Where's the Wit?

The failure of Ana Marie Cox's first novel, "Dog Days," starts at the bottom, with the heroine's shoes. In the opening scene, Melanie Thorton, a low-level presidential campaign staffer, wears a pair of "strappy" Charles David sandals with a heel "thin and wide, like an upright graham cracker." The shoes, we are told, cost $350, and were a reward she gave herself though they are now causing her pain.

If you're trying to knock-off "Sex and the City"--which Cox desperately is, with her single women bantering about cocktails and men--at least get the shoes right. They cannot be a brand that's available online and at shopping malls in the exurbs. They should be unattainably expensive. (Charles Davids actually go for about half of what Cox reports.) They must not involve man-made materials. And it is imperative that the heel be more stylish than a snack food. Tackiness in literature should only be intentional.

Melanie's bad shoes are indicative of this book's problems. It's not nearly as sexy or as fun or as chic as Cox intended--which is odd, since she first became known as Wonkette, the witty blogger who dressed up politics with her snide, titillating commentary. That the same writer could be so relentlessly unfunny in her novel is actually a point of interest.

Her protagonist works for a Kerryesque presidential campaign. Though we're told this is a job the 28-year-old has been dreaming of her whole life, she cares much more about whether her Blackberry will rattle with another e-mail from the married correspondent she's sleeping with. Unfortunately, he's a tool and as Cox readily admits, both of them are pale and fleshy after months on the campaign. These are the people we get to see having sex.

In between Melanie's romps, she and her pal Julie, a political consultant, get drunk and have tedious conversations. For example:

Julie: "Another round? I think I've got another twenty somewhere..."

Melanie: "I thought we were leaving. And in a hurry, it seemed."

Julie: "We were leaving that conversation."

Melanie: "Why?"

Julie: "I haven't known you that long, darling, but I know that look. The my-midwestern-charm-is-about-to-crumble-and-I-may-inadvertently-reveal-what-really-frightens-me look."

Melanie: "Oh, that look."

At a certain point even they get bored enough to invent a character named Capitolette, who writes a made-up blog about getting paid by lawmakers for sex, a take-off on a real-life blogger, the Washingtonienne, whose prostitutional exploits Cox celebrated on her own blog a few years ago. In the book, Capitolette is supposed to divert media attention from Melanie's affair, as well as the swift-boat-like scandal engulfing her candidate. Eventually, Melanie and Julie cast a real bimbo to play Capitolette on the Washington social scene. Soon the forced banter is matched only by the forced drama.

For someone who had a pretty original voice on her blog, Cox's writing in her novel is surprisingly cliché. The pain is "searing," the instincts are "base," the linings are "silver" and the jujitsu is "verbal." When things come apart "at the seams," the characters are "left to their own devices." But they step "gingerly," and laugh "in spite of" themselves, which works "like a charm," makes "time fly" and is, you guessed it, a "breath of fresh air." To be fair, I did count three phrases that were well-written. The first is Melanie watching a "pantomime of flirtation" through a window. The second is when Cox describes a reporter with a notebook as "holstering his pen in its spiral." And this: "Clothes hung out of Melanie's suitcase like they had been shot trying to escape." Regardless, you won't want to touch this book "with a ten foot pole.".