What the Devil Said

This is an excerpt from “He May Be a Fool But He’s Our Fool: Lester Maddox, Randy Newman, and the American Culture Wars,” from my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

     Great devil speeches crop up in the most unexpected places, and can dominate the stories in which they appear. Mention the film The Third Man and likely the first thing you’ll think of is black market profiteer Harry Lime’s discourse on how the bloody reign of the Borgias produced the innovations of the Renaissance, while the peace and prosperity of Switzerland produced nothing grander than the cuckoo clock. (It was actually invented in Germany, but nobody wants to interrupt Harry Lime when he’s on a roll.) In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Serpent invites Eve to bite into the forbidden fruit by asking her why a just and loving god would want to deny his creations full knowledge of the world he has created for them: “Why but to keep ye low and ignorant.” Bite into the forbidden fruit, Satan promises, and “ye shall be as Gods/ Knowing both Good and Evil as they know.” Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” soliloquy in The Merchant of Venice may well be the ultimate devil speech. Shakespeare’s audience would have heard it as the self-justifying rant of a villain, but its sentiments have upended that role so completely that for a modern audience it is Antonio, not Shylock, who comes off as the villain.

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Support the Troops

From “The Unforgivable Thing,” an essay in my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

     Support the troops! I saw it on the magnetized yellow ribbons that appeared on the backs of cars, trucks, and SUVs. I heard it intoned on news programs even as the invasion of Iraq showed its first signs of turning into a long, bloody wallow of corruption and stupidity. And in the spring of 2004 I heard it snarled by a fireman as his colleagues gunned their engines and swerved their big shiny vehicles in front of our anti-war group and gave dozens of men, women, and children a righteous taste of patriotic tailpipe exhaust. The firefighters were supposed to stay at the back of the parade lineup so they could peel away to answer any emergency calls without too much disruption, but that morning it was more important for them to tell us that we, with our American flags and red-white-and-blue banners, did not belong in their parade.

     “Support the troops!” The fireman who barked it at us was so enraged by our mere presence that he couldn’t even bring himself to look straight at the group. He shot us a single sideways glance, red-faced with indignation, then took his place alongside one of the lumbering vehicles. He didn’t care if we were carrying a long banner with the names of the soldiers who had died in Iraq up to that point. He didn’t want to be reminded of dead soldiers. After all, it was a Memorial Day parade.

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Historyville

I always have a good time when I do book events in Jersey City, or Hudson County in general, because as far as I can tell, EVERYBODY in Hudson County is some kind of historian. Everyone has a story related to Frank Hague or John Kenny and is happy to share it.

While I was at the Hudson County History Fair a short while ago, a couple of people came up to my table to chat about the relative merits of Hague versus Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. Naturally the talk turned to the HBO show Boardwalk Empire and the question, since answered, of whether the heavily fictionalized boss of the show would survive.  (The real life Nucky, of course, did a few years in the federal pen and then lived a quiet life as a political eminence gris until well into the Sixties.) Inevitably, the talk turned to That Episode.

Hudson County people know what I’m talking about. The episode shows Hague, in real life a moralist who never smoked or drank, puffing a cigar and knocking back a tumbler of whiskey while ogling a naked showgirl playing a ukelele. 

“My mother,” the guy said, “never gets up for anything anymore. When she saw that scene, she got up from her chair and demanded we call the show’s producers. ‘That’s not Frank!’ she yelled.”

No, it wasn’t. It’s astonishing to me that a show based on such a fascinating period of U.S. history could have turned out to be so tedious. But that was the problem: instead of going with the interesting facts, the show’s producers went in for tired Hollywood notions about gangsters. They even skipped the gangster convention of 1929, which Nucky hosted! How did the producers rationalize that decision?

