Twenty-two greats

Upon request, herewith is my list of twenty-two of my favorite American novels published since 1945. Obviously I’d think of more as I get prodded. The first two, relatively unknown, I push on people whenever they want material off-canon.

William Maxwell – The Folded Leaf
Dawn Powell – A Time to Be Born
John Williams – Stoner
Saul Bellow – Herzog
Philip Roth – The Ghost Writer
Mary Gaitskill – Veronica
Louise Fitzhugh – Harriet the Spy
Paul Bowles – The Sheltering Sky
Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Will Bear It Away
Peter Handke – Short Letter, Long Farewell
Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49
Marilynne Robinson – Gilead
Norman Mailer – Harlot’s Ghost
Toni Morrison – The Song of Solomon
Gore Vidal – Lincoln
Joseph O’Neill – Netherland
Jean Stafford – The Mountain Lion
Michael Chabon – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Don DeLillo – Libra
Andrew Holleran – Grief
Vladimir Nabokov – Pnin

The queerness of reading

“Could a country that had widely read Huckleberry Finn have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second?” David Denby asks in a piece called “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” My response: has anyone who’s read Huckleberry Finn not laughed when reading about the Duke and Dauphin? These acolytes love Mark Twain’s creations, two phonies who pretend to be French nobility and manage to fool many yokels along the Mississippi. Spotting phonies doesn’t mean you can’t take them seriously. Recognition isn’t repudiation (look at the critical responses to the nattering, distracted recent albums of Kanye, who doesn’t disavow his repulsiveness).

I see plenty of parents reading to children in bookstores and libraries. What “plenty” means depends on one’s optimism. The number of kids who read for pleasure wasn’t high when Ike ruled the Western Hemisphere and Mailer, Bellow, Vidal, etc. the Book of the Month Club, as Denby acknowledges. “Few late teen-agers are reading many books,” he claims as if it’s an insight. Every week I read the handiwork of students whose concept of sentence writing originates in the twaddle of standardized test instructions. They remember, deservedly, nothing about high school English except the impossibility of starting sentences with “because” or with coordinating conjunctions like “and” and “but” (the birth of “due to” and, horrors, “due to the fact that,” by the way; in their teachers’ eyes torture ’tis a far, far nobler thing than death). Whether it’s the TV or the iPhone technology gets the blame for systems that keep students docile. But the couple of students per section who demonstrate an interest in structure, climax, lacuna, and tension happen to be the readers. They may not sense the correlation — that’s my job.

But let me develop one of Denby’s themes. Long before I became aware of my sexuality I knew I was queer. Reading cleaved me from my friends. Not because it encouraged isolation — far from it. Books strengthened my interest in people. I craved relationships that matched the tension and ardor in my favorite novels and poems. No relationship in my life remains as monogamous, “fulfilling” in that crap pop psychology manner, and stable as that with my books. If a bond exists between me and friends, family, and lovers, I credit what novels have taught me. Make no mistake: reading cultivates what Harold Bloom called a ruthless interiority: a sense of self into which one can burrow, headily and sometimes dangerously. Reading doesn’t make one a Better Person: it forced me to confront squalor and my own cowardice. There is the paradox: by reminding us of our ourselves, reading demonstrates the comity between people.

As the act of reading, thanks to Kindle and iPhones, becomes what Chekhov calls “one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know,” the essential mystery — the privacy — of the union between book and reader remains an enigma, and thus it should remain. At best it provokes good-natured amusement, as when colleagues on intercampus shuttle ride remind me, for the hundredth time, how “admirable” reading at eight in the morning is, especially when I could be sleeping or looking out the window (Florida is a flat place). But every time I feel the nudge from one of these sweet, genuinely curious people I shudder, slightly, reminded of the frowns and — yes — unintended condescension from teachers and relatives who at one hand praised reading as a A Good Thing yet sought to contain it, as if I carried an airborne contagion.

