There’s really nothing all that amusing about the newspaper industry’s death spiral, but that hasn’t stopped Richard Hine from using it as the backdrop for Russell Wiley Is Out to Lunch, a frequently funny poke in the ribs to American corporate culture, consumerism, and the sad middle-aged slide toward compromise.
The jacket describes Russell Wiley as “one parts Glengarry Glen Ross and two parts Sophie Kinsella,” and I suppose that’s a fair summation — it’s a satire, one which takes place under the black gloom of an industry’s contraction and overall economic downturn, but Hine is too fond of his characters to plunge them headlong into the murk. He knows where to place his jabs, but he pulls all his punches, and as a result, the book’s satirical component lacks bite.
This would matter more if it weren’t so easy to tell why Hine likes his characters so much — particularly his beleaguered protagonist, Russell Wiley, a charming oasis of sanity in the sea of corporate malfeasance that is the Daily Business Chronicle. (It’s a fictitious paper, but Hine worked at the Wall Street Journal, so draw your own conclusions.) The Chronicle has recently been purchased by a media conglomerate, a dreaded outside consultant is coming in to “crunch some numbers,” and Russell’s wife has lost interest in sex; clearly, things are coming to a head.
There are a lot of familiar ingredients in here, obviously, and as we’re living in an era when books, films, and TV shows about white-collar bozos may outnumber actual white-collar jobs, you may be tempted to dismiss Russell Wiley out of hand. Don’t. Hine’s writing what he knows here, and he’s got a real gift for pacing, dialogue, and — again — characters you don’t mind spending time with. It reminded me of Stanley Bing’s Lloyd: What Happened, which is a pretty major compliment.
In the end, Hine stumbles a little, as his deep affection for Russell and his colleagues visibly intrudes on the mostly realistic-seeming world he’s built for them — but if it isn’t the most believable final act, it’s probably the one that makes the most sense for a book this sweetly charming. It may as well have been titled Richard Hine Is One to Watch.