We Will Prevail: President George W. Bush on War, Terrorism, and Freedom , edited by The National Review . Continuum, 265 pages, $24.95.
The Faith of George W. Bush, by Stephen Mansfield. Tarcher/Penguin, 224 pages, $19.95.
The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception, by David Corn. Crown, 337 pages, $24.
Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, by Joe Conason. St. Martin’s Press, 245 pages, $24.95.
Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America, by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. Random House, 368 pages, $24.95.
Imperial America: The Bush Assault on World Order , by John Newhouse. Alfred A. Knopf, 194 pages, $23.
Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. Tarcher/Penguin, 248 pages, $11.95.
Remember the good old days, back when the worst anyone could say about George W. Bush was that he was a dope? Remember the fun watching Will Ferrell imitate him on Saturday Night Live? The dazed, deer-in-the-headlights look? The way he said “stra-teeg-er-ie”? Remember how harmless the smirking frat boy in the cowboy hat seemed? Dubya was the best yuk since Gerry Ford.
Well, no one’s laughing anymore. Not with Arlington filling up; three million jobs gone phfft ; Antarctica melting; the deficit north of half a trillion; Osama and Saddam nowhere to be found; Ronald Reagan fondly remembered as a moderate; and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire starting to read like a self-help book.
You surely know all that. But in the event you’ve been living in a secure, undisclosed location since his inauguration, these books provide a primer. They’re chockablock with bone-chilling tidbits (inadvertently, in the case of We Will Prevail and The Faith of George W. Bush ); and wading through even the densest of them is infinitely faster than waiting for the press to figure out that “compassionate conservative” is oxymoronic.
For starters, these books make clear that 43rd President is nowhere near as dumb as comfortingly imagined. He may still describe Kim Jong Il’s toys as “nuc-u-lur,” but events have shown him to be possessed of a wolverine intelligence. He’s also wholly unacquainted with self-doubt, a commodity on which liberals maintain the exclusive franchise. That Mr. Bush is thus blessed should come as no surprise: In addition to working out and getting to bed roundabout the time The West Wing is coming on, his daily routine includes talking to God. What’s more, God talks back.
How the last came to be is the subject of Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of George W. Bush , the most sympathetic of these volumes (not counting Mr. Bush’s own book, a compendium of utterances selected by the National Review ). By far, it’s also the scariest. A Nashville-based specialist on such inspiring topics as “the liberating philosophy of Booker T. Washington,” Mr. Mansfield reports that Mr. Bush’s journey from Jack Daniels to Jesus Christ commenced with his attendance of a 1984 revival meeting conducted by evangelist Arthur Blessit, holder of the Guinness “longest walk” crown, for having hauled a 12-foot cross 38,800 miles across 284 nations. A memorable (briefer) stroll on a Kennebunkport beach with Billy Graham followed (“Are you right with God?” Billy inquired; “No,” George answered); then Bible-reading sessions with the president of a Midland bank. Conversion was complete when Mr. Bush fell in with Fort Worth evangelist James Robison, a rabid anti-abortionist who not only chats with the Almighty but jots down what He says.
The political consequences are easy to spot. A few examples: Mr. Bush asserted that the Supreme Being, not the Supreme Court, tapped him to be President. He backed the Texas anti-sodomy statute (“a symbolic gesture of traditional values,” he called it). His crusade for “regime change” in Iraq was sealed by an Oval Office kneel-down with Reverend Robison. (According to Mr. Mansfield, Mr. Bush’s decision-making in this case was divinely simple: “Saddam is evil …. Evil-doers have no legitimacy. Removing Saddam is a moral act. Case closed.”)
Mr. Mansfield’s only criticism of Mr. Bush, who starts mornings with a devotional from Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest , is that he allowed Ozzy Osbourne to attend a White House Correspondents dinner. Apart from that, and the fact that he has better teeth, Mr. Mansfield declares him the clone of another commander in chief named George. “[Washington] was not the most articulate, the most learned, or in any way the most gifted man of his time,” the author notes. “Men followed him because they believed the hand of God was upon him.” Ditto Dubya.
The non-Bush authors considered here take a somewhat different view, particularly in the owning-up-to-chopping-down-the-cherry-tree department. Joe Conason, whose column appears in these pages, studs Big Lies with Bush whoppers, besides which “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” pale. He’s especially good at ferreting out early untruths, such as Mr. Bush’s insistence that no “special favoritism” enabled him to sit out Vietnam. (Instead, remember, he defended against invasion from Oklahoma as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard). Then-Congressman “Poppy” Bush applied the grease.
David Corn employs “Lies” in his title, too, and as Washington editor of The Nation , holds lib credentials as glittering as Mr. Conason’s. However, unlike Mr. Conason, whose mirth matches Savonarola’s open-mindedness, Mr. Corn does not believe that wit and indignation are mutually exclusive, which makes the indictment that is The Lies of George W. Bush the more searing.
Take, among hundreds of manure piles plumbed, Enron. Mr. Bush has stated that he first became chums with former chief executive Kenneth Lay after he was elected governor in 1994, and Mr. Lay was serving the state as an honorific something or other. Turns out they go back to at least 1986, when G.W., hanging by his financial fingertips, partnered in an oil-well deal with “Kenny Boy’s” company, Enron. It’s a long, long list of lies in these 337 pages; whole forests might have been spared had Mr. Corn written The Truths of George W. Bush instead.
Molly Ivins, whose syndicated column has long been one of the great things about Texas (Ann Richards’ move to New York cuts the remainder by half), is a journalist the prudent strive to have on their side. Ms. Ivins and co-author Lou Dubose have been here before: They wrote the surprisingly mild Shrub , their best-selling bio of G.W., three years back. But a lot has happened since. Bad for the country, good for Bushwhacked , which takes cheery relish in demonstrating how Orwell would have felt right at home in the Bush White House.
“No Child Left Behind,” for instance, really means $90 million less in education funding; 50,000 kids dropped from after-school programs; 95 percent sliced from library funding; and 300,000 students who’d hoped to learn English as a second language left out in the cold.