Of geniuses, mandarins, and institutionalists


Patrick McGilligan – Young Orson

Simon Callow, Clinton Heylin, David Thomson, and the Welles-approved Barbara Leaming have covered this ground, but what distinguishes this SS-20 of a tome is the attention on George Orson’s origins. Raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin by a pianist/actress mother and a dad whose early fortune as a bicycle lamp inventor hastened a descent into alcoholism, the polymath benefited from an environment that paid lip service to the arts; the first seventh of McGilligan’s book is a meticulous account of being a minor artist in the Roosevelt-Taft age, and I’m not usually interested in meticulous accounts of boyhoods. Less compelling is the story of the accumulating triumphs: Horse Eats Hat, Dr. Faustus, the Negro Macbeth, the Mercury Theatre, the contract with RKO Pictures. To my mind it settles the question of Welles’ authorship of Citizen Kane (he and the decrepit, beloved Herman J. Mankiewicz each wrote his own script, the latter under the supervision of bete noire John Houseman; Welles edited, discarded, and added material during filming). The revelations concern his private life: Welles was more infatuated with first wife, Chicago blue blood Virginia Nicolson, than evidence had suggested; his bedhopping was less prodigious than his appetites for steaks and poetry; and around homosexual men from whom he wanted to coax favors he liked to float the possibility that he was one of them (“When I’m with homosexuals, I become a little homosexual, to make them feel at home, you know,” he confided to Henry Jaglom decades later, a couple of years before lending his voice to the monster planet in Transformers: The Movie). A prescient move: Young Orson leaves the Young Genius at the threshold of an aesthetic triumph and at the start of a forty-year saga of wooing: producers, actor-stars, waiters.

Charles Savage — Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency

The Bush administration approved the torture of suspected Al Qaeda members and sympathizers, the Obama administration perfected targeted killing. Thanks to men like Harold Koh, the White House could operate under a carapace of liberal jurisprudence. “Just as [Barack] Obama had bestowed a gloss of bipartisan consensus on those Bush-like policies he continued,” Charlie Savage writers, “Koh had leveraged his history as a liberal human rights champion to vouch for what Obama was doing — including…drone strikes.” The thesis of the New York Times reporter’s hopscotching narrative is the degree to which the president sought robust legal justifications for implementing its policies instead of questioning the assumptions of the national security state; the Office of Legal Counsel was a busy little hive during the Obama years. Caught flatfooted by bipartisan opposition to closing Guantanamo and the Christmas underwear bomber in 2009, the administration conducted its counterterrorism with a forest of memos and signatures. The murder of Al-Awlaki and his son, the raid on the Osama bin Laden compound, Chelsea Manning, the Edward Snowden leaks, the crackdown on whistleblowers – the episodes get thorough review, including interviews with the key personages. Savage, whose Takeover remains the essential story of how a Ford chief of staff and congressman named Richard Cheney saved the imperial presidency from obloquy, is the rare reporter who can write. The unchronological meanwhile-back-at approach ix taxing, though.

David Talbot — The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government

Kim Roosevelt, the master spy behind the overthrow of Iranian president Mossadegh in 1953, joined Gulf Oil at the end of the decade. The newly installed shah, sitting on the Peacock Throne, became a client. His boss Allen and brother John Foster had spent the forties spiriting Nazi pals away from Germany for what they saw as the next and greater war against Soviet communism. This conflation of jingoism and personal financial enrichment drives nearly every important figure in David Talbot’s history of the CIA. Question their motives and the House Un-American Activities committee might call the brave soul to testify under oath. Although in 2013 Stephen Kinzer published his own fantastic-in-ever-sense biography of the Dulles duo, the former Salon editor who wrote The Devil’s Chessboard is even more comprehensive, citing a motherlode of declassified material. He also does more than hint that Allen Dulles, fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs debacle, knew people who knew people who had Kennedy killed.

The sorrows of dead Goethe

In my sophomore year at university I took Continental Literature. The vague nomenclature didn’t hint at what the extraordinary Butler Waugh’s lectures encompassed: the European novel of the twentieth century, with which undergraduates are unfamiliar but once composed an essential part of an education. His selections were heterodox: André Breton’s Nadja, Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees, Natalie Sarraute’s The Planetarium. My graduate school curriculum as an English student didn’t so much as hint at the existence of literature not written in English.