Considering how he spent decades living like a pasha before the feds caught up with him, then served only about four years in the pen, I’d say Nucky got off pretty lucky. In his last years, however, Nucky Johnson was a diminished figure of some pathos. He was a kind of Dorian Gray, staying hale and hearty while his city decayed around him. The extent of the decay was revealed to the entire nation during the Democratic National Convention of 1964, when the delegates found hulking resorts full of tiny rooms and dodgy plumbing, devoid of air conditioning during a sweltering summer. Looking on from the background was grey-haired Nucky Johnson, who aside from building the Convention Center (admittedly a major improvement) had done nothing during the fat years to build institutions that could have helped the city survive the changes everyone saw coming. In the end, the boardwalk peacock looked rather more like Count Dracula.

Personally, I would have found that a far more interesting conclusion than just another stretch of bang-bang, but nobody asked me. I know Boardwalk Empire has its fans, but for me, there were lots of little sleeps before the fictional Nucky went on to the big one.

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Lunchtime with Nucky Johnson

For the past year I’ve been all over the place talking up my book American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, but I’ve never done a book talk anywhere near Nucky’s old power base, Atlantic City. I’ve been to Jersey City and Hudson County many times to talk about Frank Hague, but up to now Atlantic County and Atlantic City — nada, Nucky or no Nucky

I’ll remedy that Friday, Nov. 14, when I set up shop on Atlantic Avenue at 12:30 p.m. to give the lunchtime crowd a taste of old Atlantic City and the colorful career of Nucky Johnson, the city’s best-known political boss. It’ll be in the NJ350 Pop-up Store that will appear at 1125 Atlantic Avenue, a short walk from the Boardwalk.

There will be a good-sized stack of American Dictators for sale, and I’ll be hawking some of my other titles as well. Prominent among them will be my new title, Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements. History and a visit to the Jersey shore all at once. How can you resist?  

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Something to say

Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements is now out and ready for purchase in both paperback and Kindle ebook editions.

Well, I’m excited, anyway.

Learn how a segregationist governor’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show inspired one of the greatest concept albums of the Seventies!  Savor the result of a collaboration between one of jazz music’s greatest composers and the man behind A Christmas Story! Ponder what the author of the noir thriller The Big Clock has to tell us about the newspaper industry!  See what happened when an anti-war group joined a Memorial Day parade and looked Red State America right in the face! Learn how a generation of underappreciated American writers got screwed out of credit for inspiring one of the biggest film franchises of all time!

Above all, find out why historian Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, says I “wield a straight-razor for a pen.” Find out why Michael Gray, author of acclaimed books about Blind Willie McTell and Bob Dylan, calls me “an exemplary cultural critic.” And take a stroll through the area where politics, culture, and history overlap — and ignite.  

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End-of-Summer Reading

My consolation for seeing the summer come to an end is the imminent publication of my essay collection Let the Devil Speak. Meanwhile, NJ Spotlight is running an excerpt from American Dictators for its Summer Reading List. Thanks, guys.

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On the Beach

 

From the book Blue Mind:

We are inspired by water — hearing it, smelling it in the air, playing in it, walking next to it, painting it, surfing, swimming or fishing in it, writing about it, photographing it, and creating lasting memories along its edge. Indeed, throughout history, you see our deep connection to water described in art, literature, and poetry. “In the water I am beautiful,” admitted Kurt Vonnegut. Water can give us energy, whether it’s hydraulic, hydration, the tonic effect of cold water splashed on the face, or the mental refreshment that comes from the gentle, rhythmic sensation of hearing waves lapping a shore. Immersion in warm water has been used for millennia to restore the body as well as the mind. Water drives many of our decisions — from the seafood we eat, to our most romantic moments, and from where we live, to the sports we enjoy, and the ways we vacation and relax. “Water is something that humanity has cherished since the beginning of history, and it means something different to everyone,” writes archeologist Brian Fagan. We know instinctively that being by water makes us healthier, happier, reduces stress, and brings us peace.

