Category Archives: The Reading Life

May the Fraud Be With You

Now that the next Star Wars movie is coming into focus as Star Wars. Episode VII: The Fan Base Gets Monetized, here’s an appropriate excerpt from my new essay collection, Let the Devil Speak:

“As this book goes to press, the Church of Star Wars has grown to encompass old and new testaments comprising the original three films – Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi – and the three prequels: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. The original gospels are available in differing forms, or Special Editions, with contradictory details on crucial questions of doctrine: e.g., Did Han Solo or Greedo the bounty hunter take the first shot? Did Luke Skywalker give a girlie-man scream as he tumbled down that airshaft, or did he maintain samurai silence? And there is a separate galaxy’s worth of apocrypha in the form of video games, fan fiction, novelizations, an animated series (The Clone Wars), and scores of ‘expanded universe’ novels, many of them at least equal and in some cases superior to the six canonical works.

     “Fortunately, Bill Moyers had the sense to put away the incense and return to valuable journalism and punditry. But, to borrow a phrase from the Firesign Theatre, there’s a seeker born every minute, and after a gap of several years, with only the re-release of the six films in yet another format to stir the congregants, Moyers was succeeded by Camille Paglia, the Auntie Mame of academe, who mercifully eased up on the Campbell references – the better to trowel up her own brand of high-toned gabble.

     “Paglia, a self-styled provocateur who lurches after contrarian arguments the way a shyster chases ambulances, proclaimed Lucas ‘the greatest artist of our age’ in her 2012 book Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Having used the book’s introduction to deplore the distracting effect of video games on youth, Paglia celebrated the climactic light-saber duel at the end of Revenge of the Sith, itself little more than a protracted video game battle, with none of the storytelling value of the confrontation in The Empire Strikes Back. (Though Obi-Wan’s big line in the heat of battle – ‘Only a Sith lord speaks in absolutes!’ – showed Lucas’ ear for dialogue had lost none of its cauliflower bloom.) But Paglia was just getting warmed up. ‘No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas,’ she proclaimed, then went on to hail the ‘Incredible Cross Sections’ books (diagrams of the various spaceships and accessories cramming every frame of the series) in terms that would have had Joseph Campbell himself fleeing to the magic grove:

    The precise draftsmanship, mastery of perspective, and glorification of engineering in these superbly produced books have not been seen since modernist abstraction swept away the great tradition of architectural drawings of the neoclassic Beaux Arts school. In genre, the Cross-Sections books are anatomies, analogous to Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, with their medical dissections, botanical studies, and military designs for artillery, catapults, tanks, and then-impossible submarines and flying machines.          

      “The ‘Incredible Cross Sections’ books are indeed lovely productions that induce long periods of staring and musing, especially when they diagram the R.M.S. Titanic and the human body – i.e., real things – but if Camille Paglia can look at these toy-marketing tie-ins and see Leonardo’s notebooks, I’d love to have her free-associate her way through some IKEA assembly instructions.”

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Resentments of Things Past

This is another 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:

  The tune has varied little over the decades. Whether it’s Spiro Agnew snarling about effete intellectual snobs or Dan Quayle chirping about “the cultural elite,” the message is that the world is being run into the ground by elitists who look down on hardworking Americans while opening the gates to barbaric gays/ blacks/ immigrants/ Islamists, or any other boogieman of the moment. Sometimes the speaker makes the mistake of being too frank in public, as happened when Rev. Jerry Falwell went on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club broadcast a mere two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and announced, with smoke from incinerated humans and buildings still thick in the air over southern Manhattan, that the attacks reflected God’s anger at “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays, and the lesbians.” But even when it fails to win elections, culture war rhetoric serves the purpose of shoring up the hardcore supporters – the base. In that case, failure is almost preferable to success. It keeps the base unified and, above all, angry. Resentment is the cheap fuel that keeps the culture wars running, and like most cheap fuels it generates an appalling amount of pollutants.  

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The Cockroach and the Governor

This is another 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:

     Those with a deep knowledge of pop culture and the civil rights era will remember Lester Maddox as the Atlanta restaurateur who race-baited his way to the governorship of Georgia, and who did in fact appear on a December 1970 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show. (The description of Nebraska-born Cavett, a museum-quality specimen of the mid-twentieth-century WASP, as “a smart-ass New York Jew” immediately announces the unreliability of this particular narrator.) Though Maddox got the bulk of that night’s airtime, the show opened with a brief appearance by an entomologist from the Museum of Natural History, who displayed samples from the museum’s insect collection – most memorably, a hissing cockroach. For anyone who had seen the photo of Maddox and his son chasing an African-American man out of their Atlanta restaurant, threatening him with a pick handle and a pistol every step of the way, it was an appropriate lead-in.

