-Reviewed by Adam Fleisher
Matt Labash writes for the right-leaning Weekly Standard, but this first book-length collection of his work for the most part transcends the spectrum of ordinary politics. The majority of the pieces in Fly Fishing with Darth Vader are about fringe political figures, though one certain former vice president makes the cut – and the cover. But it’s the petty crooks, egomaniacs, long-shots and no-shots who’ve run for or even been elected to office that let Labash approach the business of politics without trying to find a larger meaning in it. There’s little sanctimony or sentimentality in his writing, and yet there is a great deal of sympathy.
Take John Cox, the “sane fringe candidate.” A successful businessman and “Reaganite conservative,” he ran for president in 2008 but couldn’t get any attention. Labash decided to change that. It doesn’t seem to have helped, but it makes for a fun read, climaxing with Cox’s failed effort to participate in the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan library. Cox even wrote a book laying out his ideas, which, according to Labash, was probably his first error. (“As a novice, Cox is under the mistaken impression that presidential campaigns are about ideas.”)
Then there was Kinky Friedman, the “Jewish cowboy” who ran for governor of Texas as an independent. He did get a lot of attention (even the New Yorker profiled him), but he still lost. There’s Marion Barry, back on the DC city council after a few stints as mayor and one in federal prison, and former Democratic Congressman James Traficant, facing federal corruption charges and telling Labash that his attorney will not discuss the case. Traficant represented himself. And if that’s not spectacle enough, there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign: Schwarzenegger “points to an empty parking lot near the crowd, where a lonely Oldsmobile sits, inscribed with the words CAR TAX. A crane right next to the car crushes it with a wrecking ball.”
Among the pieces that aren’t political character studies is a moving, harrowing profile of Detroit and the people who are trying to make it in a “dying” city: schoolchildren who can’t take their books home at night because there aren’t enough, a former New York Times reporter who moved back home to work for the deteriorating Detroit News, and the firefighters who make do with inadequate equipment to fight mostly arson fires in vacant and abandoned houses. New Orleans gets a slightly less plaintive treatment.
Mostly Labash stays upbeat and keeps a lighthearted mocking tone. In “Down with Facebook” Labash confesses “I hate Facebook and everyone on it, including my friends, whom I like.” He laments the “new phys ed,” which replaces competitive and traditional activities like dodgeball and tag with cooperative games in which everybody wins. He has the same cheerful contempt for trendy corporate fads: “the forced march through the land of clenched-teeth joviality that so often takes place under the dreaded guise of ‘team building.’” As harsh as that may sound, Labash does also seem to enjoy the “funsultants” hired by corporations to run these company-mandated-fun events.
There’s also what must be, for conservatives, the obligatory make-fun-of-Canada article. Perhaps it’s required writing, especially since during the Bush years so much was made of lefties moving north “after growing heartsick at the soul-crushing death knell of liberalism that pundits declared after the president’s two-point victory.” It may be an easy target, but Labash hits it creatively: “Canadians are bizarrely obsessed with us, binge-eating out of our cultural trough, then pretending it tastes bad.”
Speaking of great lines, a lot of them come from Labash’s subjects. Take Kinky Friedman, who explains that there’s a “fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.” Or Traficant, who used to say things like the “White House needs a lobotomy performed by a proctologist” from the floor of the House. As good as Labash is with a turn of phrase, he also stays out of the way of his subjects, letting these characters and their charming nuttiness speak for itself.
Excerpt: “As he takes the podium, Trump’s entire entourage is present. There’s Roger Stone, his political consigliere, who is, as always, immaculately and ornately haberdashed in café au lait suede shoes and a gangster boldstripe suit. ‘I haven’t bought off the rack since I was seventeen,’ says Stone. There is Trump’s bodyguard, all muscle and menace. His name is Matt Calamari, so we immediately start calling him ‘Matty the Squid,’ thought not to his face. Most important, there is Melania Knauss, Trump’s twenty-six-year-old supermodel girlfriend, who is four years removed from her native Slovenia. Melania. Her name is like a song. Her skirt is short, her heels are high. Her legs are so long that her torso seems like an afterthought.”
Further Reading: Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government by P. J. O’Rourke and Things Worth Fighting for: Collected Writings by Michael Kelly