A figure whose that isn’t pronounced correctly even by people who wish him well, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remains the most profound influence on European lit, the greatest writer if not necessarily the best, but according to Adam Kirsch “strangely neglected in the English-speaking world.” I read Faust my senior year of high school because I was a sponge and a nerd and Penguin Classics offered $4 editions of both parts. David Luke’s couplets didn’t jangle; often it approximated the great good humor of the original, or so I’m told. That’s the trouble. Has anyone taken the trouble to proselytize for Goethe? And how man American undergrads read German? As Kirsch reminds readers in his appreciation, students and scholars of British literature in the nineteenth century, whether reading Carlyle or Matthew Arnold, couldn’t escape his influence; the awe in which he was held tempered criticism. Kirsch:

To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.

Then again, Arnold and Carlyle read German, as did most Oxford and Cambridge students. His influence on the novel is incalculable. With Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship Goethe invented the bildungsroman, or novel of education: the young man whose self-knowledge comes at the price of his precious illusions. Enjoying The Sorrows of Young Werther eighteen years ago, I noticed Goethe took the neurasthenic suicide seriously but often mocked him – an approach Goethe’s descendants ignored. Last year’s Jessica Hausner film Amour Fou, about a wannabe suicide in the nineteenth century tempting young women to follow, is the first modern work to understand the Goethe tone.

What Hillary got wrong — what we got wrong in school

I missed the Democratic town hall last night — I was watching Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves, a terse sudster by Robert Aldrich in which the star’s beetle-like eyebrows persuade Cliff Robertson he’s not young enough to sex her on the beach like Burt Lancaster did Deborah Kerr. But I gasped when I read Hillary Clinton said the following when asked why she admired her favorite president (guess who):

You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly. But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.

Politicians don’t read. I doubt anyone running for president except the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue knows what to do with a semicolon or a piece of printed text between two softcover sides more than one hundred fifty pages long. But a lot has changed since I learned in high school that the so-called Radical Republicans had no wish to compromise with the South (call it one of the earliest instances of a Beltway ruling class accusing the faction on the side of moral justice of being unwilling to compromise). Even Matthew Josephson, one of the most lucid stylists who ever wrote history, got Reconstruction wrong, so flummoxed was he by the paradox of Republicans who believed in racial justice while stuffing their pockets with railroad dough. Charles Pierce:

Race has become an issue this year in an overt way that it hasn’t been in any presidential campaign in about 30 years. After the upheavals of the 1960s, and the two Wallace campaigns in 1968 and 1972, race became a covert weapon in the hands of the rising conservative movement in the Republican party, and, increasingly, something marginalized and thickly camouflaged within the Democratic party. (The Democratic establishment’s sour reaction to Jesse Jackson’s galvanizing campaign in 1988 was the perfect example. Also, it should be noted that Bill Clinton’s oft-cited “Sister Souljah” moment in 1992 was really a shot at Jackson, who was sitting on the same dais.)

That paradigm is breaking down. The Republicans currently are in the middle of a public argument over how much of a white nationalist party they truly want to be, and African-Americans are not willing to be shined on by Democratic politicians. Fairly or unfairly—and I think, in the case of Bernie Sanders, it has been pretty unfair—that’s the state of play right now. HRC walked right into the middle of it on Monday night because she spoke the history she was taught, which is the same history a lot of us of a certain age were taught. Its sell-by date is long past.

Besides Eric Foner, whom Pierce rightly praise, try Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction, an unforgiving account of how the forces that killed the president whom Hillary thinks would have Bridged All Divides gutted the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment and enforced the Black Codes at the point of a bayonet or by a hangman’s noose.

Still — what a state of affairs that in my lifetime we’re having these discussions at last.

Rereading ‘Tender is the Night’


For my fourth time reading of Tender is the Night I followed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s purported advice, duly observed by Malcolm Cowley in an out of print 1951 edition, and read the Dick Diver section first. A flashback in the original edition timed to a grim discovery by alleged protagonist Rosemary Hoyt, it makes better logistic if not much imaginative sense. What the novel gains in clarity it loses in suspense; this section plods. As a introduction to the carnival of grotesques studding this rather garish book it works, though. A father who raped his daughter, a schizophrenic who’s set up by her sister to marry her doctor — who said Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha grew monsters?

