Cityside by William Heffernan
In May of 1975, at the dawn of the disco era, and one year after the Watergate investigation brought down a president, Billy Burke, reporter for the tabloid New York Globe, receives a pair of interrelated assignments. The first is to write a series of articles chronicling the plight of Roberto Avalon, a five-year-old boy who will die without an expensive operation to correct a congenital heart defect. Burke’s city editor envisions the series as the cornerstone of a fundraising campaign to raise the $90,000 needed to pay for his surgery while boosting his paper’s circulation with a heart-wrenching human-interest story. Meanwhile, Burke must simultaneously unearth and expose the corruption and hypocrisy of the medical establishment that requires the boy’s mother to pay for the expensive operation in advance while the same doctors bilk the city out of millions of dollars. Along the way, Burke must battle his employers’ avarice, a family’s desperation, and the personal demons that threaten to allow his empathy to cloud his objectivity.
William Heffernan populates Cityside with characters straight out of central casting from some platonic ideal of the B movie: alcoholic cops, pugnacious editors, self-important surgeons, saintly mothers, opportunistic publishers, and of course a protagonist whose unimpeachable moral compass obligates him to fight the good fight in spite of the “deep, personal pain that seemed to sit behind his eyes.” If these stereotypes weren’t enough, Heffernan hedges his bets by introducing Burke’s estranged wife, a woman who shares his deep, personal pain, and whose response to that pain paints her as an even more unimpeachably sainted character than Burke himself.
Indeed, the most nuanced character in Cityside is a mid-level mobster who shows up after Maria Avalon, Roberto’s mother, gets caught up in an ill-considered numbers running scheme as a way of earning money to help her son. In this one brief sequence, the only acknowledged criminal in the book demonstrates more compassion and humanity than the NYPD, the New York medical establishment and Burke’s city editor combined.
The fictional Burke is on the continuum of New York reporters that stretches from Damon Runyon through Jimmy Breslin to the current incumbents of the column inches that showcase New York City in all its glorious grittiness and romanticized indefatigability. Disgusted by what “the profession he loved” has become, Burke is nevertheless not above using the methods and tricks of modern journalism to devastating effect when it suits him, as when, in the course of the story, he hounds and then embarrasses a senior FBI agent during the investigation into a botched kidnapping.
In his narration, Heffernan makes several references to the post Watergate setting of the novel. In doing so, he suggests that Watergate fundamentally changed the very nature of journalism: “No longer was it enough to expose a wrong or reveal a problem that adversely affected people’s lives. Now, a specific villain had to be pilloried.”
Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on Watergate opened the floodgates on this brand of journalism, but it’s not as though water weren’t already pouring over the dam when the fruits of their investigation his print. If anything, Watergate represented a journalistic evolution – or devolution, depending on your point of view on such matters – rather than a revolution. The suggestion that viewing the news as an account of heroes and villains was part of a post-Nixonian sea change the fourth estate was helpless to resist is disingenuous. The difference is one of degree, not of kind. Watergate may have lowered the bar, but it hardly created the environment that gave rise to Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and the Fox News Channel.
Similarly, Heffernan’s depiction of the journalistic process fails to add anything substantive to our understanding of how reporters get their stories. His presentation of meetings with background sources, conversations with allies and informants in law enforcement, and the tricks, deceptions and borderline felonious behavior that are the backbone of a successful investigative expose feels perfunctory. While Cityside’s cover copy touts Heffernan’s status as a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, his writing about a field he obviously knows well reads with all the insight and revelation of a Very Special Episode of Lou Grant stripped of Ed Asner’s trademark gruff lovability.
Ultimately, Burke’s investigation is just too easy. There is no real challenge or risk behind Heffernan’s account of his protagonist’s undercover exploits. Burke gets in where he needs to, co-opts the people he needs to co-opt – in some cases with plays straight out of the James Bond flirtation playbook – and walks out with the information right under the noses of the people against whom he will
As a journalist, presenting this process in such a mundane light serves Heffernan’s apparent desire for verisimilitude. As the author of a book ostensibly branded as a thriller, this worth aspiration blunts the impact of the story he’s trying to tell. While it may be true that Burke is a character so good at his job in spite of the ambivalence he feels toward it, that the price of entry to the only worlds left to conquer is larger piece of his soul than he cares to part with, all this portrayal serves to do is make Billy Burke, already more caricature than character, seem even more cartoonish.
Perversely, I’m in the dubious position of taking William Heffernan to task for not writing a purely formulaic novel. It’s more than that, though; he’s telling a formulaic story, as by the numbers in its way as a Spenser novel, a Britney Spears CD or an episode of Law and Order. We, the audience, know what’s going to happen, can infer the path the story will take from Point A to Point Z, and know within a very narrow margin where the dramatic high and low points must of necessity fall. The results may be the cultural equivalent of an extra value meal, but we know what we’re getting when we ask for a Number 5, supersized.
Ultimately, it’s not that Heffernan fails to serve us the meal we’re expecting, but rather that he doesn’t do anything terribly interesting with his aspiration to confound our expectations.
Cityside by William Heffernan