It’s 1994 and Gingrich and DeLays’ “Contract with America” has laid out the plan to grab up the majority in the House of Representatives. Freshman incumbent Lance Mansfield (R-PA) wants to run for Senate and lobbyist Denny Best has been tasked by his firm with making sure that doesn’t happen in Ed Uravic’s novel Lying Cheating Scum. Set in both Washington, D. C. and a thinly fictionalized central Pennsylvania, the story unfolds from Best’s cynical, narcissistic, and darkly humorous point of view. A self-described professional drinker, Denny has one week to use his cunning, contacts, and corporate credit card digging up enough dirt to bury Mansfield’s Senate bid.
If you want a serious, suspenseful political thriller, look a little further. If, however you want to chuckle often as you read an engrossing tale of back room legal deals, adultery, corrupt public officials and a protagonist you almost feel guilty for liking, grab a copy of Lying Cheating Scum. I constantly told myself “That is just so wrong,” but couldn’t stop laughing or reading.
As I read the first few chapters, I kept thinking to myself that Denny was just such a self-absorbed jerk. He ogles any woman that crosses his line of sight, including his friend Jon’s college age daughter. He is obsessed with the materials and brands of his shoes and turtlenecks. He shamelessly flirts with Congressman Mansfield’s wife while admitting that his own marriage is empty of any value except networking opportunities. He sees nearly all other people in terms of what he can get from them, whether that is money, favors, or sex. When asked what he does for a living besides drink, Denny responds,
“Well, I try to get other people to drink with me. Then, when they’re drunk, I get them to tell me their secrets and promise to do things for me…No, all I want from the people I lobby is meaningless sex, women mostly.”
Then I realized it: Denny is just being himself. He is a genuine, unrepentant, selfish guy who thinks with his hormones more often than with his brain. He is also witty, charming and driven to accomplish his goals. While he seems like a spoiled child with a grown man’s body, he is honest with the reader even as he lies, cheats, and manipulates the other characters in the book. There is one notable exception to Denny’s selfishness: Katie Monahan, daughter of Jon Monahan, Pennsylvania businessman and Denny’s “go to guy.” Throughout the book, Denny and Katie’s friendship is a given. He watched her grow up. They went to hockey games in Hershey. Katie trusts him and he tries to live up to her trust. Central to the story is this paradox about Denny; he is scum, but down deep, there is still a core of decency to him. Not so with Lance Mansfield, the congressman in Denny’s political cross-hairs. With just a few quick vignettes, Uravic ratchets up the level of scummery with which Mansfield is described. He starts at egotistical, moves quickly up to womanizer, and then tops out at sociopathic sexual predator.
“Ray had told me Mansfield liked the girls, I mean really liked the girls. Followed his **** around like a water stick in the desert. He had apparently come into his own as a congressman who could exploit a ready supply of naïve or not-so-naive young female professionals easily impressed by his dashing good looks and great job, kind of like a pedophile becoming a grade school teacher.”
The conflict between Denny and Mansfield works wonderfully because Denny is a guilty pleasure whereas Mansfield is just guilty. Mansfield is the classic abuser of power, grabbing for what he wants, whether it is a Senate seat or one of his female staffers. Uravic sets up a comfortable contrast between two different kinds of scum when he puts the spotlight on either character. Mansfield’s relationships are entirely about power over others and self-aggrandizement, whereas Denny has people he calls friends. His friendships may seem shallow but Uravic is great at giving glimpses into these supporting characters’ lives and how much denial Best puts himself through avoiding admitting to himself that he wishes he had their integrity, their family life or their stability.
It may sound like a simple morality tale, or perhaps more accurately an immorality tale, but Lying Cheating Scum is also a really fun read. Anyone can enjoy Denny’s snarky narration and those familiar with any of Harrisburg’s places and power players from the mid 90’s will have fun recognizing fictionalized versions of them. Throw in all the political dealings, sex, and a few good twists and what you get is a story that is tough to put down until it’s done.
Ed Uravic is a former Washington DC lobbyist currently working as a humorist, author, speaker and faculty member at Harrisburg University. You can read his humor essays online at AboutMeNotYou.com. Lying Cheating Scum, and its sequel, I Used to Be Somebody are available at local bookstores including the Midtown Scholar, and online through Amazon & Google and iTunes.