As central to the Fitzgerald mythos as the early success, flappers, Zelda, and the Saturday Evening Post, the failure of Tender is the Night presaged the final collapse of his methods and the vaporizing of illusions about his public image. Into this novel, which took seven years to write, he poured what he’d learned about life and fiction. The Great Gatsby remains the American novel’s best distillation of a type we all know: the self-made man who comes from nothing and nowhere and is essentially a gorgeous empty suit. What personality he has is assembled from the detritus of his will and stubbornness. Beginning as a chronicle of a matricide, Tender is the Night evolved over the course of several aborted drafts; each version managed to draw in bits from his collapsing life like a magnet attracting ball bearings. As published the novel tells the story of a self-made psychiatrist who comes from nothing and nowhere and is essentially a gorgeous empty suit. This explains some of the novel’s blurred effects and misplaced pathos. Still, it’s remarkable that Tender is the Night is so coherent.

Swollen in places with rhetoric but in its final movement precise and ruthless about degradation, Tender is the Night professes to be about the decline of a promising talent but is actually about a mediocrity who turns mean when alcohol erodes his manners. When Dick’s sister in law Baby Warren praises him for keeping “a party moving by just a little sentence or a saying here and there,” I’m puzzled, for I’m not sure whether to take her at her word and delight in this charming, trivial trick or if Fitzgerald is mocking the sort of person who takes this talent seriously (Warren, an American with a fetish for Englishness, is a spinster who shuns human contact). Bearing this in mind may palliate the vertigo induced by the switch in tone from the conventional realism of the Diver history and the lyricism of the Rosemary section; it’s as dazed and lustrous as the eighteen-year-old actress and ingenue. But the novel still moves uneasily, like a child walking barefoot on a sofa, between an omniscient narrator and the free indirect style.

Fitzgerald saves his best prose for the occasions when Rosemary’s offscreen, as it were. The slow decline of Diver forces the novelist to reconsider what John Updike called Fitzgerald’s excessively dewy writing, and Updike would know. Replacing it is an aphoristic firmness. About Diver’s harried colleague Franz Gregorovius:

He was forty. Upon his healthy maturity reposed a set of pleasant official manners, but he was most at home in a somewhat stuffy safety from which he could despise the broken rich whom he reeducated. His scientific heredity might have bequeathed him a wider world but he seemed to have deliberately chosen the standpoint of a humbler class, a choice typified by his selection of a wife.

On Nicole’s schizophrenia:

But the brilliance, the versatility of madness is akin to the resourcefulness of water seeping through, over, and around a dike. It requires the united front of many people to work against it.

And often the lyricism works anyway, never more so than when Fitzgerald dotes on Nicole’s sexual maturation:

In the fine spring morning the inhibitions of the male world disappeared and she reasoned as gaily as a flower, while the wind blew her hair until her head moved with it.

And: “If she need not, in her spirit, be forever one with Dick as he had appeared last night, she must be something in addition, not just an image on his mind, condemned to endless parades around the circumference of a medal.”

Would I love to be the college professor who has to answer for the spics and dagos and other slurs that Diver uses casually and endorsed by the narrator. Mary North, an amiable parasite, marries an “Asiatic” man with several last names after the death of her alcoholic husband and beloved Diver bro Abe; to be “Asiatic” means to leave dirty water for the Divers’ lily white children to bathe in, causing a scene that signals Dick’s imminent collapse. And all over Tender is the Night Fitzgerald, to quote Gore Vidal about the novelist’s notebooks, makes rather too many nervous references to fairies and pansies. Less than a decade after the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Fitzgerald’s psychiatrist is less fascinated than Proust’s Marcel, whose experience watching two men he knows buggering at least provides data for the exquisite taxonomy of the male invert that takes up the next thirty pages. The homosexuals in Tender is the Night shudder and weep like women, faint, and behave amorally; a group of lesbians who check out Rosemary are called “the three cobra women.” When a young Spaniard whose father had had him horsewhipped after a presumably fruitless week in a brothel dares to show some cheer, Diver puts him in his place. Although it’s clear Fitzgerald condemns the sadist as much as the homosexual, both typify the sickness of Europe to which Diver, the American abroad, succumbs. These were the dark days when a researcher like Diver can claim, with the entire psychiatric profession behind him, that alcoholism triggers the “abnormality,” not vice versa.