In 1984 Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist, naturalist, and entomologist, coined the term “biophilia” to describe his hypothesis that humans have “ingrained” in our genes an instinctive bond with nature and the living organisms we share our planet with. He theorized that because we have spent most of our evolutionary history—three million years and 100,000 generations or more — in nature (before we started forming communities or building cities), we have an innate love of natural settings. Like a child depends upon its mother, humans have always depended upon nature for our survival. And just as we intuitively love our mothers, we are linked to nature physically, cognitively, and emotionally.

 

From my novel Echo:

Lines of muscle strained along Theresa’s bare arms. Lisa pretended to hold the brim in place as she watched the men slouch off. Theresa’s hand, still tight in hers, stopped trembling after a few minutes.     She shifted in a way that Lisa recognized without thinking. She let her sister settle her head in her lap, then she stroked her hair back from her eyes. Theresa stared out at the waves.

     “I always loved the beach,” she muttered.

     “The beach loves you back. You looked fantastic out there in the waves. I thought you were going to ride off on a dolphin and we’d never see you again.”

     Theresa laughed – a gravelly sound. “A whale, maybe.”

     “Bullshit.”

     Another laugh, this one clearer.

     “So, you don’t like this? It isn’t working for you?”

     “It works, all right.” She sighed, and her breath puffed across Lisa’s leg. “The sound of the ocean always puts me right. I probably wouldn’t want to be here if you weren’t here, but I love this.”

     “That’s what I want to hear about. Things you love.”

     “What is it about that sound, I wonder.”

     “We were all floating around in water before we were born,” Lisa said. “All that sloshing along with mom’s heartbeat. It probably makes you think of the womb, before you were born.”

     Theresa laughed. She twisted around to look up at Lisa. “Where did that come from?”

     “I dunno,” Lisa said. “It just popped out.”

     Theresa sat up and hugged her knees. She squinted after the two men, who were a few yards away but seemed in no hurry to move along.

     “That was nice, what he said.”

     “It was,” Lisa said.

     “I shouldn’t have freaked like that. I still get caught off guard sometimes.”

     The sun was setting behind them, and the evening haze was full of pink and purple light. A couple of hundred yards away, four young girls were climbing an overturned lifeguard boat and jumping off. A couple in their twenties walked past, holding hands and bumping shoulders. The man’s arms were a dense weave of tattoos. The woman had a neon pink feather in her black hair. The plumage changed, but the rituals stayed the same.

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Book the Next

Cover LTDS 7-10-14More details will come in due course, but this is my next (nonfiction) book, due out later this summer. Check out the nice things Rick Perlstein and Michael Gray have to say on the cover. Do I need to say how much I love the cover?

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The Birthday State

So today marks the 350th anniversary of the signing of the land grant that awarded John Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret the lands between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. The property transferred via this very lucrative real estate deal was named after Carteret’s ancestral home, the Isle of Jersey. In other words, it’s New Jersey’s 350th birthday.

I wouldn’t want to be accused of crass commercialism or anything like that — heavens no! — but I can’t think of a better way to mark this by occasion than by buying a book or two that’s related to New Jersey history. Do I have any suggestions, you want to know? Funny you should ask! I can think of at least two, right off the bat!

First there’s American Dictators, my dual biography of the notorious political bosses Frank Hague (ruler of Hudson County for three decades and a national player with enough clout to intimidate presidents) and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (who controlled all graft and bootlegging in Atlantic City during its heyday in the Roaring Twenties). Nucky, of course, is the inspiration for the hero of the highly fictionalized HBO series Boardwalk Empire, in which any even more heavily fictionalized Frank Hague makes an appearance every now and then. Personally, I find the nonfiction versions far more interesting, which is why I wrote the book.

Then there’s The Last Three Miles, my first nonfiction book, which covers the construction of the first superhighway project in the United States, and the bloody labor war that erupted during the completion of its final phase, now known as the Pulaski Skyway. If you’ve ever driven that not-quite legendary span, you might think it was designed by madmen. In fact, it was designed by extremely competent engineers who were working on the cutting edge of new technology, and who saw their work undone  at the last minute by political interference. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the sensational murder trial. Murder, politics, and traffic engineering — all the things that make the world go ’round.

