American Rhapsody , by Joe Eszterhas. Alfred A. Knopf, 432 pages, $25.95.
It’s a familiar scenario: You’re trying to watch a film, but all you keep hearing in your head is the pitch that got the movie made. Well, it’s sort of like Titanic crossed with Thelma and Louise , these two chicks hijack an ocean liner, see, and then there’s this iceberg .… Until now, there’s been no equivalent literary experience, perhaps because the book proposal lacks the same sexy je ne sais quoi , the thrilling, seductive promise of terrifying sums of money about to be flushed down the toilet. So it seems only fitting that American Rhapsody , a book you can hardly read above the distracting background buzz of its own high concept, was written by a Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, the talent that brought us Basic Instinct , Showgirls and Sliver , among other memorable productions. The book … well, it’s sort of like Dutch crossed with the Starr Report crossed with The Executioner’s Song , except that it’s by this guy who, like, totally identified with Bill Clinton, so .…
The rhapsody is all Eszterhas, you may be sure, and what he’s rhapsodizing about is (ready for the shock of the new?) Bill and Monica’s White House amour . At least that’s the jumping-off point for more than 400 pages of watching the author of Flashdance think about how our nation got where it is and where it seems to be going. On the way, there’s lots of mildly interesting Hollywood and Washington gossip, much of it fairly nasty–stories which, at their best (an anecdote about Mr. Eszterhas calling Glenn Close to tell her that his beloved friend, a director, had died, and hearing her tell him how the director never did anything for her except make her ass look big), seem like passages Bruce Wagner might have edited out of one of his smart, funny novels.
Essentially, it’s all celebrity dish–gossip about Bill and Hillary, Monica, Bob Dole, Matt Drudge, James Carville, Linda Tripp, Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Sharon Stone and Joe Eszterhas. And you do have to wonder: How does this guy hear so much dirt? Does everybody in the world know that Jimmy Carter’s sister was having “sudsy, lederhosen romps with married German chancellor Willy Brandt”? Does everybody know the facts about the mother of Jean Houston, the New Age guru who helped Hillary Clinton channel the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt? Readers who consider themselves plugged in will be positively ill to discover how out of the loop they are.
But Mr. Eszterhas is no mere gossip–he’s also a political pundit, capable of speculating, dazzlingly, on the extent to which greater honesty from the President could have liberated a nation of guilty closet masturbators. “By saying, Yes, I masturbate, like most of you, and, like most of you, I love it! Bill Clinton could have freed men and women everywhere from the disdain and prejudice they were victims of.… Lincoln had freed a couple hundred thousand blacks–what was that compared to freeing hundreds of millions of blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds, albinos, and so on? Bill Clinton could have been Mandela, Walesa, Gandhi, and Yeltsin combined.”
As the jacket copy informs us, Mr. Eszterhas has done his research. He knows where to find the absolute dirtiest bits in the Starr Report (hint: check the footnotes), what Monica’s lawyer said at dinner, what sort of childhood Matt Drudge had. And like many screenwriters, he’s capable of really getting into a character with positively Chekhovian (or is Tolstoyan?) compassion and understanding. Consequently, for whole sections of the book, he leaves (however regretfully) the confines of Joe Eszterhas’ richly complex psyche and becomes his characters, riffing in the voices of Monica, Bill, Bob Dole and John McCain, musing about Chelsea from Hillary’s perspective (“Hillary was proud of Chelsea. She wasn’t a brat like Amy Carter”); and letting us hear “Al Gorf’s” ( sic ) fond memories of falling in love with Tipper (“She liked me. I couldn’t believe that I was with the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen and that she liked Al Gorf”). Most astonishingly, the book’s final chapter (forgive me for spoiling the surprise) is written from the point of view of the presidential penis, a sentient, articulate being with a marked aversion for the First Lady (it calls her “Hilla the Hun”): “I knew in my capillaries that Hilla didn’t like me. She was full of hostility toward me.”
Okay. We get where he’s going with this. But why (and what’s a pitch meeting without at least one skeptic who insists on being convinced?), after everything we’ve seen and read and heard about the Bill Clinton sex scandal, why would we want to watch this particular dead horse being beaten all over again–by Joe Eszterhas?
Funny you should ask. Mr. Eszterhas spends many pages establishing his credentials, which go beyond being a successful Rolling Stone journalist, screenwriter and friend to the stars. “I had helicoptered into a crowd of 100,000 drunken, naked kids in Darlington, North Carolina, with Alice Cooper and Three Dog Night and watched as Alice guillotined chickens onstage, spraying blood over these sunburned and sweaty, naked kids, who’d rub the blood into one another’s privates.” The point is: He is speaking for a whole Woodstock nation of baby boomers who imagined that Bill Clinton was “one of us.” Mr. Eszterhas is qualified to write American Rhapsody because he and Bill and their entire generation share a passion for sex, drugs and rock and roll. Mr. Eszterhas’ account of the experiences that made him sympathetic to Mr. Clinton give sexual boasting a bad name: “The women at Rolling Stone were young, nubile, attractive, and liked the phrase ‘I really want to ball you.’ And they did . Goodness knows, I did, too … with Deborah and Kathy and Shauna and Sunny and Robin and Leyla and Janet and Deborah again.… As I watched Bill Clinton with Hillary … I remembered that during those years at Rolling Stone , I was married.… My wife wasn’t one of the hot and willing young sweetmeats at Rolling Stone . She was, in fact, sort of like Hillary: smart, poised, responsible, a partner in most ways, except the sexual ones.”
Distasteful as this is, it begins to seem rather sweet, really, compared to the book’s most appalling chapter: a meditation on why African-Americans supported the President, how Mr. Eszterhas (who refers to Vernon Jordan as the “Ace of Spades”) and Mr. Clinton share a similar desire to be black, and how much the President has done for racial harmony: “Bill Clinton, thanks to his special relationship with black people, had accomplished the tentative beginnings of a racial peace in America.… We didn’t have to worry about driving down certain streets after certain hours. We could walk by a group of black people on a street corner without hearing trash. Bill Clinton, the first black president of the United States, had done that.”
Were the book’s editors asleep at their desks? Was no one paying attention? The strangest thing is that, after a while, American Rhapsody makes you long to have actually witnessed the pitch, to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting when the folks at Alfred A. Knopf (of all places) were convinced that this book would be, as the jacket copy promises, “brilliant, unnerving … devastating and penetrating”–a book the American reading public wanted, needed and deserved.
Francine Prose’s most recent novel is Blue Angel (HarperCollins) .