09 Aug 2013

Corporate America by Jack Dougherty

1 Comment Book Reviews


Thank You For Smoking meets House of Cards in this fast-paced, sharp satire about the business world. 

After aspiring novelist Francis Scanlon is expelled from a prestigious graduate creative writing program, he is forced to become a spin doctor at the Prock Chocolate Corporation while he awaits the publication of his masterpiece. 

But Francis’s expectations of easy money and literary glory are thwarted by a paranoid boss determined to run him out of the company, a charlatan writing coach, a snarky reporter, a sanctimonious public health crusader more Goebbels than Gandhi, an oily U.S. Senator with presidential aspirations, and a radical Muslim cleric with absolutely no sense of humor.

As the story unfolds in San Francisco, Washington, New York, Krakow, Mumbai, Jakarta, and a series of lush equatorial corporate jet refueling stations, Francis is swept up by market forces and transformed from pretentious literary cliché to reluctant executive to master practitioner of the black art of corporate power-politics. The story ends up, rather unexpectedly, as a surprisingly sweet romantic comedy as well.

A unique exploration of the way business, politics, career trajectories and interpersonal relations intermingle, Corporate America is a smart, literate comedy that deftly blends bone-dry satire, high ideals and bad taste without ever showing its seams.

About the Author1013529_10200795839072107_1119599198_n

Jack Dougherty has operated at the highest echelons of Corporate America—a place where few authors go. A former top PR executive inside two Fortune 500 companies and a consultant to more than a dozen others, he has formulated communications and media response strategies for CEOs and companies targeted by investigative journalists, headline-hungry politicians, revenue-hungry Attorneys General, wild-eyed activists and crafty plaintiff’s lawyers. Jack’s political clients have included elected officials at the local level, members of the United States House of Representative and the United States Senate, and politicians abroad. He coauthored a business book entitled Most Likely to Succeed at Work (St. Martin’s Press).



Jack, please tell us a little about yourself as a person and as author.

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I am from a gigantic Irish-Catholic family.  Youngest of eight with seven sisters ahead of me—which is why I enjoy writing female characters. 

I began my career in politics, writing speeches for members of the Missouri House of Representatives, then moved to Washington, DC, and did similar work on Capitol Hill. For a few years I worked as a staff writer for a DC-based NGO, one focused on helping high school dropouts get back on track. After that, I worked for a big PR firm and then went on to work as an executive inside two Fortune 500 corporations. 

What is your connection or fascination with Eastern Europe? Or where is your fascination coming from?

When I was 22 a girlfriend turned me on to Milan Kundera and I got seriously hooked.  I got very heavily into Czech and Polish literature.  I suspect the books awakened in me my dormant Jewish gene: Though I was raised 100% Irish-Catholic (Archie Bunker division), my maternal grandmother was a Polish Jew.  I think I simply had an eerie biological connection to the place.

How did you come up with the title of your book?

The marketing guy in me thought something “high concept” would telegraph to the readers what the book was about.

How did you create the plot for this book?

Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, for my birthday, I treated myself to a roundtrip ticket to Auschwitz. 

Loaded down with my Eastern Euro lit, I stopped on the way from Prague to Krakow in a little village called Šumperk, in Czechoslovakia.  Tiny place.  No more than ten buildings.  And, the Czechs being the Czechs, eight of them were pubs.  I checked in to my hotel, this grim Communist hostel holdover.  Next to the bed is this tiny little radio.  Cheap, plastic—from the 1960s.  I pushed the first preset station button and I got a talk show.  Two people, a man and a woman, very distinct voices.  Then I pushed the next button saw that I jumped a few inches down the dial—but I got the same talk show.  So I pushed the third button, and I got it a third time.  Then the  fourth and …you guessed it.  Now, this wasn’t like an annoying teenager who hijacks the stereo in your car and programs all the stations to his favorite one.  Each station was at a different place on the dial. You were given the illusion of choice, but behind curtain number one, curtain number two and curtain number three the state put the same cheap prize.  It was so sinister. Yet comically sinister, in my view.  Somehow, in my imagination, I began to fuse my experience in the East Bloc with my corporate work at the time (I was doing PR work for a Fortune 200 company).  It became a comic shotgun-wedding of sorts.