And so it goes. Promise to hold corporate America’s feet to the fire, then whack the S.E.C.’s enforcement budget by 26 percent. Pledge “fair and balanced election and campaign reforms,” then veto $400 million passed by Congress for the purpose. Talk about beefing up the Border Patrol, then nix pay increases for agents. Trumpet broader home ownership, “especially among minorities,” then eliminate low-income housing programs. When Bush announces “Healthier Forests,” in other words, prepare for the rip of chainsaws; “Cleaner Skies,” book a chest X-ray. On and on and on. Concludes Ms. Ivins: “The six most fatal words in the language are rapidly becoming ‘The Bush Administration has a plan …'”
Like Ms. Ivins, Weapons of Mass Deception authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber try to grin through the Apocalypse, and share her appalled awe at Dubya double-talk in selling the war. An example they cite is worth the $11.95 cover price: Said Mr. Bush, after visiting wounded troops in April 2003, “I reminded them and their families that the war in Iraq is really about peace.”
There’s nothing to chortle about in John Newhouse’s Imperial America , which soberly chronicles the hash Mr. Bush has made of the Atlantic Alliance; relations with formerly friendly Arab states; the authority of the United Nations; international cooperation on most everything except the weather (but including the climate); Iranian help on terrorism; the historic good will of Turkey; nuclear disarmament; post-9/11 sympathy; chances for Middle East peace; and what scant sanity existed in North Korea. Along the way, Mr. Bush has transformed America from perhaps the most admired country on the planet to perhaps the most despised-quite a box score for a fella whose first trip to Europe was aboard Air Force One.
Bush backers will probably dismiss these books with what’s become the administration’s favorite epithet for its critics: They lend aid and comfort to the enemy. Richard Nixon said the same about Vietnam protesters. When that failed, he went after the Bill of Rights. Mr. Bush is headed down the same road-locking up suspects without charge, denying access to lawyers, ash-canning the right to a jury trial, pushing for warrantless searches and wiretaps willy-nilly. All, of course, in the name of national security.
He’s exactly wrong. The problem isn’t national security; it’s national insecurity that has crept into the American soul, aided and abetted by an otherwise likable man who believes he acts for the Lord. That’s the source of the anger that radiates from these pages, the reason why it sometimes seems that the authors are crying fire in a crowded theater. They’re right to. America’s burning.
Robert Sam Anson is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair .
Art and Abe, a Love Story: An Intimate Tour of The Times
by Michael Janeway
City Room , by Arthur Gelb. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 664 pages, $29.95.
“He’s an earnest, curious, enthusiastic young man,” says the kindly personnel director at the afternoon tabloid PM one summer day in 1944. The unnamed factotum in this cameo role as Clairvoyant Fortune (think Kitty Carlisle Hart in Radio Days ) is on the phone to a counterpart across town who has an opening for a copy boy. Winking at the 17-year-old boy from the Bronx, she adds, “I think he’ll do well at The Times .”
As in a legend, the PM lady is shortly echoed by another memorable bit-player in Arthur Gelb’s account of a remarkable journalistic career across the second half of the 20th century. A New York Times night-desk copy editor with “a flair for the dramatic” invites the unpolished lad for a drink in alien country (the Harvard Club) to celebrate his first promotion, and tells him not to forego part-time college courses for the seductive buzz of the newsroom; to study Latin and Greek “to smooth your way,” and Emerson and Thoreau as well. “Above all,” declaims this prophet, “never lose your childlike curiosity, the staple of all good reporters in their quest for facts, facts and more facts.”
At the red-hot center of New York from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, where street-smart wise guys mixed with artistic revolutionaries and sophisticated ironists, Arthur Gelb stayed earnest, curious and enthusiastic as he rose through the years to the rank of managing editor and played a crucial part in the story of how The New York Times became the world’s greatest newspaper. City Room has been billed as the work of an “insider,” but that’s exactly wrong. Arthur Gelb is a Grand Concourse version of an F. Scott Fitzgerald romantic outsider from the Midwest. As in a Fitzgerald story-as-prologue, young Gelb sharpens his eye on the party inside The Times with his founding editorship of the paper’s house organ. Then, unleashed on bigger game, he’s unashamed at the thrill of operating as an eclectic ambassador between the explosion of arts and culture in New York after World War II and the somewhat out-of-it Times newsroom. From those beats, it’s on to the paper’s hierarchy, and an essential leading role as The Times surges-while others stumble-and achieves regional, then national dominance.
Mr. Gelb’s own voyages of discovery on the arts rialto in the 1950’s and 60’s, his ability to mobilize responsiveness at the “Newspaper of Record,” mark the high point of City Room . An unrecognized Joe Papp, determined to bring free Shakespeare to the city, is on the edge of bankruptcy and at the mercy of Robert Moses; Arthur Gelb to the rescue. Waiting for Godot and Long Day’s Journey hit New York; Arthur Gelb is there to herald them. (“Jamie [Tyrone] is the kind of drunk I understand,” the young Jason Robards tells him.) On the club circuit, he talks with newcomers like Dick Gregory, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Lenny Bruce. Phyllis Diller explains her success as a stand-up comic: “My timing is so precise, a heckler would have to make an appointment to put a word in.” Edward Albee, at work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , “hadn’t thought that I’d hit so viciously at my mother” until he reads Mr. Gelb’s account of their talk. He meets a match of sorts in Eugene Ionesco, who writes him from Paris to put a cap on it: “Don’t you believe one asks too many questions of authors?” With premonitions of failure, Tennessee Williams measures himself against Eugene O’Neill. (O’Neill is the second great figure in Mr. Gelb’s life, after Abe Rosenthal; in 1973, with his wife Barbara Gelb, Arthur wrote a definitive biography of the playwright.)
Earnest, curious, enthusiastic: “You love this city with all your heart, even more than I do,” Mr. Rosenthal, his lifelong mentor at the paper, tells Mr. Gelb as the latter takes over as metropolitan editor in 1967. “The job will be more yours than it was mine.” The fizz rising, Mr. Gelb continues, “I was entering the world of legendary [city] editors Stanley Walker, Walter Howey … I now felt possessive about the entire city. (Mine, all mine!)” Recruiting Ada Louise Huxtable from a MoMA curatorship-who in turn championed the urban-preservation thinking of activist critics like Jane Jacobs-he was not just a boulevardier, but a fighter for New York against powerful interests set on mega-development monstrosities like Westway.
