The most poignant moment at last June’s memorial service for J. Anthony Lukas came when David Halberstam walked out on the stage of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. David Halberstam began in an almost joyful voice-We were just boys when we met for the first time. But soon he was groping helplessly for words. Poetic for once, dignified, but most of all bewildered, here was a steel-gray warrior bent and stammering as he tried to understand the end of a 46-year-long rivalry.
“On this most painful day when I feel at once so young and so old, when I am filled with memories of him both as boy and man, I realize how much more courageous he was than even those of us who thought we knew him well ever realized,” Mr. Halberstam said, then stumbled away.
Courageous was an odd word choice, for it is not usually assigned to suicide, the manner of Lukas’ death. On June 4, the writer had strangled himself in his Upper West Side apartment after reading page proofs of his new book, Big Trouble.
Now the book is out, and courageous is the word. The official line, put forward by Lukas’ friends and duly promulgated in the press (notably in The New Yorker by the Commissar of Safe Opinion, David Remnick), is that Lukas suffered from a disease and his book is brilliant. The line is convenient for a community that, like Mr. Halberstam, is suffering survivors’ guilt. But it doesn’t help. It excuses the flaws in a problematic book and excuses a ruthless community of its role in Lukas’ suffering.
Big Trouble is tedious, a good story undermined by the author’s inability to discriminate important historical incident from nonimportant. Episodes that should be footnotes occupy long passages. The fact that the actress Ethel Barrymore played Boise during the 1907 murder trial that is at the heart of the book is a good morsel, yes, but Lukas uses it as a jumping-off point to describe Barrymore’s work, family and that period of American theater for a dozen pages. A slender connection to the pitcher Walter Johnson is summons to another noisy dump truck. Such arbitrary choices would be entertaining in a novelistic writer. But this narrator lacks wit and grace, and wants to hold your lapels for 750 pages.
The author of Big Trouble never seriously asked himself the question that all good self-involved writers are forced to wrestle with: Why should anyone else care about my obsession-in this case a 90-year-old story, and an assignment that Jack London and Upton Sinclair turned down? In his author’s note, Lukas states that the narrative illuminates the widening gap between rich and poor in modern America, and Simon & Schuster duly trumpets this claim in its jacket copy and bills the book as a “struggle for the soul of America.” But there is just one line in the book about the American soul, and the book does nothing to earn its claim that the class war it examines has shaped the society we live in.
Lukas demonstrates a splendid historical gift in this book-supple and brilliant treatments of Western radicals, the invention of dynamite, and the rise of the private eye. But he rarely lifts his nose from the events at the turn of the century to analyze the trends he claims to be interested in. No, this author is a tyrannical grind. (And the editors of this book failed writer and reader by not pruning his headstrong choices.)
As for Lukas’ depression, any sensitive person who dealt with him glimpsed great torment, great unhappiness. He was so self-involved that he once put his friend the critic Jonathan Yardley in purdah for eight years because of a negative comment in a review of a book. There was a history of mental illness in the family. “Last week, he died of his illness as we all will from our own,” his editor Alice Mayhew said at his memorial service.
The problem with such post-mortems is that they deprive signal events like Lukas’ death of larger meaning by medicalizing them. How little resonance would the Medea story have if the narrator insisted that she was a paranoid schizophrenic? How flat would King Lear be if (as Jane Smiley contends) Regan and Goneril’s rage sprang from sexual abuse?
Lukas’ story is a resonant one not because of his serotonin level but because it exposes the suffocating values of the community he lived in. He was inhabitant, and yes, prisoner, of two hermetic writers’ villages, the Upper West Side and Sag Harbor, and the judgment of his work by his peers was always too meaningful to him. Indeed, a heightened consciousness of status mars this book: The bibliography contains an absurd 800-plus titles, the author’s bio is a list of the prizes he won. What was he trying to prove? And to whom? Let me tell you, the people who filled the Society for Ethical Culture last June are smooth, but they are one tough, unsympathetic crowd. They want you to fail, and if Lukas were still alive, they would today judge this work harshly. Were these people really his friends? Courageous writers seek distance from such judges.
“We were each other’s friends and fierce rivals,” David Halberstam said that day.
Three times in his speech that day, Mr. Halberstam used the word “fierce” to characterize the competition that had begun at The Harvard Crimson newspaper. Fierce is a strong, good word; and I cried through Mr. Halberstam’s speech because the cruelty of boyhood rivalry in the elite proving grounds is something that shaped and misshaped my life.
A generation after David Halberstam and Tony Lukas, I also found a fierce rival at The Harvard Crimson in someone who is a close friend to this day, the writer Nicholas Lemann. Nick was president and I was executive editor of that bloodstained rat pit, and Nick was by far the better journalist-more clear-thinking, insightful, mature, recognized. After Harvard, the rivalry continued (at least in my mind, but unspoken), and again and again Nick won. He earned a brilliant reputation as an author. I had trouble finding my way. It upset me to see that my father had more respect for Nick’s work than mine. But I knew that he should! Once when Nick helped me to get a job offer, I turned it down. “You couldn’t have taken that job because Nick did it years before,” Michael Kinsley quipped at the time, and he was right.
Worst of all, I felt trapped by the rivalry: that over and over in some psychic nightmare, I was condemned to run the same journalistic race I’d begun running and losing when I was only 17, but that it was a choice I’d made for compulsive, statusy reasons. I imagine that Tony Lukas suffered related feelings: I can never be as glib or appealing as Halberstam! Why am I trying to write best sellers when I’m a historian at heart? Lukas’ last book, which falls between the stools of popular history and scholarship, suggests to me the deep pathos of his experience: that he never did figure out what he really wanted.
The wisest speaker at the memorial service was Betty Friedan. Later I heard that she’d pushed herself onto the program, incurring resentment. No matter. With dark circles under her eyes and hands held up in the air spread-fingered, and a half-spinning half-davening rhythm to her body, she was the strongest feminine presence on that masculine stage. To the Society for Ethical Culture-which, as Lukas’ brother Christopher said, disdains the metaphysical in Jewish religion-Friedan brought her feminine metaphysic, and brought it as an incantation.
“It’s no good to say to Tony now: In writing Common Ground, even if you had never won the Pulitzer Prize, it would have been enough. Or in writing Big Trouble, even if it never gets near the best seller list, it’s enough. I think we can say to ourselves now, this taking of his life was a terrible, terrible thing and we do have to take depression more seriously … But we have to say to ourselves and each other, It’s the doing of it that’s important. Not the measure. Not the measure. Not the measure. It’s the doing of it.”
Dancing and keening around a stage occupied that afternoon by high-status men, men like me, men of Harvard, men of The New York Times, men of the elite who constantly measure themselves and one another and who are now putting out the appropriate line on Lukas’ book, Ms. Friedan got at the living meaning of Lukas’ death in a Zen Jewish way. Compete so fiercely and you will never learn where your true heart lies.