Corruption, Greed in the Roaring ‘20s Set the Tone for ‘Truth to Power’

Rebekah Frank

 

The roaring Twenties, organized crime, crooked politicians, the assault on the newspaper industry by big money, sex, love, romance; Truth to Power by J.S. Matlin has it all.  Only it still manages to fall flat.  The book, broken into three subsections, begins in 1924 with the central character, David Driscoll, pulling into a town called St. Luke in the American Midwest.  Humiliated by the discovery of his dalliance with the editor-in-chief’s wife and an unethical arrangement with an advertiser, he is sent packing from his first job at The St. Louis Star to a smalltown newspaper called The St. Luke Bugle, a Republican-leaning daily with a reputation for fair and balanced reporting.  He is assigned to the local beat, covering the changing of the political guard from the well-established Democratic machine run by longtime politician Ed Hanrahan to the newcomers, a bunch of World War I veterans who call themselves the New Democrats, headed by St. Luke’s own Michael Doyle.  And that is where the story begins.

 

In the first conversation between Driscoll and his new editor, it is revealed that Driscoll and Mike Doyle are old childhood friends, Doyle having helped Driscoll regain his stolen marbles on the playground some years earlier.  What began was a strong, yet somewhat short-lived friendship between the two boys, one that was truncated when Doyle’s father was killed in a mining accident, causing him and his family to move from the small town of Rawlings to St. Luke.  When the pair, Doyle now a veteran of the Great War and Driscoll a journalist with a slightly tarnished reputation, become reacquainted, it is over corned beef sandwiches, dreams of beer and the sharing of major life events. 

 

Though the book takes place during Prohibition, and many of the scenes involve and even highlight the consumption of alcohol, Matlin fails to really explore any of the interesting aspects of the era.  There is no mention of the Teetotalers or other dry activist groups, and the danger associated with alcohol consumption is largely glossed over.  It’s too bad because that underlying tone of illegality and suspense could have made the book much more thrilling and memorable.  Instead, he peppers the book with unnecessary sex scenes that are in stark contrast to the oftentimes overly stiff characters he writes.

 

Matlin’s main technique to impart information to the reader is through abundant and often repetitive dialogue.  At one point in a conversation between Driscoll and Doyle, Driscoll says to his old friend, “My father was badly affected by the mining accident. A taciturn man at the best of times, I hardly heard him utter a word for weeks and if he did, it was to reproach my mother, my sister or me for some trivial indiscretion. My mother, Elizabeth, remained stoic.” 

 

As a bit of narration used to highlight strained family ties and give insight into the character, Driscoll’s statements might be helpful but as a conversation between two old friends, it seems highly unbelievable.  Unfortunately, this overwrought, stilted and formal style of dialogue is a constant throughout the book, giving the reader the impression that Matlin simply does not trust his own skill with colloquial dialogue and instead allows his characters to do the work for him.  And they work extremely hard, oftentimes repeating the same tired themes over and over again.  Driscoll, for example, makes a point of proving how unflinchingly ethical he has become following his early humiliation in St. Louis.  The effect of all this is to create a rift between the reader and the characters, leaving us with minimal sympathies for the events that follow throughout the book. 

 

The events themselves are myriad yet somehow uninspired.  One that specifically comes to mind occurs towards the end of the book when Driscoll’s young daughter, Charlotte, is kidnapped from his front lawn while her mother Abby, Driscoll’s wife, is inside.  At this point organized crime has come to town and even Al Capone himself has decided to set down roots in St. Luke to escape the watchful eye of the police in Chicago.  It has become clear that after years of trying to keep the mob out of St. Luke, Doyle’s many character flaws, including his propensity to bet on ponies, has made their entrance inevitable. 

