Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Kerry as a Kid; Scratch ‘n’ Sniff; and High/Low Heaven

Self-indulgence, that famous boomer trait, is stamped all over Geoffrey Douglas’ The Classmates (Hyperion, $23.95), a brooding memoir of the St. Paul’s School class of 1962—the class that brought us John Kerry and therefore, roughly four years ago, began to think of itself as somehow significant: One of their own was very possibly on the verge of being elected president. I’ll spare you Mr. Douglas’ personal problems, which he writes about in detail, and the travails of other obscure boys from ’62—the ones who suddenly had to measure their ordinary selves against a classmate who was "almost president"—and concentrate on the young John Kerry, who was, to put it delicately, not popular with his peers. Here’s a sample of the terms used to describe him: "stiff," "out of step," "mostly friendless," "ruthless," "calculating" and "transparently ambitious." Want more?

"He pressed, he flaunted, he angled for the lights. On the hockey rink, he was ‘Keep-the-Puck Kerry,’ known more for his wide swooping rink turns than for the goals he scored. … His idolatry of John Kennedy was naked and shameless—he signed notes and papers with his ‘JFK’ initials, there were reports that he Magic Markered them into the fabric of his jeans. In a school where you won or lost points by the languor you affected, these weren’t qualities that were going to win many friends."

But did Geoffrey Douglas vote for John Kerry? Yes, he did.

 

IN THE JUNE 30 New Yorker, a Talk of the Town piece introduced us to a clutch of teenagers agitating against ginkgo trees, which smell, according to the indignant teens, like "old cheese and vomit." So they say. If they all had copies of Avery Gilbert’s smart, eminently readable What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (Crown, $23.95), they might adopt a more sophisticated approach to their "odor aversion," which turns out to be the technical term for extreme olfactory complaint.

Perhaps the most noxious stink in Mr. Gilbert’s book also has a local connection. In a section on "New York death" (the body is only discovered after the smell drifts into the hallway), he offers a detailed chronology of bodily decay, complete with the "characteristic odor profile" of each stage: On day two we get "bloat," which is accompanied by a "skunklike smell … often mistaken for a natural-gas leak"; "dry decay," which begins five days later, smells like "wet fur and old leather"; and in between, there’s the "intense stench of putrefaction" associated with active decay.

But I’m giving you the wrong impression. What the Nose Knows is a lighthearted book, packed with curious tidbits, including a list of the fragrant flowers Emily Dickinson liked to grow, and this plump factoid: Wilhelm Fliess, who prescribed cocaine to Sigmund Freud as a cure for migraines, also twice operated on Freud’s nose—"to remove and cauterize part of the turbinate bones."

 

THE TROUBLE WITH A great concept is that you have to follow through with commensurate flair. Richard Liebmann-Smith’s The James Boys (Random House, $25) is perhaps best enjoyed as a thought experiment: What if Frank and Jesse James were really the younger brothers of William and Henry? What if the philosopher and the novelist were swept up in the outlaws’ outrages? It’s high/low heaven, a divine recipe for conceptual art, a history of the James Gang an American Stoppard might cook up and present as an opera in cahoots with John Waters.

But here it is as a book, complete with subtitle ("A Novel Account of Four Desperate Brothers"), fulsome blurbs and author photo.

Mr. Liebmann-Smith has done his homework—his fabulous fantasy is firmly rooted in (hijacked) biographical fact—but when he lets rip, the action, including loads of gunplay and the odd sexual frolic, is awkward and clownish. It’s a romp—and it’s ruined by the oppressive sense that if we don’t have fun, we’ll all feel foolish.

Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Kerry as a Kid; Scratch ‘n’ Sniff; and High/Low Heaven