By now, he’s reached a time in life when the habit of statesmanship tends to bury the facts, but in City Room he’s almost invariably an encyclopedic, remarkably candid observer. Statesmanship had not yet come to the Times newsroom when Mr. Gelb started there. The managing editor, Edwin (Jimmy) James, included on his watch the protection of a couple of bookies doubling as news clerks. James “sported a plaid vest, striped shirt with a white collar, and a pearl stickpin in his cravat. Despite his rotundity and lack of height, he was a dashing figure and he knew it.” Mr. Gelb himself was drawn, in his early years at the paper, to the lowlife midtown society where Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls met Sweet Smell of Success . Press agents hustled tips, plugs and showgirls (“Crazy dames,” says an agent),and took a shine to the young man on his way up at “The Gray Lady” of West 43rd Street: “Hey kid,” asks one of them, pressing some copy on Mr. Gelb, “Is ‘splendifleurus’ a word?”
Many are the chronicles of the making of the modern New York Times . We know about the pact between the Sulzberger family and their editors to hold to lofty standards, risk criminal indictments (in the Pentagon Papers case) and invest in The Times ‘ daring leap across the negative indicators of big-city newspaper economics. We have biography, history and anecdotes in pages now numbering in the thousands by notable Times veterans, including Harrison Salisbury, Gay Talese, Max Frankel and Alex Jones (with Susan Tifft). All of them give us the fabric of the newsroom coupling that drove The Times ‘ breakthrough success: the partnership of the striving, passionate, tirelessly able but increasingly demon-driven Abe Rosenthal, a gifted foreign correspondent who only grew in charged energy when he came off a sequence of exhausting beats and began his rise to the top of the paper; and his permanent interlocutor, deputy, idea man and alternating current, the earnest, curious, enthusiastic Arthur Gelb.
Each was decisive, but sometimes they needed each other to function. Thus a “fused personality Abe-‘n’-Artie” (in Salisbury’s words), “Arthur constantly jackknifed at Abe’s ear, whispering urgent somethings, obsessed with time (running out) and distance (to be covered before the next deadline, the next birthday, the next meeting of the Pulitzer judges or of the Times Board of Directors).” Abe and the Times front office devised the strategy that built the paper’s bridge to suburban, then regional, then national circulation, the sequence of daily “lifestyle” and “think” sections supplementing its mighty positions in foreign, national and business coverage. But it took Arthur to orchestrate focus and content, beginning with the commanding Friday “Weekend” section. Time out for a send-up of managerial routine: Abe sent Arthur a questionnaire to “determine the precise degree of ignorance about foreign affairs among senior editors of the metropolitan desk”: question No. 7, “Hong Kong is the son of King Kong. True or False?” (Arthur: “False. King Kong is the grandson. Viet Kong is the son”); question No. 8. “What is the capital of France?” (Arthur: “De Gaulle.”)
It’s part of Mr. Gelb’s thorough style to tell a story whether or not we’ve heard it before. So we have his tale, revealed first in The Times ‘ internal house organ and then by Mr. Talese, of the time Arthur, about twice Abe’s size, “wrestled him to the floor and sat on his chest” because Abe insisted on misreading a J.D. Salinger short story. On the other hand, there are welcome enrichments of the record: The story was “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and at issue was the motive for Seymour Glass’ suicide.
Mr. Gelb also revisits one of The Times ‘ most controversial hours, the suicide in 1965 of a troubled Nazi and Ku Klux Klansman, Daniel Burros, triggered by reporter John McCandlish Phillips’ revelation that Burros had been an observant Jew. Mr. Talese, and more recently Ken Auletta, have examined issues of moral guilt experienced by all concerned with that story and especially Mr. Phillips, an evangelical Christian. Mr. Gelb adds a stark scene. Mr. Phillips declined eagerly proffered book contracts to explore the story further; he’d had enough. But “fascinated by the puzzle of Jewish anti-Semitism,” Messrs. Gelb and Rosenthal took on the project. Burros had shot himself in the presence of a local K.K.K. leader in Reading, Penn. With trepidation, Mr. Gelb visited the Klansman, “who immediately marked me as a Jew” but added, “You look like a man of good taste, you have a nice suit, you’re from the city.” He asked Mr. Gelb to sit tight while he stepped out of the room to don “a ruby red Klansman’s robe. He strutted around the room, ludicrously aping a runway model. ‘What do you think?’ he asked. ‘It’s brand-new.’ He seemed honestly to want my opinion, and I told him I thought the robe was very becoming.” End of chapter.
The exception to Mr. Gelb’s dogged candor in City Room is that he skirts the Shakespearean tragedy that engulfed his friend, Abe Rosenthal. He deals with The Times ‘ central role in covering 60’s confrontations such as the student radicals’ takeover of Columbia University, which had the effect of driving Abe toward combative neoconservatism. He knows better than anyone else at the top of The Times the much-told saga of how Abe’s unmatched journalistic ability, insight and power turned sour, prompting a schizophrenic newsroom response: lasting respect for his achievements combined with the angry departure of too many talented writers. Mr. Gelb’s references to all that are merely summary: Mr. Rosenthal became “less patient and more irritable in dealing with reporters whom he felt were not on his wavelength”; was “ever more obsessed with keeping the news columns of The Times free of personal opinion”; exhibited “intemperate behavior”; grew into “something of a monomaniac about The Times . But he was a brilliant monomaniac.” Elegiac at the close, Mr. Gelb writes, “I’m often in touch with Abe, although our intimacy hit some turbulence in the mid-1980s, when he underwent a period of profound unhappiness,” and forced retirement came due. Mr. Gelb’s reticence beyond such lines may seem to some a cop-out. But in the nature of such deeply intertwined relationships, saying less is saying more; this was the graceful way to go.
Department of personal disclaimer: In his post-managing-editor term as president of the New York Times Foundation in the 1990’s, Arthur steered some money for minority scholarships to the Medill School of Journalism, of which I was dean at the time. In recent years, he’s served as an unpaid board member of the National Arts Journalism Program, which I direct. But if I owed him anything more substantive than lessons in curiosity and enthusiasm, I wouldn’t be cluttering up this space.
Michael Janeway is director of the National Arts Journalism Program and a professor at Columbia University. His new book, The Fall of The House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power from FDR to LBJ (Columbia), will be out this winter.
Clean, Spare, Massive-Rockefeller Center Rises
by Daniel Gross
Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center , by Daniel Okrent. Viking, 419 pages, $29.95.
Three years ago, casting about for a book idea, I hit upon the idea of Rockefeller Center. In its nearly 70 years, Rockefeller Center-now, as in the 1930’s, a combination of tourist trap and business complex, a retail and broadcast center, an oasis of greenery amid the clotted Manhattan grid-has amazingly escaped a full narrative treatment. But when I visited a small photo archive in the unglamorous innards of the complex, the clerk told me another writer had just been there. He rummaged around in his desk and tossed the business card onto the desk: Daniel Okrent.