 

There is a moment where the reader thinks, hopes almost, that Capone or even Doyle is somehow behind the kidnapping, a punishment for Driscoll’s relentless hammering of the corruption of the New Democratic Party, corruption that has become almost endemic to the political life of the city.  And yet Matlin misses this opportunity.  Instead, he brings in a random couple from Arkansas, upset with their lot in life following the crash of 1929 and their inability to find work.  They had read about Driscoll in the newspaper, knew he was wealthy and took Charlotte almost on a whim.  It took Doyle, along with Capone’s right-hand man, Max Torino, no time at all to mildly threaten the couple, who spill the information almost immediately, and retrieve the girl.  It seems that Matlin uses the kidnapping as a way to demonstrate the complexities inherent in Doyle, that while he is enriching himself through government contracts, he takes the time to save the daughter of an old friend turned adversary.  At this late stage in the book this is tiresome and gives the distinct impression that not only does Matlin not trust his own ability to communicate with the reader, he also underestimates the intelligence of his audience.

 

 

The inclusion of Al Capone in the novel is problematic and rather confusing.  Although it can be useful to create a bit part for a well-known gangster, Matlin’s approach is merely to drop Capone’s name a few times throughout the book without truly taking advantage of America’s fascination with him and his legacy.  It brings to mind the famous quote by Anton Chekhov:  “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.  If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

 

The book is not all bad, however.  Matlin, in a move that is especially interesting considering the time period in which the book is set, writes incredibly strong, albeit slightly one-dimensional, female characters.  Abby Driscoll runs the home she shares with David, and Matlin makes this extremely clear.  While she is supportive of David’s ambition, and even encourages him to buy the struggling Bugle late in the book, she makes sure to let David know that she will not simply stand in the shadows while he pursues his dreams.  She is accomplished in her own right, having received a PhD from Columbia.  It would have been nice had Matlin explored this fact a little bit more, as Columbia only started offering Ph.D.s to women in the late 1800s, making Abby something of pioneer.  Relying on Abby’s strength of will and character, and David’s appreciation of these attributes, would have made for much more interesting and relatable characters and, subsequently, a much richer plotline.  Abby is not the only strong female to figure in Truth to Power; her mother is an accomplished doctor in Richmond, Virginia, and the accountant largely responsible for bringing down Doyle’s administration is a woman named Emily Venn.  It is true that he could have teased these characters out slightly more, but their mere presence in the book is notable and important.

 

One must hand it to Matlin:  His choice of the time span including Prohibition, the Great Depression and the hatching of the New Deal was an inspired one.  Those years were rife with social change, untested policies and organized crime.  His decision to look into crooked politicians using a journalist as his muckraker was smart, given that at that time newspapers were the main source of information for the population and talented, hard-headed investigative journalists were something akin to heroes.  This was an era when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were ushering in their brand of Yellow Journalism, throwing their money and influence around and changing the face of print media in the United States. 

 

David Driscoll was a clear opponent of that trend, through his unflagging commitment to the first amendment and his belief in the need for transparency in government.  Matlin illustrates this by forcing the now ethical Driscoll to leave the paper when it is bought out by interests from New York City who are hell-bent on turning it into another sensationalist rag whose content was to be largely controlled by advertisers.  It is not long before Driscoll finds out that Doyle has muscled his way into the newspaper business through buying a majority percentage of The Bugle, essentially turning the paper into a mouthpiece for the New Democrats.  Driscoll moves on to another paper to continue his style of journalism, all the while gathering information about Doyle’s machine politics. 

 

 

When it reaches Driscoll’s ear that Doyle can no longer afford to keep the paper, Driscoll uses intermediaries to buy it out from under him, returning The Bugle to its previous glory and bringing Doyle and his machine down in the process. It would have been a true David and Goliath story if not for Matlin’s tendency to undermine his story through boring prose and his tendency to introduce attention-grabbing red herrings.  This book could have been compelling, the characters sympathetic and relatable, if only Matlin had relied on history, his craft, and the ability of his readers to put two and two together.

 

Author Bio:

Rebekah Frank is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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