Having read a fair amount of Blake Fontenay’s nonfiction writing — or at least what passes for the factual making of statements in state government circles — I was curious upon learning of his first published attempt at pure fiction.
It’s a novel titled “The Politics of Barbeque.”
Fontenay is the public relations guy for Tennessee’s three constitutional officers — the secretary of state, the state comptroller and the state treasurer. This is three times as many bosses than the typical state government employee assigned to deal with media and leaves him with the taxpayer-funded duty to write news releases on multiple fascinating topics.
The first sentence from some examples in the last week or so:
“At the request of the Tennessee General Assembly, the Comptroller’s office has prepared a report on compensation provided to county fee officials.”
“History is being re-created at the Tennessee Library and Archives (TLSA) with the opening of a new exhibit highlighting the events of the Civil War in 1862.”
“The former school bookkeeper of Beech Elementary School stole more than $17,000 from the school and nearly $2,000 from the school’s picture vendor, an investigative audit performed by the Comptroller’s Division of Investigations in coordination with the Sumner County Sheriff’s Department has revealed.”
“The Comptroller’s office has released the semiannual State of Tennessee Indebtedness Report, which can be viewed online at http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/sl/.”;
It’s all usually coherent and straightforward, which is more than can be said for some other governmental handouts, doubtless because of Fontenay’s prior experience making an honest living as a reporter, including a 10-year stint with the Commercial Appeal of Memphis. Or maybe, too, partly from the genes of his dad, the late Charles Fontenay, who I knew years ago as an energetic and entertaining employee of The Tennessean.
The book is set in Memphis and is certainly far more interesting and perhaps more enlightening — at least for Tennessee political junkies who realize that strange land is part of the state — than the author’s daily doses of governmental prose. The plot is somewhat implausible but multi-faceted and filled with enough twists, turns and odd characters to keep the reader turning the pages.
The villain is an utterly corrupt white mayor of a predominantly black city, elected by implausible fluke, who runs a barbecue restaurant and envisions using taxpayer dollars to build a World Barbecue Hall of Fame. And there’s this villainous barbecue baron in Kansas City who wants to steal the idea. And a pornography producer, also villainous, is much involved.
The hero is a public relations guy, working for a PR firm that has signed on the city of Memphis, which basically means the mayor, as one of its clients. The hero has got a buddy who is an Elvis impersonator. And he is smitten with a beautiful actress who has been talked by the mayor into helping promote the city investment in barbecue fame as a good deed for her homeland after achieving Hollywood celebrity status. And someone, dubbed the “Ghetto Blazer” by the local media, is going around Memphis burning down abandoned and decrepit houses.
An excerpt from the book, where the mayor is talking to the Memphis police chief, Bruno, a mayoral appointee, who has questioned the mayor for ordering him to make an unwarranted arrest:
“That brought a barking laugh from the mayor, who then finished the martini he had been working on and chewed a couple of olives with his mouth open. ‘God, Bruno, have long have you lived in Memphis? In government, nothin’ is what it should be. And while you think you’re Joe Friday from ‘Dragnet,’ the reality is you gotta be more than that. Job one, always, is making the boss look good. And to make me look good, I need you to arrest Gus Eldridge. I don’t wanna give you reasons. I don’t wanna have a strategic meetin’. I just want you to do it.’ ”
As a PR guy with the mayor as a client — pretty much the equivalent of a boss — the hero is not dedicated to “job one” in the fictional mayor’s political philosophy.
“The Politics of Barbeque” has some meat on its bones and a fair amount of flavor from characters more colorful than a larcenous school bookkeeper, if not a Civil War exhibit.
Not to downplay Fontenay’s governmental non-fiction writing, but his fiction makes for a lot better reading.
Note: This is a slightly modified version of a column running in Sunday’s News Sentinel.