How do you come up with your ideas? Who or what inspired you?

I basically cooked up about 20 different scenarios—some informed to a certain degree by experience yet wildly embellished, others made up entirely. 

Did you have it all planned out before you wrote it or did the characters and story surprise you?

Yes!  I storyboarded the book.  (I actually wrote the final chapter first—just so I’d know where I was going to wind up.)  The characters, who were thin and sketchy at first, emerged organically as I wrote (and re-wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote). 

Is your main aim to entertain or relay a message?

Entertain.  Great quote from the British novelist Henry Green:  “If you can make the reader laugh he is apt to get careless and go on reading.”

Would you say your book has a message and could you hint at it – for the confused?

I was very interested in exploring the never-ending tension between the political Left and Right in the US.  I set the story in a chocolate company because “Foodism”—if I may invent a term—is the  new battleground on which the culture war in America is being fought:  the fast food slobs versus the slow food snobs. The food industry is a delicious backdrop against which to set this story because it bundles all of America’s class war issues into one glorious, landfill-clogging Styrofoam box:

  • It’s the unscrupulous capitalists at the food companies versus the insufferable do-gooders of the public health community, the news media, and Capitol Hill.
  • It’s the wealthy, wicked, white guys in the corporations against poor, undereducated, people of color and children.
  • It’s the paternalistic Left against the personal responsibility Right.
  • The obesity battle, in particular, has my personal favorite ingredient—that uniquely American class war issue that dare not speak its name—the skinny people against the fat people.

How could a satirist possibly resist this topic? And setting the story inside a chocolate company seemed to me the pinnacle of ridiculousness.

What do you like best about writing? What’s your least favorite thing?

Best:  Writing jokes.  Least: Cutting jokes, because I think all my jokes are funny (which they are decidedly not.)

What is your writing environment like?

My wife and I live in a 150-year-old former train station in rural VA.  Great place to write!

How have you found the experience of publishing? What type of publishers are your publishers? What were your highs and lows?

I published with a major house (my first book) and for Corporate America (my second) I did an exclusive deal with Amazon, which has a new program for writers represented by literary agents.  Frankly, the experience was almost identical.  In short, if you are the writer today, you own it:  You must submit a 100% perfect book, because no one in the publishing industry has the time, budget or editorial staff to help you “craft” a novel anymore; you own marketing and PR; you own distribution; you own making reviews happen.

What is your advice to new writers?

Read poetry.

Who are your favourite independent writers?

I don’t distinguish.  Increasingly, I don’t think other readers do either.  Either people write well or poorly.  Either they tell a good story or they do not.

What three books have you read recently and would recommend?

One of the most powerful books I can recommend is Under a Cruel Star, by Heda Margolius Kovaly.  It’s on my desert island list.  If you read one book before you die, read her memoir.  A Czech-Jew, Kovaly escapes from Auschwitz and returns to Prague, marries, and then gets caught up in a notorious Soviet show-trial in the early 1950s. 

Hanna Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem heavily informed my novel, as did Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing by Horst J. P. Bergmeier  & Rainer E. Lotz.  Joseph Goebbels created an ersatz swing band called “Charlie and his Orchestra” comprised of German musicians who were technically competent but utterly soulless, lackluster improvisers.   Only “master-race” Goebbels would have the audacity to rip off an artform invented by African-Americans, and later wildly popularized by two American Jews (Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw).  This, to me, makes the story all the more ironic, fascinating and diabolical.   

Who would you say are the biggest influences?

The Gloomy Slav (Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Jerszy Kosinski) and The British Satirists (Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, David Lodge).

What books have you read more than once or want to read again?

I have read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet at least five times.

Which character did you most enjoy writing?

