Bill O’Reilly wants to sell you a part of himself. This week, it’s not a membership to his Web site or the “Spin Stops Here” doormat, or any of the other merchandise he regularly hawks on his show. No, he’s selling his first work of fiction, “Those Who Trespass: A Novel of Murder and Television.” Originally published in 1998 by a small press, it was rereleased last week in a Broadway Books trade-paper edition. Mel Gibson has already optioned the rights for the movie, certainly a change of pace from the “The Passion of the Christ.” Last Monday night on his Fox News show, O’Reilly billed the book as an “R-rated thriller” that’s “not for children, not for adults who find strong situations objectionable.” The novel, he says, will give the reader an insider’s view of the media and the New York Police Department.
A close read, however, gives you an inside view of the author’s mind. Like many other works of fiction — think Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman books or John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom series — it seems largely autobiographical. The talented talk-show host serves up characters who are paranoid, arrogant, insecure and supremely egotistical. On television, those qualities are O’Reilly’s greatest assets — his personality fills the screen as he strikes down enemies at the New York Times, CNN and NPR, derides Al Franken, and defends himself against an Internet infested with “smear merchants.” Translated to the page, however, those assets are fatal flaws.
The autobiographical evidence is clear: Both main characters are thinly veiled versions of O’Reilly himself. The protagonist is Tom O’Malley, a tough-talking Irish-American detective from Levittown, Long Island (O’Reilly’s hometown). Our antagonist, a deranged killer, is Shannon Michaels, a tough-talking news broadcaster who enjoys telling it like it is and making enemies. Michaels starts his career as a foreign correspondent for a big TV network and gets sidelined to a lesser TV gig. (O’Reilly reported overseas for ABC News before heading to the tabloid show “Inside Edition.”) With O’Reilly’s personality divided between good and evil, the cat-and-mouse game — detective vs. killer — begins.
A string of murders rocks the media world. In the opening chapter, a TV correspondent covering the Clintons’ vacation on Martha’s Vineyard gets offed. The cause of death, O’Malley says, is a long-stemmed silver spoon “jammed through the roof of the guy’s mouth.” (Promoting the book on “Good Morning America,” O’Reilly told co-host Charlie Gibson, “I kill you on Page 6.”) The second TV bigwig to be murdered is “a young woman named Hillary Ross,” an executive whose “entire career has been based on using and abusing the press” and who “couldn’t care less about journalistic ethics because to her it’s an oxymoron.” Hillary’s punishment is severe: Michaels stuffs pantyhose in her mouth before tossing her off the balcony of a Central Park West apartment.
As the narrative moves on, Michaels kills again and again. On a Malibu beach, he buries a man up to his neck in the sand. The crime? The victim produced faulty demographic research saying that younger audiences like younger news anchors. (Take that, Nielsen ratings!) Later, he slits the throat of local TV host Lance Worthington with a box cutter. “It’s a cutthroat business you’re in, Worthington,” the killer says. The use of literary metaphor is in full effect — the media industry is brutal, so brutal.
No worries, though — O’Malley is on the case. He uncovers what makes the murderer tick. It’s called “righteous slaughter,” the boys down at the lab explain, brought on by a case of “classic narcissism.” The motive: “His TV job gave him daily ego gratification and excitement … [Michaels] got the attention he craved, the admiration of thousands. Being on TV was like a drug to him and when it was taken away from him, he had to find a substitute drug.” That substitute, of course, is murder. One might argue, based on nightly viewings of his talk show, that O’Reilly may be an addict too.
The story heats up, sort of. The confrontation between the two O’Reilly alter egos takes on the air of high-powered interview. “Shannon Michaels was actually looking forward to his upcoming battle of wits with Detective O’Malley,” our narrator tells us. “Shannon’s ego craved that kind of stimulating confrontation … People used to ask why villains would sit for an interview with a person like Mike Wallace on ’60 Minutes.’ It was an ego thing. They wanted to see if they could hold their own with a guy like Mike. They usually couldn’t.” Here, the reader gets a glimpse of “The O’Reilly Factor’s” successful formula: O’Reilly’s program is primarily an entertaining clash of egos, not of ideas.
Naturally, there’s a complicating factor thrown into the equation, and it’s spelled B-A-B-E. O’Malley and Michaels are in love with the same woman, Ashley Van Buren, a 31-year-old tabloid reporter with a “large bust that both helped and hurt her” career. The Vassar grad, employed by a newspaper that has all the markings of the New York Post, is tenacious in her quest for the truth. Assigned to cover the murders, she gets personally involved with both of the O’Reilly personas. At first, she cannot resist the charms of the evil O’Reilly — and the narrator tells us why, in the form of a dating tip. “Shannon had learned a long time ago that being coy was an essential part of flirting. Women liked confident men, but they also liked little boys. For men, the trick was to combine the two qualities.”
Sticking with convention, though, the good O’Reilly — that is, not the psychopathic murderer — gets the girl in the end. “Her painful, dangerous ordeal had turned into one of the most joyous times of her life,” we learn on the last page. The scene takes place on a Caribbean beach, where the narrator waxes on. “Out of confusion and chaos, Ashley Van Buren had found clarity and happiness. And, as she wrapped her slender arms around Tommy’s thick neck, she hoped those new feelings would deepen and last forever.” For his part, O’Malley “was naked and at attention.”
Yes, no thriller would be complete without sex, and the inimitable quality of O’Reilly’s erotic prose in “Those Who Trespass” has been extensively documented on Salon and elsewhere. Still, it’s worth noting a few things about O’Reilly’s writing. Kirkus Reviews calls the language “wooden”; one could stick to the simpler adjective “bad.” Within the first 10 pages, for example, we’re treated to “the clouds were assembling in the west,” “[h]is intense sexual hunger was apparent to anyone who bothered to notice,” and “he did what he usually did when gratification eluded him — he got unpleasant.”
At times, though, the author does hit on some insider-ish insights, like: “In general, print journalists resent broadcast journalists, mainly because TV reporters make so much more money.” But even the insider dope occasionally seems problematic. For instance, when describing the restaurant Le Cirque, O’Reilly writes: “Its habitués include some of New York’s most powerful residents — like Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters and Liz Smith.” Coincidentally, Liz Smith is quoted on the 1998 edition’s dust jacket (“Liz Smith also loved this one!”) and she is thanked in the acknowledgments.
Back in TV land, O’Reilly, like any self-respecting author, really wants you to buy his book. He’s had three nonfiction bestsellers; why shouldn’t this novel be the fourth? Any regular viewer of “The O’Reilly Factor” can easily anticipate his response to mean-spirited reviews (like, well, this one, and all the others so far) by recalling a recent comment he made on the show: “America today eagerly embraces slander and defamation.” But in the long run, O’Reilly may have posterity on his side. A helpful Barnes & Noble employee pointed out to me that “Those Who Trespass” will sit on the fiction and literature shelf in between Michael Ondaatje and George Orwell. If those two gentlemen don’t object to the company, why should we?