One of the books I bought when I was in Washington DC, and read immediately within one day, was the unfortunately-named Floater (1980) by Calvin Trillin. I didn’t realise when I picked it up, but it’s about journalists living in Washington DC – extremely apt, since I was staying with journalists living in Washington DC.
So, what is a floater, I hear you ask? The floater in question is Fred Becker, and the title means that he has no permanent position in the office of the national newsmagazine for which he works, but moves from section to section, filling in for holiday, illness, or whatever. Becker steadfastly resists any attempts to tie him down to a single section, preferring the peripatetic life, even if it leaves him jack of all trades and master of none…
As a back-of-the-book floater, he had accumulated a store of knowledge on all sorts of subjects – a knowledge of millenarian sects from his bondage in Religion, familiarity with the workings of hot-air balloons from a summer week in Sports, more than he wanted to know about New Math from a period spent in Education when Milt Silvers went to the hospital with an alligator bite. One of the problems with a floater’s knowledge, though, was its spottiness. He knew a lot about millenarian sects, but he had no idea what, say, Methodists believe. From several weeks in the Business section at one time or another, he happened to have learned a lot about Asian currency manipulation and the speculative market in bull semen, but he wouldn’t have had the first notion about how to go about obtaining a mortgage. He knew practically nothing about French impressionism, but he could have delivered an after-dinner speech on the work of one abstract expressionist who happened to die when the regular Art writer was on vacation.
Lovely! Trillin has a way with words which I love, never quite tipping over into ba-dum-crash joke territory, but with a light absurdity which is just the sort of thing I love. Take, for example, the incident where Becker tries to get off the Religion page by writing ‘allegedly’ after everything mentioned – ‘the alleged birth of Christ’, for instance. And then there is the Lifestyles piece on ‘2/3 stockings’. Becker can find nobody who has a clue what this means, but plenty of people willing to pretend. Floater reminded me a lot of Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, which is no bad thing, but without nearly Waugh’s level of meanness. Like Tepper Isn’t Going Out, this novel (which was Trillin’s first) is often about the stupidity and irrationality of the workplace, but never with the menace of Magnus Mills or the dark claustrophobia of Kafka – rather, again like Tepper, there is an amiability about it all.
That, I think, is the novel’s main achievement: the amiability of Becker. There is a managing editor who isn’t pleasant, and an officious staff member desperate to be offended by everything that is said, but ultimately everybody is a little bit selfish but essentially amiable. I’m using that word again, because it is the one which fits best – the characters are not good, except in the way that a sort of weary inertia prevents anybody doing anything outright bad. But to make a character as unwittingly charming as Becker is an impressive feat, one replicated two decades later in Tepper. One of my favourite characters – or, rather, my favourite lampoon – is Silvers. He is that self-conscious eccentric we all know (particularly in Oxford); the sort of person who describes themselves as ‘a bit mad’, and makes sure they are surrounded by props to back it up.
“The deal on the London taxi is closed,” Silvers said. “Of course, you should have heard my insurance man’s voice when I called to switch the insurance over from the John Deere tractor. He thinks I’m a little unusual.”
Becker had never figured out how to reply to Silvers in a way that did not provoke more stories. Usually, he just stood there nodding dumbly while using the Thai’s concentration methods or glancing around for escape routes.
“One of the great advantages of a London taxi, of course, is that if you happen to have a unicycle, which I just happen to have, the unicycle will fit snugly in the luggage area right next to the driver. Of course, when your average New York traffic cop sees a London taxi drive by with a unicycle right…”
Becker briefly considered pretending to have a heart attack.
There is a narrative threaded through it all, concerning rumours about the President’s wife, with all manner of intrigue, plot, and counter-plot, but (although rather satisfying when it all comes together) it is largely incidental to Floater, which is primarily successful because of the creation of Becker and the tone Trillin achieves.
I’ve only found one other blog review – Teresa’s – and she wasn’t a huge fan, so there’s fair warning. I found it a quick, wryly amusing, delight; a send-up of an environment for which Trillin obviously feels a great deal of affection.