Alone among male American novelists of the early twentieth centuries Fitzgerald empathized with his female characters. Not once did he condescend to their caprices, lusts, choice of hair and makeup. Try imagining Faulkner, Hemingway, or Wilder writing the passage in which Fitzgerald lovingly describes Nicole after a bath getting ready to meet would-be lover Tommy Barban. When the point of view wobbles towards Nicole, I think of Fitzgerald smiling. I would love for him to have written the novel through the eyes of a female schizophrenic whose gradual control of her life eclipses her husband’s affection and causes little more than a piteous sigh. But the Tender is the Night we’ve got, flawed and ungainly as it often is, understands collapse better than the piecing back together.

The book I read: 2015


I broke a personal record this year. I’m not including poetry or books I’ve reread in the following list. After a couple years of steady reviewing on this blog, I got a freelance gig at The Miami Herald, which added to the tally.

Nicolas Wapshott – The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II
Robert Stone – A Flag For Sunrise
Kingsley Amis – One Fat Englishman
Marilynne Robinson – Lilla
John Julius Norwich – Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy
Frank Norris – The Octopus
Merrill D. Paterson – The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun
Lawrence Wright – Thirteen Day in September
Reinaldo Arenas – Before Night Falls
Patricia Meehan – The Unnecessary War
Henry Green – Party Going
Robert Christgau – Going into the City
Joseph O’Neill – Netherland
Muriel Spark – Girl of Slender Means
Susan Butler – Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership
Julian E. Zelizer – The Fierce Urgency of Now
Langdon Hammer – James Merrill: Life and Art
Mario Vargas Llosa – The Discreet Hero
Joseph Roth – The Tale of the 1002nd Night
George Simenon – Maigret and the Madwoman
George Simenon – Dirty Snow
Joseph Roth – The Forgotten Waltz
Eric Larson – Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Michaelangelo Matos – The Underground is Massive
Megan Abbott – The Fever
Stephen Kotkin – Stalin
Guy Lawson – Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle: Vol 1 and Vol 2
Robert Goolrick – The Fall of Princes
Thomas Hardy – A Pair of Blue Eyes
George Simenon – Maigret on the Riviera
Barney Frank – Frank
William Carlos Williams – White Mule
William Carlos Williams – In the Money
Nikolaus Wachsmann – KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
Joseph J. Ellis – The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789
Muriel Spark – Not to Disturb
Edmund White – States of Desire
Adam Kirsch – The Wounded Surgeon
Elizabeth Gaskell – Wives and Daughters
H.W. Brands – Reagan: The Life
Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me
Sarah Vowell – Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Honoré de Balzac – The Wild Ass’ Skin
Philip Larkin – A Girl in Winter
Willa Cather – One of Ours
Willa Cather – My Mortal Storm
Edith Wharton – Twilight Sleep
Mary Gaitskill – Veronica
John Le Carré – The Tailor of Panama
Jeffrey Toobin – A Vast Right Wing Conspiracy
Patricia Highsmith – A Dog’s Ransom
Thomas Mallon – Finale
Patricia Highsmith – Ripley’s Game
Anthony Trollope – The Eustace Diamonds
Mary Gaitskill – The Mare
James M. McPherson – Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief
Rosemary Sullivan – Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
Ari Berman – Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America
Lillian Faderman – The Gay Revolution
Muriel Spark – The Mandelbaum Gate
Muriel Spark – Aiding and Abetting
Penelope Fitzgerald – The Gate of Angels
Melvin I. Urofksy – Dissent and the Supreme Court: Its Role in the Court’s History and the Nation’s Constitutional Dialogue

Rights vs might: ‘Give Us the Ballot’

“Do you think they are going to appoint someone with extensive civil rights experience to head that division?” Erwin Griswold said about protegé William Bradford Reynolds, chosen by Ronald Reagan to head the Civil Rights Division in 1981 and not one to waste time adjudicating old wrongs or on clear English:

Before, you didn’t have the programs that were designed to focus on color. In the 1950s, for example, which all of us recognized was as wrong as you can get, you didn’t have a quota program or an affirmative action program or a voting rights program. During that ear, the cry for color blindedness was to try to wake up people to the fact that everything was color-coded…When you get to the 1980s, the problem was that the solution to discrimination became to color-code.”

