On the Page: David Shields and Dennis Hopper

david shieldsHow Literature Saved My Life

David Shields

Knopf, 224 pp., $25.95

David Shields, for all he is, can sometimes read like a second-rate Geoff Dyer. In his new book How Literature Saved My Life, Mr. Shields looks at cultural touchstones that are important to him and then tries to conjure up a unifying theory based on why he likes them, and he’s just substantially worse at it than Geoff Dyer is.

It may be that he tries to analyze too many things. In a way, this capsule review is entirely appropriate for How Literature Saved My Life, since it’s not uncommon for him to reference three books in two pages, which doesn’t make for meaty observations. There’s a lack of confidence about the book, because you feel he’s trying to impress you with all the references and doesn’t trust himself enough to spend time on anything.

My theory (that Mr. Shields is a worse Geoff Dyer) coalesced during a scene in which Mr. Shields goes out to dinner with Geoff Dyer and Mr. Dyer calls him a wimp for ordering prosecco. But Mr. Shields gets the last laugh, apparently, because he notices that Mr. Dyer really enjoys hamburgers and, when you think about it, life. That anecdote, and its analysis, are indicative of Mr. Shields’s tone: smug, superficial and awkward. If Mr. Dyer can be summed up with the hamburger anecdote, Mr. Shields can probably be summed up by his own (only semi-ironic) proclamation that the greatest pleasure in the world is watching entire seasons of television on DVD.—Dan Duray

hopper On the Page: David Shields and Dennis HopperHopper: A Journey Into the American Dream

Tom Folsom

It Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), 320 pp., $26.99

How much you’ll enjoy reading Tom Folsom’s biography of Hollywood iconoclast Dennis Hopper will depend entirely on how much disbelief you’re willing to suspend. Without ever having interviewed the actor/director/art collector/bona fide American madman, Mr. Folsom plays the part of his spiritual medium, taking us through each chapter of the Kansas-born, James Dean-worshipping, psychedelic psychotic’s life, describing exactly what was going through the mind of the semi-tragic American almost-hero at each juncture.

During the scouting of Easy Rider, Hopper had “snapped mental Polaroids of the pop art of America, picked up by his sense along the roadside, all to be used someway, somehow.” Anxious to be working with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in Giant, we are told, “He didn’t want to get all frozen up like one of those lit-up Marfa jackrabbits he and Jimmy shot with .22s, hypnotizing ’em in the headlights of their pickup truck.”

However, if a loose interpretation of the “biography” genre doesn’t bother you, Mr. Folsom’s work is full of life, capturing the feeling, if not the facts, of Hopper’s life. A full third of the book is devoted to the laborious process of shooting and editing The Last Movie, the box office bomb that Hopper made in Peru and obsessed over in the editing room while in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction. Hopper doesn’t dawdle, except for when Dennis himself did. —Drew Grant