Okrent! Rotisserie baseball creator, founder of New England Monthly , near-editor of Sports Illustrated , talking head on Ken Burns’ baseball series. My heart sank, and so did my embryonic proposal.
Well, this Bigfoot is surprisingly nimble: Great Fortune is a great book. Nuanced, clever and rollicking, it’s nonfiction as a work of art.
The story begins in the late 1920’s, when New York real estate and society were still largely dominated by blue bloods-Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and various other three-named WASP’s. Among the unlikely real-estate titans was Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler. Haughty and pretentious-“his focus italicized by the vivid smear of his luxuriant eyebrows”-Butler controlled a big chunk of land in midtown Manhattan, the so-called Upper Estate. But he needed cash to invest in the Morningside Heights campus.
Coincidentally, the Metropolitan Opera Company, based on Broadway and 39th Street, needed a new home. As part of Otto Kahn’s failed plan to build a hall on West 57th Street, architect Ben Morris and designer Joseph Urban devised grand schemes, befitting the boisterous late 1920’s, with an opera house at their center. The opera plans quickly found their way to John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Overshadowed and utterly stymied by his gargantuan father, middle-aged and still unformed, Junior had found his niche in running philanthropic affairs and backing large-scale projects. “His mammoth restoration of Versailles was not yet completed, and the recolonizing of Colonial Williamsburg was just getting up to speed.”
With only the vaguest ideas of what would arise there, Junior, who lived near the corner of 54th Street and Fifth Avenue, struck a deal with Butler to lease the Upper Estate-an “eleven-acre tract of speakeasies, rooming houses, and scruffy retail shops”-starting at $3.6 million a year. Events would prove that Butler was short-term greedy, while Rockefeller was long-term greedy. As Mr. Okrent writes, “the lease’s complex option provisions would enable Junior and his successors to avoid any meaningful rent increases through 1973,” when the project would be worth many hundreds of millions.
After the stock-market crash, out went the opera house. And with private investment capital drying up-Met Life would provide cash for half the project-Junior boldly (uncharacteristically) decided to foot half the bill himself: “It was clear that there were only two courses open to me. One was to abandon the entire development. The other to go forward with it in the definite knowledge that I myself would have to build it and finance it alone … I chose the latter course.”
With land and financing in place, writes Mr. Okrent, “[a]ll that was needed was an architect. And a builder, and a financial plan-in fact, any kind of plan.” And therein lies the heart of this tale, how the inchoate plans for Metropolitan Square turned into the concrete spires of Rockefeller Center.
Mr. Okrent reaches into the archives and dusts off the florid personalities that created the complex. Chief among them is the project manager, 62-year-old John R. Todd (grandfather to Christine Todd Whitman), a “master at false humility” who foresaw the creation of a “commercial center as beautiful as possible and consistent with the maximum income that could be developed.” Todd brought in a covey of talented architects, led by Raymond Hood and Wallace Harrison. (The latter largely coasted on his colleagues’ brilliance.) The management team used the slack economy to negotiate deals on materials and labor. U.S. Steel, desperate to keep its plants open, took the massive job on essentially a break-even basis. And so John R. Todd’s initial $126 million “rock bottom price tag” for the first group of buildings fell to $102 million by 1935.
The center of the complex was the RCA Building, which represented a huge of leap of faith in many ways. The Empire State Building, under construction, would add to Manhattan’s already massive space glut. And the design-clean, spare, massive, the Art Deco straw that broke the back of that frilly camel, Beaux Arts-naturally proved controversial. Junior pushed for Gothic ornamentation, but the architects pushed right back. “Goddamn it Mr. Rockefeller, you can’t do that!” Harrison told him. “You’ll ruin the building if you cover up its lines with all that classical gingerbread.” At first, the bienpensant hated the emerging complex (known as Metropolitan Square and then as Radio City)-but they always hate new projects. “If Radio City is the best our architects can do with freedom, they deserve to remain in chains,” wrote Lewis Mumford in The New Republic .
Into these blue-blood precincts wandered S.L. Rothapfel, who went by the mononym Roxy. This “Johnny Appleseed of the movies” was the impresario behind the 6,000-seat Music Hall. But the premiere in the grand hall in 1932-dubbed “The Supreme Stage Entertainment of All Times!”-was like something out of a Mel Brooks movie. A star-studded audience witnessed a dedicatory incantation, vaudeville comics, ballet corps, the Tuskegee Institute choir and the Roxyettes, among a dozen-odd other acts. It was, Mr. Okrent writes, “an evening of overweening pretension, overdrawn ambition and overwhelming length. This was no mere flop of an opening night; it was a catastrophe.”
As for the public art-forget about it. The Golden Prometheus and the Fascist motifs on the Italian building were embarrassing. But Diego Rivera’s mural- Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a new and Better Future -was a debacle. Commissioning a Marxist to paint a mural for a building set to open on May 1 was, as Mr. Okrent drolly notes, “like offering a match to an arsonist.” The mural, which featured Lenin, a hammer and sickle, and “syphilitic spirochetes and gonorrheal bacteria swirling over the heads of the card-playing socialites,” never saw the light of day.
Mr. Okrent manages to brings a fresh eye to this and other familiar stories surrounding Rockefeller Center. Some of the best sections focus on the “battle of the leases,” with a young Nelson Rockefeller leading the charge to fill the space. Companies that wanted in on the biggest deal of the decade were encouraged to take space in the new project. Rockefeller entities-charities, the family’s private offices, and various and sundry companies they controlled-populated the RCA building. A press operation run by Merle Crowell-beside whom Howard Rubenstein seems a shrinking violet-created a “publicity effort that ranks as one of the most effective campaigns since the evangelists wrote their gospels.” Anchor tenant RCA brought NBC, whose “Studio 8H was the broadcast equivalent of Yankee Stadium”; it brought Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen and Arturo Toscanini to the Center. (Not since St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow have so many icons been gathered together in one place, as Mr. Okrent might say.)
The book loses some energy when the core of the complex is completed in 1936-after all, the operation of a building is never as interesting as its construction. But the latter portion is noteworthy for the emergence of Nelson Rockefeller as a force of nature. By 1938, he had elbowed out his father, his brothers and John Todd to reign as the undisputed master of Rockefeller Center.