That neologism had a simpler but no less grotesque synonym: “reverse discrimination,” the rebel yell of every opponent of voting and civil rights of the last thirty-five years.

In Ari Berman’s terrific Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, The Nation correspondent spends little time on what is familiar terrain – Lyndon Johnson’s full endorsement of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 – to explore less hallowed ground. Thanks to the invaluable John Lewis, bludgeoned on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and allies, black and white, Democratic and Republican, the Voting Rights Act survived initial dilution efforts by the Nixon administration to actually get more encompassing with each congressional reauthorization. Then a cabal of Justice Department appointees, thriving in the new dawn of Reaganism, sought to undo these advances. Republicans took the Senate for the first time since 1952. Ted Kennedy’s replacement as chair of the Judiciary Committee? Strom Thurmond. Key to these efforts was an ambitious lawyer named John Roberts, who drafted talking points, speeches and op-eds for Reynolds and attorney general William French Smith. “John seemed like he always had it in for the Voting Rights Act,” career Justice Department lawyer Gerry herbert tells Berman. “Voter fraud” replaces reverse discrimination as the new crusade. Lightning strikes are more common yet the zealots insisted on the danger to the Republic. On occasion the truth oozed from the cracks. “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people,” said New Right crusader Paul Weyrich in 1980. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Rewrite the old saw about money: when someone tells you these state laws aren’t supposed to restrict the right to vote, they’re about restricting the right to vote.

At least Reagan, encouraged by none other than Bob Dole (already aware that he lived in the Cretaceous Era for establishment Republicans) signed the reauthorization; even Reynolds went along, converted by a trip to rural Mississippi with Jesse Jackson to see, to quote Berman, “how white plantation bosses and factory owners forced employee to work overtime on Election Day, moved polling places from black to white neighborhoods, and white neighborhoods [were] annexed to dilute black representation.” A foxier crew in the administrations of both Bushes would do subtle things with the last point. Collaborating with black legislators in a heartbreaking example of (un)intended consequences, these voting rights denialists formed the Fairness for the ’90s coalition, one of whose goals was to ensure healthy percentages of black voting by creating majority black districts. The results: intensely white voting districts in the South that elect conservative legislators. During the second Bush administration, Berman writes, people were referring to Brad Reynolds as the good old days. Voter fraud became the bugaboo. Charlatans like Hans von Spakovsky saw their dreams realized when in the 2013 Shelby case old ally John Roberts and four other justices struck down, in an ingenious strategy, Section Four of the VRA. The coverage formula, whereby Congress had singled out Alaska, New Mexico, districts in New York, and much of the Deep South as places with egregious histories of voting rights suppression, was eviscerated. As Berman acidly notes:

A law that eight justices had praised as a “valid effectuation”of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1966 had been transformed into a “racial entitlement” that only the Supreme Court was brave enough to end.

Typical of John Lewis’ generosity was lobbying as congressman for VRA expansion in 1975 to cover Mexican Americans, the latest victims of disenfranchisement. “It would be a mockery of the whole Voting Rights Act effort during the past 10 years if we leave the Voting Rights Act as it is and not cover the other minorities in this country,” he said. It passed. After registered voters increased by 5 percent in 2008, several GOP governors said enough of that. The Pennsylvania house majority leader was as outspoken in 2012 as Weyrich: a rescinded voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” In my own state Rick Scott overturned predecessor Charlie Crist’s decision to restore voting privileges to convicted felons, leading to the disenfranchisement of almost 100,000 Floridians. And brace yourselves: one person one vote got a skeptical hearing before Roberts and the Furious Five yesterday. John Lewis is denied a serene old age.

‘Getting on each other’s nerves is our right’

In his review of Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, Chris Heller asks:

The question that lingers throughout Lafayette is why this democracy has lasted. If America has such an exceptional form of government, what is it that makes it so special? The answer, says Vowell, lies in our freedom to permit and accommodate protest. That’s why she sets a handful of late scenes within Lafayette Park at the White House, a site that’s probably seen more civil disobedience than anywhere else in the country, and is only a couple hundred yards away from the president’s bed. America, she’s saying, has a tremendous tolerance for insurrection.