 

 

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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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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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Game of Shout-outs

Game of Thrones is a class act. Yes, the show is so eager to display the naked female form engaged in sexual acts whenever possible that I sometimes think Paul Verhoeven took over the camera to make a medieval version of Showgirls. Yes, the previous season’s depiction of how Theon was transformed into Reek (which took place mostly offstage in the novels) played like outtakes from Salo.

But in the second episode of the new season, King Joffrey (aka Caligula Bieber) brandished his new sword and wondered aloud what to name it. “Stormbringer!” someone shouted off camera. “Terminus Est!” someone else shouted, just as another called out the name used in George R. R. Martin’s novel — Widow’s Wail.

The plot rolled on and I rolled with it, but not before I had my little glow of appreciation for the shout-outs to Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe. What is turning out to be the greatest fantasy series ever made for television took time to give props to two other fantasy greats. Terminus Est is the massive sword used by Severian, the apprentice torturer in Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.  Stormbringer is the soul-devouring weapon featured in Moorcock’s long-running series about Elric, the semi-human albino who needs the sword to keep himelf alive.  So — a class act.

If someone had also called out “Graywand” or “Scalpel,” thus referencing Fritz Lieber’s classic Lankhmar stories, the episode would have scored my personal heroic fantasy trifecta. Maybe another episode. I’m sure they’ll get around to it. This show is, after all, a class act.

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The Humpday Times Book Review

Hold on to your hats, everyone. I just read An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media and I’m ready to share some of author Joe Muto’s discoveries during his years at Fox News and his stint as the undercover observer for Gawker.  Fix yourself a good strong drink and take up a position near the fainting couch, lest these smokin’ hot revelations send you toppling in disbelief.

Are you ready?

FOX NEWS IS CONSERVATIVE! BILL O’REILLY IS A PRIMA DONNA WITH AN EXPLOSIVE TEMPER! GLENN BECK IS SUCH A KOOK EVEN FOX NEWS WORRIED ABOUT LOSING CREDIBILITY! SARAH PALIN IS A SELF-AGGRANDIZING NITWIT!  

Oh, and Geraldo Rivera waits politely to use the vending machines and has a gorgeous wife.

An Atheist in the FOXhole offers a magazine article’s-worth of mildly interesting inside gossip larded with detailed accounts of backstage quibbling and entirely too much FOXHOLEinformation on the personal life of Joe Muto, his breakups, his attempts to have a personal life, and his ongoing effort to convince himself that paying New York rents makes sense. It also has a running subplot showing how Muto, hired by Gawker to be a mole in the Fox News ranks — much the way the late, lamented Spy magazine had moles burrowing through the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — bobbed and weaved to avoid being outed by the Fox management. As a means of generating  suspense, it falls considerably short of The Big Clock.

Muto spent the best years of his Fox period working under Bill O’Reilly, and while his depictions of the volatile top dog at Fox ring true, that’s because he isn’t offering much that we haven’t seen before. Though politically liberal, Muto ended up liking Bill-O even when he was living in dread of pitching the wrong story idea. It’s not hard to see why. One of the few roosters in the Fox News barnyard with a genuine news background, O’Reilly shows just enough independence along with his crankery to be an interesting figure. The first time I saw O’Reilly’s show, in which he interviewed an evangelical about his group’s stance on allowing gay couples to adopt children, I thought O’Reilly was pretty good. The Jesus whooper kept saying the group’s stance on gay adoption was in line with Blblical teachings; knowing he would come off barbaric and creepy, the whooper refused O’Reilly’s repeated challenges to articulate those teachings, and the ensuing game of rhetorical Whack-a-Mole was pretty entertaining. There’s no point in overpraising the man — his nonsense about secular progressives and the phantom war on Christmas is straight out of Bedlam. But in a shop dominated by GOP apparatchiks, ideological grifters, and race-baiting clowns, O’Reilly does stand out.

Fora man who spent so much time in the Fox trenches, Muto has remarkably little to say about Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter, all of whom are presented on the book jacket in what can only be described as consumer fraud. Ann Coulter, a nasty creep on camera, is very pleasant and warm offstage — wow, what an insight. Glenn Beck, for all his business savvy, seems like a true loon — hey, thanks for the analysis, dude. Muto’s prose style is competent without being particularly memorable: there are a couple of zingers, but not nearly enough to justify this forced march over too many barren pages. An Atheist in the FOXhole is a true disappointment: a book that promises much, delivers little, satisfies not at all.          