Toward the end, Mr. Okrent delivers a tour de force, describing the inhabitants of the center circa 1939. One wishes he had devoted somewhat more space to what Rockefeller Center has become today. The complex maintains its grandeur and is buffed to a nice sheen. But it now seems more about the past than the future.
Sure, the skating rink and even the gaudy Prometheus statue have their charms. But some anchor tenants are leaving. The Associated Press recently decamped for the far West Side, in search of cheaper rents and larger floor plates. And Time-Warner, a descendant of an original tenant, is about to move to a glass tower several blocks north. With the Rainbow Room a private catering hall, with its chain restaurants and stores and cheesy Today Show spectacle, Rockefeller Center is clearly no longer what it once was.
And neither are the Rockefellers. Last spring, while walking through the Channel Gardens, I saw David Rockefeller being interviewed by a Japanese television outfit. The man whose name stands on the complex, and whose family’s investment helped pull New York through the Depression, went entirely unrecognized by the throngs of harried workers and tourists, their ample midriffs exposed to the sunshine.
Daniel Gross, who writes the “Moneybox” column for Slate , is co-author (with Davis Dyer) of Generations of Corning: The Life and Times of a Global Corporation (Oxford University Press).
Gellhorn’s Noble Adventures-And Miserable Romances
by Marc Weingarten
Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life, by Caroline Moorehead. Henry Holt, 463 pages, $27.50.
Martha Gellhorn is just an afterthought these days, an episode or two in biographies of Ernest Hemingway. She was Papa’s third wife, a female journalist dumped unceremoniously for another woman. Most of Gellhorn’s books-short-story collections, novels, anthologies of her articles-are out of print. It’s grossly unjust that now, a mere five years after her death, she’s only an appendage to a legend. Perhaps Caroline Moorehead’s superb biography will restore her reputation, and Gellhorn will assume her rightful place in the pantheon of American journalism.
She was a pioneer, one of a handful of female war correspondents to cover just about every significant 20th-century conflict, from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam. And she did it the hard way, at a time when female reporters weren’t even permitted to obtain credentials to park themselves on the front lines and institutionalized sexism threw up countless other obstacles. Gellhorn filed more compelling dispatches from the Spanish Civil War than even the great Hemingway himself-richly observed, ground-level stories of ordinary people caught in the crosshairs of history, written in Gellhorn’s artful but plain-spoken prose.
Men-H.G. Wells, Robert Capa and many others-flocked to Gellhorn, and for good reason. Blond, leggy and whip-smart, she was a fiercely independent adventure junkie hooked on the adrenaline rush of epic danger.
She came from impressive stock. Her mother was an influential leader of the suffragist movement, friend of the Roosevelts and intimidatingly accomplished. Her father, half-Jewish like her mother, was an Eastern European immigrant who settled in St. Louis in 1900 and built a successful private practice as a family doctor. According to Ms. Moorehead, the elder Gellhorns imparted good, solid liberal values in their three children, which included, “in the segregated and masculine Midwest, equality of every kind.” All-white country clubs and discriminatory committees were out of bounds; the Gellhorns would simply set up their own alternative establishments. Strength of character was paramount, moral weakness unthinkable. When she was about 8 years old, Gellhorn remembers her father telling her that “the bones of the skull separate all human beings one from the other, thereby explaining the painful solitariness of the human condition.” No wonder young Martha suffered from pangs of existential angst, a naturally “glum” temperament.
She was also afflicted with wanderlust. During the summers, Martha was sent to Europe with chaperones; she sneaked out of hotel rooms to wander off on her own. She left Bryn Mawr, her mother’s alma mater, after her junior year, declaring herself painfully bored and eager to live abroad: “Oh gosh! how I ache to get over there. It’s a real malady.” After a brief apprenticeship as a cub reporter for the Albany Times Union , Gellhorn decided to simply pack up for Paris in 1930-age 22-to see where fate might land her.
Thus began Gellhorn’s intrepid solo travels-shuttling back and forth across continents, willfully placing herself squarely in the heat of battle, and fleeing from a series of failed relationships with men, writing articles and books all the while. Gellhorn was both roused and roiled by the currents of history; endowed with a keen antenna for social injustice and the ability to bear eloquent witness, she resolved to turn herself into “a walking tape-recorder with eyes.” In 1931, she traveled around America by rail for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , filing stories about poet Robinson Jeffers, imprisoned union leader Tom Mooney and the oil boom in Texas-which, she wrote, had created “human bedlam … a forest of oil wells, towers eighty feet high … machinery scraping, chugging, pounding”; the Texas Rangers, she noted, kept their prisoners in chains.
Taking advantage of her contacts with the Roosevelts, Gellhorn joined the federal Emergency Relief Administration as a 25-year-old investigator during the Depression, traveling to the Carolinas and New England to report on the squalid conditions among the thousands of unemployed sharecroppers and mill hands, trudging through slums “in her elegant Parisian shoes, where latrines drained into the well from which all drinking water came.” Appalled at the lack of federal relief, she quit the assignment in a huff. She met Hemingway-“an odd bird, very lovable, and full of fire,” she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt-during a family trip to Key West, and joined him in Spain just as Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalists were spreading their reign of terror across the country. Traveling with the Republican Brigades, she filed a series of stories for Collier’s magazine that remains the definitive account of fortitude and strength among the war’s citizen victims.
Gellhorn approached her life as a war correspondent with a missionary zeal to “be part of what happens to everyone.” She decamped to Prague during Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent Munich Pact, which led to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia; on the eve of D-Day, she snuck onto a naval hospital ship by locking herself in a bathroom, then filed stories about the “calm efficiency and dedication” of the hospital staff and the “flaccidness of the German prisoners.” She reported on the Japanese surrender in Bali, was present at the liberation of Dachau and then found herself at the Nuremberg trials, repulsed by the calm, sanguine Nazi war criminals.
Caroline Moorehead, who has written biographies of Bertrand Russell and the historian Iris Origo, does a masterful job of weaving the political and personal strands of Gellhorn’s life into a thrilling 20th-century travelogue. Ms. Moorehead is unflinching in her description of Gellhorn’s emotional intransigence. Throughout her long, peripatetic life (she lived to be 89), she was ambivalent about relationships. Though eager for meaningful companionship, she kept men at bay with her flinty imperiousness. She was afraid, always, of sacrificing her freedom for dull domesticity and co-dependence. When her adopted son Sandy failed to live up to her exacting standards, she turned venomous and distant-and he turned to hard drugs. For all of her accomplishments as a writer, her personal failures left permanent scars.
