So, another Washington mystery has been solved. Time’s Mark Halperin has put two and two together and declared Mark Salter, John McCain’s once trusted adviser and political alter ego, the author of O, the gimmicky anonymous novel about the Obama White House. Not that Halperin had to put much shoe leather into reporting this one out. Page Six all but declared Salter the winner last week. (Of course, Primary Colors, the Clinton-era novel which O apes, had many authors before Joel Klein aroused himself from anonymity.)
The reviews so far have been less than sterling. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times sniffed, “Well, now we know why the author of this much gossiped about, heavily marketed new book wanted to remain anonymous: O: A Presidential Novel is a thoroughly lackadaisical performance—trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny.”
But if you think that’s tough, you should hear Salter himself on his own writing abilities. We got in touch with the former McCain speechwriter this August after reading Joe Hagan’s New York magazine profile, which first described Salter’s early efforts at the writing bench. Disenchanted with McCain’s fall from maverick hero to angry man chasing J.D. Hayworth around the desert, Salter retreated to the Maine coast and set about writing fiction.
How was it going? Not so well, it turned out.
“I tried writing fiction after the '08 campaign ended. I didn’t have the talent for it, and returned to more reliably lucrative speechwriting,” Salter told The Daily Beast in an email.
“I wrote a few stories in the spring of ‘09 but didn’t try to have them published because I didn’t think they were any good,” Salter said.
Salter told us that he wouldn’t be showing up any time soon in the fiction aisle.
“I gave it up altogether because the kind of writers I admire have so much more talent than I do that it discouraged me from believing that I could write anything a tenth as good as they do,” he wrote.
Salter said he found writing fiction and crafting speeches for McCain “as different as brain surgery is from giving someone an aspirin.”
For now, Salter is keeping mum, at the request of Simon & Schuster editor Jonathan Karp. We’ve emailed both asking for comment. No word yet from Karp as to whether Salter was being too hard on himself.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.