The first chapter of Doug Marlette's novel, "The Bridge," is titled: "A Gift for P***ing People Off." Although the novel is only loosely autobiographical, Marlette's work as both prize-winning political cartoonist and novelist has proved his title consistently true.
As the year wraps up, Marlette is on the receiving end of an Islamist fatwa protesting a dead-on editorial cartoon that ran last week, while his novel is struggling against a continuing tide of opposition from unseen but powerful forces.
Marlette's cartoon, which has prompted thousands of threatening e-mails, depicts a man dressed in Middle-Eastern garb driving a Ryder truck bearing a nuclear missile with the caption: "What would Mohammed drive?"
Anyone half awake understands that the cartoon plays off the "What Would Jesus Drive" campaign against gas-guzzling SUVs and other recent events, namely that fundamentalist Islamists have hijacked their religion to justify murdering Americans.
Outrage, especially from literal-minded religious folk, is familiar territory to Marlette. He won a Pulitzer in 1988 for his skewering of the equally zealous, if comparatively benign, holy duo Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker of the infamous "Praise the Lord Club." Let's just say that Marlette is an equal-opportunity offender. It ain't personal.
What has become weirdly personal, however, is the truly bizarre attack on Marlette's first novel, a riveting tale of the Carolina cotton mill strikes of the 1930s. "The Bridge" (HarperCollins), published a year ago and now out in paperback, tells the story through the eyes of protagonist Pick Cantrell, who happens to be a political cartoonist.
When Cantrell loses his job at a New York newspaper, after beating up his publisher with his boss's own yachting trophy (a not-infrequent daydream of journalists everywhere), he and family return to their ancestral home place in North Carolina. There Cantrell, like Marlette himself, discovers the history of his mill worker family.
The story of the mill strikes is historically accurate, including when a national guardsman bayonets Cantrell's grandmother, as happened to Marlette's grandmother -a fiery feminist rebel to put today's poseurs to shame. What is not historically accurate is the depiction of other "social" characters in the book. They are, as often happens in works of fiction, fictional.
Yet several people in Marlette's current home of Hillsborough, N.C. (aka Hillqaeda) -many of them well-known authors -thought they recognized themselves in Marlette's novel and reacted with a provincial, panty-wadding fatwa all their own. Several nasty reviews suddenly materialized on Amazon.com. Marlette received Islamist-style death threats. And some bookstore owners were pressured by better-established writers to exclude "The Bridge" from their shelves. (For details go to www.dougmarlette.com.)
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and Marlette's book suffered another curious setback when Pat "The Great Santini" Conroy, a long-time friend of Marlette's, was asked to pick a book for the "Today" show's book club segment. When he picked "The Bridge," NBC producers blocked him saying that the authors' friendship posed a problem for the show's commitment to objectivity. Conroy subsequently declined their kind invitation to be manipulated.
"Today's" high-minded claim to objectivity has a nice ring, if only it were true. Last week, The New York Times reported that another author who appeared on the show, Jonathan Franzen, picked one of his own student's books as his selection -Adam Haslett's "You Are Not a Stranger Here."
"Today" spokeswoman Lauren Kapp told The Times that Franzen's admitted mentoring and critiquing of Haslett's work through the years did not pose a conflict. But Conroy's friendship with Marlette somehow did? Kapp managed to avoid explaining exactly how that thread of logic evolved.
Not to be too literal-minded, but there does seem to be something odoriferous underfoot. As a matter of objective fact, Marlette's book is deserving of any book club selection. It was good enough to be named "Best Novel of the Year" by the independent-minded Southeastern Booksellers Association. It was good enough for Paramount Pictures to buy the rights for a movie reportedly starring Tom Cruise. And good enough to keep me, a new friend and colleague, turning pages into the night.
But perhaps most compelling, "The Bridge" tells an important epic story of heroism, of poor (albeit white) workers who rose up against dark forces in the largest organized revolt in our nation's history after the American Revolution. That fellow writers should try to bury that story yet again -this time as an act of censorious revenge born of dysfunctional ego -is an outrage that only the Taliban could appreciate. I, for one, can't wait for the cartoon.