The last third of this gripping biography traces Gellhorn’s sad decline into sickness and infirmity-her athlete’s body betrayed her, and she was no longer capable of using her writing as a bulwark against creeping loneliness. In 1974, Gellhorn hit a young boy with her car and killed him. In 1988, she was raped near Mombasa (and dismissed it as the “Ugly Event on the steps”). These tragic incidents failed to break her spirit. She continued to travel and file stories for publications like Granta , a “first-class observer” who had not lost her “tormented understanding of pain.”
Marc Weingarten is writing a book about the journalism of the 1960’s and 70’s.
A Gonzo Tour of Rock History, Told in Tutti-Frutti Vignettes
by Stephen Metcalf
Never Mind the Pollacks , by Neal Pollack. HarperCollins, 260 pages, $23.95.
Neal Pollack has a trick: He creates an alter ego, calls him Neal Pollack, then writes a book about his misadventures. In Mr. Pollack’s first book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature (2000), alter ego Pollack was a fatuous magazine journalist modeled, imprecisely, on Gore Vidal. In Mr. Pollack’s new book, Never Mind the Pollacks , alter ego Pollack is a fatuous rock journalist modeled, more imprecisely, on Lester Bangs. (Ego Pollack is a McSweeney’s stalwart, as if that isn’t obvious already.) Alter ego Pollack shows up, in a series of Zelig -like interpolations, at every threshold moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll: Elvis in Memphis, the Stones in Ealing, Dylan in the Village. As such, Never Mind the Pollacks is at once a living, loving history of rock’s high points, from the Sun Sessions to the martyrdom of Kurt Cobain, and a nasty send-up of all those misbegotten souls who think only in categories handed to them by rock ‘n’ roll-most especially rock critics, with all their silly, febrile, 1960’s-on-fumes rhetoric about “authenticity” and “selling out.”
Never Mind the Pollacks (henceforth NMTP ) presents the life story of one Norbert Pollackovitz-born in Chicago in 1941, raised in Memphis, neighbor to young Elvis, lover of rock ‘n’ roll-as told, posthumously, by a rival critic named Paul St. Pierre. It’s a wild tutti-frutti, confected out of Bangs, early Rolling Stone , Please Kill Me , Hunter S. Thompson-in short, the entire universe of gonzo enthusiasm as inspired by pop music. It’s a smashing idea, and the outlines of a funny story are all there: The two critics-glorious slob Pollack, and slick toady St. Pierre-make their way through a remarkable slice of American history. But Mr. Pollack, as the reader quickly discovers, is not really a novelist, and NMTP is not really a novel. Instead, it has the feeling of something that should be performed live, to adulatory guffaws. There are no characters to speak of, no plot of any depth. The effects are local: Every paragraph functions as either set-up or gag, and almost nothing rises above the level of vignette. This novel (“novel”? 260-page inside-dopester lark?) is one slangy, name-dropping, hyper-caffeinated jag followed by another.
And there’s nothing-hear me, nothing-more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a writer in the depths of a Hunter S. Thompson binge. For all the winking and inverted commas, much of NMTP smacks of the very myth-making the book is purporting to deride. Take, especially, the endless cataloguing of Pollack’s recreational drug use. “He’d been drinking cough syrup since he was eight,” runs one description of the young Pollack, “whiskey since he was fourteen, smoking marijuana since he was nineteen, and, for the last two years, popping pills, shooting heroin, and snorting drain cleaner off back issues of the Saturday Evening Post .” Paean or lampoon? That’s the tease, of course. (Helpful hint: It’s never not the tease when it comes to McSweeney’s product.)
The mask sometimes slips, and a little old-fashioned contempt is allowed to shine through. NMTP , for example, clearly disdains the Boss, whose legend is regarded as so inflated as to have been bogus from the start. (“He sings in an authentic voice that reflects all our pain, with lyrics that make the universal particular and the particular universal. Because whenever we hurt, as Americans, Bruce is there. Whenever we feel, he feels with us. In our darkest, coldest hour, we call out to him, and he answers.”) Courtney Love, rock’s favorite harpy, is referred to simply as “the Widow” or “She Who Shall Not Be Named for Fear of Lawsuit.” Michael Stipe appears briefly as a self-serious downer who refers to Van Halen as “music [that] promotes rape,” to which Pollack replies, “Well, I hope so!”
O.K., benefit of the doubt: NMTP ‘s medium-its obsessive-compulsive schtickiness-might carry a message with it after all. It goes something like this: America has created a world filled only with personas. Such a world is bound to be rootless, nervous, insecure, jokey, forever in need of fresh experience to keep it from coming face-to-face with its own terrifying emptiness. To best confront it with its own true image, while also depriving it of the authenticity it so craves, one might beget one’s own pseudo-scene ( McSweeney’s ) and a pseudo-persona (“Neal Pollack”), while making sure one’s every utterance is shot through with irony, since nothing can be fully fresh or authentic anymore anyway. That is, every experience in our fast-food nation, in our post–rock ‘n’ roll world, is a commodity. Even the blues. Even folk music. Even (say it) D.I.Y. punk.
What a brilliant theory-in theory! In practice, what a boring novel! For the theory not only excuses, but invites an enormous amount of dreadful writing. After a gateside visit from Pollack, Elvis “faded back toward his mansion, America drifting into its endless tomorrow.” I suppose this is parody, but it’s bad, lazy parody. On top of which, memo to Mr. Pollack: Ever read Great Jones Street ? Rented Spinal Tap ? Watched The Osbournes ? How much blood is left in this comedic stone, at this point? NMTP satirizes the ego-inflating habits of other writers-but what about Neal Pollack himself (the genuine article)? Can he write? When Paul St. Pierre mentions his wife’s New School seminar, “Rapacious Global Corporations: Imperialist Mind Control in the So-Called Third World,” this is just third-rate DeLillo; and for all its Pynchonesque invocations of Weird America, the atmosphere of NMTP is Looney Tunes throughout; it never once feels truly strange or precarious. “Today, I am glad to have the maturity and perspective truly necessary to understand cultural crosscurrents,” says St. Pierre, our reliably inane narrator, “which are always current, and crossing.” That’s not funny; it’s the opposite of disciplined writing. It’s a scenester’s tic.
