the Adelaide Advertiser is much more useful information. His involvement in politics and, especially writing about politics and politicians, is obvious the moment readers open his book. I urge people to do so immediately as the book is simply marvellous as an expose.
While he assures his readers that his story is a novel, I question that. A novel is a long prose narrative that describes fictional characters and events in the form of a sequential story. The novelist will have created characters and a storyline from within his imagination. If we’re talking about such novels as Cervantes’s Don Quixote where episode succeeds episode with little attempt made to show any character development or an unfolding or developing storyline, then I would feel comfortable with such a restrictive definition. But I don’t believe we are. The picaresque novel has gone. It lingers in evening television in shows like Home and Away. We expect much more from a modern novel.
Jack, the narrator of this tale, is a unidimensional character. He views most of the people who come under his notice as the enemy. On the opening page he has to deal with “the city’s number-one radio prick” who “has confected outrage down to such an art it could be hung in the Louvre. In other words, your bog-standard radio shock jock” (1). Jack goes all out to deceive his caller, claiming sardonically that he is the friendly face of government. The initial episode is not much different from the events that are narrated as the book proceeds. In fact, it would not be all that difficult to swap episodes around as there is no developing story.
Jack is duplicitous and makes no secret of it. He is in the business of obfuscation, his job to build the illusion. He is arrogant and scornful of aides from other departments who have similar roles.
He gives his fragile loyalty to the colleagues who work alongside him, and to Sloan, his immediate superior, who is depicted as a short-fused ignoramus, a repulsive caricature of those who hold positions of power, a man incapable of backing down, even when he is in the wrong:
“Mate, I promised Jones a billion dollar tax-cut story and that is what he is going to get.”
And with that he was off…
“OK then, media genius, you heard the man. Turn that $360 million into $1.5 billion, make sure no one notices, make all the journos believe it, and god help me, protect that imbecile in the next room from looking like the arsehole we all know him to be” (48 – 49).
The writer, through Jack, poses the view that there is information that government ministers know but prefer not to tell and journalists who think such information should be made available to them in the interests of the public’s right to know. To a large extent this is what this book is about. This is what has replaced the storyline of the regular novel. There are a large number of clever anecdotes, many very humorous. But they appear to be recounts of related or unrelated episodes.
As a clever expose of the games people play, their relations with each other and the enmities that exist in an always fluid environment the book is a hoot. It is clever and revealing and a great gift for somebody with an interest in politics or human behaviour. Much as we might hate to get on the wrong side of Jack, he is undoubtedly forthright and funny in a malicious kind of way. He interacts with people who are as hardnosed as he is. His wife Emily is no shrinking violet, and his sworn enemy, the humourless Annabelle Howard, has long lost any ‘milk of human kindness’.
An interesting book that should be read for a ‘not-so-accurate’ view of the democratic process and for an old-fashioned belly laugh as well.
By Michael McGuire