Pianist in a Bordello by Mike C. Erickson is a political satire about a congressional candidate who, ten points down in the polls, decides to tell the truth about his life in an incendiary memoir. After the introduction where his handlers are imploring him to not release this autobiography, the bulk of the book is the autobiography itself, where we learn that the congressman-to-be was raised by a hippie father on a commune, and gets involved with all types of women, nearly gets arrested for spilling state secrets, and basically doesn’t behave very well for someone hoping to enter politics.
The book is also a fun trip through the last several decades of American history. Refreshingly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously – the lead character is called Richard Milhouse Nixon Youngblood after all – but like the best satire there’s a current of seriousness and truth running through everything. This is a witty, incisive, oftentimes hilarious novel with surprises on virtually every page. Each chapter is also punctuated with amusing and thought-provoking quotes. This one leaped out: “Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, but dumb enough to think it’s important – Senator Eugene McCarthy.”
Where the novel sometimes falls flat is perhaps not being outlandish enough. Everyone wants politicians to be honest and not act like strange talking-point-spouting robots. Pianist in a Bordello satisfies some of that desire, but it perhaps doesn’t go as far as it could. Though Richard Youngblood is more honest than a politician would ever be in a real-life memoir, his tell-all is more amusing than alarming. It’s entertaining, to be sure, but the autobiography lacks a fair bit of shock value to be truly controversial, which takes something away from its central premise. Given that he’s a Democrat running in a district in California, his hippie past may not be a deal breaker for many voters. The novel might have had more urgency if he was a conservative running in Oklahoma, revealing a left-wing past. Of course, that’s an entirely different book, as Richard Youngblood is classically liberal, but in a book that’s about refreshing honesty, his story could have gone further.
The movie “Bulworth,” tells a similar tale, yet the politician in that movie appropriates hip-hop and goes completely off the rails. It offers a satisfying what-if scenario. An argument could be made that a story like “Bulworth” is so over the top that it loses some credibility. It’s an impossible scenario, meant only as a fantasy. Pianist in a Bordello, on the other hand, stays within the bounds of the possible, so it is more plausible, and therefore even more incisive. His truth-telling exposé is just crazy enough to work.
Read through that lens, the book is both amusing and insightful. Though Richard Youngblood is a liberal Democrat, this is not a Democrats-only novel, despite a certain sympathy to left-wing ideas that might not be as appealing to some readers. Above the politics, however, is the strength of Richard Youngblood’s voice. You’ll keep reading because he’s such a lively and likeable narrator, making Pianist in a Bordello an effective political satire.