In its relentless flattery of the single-paragraph attention span, NMTP may pull new readers into “literary” writing, the same way Arnold will pull new voters into California politics. (Better yet, maybe one day books will come in suppository form, and everyone will have read Paradise Lost .) McSweeney’s acolytes may delight in having their naïve readerly expectations foiled at every turn. But this is itself painfully naïve: After Borges, after Joyce and Calvino, only the most unreaderly expectation is left to be foiled.
Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer .
Clever, Coherent, Cutting, Yellow Dog Is a Howling Bore
by Elena Lappin
Yellow Dog, by Martin Amis. Miramax Books, 288 pages, $24.95.
If illusionist David Blaine had read Martin Amis’ new novel, Yellow Dog , he would surely have thought twice about choosing London for his latest stunt. He would, at the very least, have been prepared for the kind of crowd he has been watching from above: cruel, thuggish, cynical, unforgiving and sardonically funny. That-as Mr. Amis demonstrates with an unerring satirical hand-is the face of contemporary England. Reading Yellow Dog feels like being glued to a television screen, remote control and a greasy packet of potato chips firmly in hand, flipping between (British) channels offering a seemingly random selection of pornography (hard and soft), violence, family drama, sitcoms and reality TV. The author takes a benign view of his readers’ supposedly minute attention span, and caters to it by pretending to have one himself. But the randomness is a clever conceit; behind the intermittent glimpses of a fragmented, collapsing reality is a cerebral comic novel with a heavy seriousness of purpose and an inner moral coherence quite out of sync with the external chaos it depicts.
At its center is “Renaissance man” (actor, writer, musician) Xan Meo, whose second marriage to the ludicrously named American academic Dr. Russia Tannenbaum (did Mr. Amis choose this name to pun his way to later describing some violent marital sex as “invading Russia”?) is an idyllic picture of finally getting it right: Xan is a committed father to his two young daughters and a cooperative, communicative, tender husband.
It’s on the anniversary of his bitter divorce from his first wife, which he traditionally celebrates by having a drink in his favorite pub, that Xan is hit on the head by a couple of thugs and undergoes a personality change as a result: “Male violence did it.” In the hospital after the attack, Xan’s “condition felt like the twenty-first century: it was something you wanted to wake up from-snap out of.”
The assault was far from arbitrary; the perpetrators were sent by someone with a long-standing grudge. Xan, in the process of seeking revenge, is gradually reconnected with his past. The genteel, safe part of London he lives in now has nothing to do with the physically not very distant London where he was raised: the East End, where his father, Mick Meo, was a well-known gangster. Xan’s traumatic memory loss is not too dissimilar to his conscious forgetting of his family’s criminal past. But now he wants to remember again. By the end of the novel, he does, but not before he is exiled from his home by Russia for becoming an abusive husband and father and an overall menace to civilized society: “[H]e left traces of himself around the house, like messages sent from one animal to another. A sock, a vest, a pair of underpants, on the stairs, in the sitting rooms-but also his wastes, his emanations …. Now, at night, his armpits gave off a smell of meat.”
Interrupting this main narrative are several others. There’s the story of brilliant, lonely, pornography-addicted tabloid journalist Clint Smoker, who produces filthy cynicism on the pages of his newspaper but is a blind believer in spam mail and chat-room romance, ordering every product he’s offered to enlarge his offensively minuscule penis and conducting an innocent e-mail affair with an unknown female who is articulate, understanding and happy to concede that size doesn’t matter. Then there’s the delicious story of England’s King Henry IX and his teenage daughter Victoria, who is videotaped, for purposes of royal blackmail, in a sex scene worthy of the most titillating pornography. There’s also an airplane in the process of crashing (it doesn’t, really) and a comet expected to appear (it does), plus a few other story lines, all of which are meant to create a meaningful, testosterone-filled narrative fusion of sex, violence, comedy and male angst, ending on a surprisingly redemptive, mellow note (without losing the testosterone). The pornography, which links all the parts of the book like a predictable, dirty fairy tale, works extremely well, which is rather puzzling but enjoyable.
So why is Yellow Dog such a monumental, boring failure? It’s not as if the author’s concerns and intentions weren’t clear, and all his ideas and insights expertly articulated. They are. His characters may be two-dimensional caricatures, in keeping with the satirical tableaux they were created to populate, but they don’t always fail to entertain or even move us. The more fundamental problem with Yellow Dog is, perhaps, its didactic premise. In an interview he gave to BBC Radio last year, Mr. Amis revealed that he was working on a “comic, post-9/11 novel”-a novel he had begun in 1998, but which now had to be re-addressed because “the mental and moral atmosphere has changed.” If Yellow Dog is meant to be read as an allegory of current Western trauma, a kind of roman à clef of what’s wrong with our society today-and I mean today -then it has failed. Its strengths, and its weaknesses, have nothing to do with recent events and everything to do with archetypal human stories: love, sex, death, fear, loneliness. Socialist realism cannot be re-created as capitalist realism (or surrealism, for that matter), because serious literature cannot be used, cannot serve to make a point. Post-9/11 novelists beware: You start making those points and you run the risk of forgetting that private, intimate space where good novels are born.
In his autobiography, Experience (2000), Mr. Amis talks about a phase in Western literature he refers to as “higher autobiography”: “I was well placed to observe it …. As a reviewer, I hounded Philip Roth through his Zuckerman years …. Writing about writers, writing about writing: his compulsive self-circlings, I felt, were stifling his energy and his comedy. Something was missing: other people.” By contrast, he preferred Saul Bellow’s “experience of … the permanent soul in its modern setting.” Setting aside the fact that Mr. Amis is, in my opinion, deeply wrong about Philip Roth, whose “self-circlings” went a very long way towards describing the general human condition, this is an interesting statement to contemplate in view of what Yellow Dog has to offer. It may be brimming with characters, male and female, young and old, good and bad, but it is, nevertheless, completely devoid of “other people.” The modern setting is all; but at its core is a man without a soul. Perhaps Yellow Dog was written to answer these questions posed by Clint Smoker: “What used to be funny? What’s funny now? And is it still funny?” Sadly, after reading this novel, the answer has to be: Who cares?
Elena Lappin is a writer and journalist living in London.
Fantasies of Willing Nymphets, Too Badly Written to Shock
by Laura C. Moser
girls , by Nic Kelman. Little, Brown, 224 pages, $22.95.