Trudy Tylor, the glamorous, elegant, unreconstructed right-wing spokeswoman for the fashion industry. My aim was to make her “irresistibly detestable” to readers.

Are you like any of your characters? How so?

Every character in the book—except for the CEO—is a scoundrel.  So, naturally, I identify with everyone except the CEO.

What song would you pick to go with your book?

“Charlie and his Orchestra’s” cringe-making rendition of “Makin’ Whoopie”

How do you handle criticism of your work?

My first book was extremely well reviewed and I was shocked at how much I could have cared less.  You write what you write, you do your best, and you know when you’re done if it’s crap or something to be proud of. 

What are you working on now?

This interview.

Here is a sample/excerpt from the book:

The Scene:  At the Willard Hotel’s “Round Robin Bar,” in Washington, DC.  The hero of Corporate America, aspiring novelist Francis Scanlon, has just explained the plot of his novel-in-progress to a woman he’s trying to seduce, Trudy Tylor, a self-described “libertarian fashionista.”  Here is their exchange.

“Just ….oh, please…not another tedious story about the Nazis.  Yet another doomed love affair between a Nazi commandant and a camp inmate.  Haven’t we heard quite enough already?” said Trudy.  “Why is it that no one affords equal time in literature to the atrocities of the Left, which, in my view, were far more sinister?  The Germans—they only held on to power for fifteen years.  Do you know how easy it for propagandists to play to an audience’s vanity?  Parades and scapegoats and what not.  That’s not so hard.  But the Russians—they were about breaking the audience’s will; they terrorized the audience—and lasted seventy.  They’d knock down a 500-year-old baroque treasure and erect a grotesque cement box up in its place without blinking an eye.  What discipline!”

Even though I had been forced to take a corporate job, I was still a progressive who sided with the wretched of the earth.  “At least the Left is motivated by ideals.  Their leaders were, admittedly, deeply flawed.  But the initiatives of the Left, no matter how misguided, started out as an effort to do the right thing.”

She waved her champagne flute in the air.  “That sentence is proof positive that the Left perpetrated the greatest P.R. scam of the twentieth century, and quite possibly in history.  The communists killed a hundred million people.  The Nazis killed twenty million.  Yet Mao gets immortalized on a T-shirt; Hitler does not,” said definitively, clinching the argument.

Trudy Tylor gulped more champagne.  “You’re a bloody awful debater, but I’ll grant you that the fascists occupy a more prominent place in the collective imagination for one reason and one reason only:  They knew how to dress.  For second only to the Left’s crimes against humanity were their unspeakable sartorial crimes.  The Left has absolutely zero fashion sensibility.  That dreadful little man Khrushchev, slapping his cheap plastic shoes on the counter.  Pol Pot outfitting his rebels in Capri pants and those poufy gingham kerchiefs tied about their necks.  What was that man thinking?  Where did he think he was fighting his guerilla war?  In Chelsea?  No right-wing dictator would allow his men to be debased that way.  And let’s not even start on their grooming.  Positively hideous.  Look at Fidel Castro’s beard.  Beans, rice and maduros caked in it.  Bloody awful.”

I licked the corners of my mouth; no maduros on me.

“Wretched, all of them.  And that greasy Che Guevara, vile man.  Take a bath and have a shave.  Pluck your eyebrows, Comrade Brezhnev.”  She flipped her wrist and the vintage men’s Cartier Tank slid down her twiggy arm.  “Ah, but the look of the right!” she exclaimed.  “Smart and snappy.  Well groomed.  Pressed uniforms in fabulous menacing colors—loads of reds, browns and black.  Pinochet looked like a million pounds in his uniform.”  She pulled a long, philosophical drag off the Dunhill.  “I’d rather be thrown out of the airplane by him than sentenced to the gulag by that dreary Mr. Stalin,” she said wistfully.


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written by
Christoph Fischer was born in Germany in 1970 as the son of a Sudeten-German father and a Bavarian mother. ‘The Luck of The Weissensteiners’ is his first published work. He has written several other novels which are in the later stages of editing and finalisation.
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