The demons still gnaw at Phil Parker—spectral reminders of the real-life horrors he witnessed as a daily newspaper reporter covering New Mexico politics.
So he wrote a novel about it.
The result, Parker's self-published Corruptus, is a strange mixture of the autobiographical, the satirical and the comic-book absurd, united by a scathing critique of New Mexico's power structure during the Susana Martinez era. The 259-page book, penned in fits of rage and self-reflection from a beach in Mexico, finds Parker lashing a cat o' nine tails to the entirety of our tortured state, sparing neither crooked politicians, kids in their mid-20s trying to spin the crookedness for them, or even Parker himself.
It's by far the oddest entry in the Roundhouse insider memoir book genre popularized earlier this decade by former state legislators Dede Feldman, Pauline Eisenstadt and others. Sen. Bill O'Neill (D-Albuquerque) even published a book of experimental poetry about the Legislature last year.
Parker spent the late aughts and early part of this decade working as a reporter at the Daily Lobo, the now-shuttered Albuquerque Tribune and the Albuquerque Journal. In 2011, his frustrations from the toll of daily reporting and what he saw as a lack of accountability-based journalism about a deeply unpopular US Congress boiled into an infamous email that, at the time, became fodder for barroom gossip and hip-hip-hoorays among local journalists.
Frustrated by government spokespeople who evade questions from reporters for their politician bosses, Parker challenged the local flacks for New Mexico's two US senators and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-Santa Fe, to a "duel."
"Prove me wrong when I say politics is dominated by the lazy and corrupt," Parker wrote, concluding the missive: "En guarde! [sic]"
The Journal summarily fired Parker for "insubordination."
Today, Parker describes the email as "kind of embarrassing" and acknowledges parts of it were insulting to his Journal colleagues. ("We have been slovenly in our profession, we flacks and reporters," he wrote in the email).
But Corruptus largely builds off the spirit Parker imbued in his now-legendary email. The novel follows Matt White after he's fired from the fictional Albuquerque Teller for sending a similar email to Alan Kripky, the fictional top adviser to fictional Gov. Maria Ruiz. (That Kipky and Ruiz are stand-ins for Martinez and GOP Svengali Jay McCleskey couldn't be more obvious.)
White soon learns of his newspaper's own complicity in local political shenanigans, and gets hired to write investigative stories for a union-backed liberal political action committee. Again, this sharply mirrors Parker's own work for the now-defunct Independent Source PAC, which supported Democrats and became best known for publishing messages from a private email network Gov. Susana Martinez' administration used illegally to conduct state business.
Finally free to pursue the local corruption stories he'd always wanted to write, White begins questioning politicos around the Roundhouse about corruption and their roles in a series of failing systems. It reads as an attempted exorcism of Parker's own contempt for the government spokespeople who, while paid taxpayer-funded salaries that often double that of what news reporters make, act primarily as agenda-driven gatekeepers of public information.
Parker still vividly remembers the frustration of non-answers he'd get from flacks.
"It wasn't even like they had clever ways of not answering my questions," he recalls today. "It made me—I don't know if angry is the right word, but it felt insulting."
It's a shared lament among all journalists who approach their work as anything beyond stenography for the powerful. Parker transformed it into a "thought experiment" for his writing sessions.
"What would happen if the reporter kept asking questions that the flacks wouldn't answer?" Parker recalls of his process. "And out of that came this story."
Corruptus is Parker's first novel. Even though he was unable to secure an agent or publisher, he still writes full-time and is currently at work on another novel, as well as a few screenplays. Parker's wife runs a wedding photography business; they've lived with their young child in the beach town of San Francisco, Mexico (popularly called San Pancho, just north of Puerto Vallarta), for the last four years. Parker is finished with newspapering.
Corruptus is highly readable, slicing into the perils of working in modern-day journalism at a mid-size newspaper that's seen better days. It's a novel filled with self-deprecation, self-pity and contempt for all forces behind the state of today's politics and power structure.
Near the novel's beginning, White is bogged down by the nonstop barrage of assignments to write countless stories that mostly "didn't matter" for little pay. Every now and then, White cranks out some copy he's truly proud of, such as his profile of a 90-year-old Bataan Death March survivor. White's health, and that of the journalists around him, declines. His editor's office is "trashed," piled with "bleeding" papers; red ink is splattered on his editor's hands, his appearance is "skeletal" and "terminal."
But Corruptus also falls flat at times, particularly when White presses a fictional state lawmaker named Linda Trujillo (who we assume is not based on current state Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe) to run for governor against Ruiz. Trujillo's signature legislation would require big-box retailers to pay the same state taxes as local mom-and-pop shops. But every year, the big-box lobby kills Trujillo's bill with generous campaign donations to legislators.
That Parker would make a martyr figure out of a politician after spending the rest of the novel disemboweling the entire political system—he aptly titles two of his chapters "Fuck Democrats"—is puzzling. Another nails-on-chalkboard throughline: White's sometimes boorish critiques of some of the characters we come to know in the novel. We know, on the periphery, that Parker's characters are fiction, but in-tune readers will struggle to separate the fake from the real and cringe at inaccuracies in some of Parker's criticisms of them.
Parker pushes back, saying: "I don't think it's a critique of real people. The system is what I hate."
Parker's vitriol works best when he aims it at lobbyists and public relations people.
"We see your jealousy," one lobbyist tells White. "For some of us, that part's better than the money and the fucking at parties."