Since none of this would have happened if Charles II hadn’t signed that piece of paper, I think it’s safe to say these books have been 350 years in the making. How’s that for a cover blurb?

 

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Baxter

BAXTERJBOYBaxter, the last of my original Westie clan, is gone. Truth to tell, all the qualities that had made him such a distinctive personality and entertaining companion had vanished long before I took him to the vet. He wasn’t even a shadow of himself, but I wanted him to hear his name and feel loving hands stroking him right up to the end. I could do that much for him.

Among the original members of Clan Westie, Baxter was the instigator, always up for a tussle or a game. If things got too quiet, he was happy to get something going. His signature move was to walk slowly through the living room with a squeaky toy in his mouth, dropping it every now and then, looking around before picking it back up, getting the other dogs wound up as he made it clear he was holding the greatest toy in the known dog world. It almost always worked. When it didn’t, Baxter made his own fun. On several occasions I saw him leaping and lunging around a treat or a toy, pretending it was trying to get away from him.

Sadie, his consort and sparring partner, preferred to tussle outside, usually from underneath a chair where she could leap out and snap at Baxter as he ran past. (Ever the strategist, she knew that out in the open Baxter would roll over her through sheer momentum.) That was during the day. At night, Sadie could turn the tables on him. Many a night I would step onto the back deck and see two little white blobs dashing back and forth through the yard, occasionally coming together, then splitting up and running circles around each other. This was their pattern right from the start. When we were deciding if we should get them, we went into a playroom and from the second their paws touched the floor they were scrapping. Baxter would chase Sadie, Sadie would chase Baxter, lather, rinse, repeat.

Baxter was funny even when he was demanding. He had a way of pushing his snout at people’s ankles or hands that became known as Baxter Bumps. One of my oldest daughter’s friends thought Baxter Bumps were so cute, she would deliberately interrupt a petting session in order to get a few.  His round black eyes communicated innocence, even when he shredded rolls of paper towels that had been left on the floor or deck.

And yet, for all his scalawag ways, Baxter was the sweetest, most even-tempered dog you could ever hope to meet. I don’t think I ever saw him bear his teeth at any person. He really did want to be everyone’s friend. Once he broke away and trotted to the sidewalk to greet a woman walking her dog. When it turned and snarled at him, he was so upset he needed three days to recover his usual happy-go-lucky demeanor.

But he was a Westie, and that meant he was a hunter. A very ruthless one. We only knew a nest of skunks had been established under the tool shed when dead kits started turning up. When he spotted a snake crawling in the neighbor’s wood pile, catching that snake became his obsession. One afternoon in the back yard, a friend squinted and said, “Wow, Baxter sure loves his snake toy.” He loved it so much I had to collect it with a shovel for disposal. I was relieved to see it wasn’t a poisonous snake, but sorry to see it was a pest-catcher — a garter snake, maybe. It was hard to tell.  

Baxter was seventeen years old. He outlived Sadie by a year or so, but his decline was shockingly abrupt. He had been chugging along as an old campaigner, slower and a bit fatter but still game, always on patrol in the yard. Then something happened. Some switch was thrown, and Baxter was gone. No more bumps, no more grand morning entrances to demand to be carried downstairs and then served breakfast. The round eyes turned squinty, and when he wasn’t napping he was wandering around the house like a little lost soul. When I picked him up I could feel his muscles jumping. Pain? Probably, but Baxter was a stoic. He never complained.For two days he ignored his food and water. Even when I placed some liverwurst in his mouth and held it shut, he didn’t swallow.

Even on the table at the animal hospital, Baxter didn’t seem aware of his surroundings. The vet administered a sedative as I held him, and after a few seconds he slumped heavily against my arm. “Go to sleep, little man,” I whispered to him as the final shot was administered, and his body unclenched. The curled forelegs relaxed and his head fell limp. The Baxter I had known was already gone, but at least now the pain was gone, too.

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