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The Humpday Times Book Review

One of the benefits of being a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is that when you turn your hand to writing thrillers, as John Sandford (aka John Camp) did in the 1980s with Rules of Prey and its numerous sequels, you have enough background knowledge and information-gathering skills to portray high-fliers and low lifes with ease and authority. Having trolled the gutters in his last three “Prey” novels, Sandford heads upmarket with Silken Prey, which tosses his detective hero SILKENPREYLucas Davenport into the middle of a scandal involving kiddie porn, kidnapping, and possibly murder, all with a high-pressure Senate race rumbling overhead. This is the most political novel in the series since Wicked Prey, which was set during the GOP national convention in Minnesota, but don’t let that scare you off. There are no polemics here, just a sharp awareness of how money and power skew everything, even a hunt for justice. Especially a hunt for justice. And Sandford is too much of a pro to let his political inclinations turn his characters into ideological puppets. Silken Prey is first and foremost a police procedural involving targets with enough money to buy off trouble, or pay to have it inflicted in spades on their enemies. Sandford himself sums it up early on: “Shootout at the one percent corral.”

A better comparison for this novel might be Secret Prey, which played its murder investigation against intricate corporate maneuvering during a bank merger — think The Bonfire of the Vanities crossed with Thomas Harris and you’ll get an idea of the novel’s unique flavor. Silken Prey doesn’t quite match that book’s dazzling high-wire act. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say there’s a promised confrontation that doesn’t arrive, which undercuts the finale just a smidge.There’s also a bit too much cross-pollination with Sandford’s other two series characters, Kidd and Virgil Flowers, which seems a little too gimmicky for this otherwise exemplary author.

Which is not to say Silken Prey isn’t as engrossing as its predecessors, just that it doesn’t hit the peaks of Secret Prey, Storm Prey, or the black sheep of the series, Shadow Prey. There’s a great deal of gallows humor on display, as when a character who’s a poster child for narcissistic personality disorder reads a description of the condition and angrily dismisses it point by revealing point.

There are also hints that Sandford may be preparing a graceful exit for Lucas. The series began in 1989 as a top-grade Thomas Harris knockoff in which the hero often proved as scary dangerous as the psychos he was hunting. By about the eighth novel it ripened into top-grade police procedurals, and now Sandford has been adding intimations of mortality to the mix. I don’t think Sandford will kill Lucas off — for one thing, his publishers know that too final a terminus will dampen sales of the backlist — but Silken Prey ends with an antagonist well positioned to put him out of the way, career-wise or in any other sense of the word. I think we’re going to see some interesting changes in the next couple of novels.            

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The Humpday Times Book Review

“Support the troops!” We heard it when Bush I sent U.S. soldiers to help Kuwaiti emirs reclaim their property from Saddam Hussein, we heard it a decade later SPITTINGIMAGEwhen Bush II decided to outdo his dad by lying us into an invasion of Iraq, and I expect we’ll hear it again when the next president caves in to the neocons and starts dropping freedom bombs on Syria. Trees, SUVs, and TV screens will be garlanded with yellow ribbons to show we Support the Troops because we know, as surely as we know the Bermuda Triangle sucks up ships and dastardly Asians still hold American POWs captive, that during the Sixties those awful hippies spat on American soldiers when they returned home from Vietnam, and we must prove over and over that the Sixties are dead and done.

I’ve always had a hard time believing that spitting-hippies story, mainly because I have several relatives in different branches of the military, and I’m here to tell you that spitting on them simply isn’t an option unless you’re ready to test the limits of your health care coverage. If that’s true now, it would have been even more true at a time when hardhat construction workers were beating anti-war protestors in the streets, pundits and politicians were praising the National Guardsmen who shot down students at Kent State, and Ronald Reagan was openly talking about spilling blood to stop the demonstrations.      

Jerry Lembcke had a hard time believing it as well, in part because he was part of the anti-war movement at the time and he remembers those dirty hippies actually went out of their way to welcome soldiers into their ranks. In The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Lembcke searches in vain for verifiable, credible evidence that returning soldiers suffered such humiliations. Ironically, the only real evidence he finds is in accounts of older veterans — World War II and Korean War veterans — who showed open contempt for Vietnam veterans, especially those who participated in anti-war activities.

Lembcke also traces the origins of the spitting myth to the Nixon administration, that spawning tank of so many culture war shibboleths, and the role played by Hollywood movies like Coming Home in fostering the image of Vietnam veterans as basket cases and victims of betrayals back home. A short, punchy, still very timely work of history and cultural analysis.

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