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Asbury Park Press Review

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Veteran journalist writes his first novel about dirty politics
 
Asbury Park Press
January 13, 2002
 
By Mike Riley, Staff Writer

 THE CITY AND COUNTY

A Novel of San Francisco Newsmakers

by Joe Strupp

Dry Bones Press, $19.95.

'The City and County" is a big, brawling novel of political scandal and media frenzy set over two years in modern-day San Francisco.

Plus, there's an earthquake. 

Strupp, a veteran journalist, spent six years in the Bay Area, covering San Francisco politics and gay issues for The Independent, so he certainly knows his way around smoke-filled back rooms and smoke-free city desks.

What he has done in this ambitious first novel is to distill every political dirty trick and possible scandal that can befall a big-city mayor and drop them right on the desk of fictional mayor Jack Callahan, one after another.

Callahan, a former police chief, defeats incumbent mayor William Carlson with the help of Billy Dale, "San Francisco's dirtiest, most cunning, and most successful political consultant."

But, as Strupp tells his tale, winning an election means nothing if you can't hold on to power. And, in the quest to hold to power, questions of ethics and what it means "to do the right thing" take a backseat. Sometimes they even wind up in the trunk.

You can feel the glee with which Strupp unfolds the arm-twisting and blackmail tactics with which Mayor Callahan tries to get his way with City Hall. Everything from an initiative to crack down on the homeless to preventing a sports team from leaving the city becomes fodder for semi-criminal activity.

And let's not even mention the more personal travails of the mayor; for instance, moving his wife's body from the apartment of her (also dead) former female lover, and putting it in a burning car miles away.

And while the foxes are raiding the chicken house, the newspapers of the fair city are tirelessly pursuing ... well, if not the truth, then at least their own agendas

Strupp is at his best when he describes how editors and publishers spin scandals, through editorials, the writing of headlines and the placement of stories. He does seem to have a journalist's overinflated view of newspaper's power to influence the population. Yet, there is no doubt that discussions of how and where to play stories take place in newspaper offices every day. Readers get a real sense of how this happens in their own local papers.

There really are no "good guys" in the "The City and the County." But that may be part of the fun. The fictional world of San Francisco politics and journalism is Hobbesian: nasty, brutal and short. If politicians can't solve their differences through rhetoric, or blackmail, well, they just punch each other out, or shoot the other guy. Journalists use every trick in the book to get the story, professional ethics be damned. For media junkies and city hall watchers, "The City and County" may well confirm their worst suspicions about both worlds in an entertaining way.

Maybe the lesson here really is "you can't fight city hall."

That's what earthquakes are for.

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