“In the United States,” Vowell writes, “there was no simpler, more agreeable time.” We Americans, I wrote in my own review of Lafayette, don’t like paying for things we need; even in 1778, “infrastructure” was crumbling. Behold the complaints of Rep. David Nunes of California:

“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”

When wackos, flame swallowers, four-headed babies, and Ayn Rand message board denizens start freaking out about the continued existence of Obamacare despite the fact that its namesake sits in the Oval Office with a veto pen uncapped, then even so fervent a conservative like Nunes must realize it’s not a disease from his constituents suffer – it’s imbecility created by the gutting of civics and social studies courses. Oscar Wilde, as usual, was correct: each man kills the things he loves. Men like Nunes stoke the fears of their flat earther constituents during elections but complain when the constituents insist on their guy turning the world into a tortilla.

Reagan Agonistes — Thomas Mallon’s ‘Finale’


Confronted with the enigma of enigmas, Christopher Hitchens throws up his hands:

He wondered if all the effort that Reagan’s nasty lieutenants put into figuring out his nullity – and perhaps projecting something onto it – didn’t give his government a peculiar centripetal energy. Did this grinning, infirm film star, himself so entropic and gaseous, actually keep accruing might and gravity, a sort of unconscious creativity, from all the cogitation by the courtiers in his orbit? Did their various hypotheses about the president’s nature somehow supply him with consequentially, as kind of superreality – whereas by himself he lacked any reality at all?

The nullity is Ronald Reagan, reeling from his first sustained bit of public obloquy after the downing of a cargo plane flown by Eugene Hasenfus over Nicaragua set in motion the events that almost wrecked his presidency. But his infirmity saved his ass too, for the Democrats who controlled the Senate for the first time since 1980 exercising their investigatory powers spared him Richard Nixon’s fate. The thirty-seventh president has a strong supporting role as a minor spirit of intrigue in Thomas Mallon’s novel about the Reagan administration in 1986, himself frustrated by Reagan’s reluctance to accept his counsel even with the tidbits of information fed to him by Anders Little, his mole in the National Security Council.

A fine chronicler of Beltway mores who considers Gore Vidal’s historical fiction as valuable as his essays, Mallon has chosen the setting with care. 1986 was the apex and nadir of the administration, peaking with a gaudy July 4 ceremony commemorating a restored Statue of Liberty with lasers and Neil Diamond and a TIME cover story whose cover rebukes the idea of a liberal press. Other narrators include Nancy Reagan, a concatenation of resentments and worry; Pamela Churchill Harriman, secure in the millions she inherited from her late husband and out to unseat the big-haired Paula Hawkins from her Senate seat in Florida; and, uh, an imprisoned John Hinckley, Jr. These and speaking parts for Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher threaten to turn the novel into a John Jakes extravaganza, adapted for eighties TV audiences and starring Leslie Ann Down as the Iron Lady and Ed Begley, Jr. as The Sage of Plains. But Mallon understands how power is the illusion of power, dissolved at the first stink of weakness. As much as the notoriously autocratic management style of Reagan’s second term chief of staff Don Regan is played for laughs, Regan covered for his master’s shall we say lax management, thus becoming the ideal scapegoat when the public leaned the identity of the CIA-NSC junta conducting foreign policy. Mallon, who was acquainted with the late Hitchens, presents his friend as both larger and smaller than life: nibbling away at the story by exploiting Little’s sexual insecurities, he’s closer to a caricature of a shoe leather reporter from thirties film, albeit one kissed by wit, at which Mallon is expert at simulating. Told that the president cannot attend the service for Averell Harriman because of a Rose Garden event, Hitchens replies, “Ah. Perhaps he can turn into a Victory Garden for Enrique Bermudez. He can still send vegetables even if the law now prohibits him from sending guns.”

For Reagan watchers like yours truly, Finale deserves a read if only for reminding its audience of the environment of puffed, camp versions of hyper masculinity in which his administration thrived. The real Hitchens broke the story about the Carl “Spitz” Channell circle, an unofficial consortium of rich homosexuals pumping millions in private contributions to the Nicaraguan Contras. Little’s sexual awakening coincides with his peripheral involvement in this crew and before the Hasenfus crash and AIDS stopped the party. Like Fellow Travelers, Mallon’s 2006 novel about gay men scrambling for cover at the dawn of the McCarthy era, Finale suggests a tenuous connection between jingoism and an admiration for muscle flexing in every sense. A protected enclave, however, existed around Nancy Reagan, who surrounded herself with courtiers like Merv Griffin (Mallon gets laughs at the TV host’s penchant for placing the emphasis on the noun modified by “great,” i.e. “Great movie!”)