The épatez le bourgeois tradition in literature-particularly in the arena of sex-stayed strong throughout the last century, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses to Lolita and Portnoy’s Complaint . To this day, sexually explicit novels jolt even a jaded millennial readership into indignation: Witness the brouhaha that attends every publication of the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose recent Platform used the subject of Asian sexual tourism to diagnose a widespread malaise in the West. But no matter how graphic his descriptions of prostitution and pornography, Mr. Houellebecq only raises these protests because he’s a lucid thinker and a thrilling writer; his prose legitimizes his raunchiness and makes his X-rated pronouncements truly shocking.
Though it, too, confronts the crisis of contemporary society vis-à-vis the perversity of its sexual practices, Nic Kelman’s girls is a different matter altogether. The New York–based novelist wrote girls as his thesis at Brown University’s M.F.A. program, and boy, can you tell. The book’s second-person protagonist is an anonymous Everyman in various incarnations; his circumstances shift from scene to scene, but not his interests (money, power, copulation) or his personality. Whether in Pusan or Guangzhou, he’s materialistic and ruthless, enlightened in a bad way-picture Willem Defoe, or even Keanu Reeves, with a 5-o’clock shadow and an ankle-length overcoat. These generic corporate cutthroats have learned that wealth earns you little more than a dangerous moral relativism, and romance only “habituation.” In one of the novel’s (lamentably few) first-person passages, one character experiences this disenchantment immediately after proposing marriage: “You put your arms around my neck and sighed and closed your eyes and said, ‘It’s like a fairytale.’ I kissed your brow and moved your left arm a little so I could see the report I was trying to read.” To postpone their existential despair, these powerhouse businessmen prey on young girls whose “hopes remind you hope exists at all.” Or not “prey on” but “entertain,” for in this wet dream of consent, the fresh-faced creatures consent to-if not commandeer-their intergenerational liaisons.
But there’s a problem. It’s not that society is corrupt, or that life has no meaning; not even that well-raised 15-year-olds lurk behind every Caribbean pool cabana, stripping for tips and seducing their parents’ business associates. No, the problem with girls is, quite simply, the writing. As Oscar Wilde put it, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” If the subject of girls had been hurricanes, or the internal-combustion engine, the manuscript might still be moldering in some midtown slush pile. But because Mr. Kelman is “irreverent” and “outrageous”-and because he isn’t alone in believing that the id of American mankind hungers after its own exposure- girls hits the bookstores like a proper work of literature.
A work of literature, no less, almost entirely in the second-person. Excluding if on a winter’s night a traveler and, if you must, Bright Lights, Big City , when has this form ever succeeded in fiction? It’s a stylistic sleight-of-hand that cannot safely be sustained beyond a 400-word essay addressed to an oak tree.
More off-putting still, Mr. Kelman alternates his characters’ sexual exploits with excerpts from the Iliad and Odyssey . An example from the latter, carefully placed to suggest modern man’s analogous plight: “There I found Odysseus standing among the dead men he had killed, and they covered the hardened earth, lying piled on each other around him. You would have been cheered to see him, spattered over with gore and battle filth, like a lion.” There are, as you’d expect, meta-lessons to be learned from these excerpts: “Odysseus was a hero to the Greeks but a villain to the Trojans. And when is it not such?” I think the lesson should be this: If there’s an easy definition of hubris-the kind which brought down the likes of Achilles-it’s equating one’s plotless masturbatory musings with the greatest epics of Western civilization.
For a man with Homeric ambitions, Mr. Kelman pays too little attention to basic grammatical details. He’s plagued by frequent pronoun/antecedent confusion: “[T]he one thing that is true without exception about every porn star or stripper is that they grew up poor” and “The bouncers are enormous and would throw anyone out if they got too drunk.” And blame it on transliteration, but didn’t “Nabakov” settle on a different spelling in his adopted language?
The dialogue is very sloppy, particularly that which (among other items) Mr. Kelman inserts in the mouths of his female characters. Their refreshing contributions range from the soothing girlfriend’s “[W]hen you get back Mommy will make baby feel all better-she pwomises, OK?” to the carping wife’s “You have to talk to that edging man, he won’t listen to me” and the fetching adolescent’s “Whatcha reading?” Another sexual partner excuses herself with an “Oop,” explaining, “I need the little girl’s room.” Not to forget the exchange inside the high-class strip joint, when a college freshman contemplates removing her last millimeter of clothing: “I guess it’s only a teensy-weensy bit more fabric I have to take off.” Pwomises , whatcha , little girl’s room , teensy-weensy -the misogyny implicit in these absurdities isn’t even accurate enough to be offensive.
If Mr. Kelman wants to dehumanize his ensemble (not only the nameless men but the Tiffanys and Tasmins and Cassandras who pleasure them), he has succeeded admirably. But if he wants to subvert the stereotypes of the powerless female and her rapacious captor, he has quite a few more creative writing seminars to attend. Indeed, not a cliché is left unturned in girls , which contains many a blooper à la “He will look at you then and you must seem surprised, like you’ve just been told that, in fact, there is a Santa Claus.” Or this old chestnut: “It is possible to determine how important a thing is to a society by the number of words that society has for it. The number of subtle distinctions show how much time they have spent thinking about it, how familiar they are with it, how important a part it plays in their lives. Thus, the Eskimos have twenty-two words for snow; the Bedouin, thirty-one words for sand. From these kinds of examples the argument is also derived that to understand a culture, one must also understand its language.” Mr. Kelman concludes that “words expose us,” which apparently justifies his Kundera-gone-wrong asides on the etymology of terms like “cunt,” “cock” and “pussy.”
Mr. Kelman also relies on statistics for an additional scientific dash: “All told, in the United States, the sex industry grosses more than the domestic revenue of the tobacco and alcohol industries put together. All told, the American male spends more money annually per capita on the sex industry than on taking his wife to the movies and buying video games for his children. All told, the American male is clearly not getting what he wants at home.” This paragraph not only summarizes the entire thesis of girls , it also introduces its author’s unfortunate fondness for litany and other riffing essentials: “The kitchen smelled like her, like all those smells she smelled like.”
To say that girls is shocking is to give it too much credit: A sensation of that order presupposes originality, unexpectedness, insight. The worst you can say of this book’s “shock value” is that it’s more embarrassing to read on a crowded subway than the National Enquirer -and besides, I’d much rather stay abreast (so to speak!) of J. Lo’s wedding plans.
Laura C. Moser is the author of a biography of Bette Davis and a young-adult novel, both forthcoming in 2004.