Before our generation met the lustrous good looks of Matt Lauer and the perkiness that defines Katie Couric, our parents and grandparents knew Dave Garroway, the first host of television”s most popular morning show. “Morning,” the latest offering from acclaimed author W. D. Wetherell, winner of two N.E.A. fellowships, two O. Henry Awards and a host of other literary prizes, intertwines three storylines around a figure who uncannily resembles Mr. Garroway, on a show that most readers will recognize as a fictionalized incarnation of the beloved progenitor to the Today show.
We first meet the charming Alec McGowan, the analog to Dave Garroway, through the eyes of his biographer, Alec Brown. As McGowan invented a signature sign-off to every episode of the Morning show, outstretching a palm while gravely invoking the word “truth,” Brown struggles to learn the truth behind the birth and death of McGowan and his landmark show. The motive behind Brown”s need to understand McGowan rustles in the leaves of his family tree Brown is the son of McGowan”s sidekick, an Andy Richter type with a more overtly bitter attitude, who murdered McGowan while on the air.
Brown”s merciless quest for any information regarding the television show threatens to alienate his family. However, his pursuit of the truth behind McGowan”s celebrity eventually renews his familial relationships, particularly with his father. In electing to write a biography of McGowan and not of his father, Brown essentially rejected his father”s existence. When his father is released from prison and to his custody, Brown can no longer ignore the man, and his father”s frailty and vulnerability elicits a protective instinct in him. After redeeming himself through accepting his father finally as a paternal figure, worthy of his love, Brown is rewarded. The prodigal son receives a videotape in the mail from a heretofore reluctant informant that illuminates the legend of McGowan, his father and “Morning.” A videotape that redeems his father.
Wetherell alternates the characters” perspectives and the three primary storylines so seamlessly that passages often feel dreamy. For a moment, we stumble with Alec Brown through the muddy process of capturing a man”s life and work on mere paper. Then in the next instant, we accompany Alec McGowan as his bike glides along bucolic grassy meadows fifty years earlier as he spies the woman who will affect his life and America”s cultural history irrevocably. The next page lands us in the midst of McGowan and his producer”s first meeting to plan the format of the morning show.
This interweaving of storylines reflects the author”s obvious talent in manipulating ideas and keeping his audience”s attention, but also leads to occasional confusion. While Wetherell successfully draws the reader”s interest, he loses the narrator”s voice (or the voice of the primary character in a particular passage) in a cacophony of verbose descriptive paragraphs and eloquent monologues about television”s impact on the American identity. Too frequently, twists in the plotline briefly appear, ones that might prove interesting if granted space and time to mature but they are disregarded in favor of these lengthy tangents.
The most engaging aspects of the novel involve the creation of the first morning show. The extent to which this novel represents reality remains a mystery, yet the fun lies in hypothesizing how the director and host developed trademarks of the morning show, now familiar to us all: The large window to the city street beyond the studio (a carpenter happened to pull a dusty shade on the back wall of the studio designated for the fledgling production) the hordes of fawning fans waving signs lettered with messages to friends at home (on the day before filming, a curious businessman pressed his nose to the glass, and the idea stuck) and the rotund, comical weatherman-cum-sidekick (an occupation for a bored friend of the host).
These passages represent what we know of the Today show so clearly and the groundbreaking decisions about the format seem so convincing that the distinction between fact and fiction all but disappears. This may qualify the author as a good storyteller and thorough historian, yet he occasionally slips. Artfully crafted sentences are interrupted abruptly by crude profanity, jarring the story”s flow. Though we learn about McGowan”s life through the biographer”s perspective, the novel”s climax dismisses this mechanism without explanation. But for the most part, Wetherell writes eloquently, infusing scenes with such extensive detail that images emerge as crisply as though conveyed through the medium of television itself.