If point of view is the novelist’s consuming problem, as Henry James theorized, then Mallon needs therapy. Hearing from Nixon, Nancy, and Little would have compressed Finale into a terser narrative about a lucky son of a bitch, a president whose disinterest in minutiae and who suffered from the slow erosion of his cognitive powers nevertheless demonstrated at Reykjavik that he was willing to eliminate the entirety of American nuclear arsenal if he could keep his dream of space lasers firing on phantom threats. Andropov would have taken the old man at his word and never proposed anything but a paper agreement; instead, Reagan had Mikhail Gorbachev as negotiating partner. Only an imbecile or a man who means what he says about wanting to live in a nuke-free world would have done that, the Soviet general secretary realized. Maybe it was both.

Even at its most redundant, though, the polyphony fascinates. Whether it’s The Great Gatsby or Citizen Kane, American artists love dramatizing the powerful blank. Finale has the virtue of eschewing definitions for Ronald Reagan’s strategy; thanks to Reagan, these personalities, malevolent and otherwise, to whom Mallon cedes fictional space thrived. And the book is pretty funny. About The Speech and the moonbeam-like focus not taught at Warner Brothers that Nancy brought to bear: “It was simple: she never listened to it.” Or when Maureen Reagan, the president’s eldest child and closest political kin, dizzy with frustrated love for him, finally getting the run of the White House after her stepmother and dad are out calls mother Jane Wyman and says, “It isn’t every Friday night that Falcon Crest gets tuned in from this house!” With his obsession with ceremony, Ronald Reagan showed employees and relatives alike that a successful life depends on knowing when the camera starts rolling. Political life too.

About grievances…

Autumn is several weeks old, the academic term has three weeks left, and I’m overdue for a Trollope novel. This season’s novel: The Eustace Diamonds. Twenty-six pages in, I read the following about a superannuated Tory:

These people are ready to grumble at every boon conferred on them, and yet to enjoy every boon. They now too their privileges, and after a fashion, understand their position. It is picturesque, and it pleases them. To have always been in the right and yet always on the losing side; always being ruined, always under persecution from a wild spirit of republican demagoguism–and yet never to lose anything, not even position or public esteem, is pleasant enough. A huge, living, daily increasing grievance that does one no palpable harm is the happiest possession that a man can have.

This couldn’t refer to anyone in our political class.

The truth about Pablo Neruda’s death?


The official cause of death was prostate cancer, but doubt about the government’s version of events set in amid the authoritarianism of the Pinochet years.

General Pinochet took power after the coup and ruled Chile until 1990. Thousands of people were killed, disappeared or tortured during his rule.

An official inquiry into Mr. Neruda’s death was opened in 2011 after several witnesses, including his longtime driver, Manuel Araya, challenged the idea that he had died of natural causes. Mr. Araya said he believed that the military might have poisoned Mr. Neruda. A judge ordered the poet’s body to be exhumed in 2013.

The government statement Thursday came in response to a report in the Spanish newspaper El País that included an Interior Ministry document on Mr. Neruda’s death. That document, dated March 25, 2015, said in part, “The poet was injected with a pain killer that produced the cardiac arrest that would cause his death.”

The report assigned no ulterior motive for the administration of that drug, but also noted a number of irregularities in the medical care that Mr. Neruda received that day. It said he had received the injection in his abdomen — as opposed to intravenously — which, it noted, was unusual in a medical center. It also said that it was not clear who had given him the injection or exactly what it had contained.

Admirers of Residencia en la tierra and Las alturas de Macchu Picchu understand how his work was out of step with the immolation of leftism in South America, but it is still bracing to read the degree to which a poet mattered as a public force in the early seventies. Almost twenty years later Mario Vargas Llosa could run against Alberto Fujimori and receive 34 percent of the primary vote.