Review

The Phony Marine

by Jim Lehrer

Hugo
Marder is like a lot of guys his age. Educated at a mid-level
college, employed in a mid-level job and divorced, at age 50 he's
slightly overweight and out of shape. He lives modestly in a
Washington, DC townhouse that is close to work. His leisure time is
spent surfing eBay where he collects antique and unusual cuff
links, an outgrowth of his job as a clothing salesman at an upscale
Washington men's clothing store.

If he had any regrets in life, they may have stemmed from a vague
youthful wish, never fulfilled, of becoming a United States marine.
It didn't wreck his life that he wasn't accepted in the elite
corps. In fact, the convenience of being in college during Vietnam
was, as things turned out, a twist of fate he was happy to have
taken advantage of.

So why, when he stumbled upon an online auction for a Silver Star,
did he jump in with a high bid? He wondered momentarily why anyone
would want to sell such a hard-won honor. But his curiosity got the
best of him, and before he knew it he owned the medal, along with
the papers of the Marine Lieutenant who won it.

Hugo immediately decides that he will never wear it in public. He
didn't earn it and is not a man to call unwanted attention to
himself. He is, however, fond of admiring himself in the mirror
with the pin in his lapel, and one evening he goes out for a stroll
and steps into a Thai restaurant that he has never before
frequented. The medal is recognized by the owner and one of the
patrons, and what begins with a complimentary bottle of champagne
leads him into an embarrassing web of intrigue.

He is soon working out to firm up his flab. He reads military
histories of Vietnam, researching the battle in which this
particular medal was won and creates his own false history. He
begins obsessively watching tapes of Marine marching units to
acquire the military stance and gait. He shaves his head and
practices sharp quarter turns as he walks the aisles at work.

The admiring looks and attention the lapel pin draws lead him to
wearing it daily. When he answers a call for jury duty and runs
into his ex-wife, Emily, he panics. Can he pull off his charade in
front of a woman who shares his history? A courtroom shootout
proves to Hugo, and to Emily, that the inner hero is genuine, even
if the reality is a sham. The publicity that ensues propels Hugo
from ignominious sales clerk to celebrity.

For all his acquired bravado, Hugo's middle-class upbringing fails
to provide him with the street smarts needed to carry off his
masquerade. He is haunted by fears of exposure. As he worries about
the fallout if his secret is discovered, his conscience begins to
bother him.

Hugo is treated with great tenderness by Jim Lehrer, himself a
Marine cavalry officer in the mid-1950s. THE PHONY MARINE is a
charming, whimsical and often philosophical tale of a meek little
man, plunged into deep waters through his own folly, who confronts
another sort of heroism few braver men might survive.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 18, 2011

The Phony Marine
by Jim Lehrer

  • Publication Date: November 7, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400064864
  • ISBN-13: 9781400064861