Review: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ by Philip Roth

Portnoy's ComplaintPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Review lowered to three stars from four.)

Philip Roth is one of my favorite authors.

His books routinely leave me impressed, even awestruck, at his sheer facility with words. The descriptions of glovemaking in “American Pastoral”; the funhouse wit of “The Counterlife”; the haunting boldness of “Everyman” – in recent years, as I finished a Philip Roth book (even ones I tired of, such as the latter volumes of the Zuckerman trilogy), I thought that he was an author of boundless talent.

When he died last month, I thought I’d revisit his first major bestseller, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I’d read it sometime in my early 20s — 30 years ago! — and I’m sure much of the humor (and more of the sex) was lost on me. How did it fit in the Roth canon, this rich, blazing torrent?

I’d say it fits in the bottom half – with his more forgettable works.

That’s not to say the book isn’t bold. Few novels have such energy, the pure headlong squawk of torment. Alexander Portnoy is a neurotic Jewish son of midcentury, smothered by his mother, shrugged off by his father, caught between 5,000 years of tradition and the anything-goes permissiveness of postwar America. His book-length monologue, to his new psychiatrist, is occasionally hilarious and often wince-producing.

But it’s also tiring. There’s something two-dimensional about Portnoy, who can’t free his mind from sex (whether it’s during his masturbational teen years or his free-living adulthood) and who lashes himself for not being a better person (his job is as a lawyer for the administration of New York mayor John Lindsay – a very late-‘60s position of hopeless progressive). His mother is dominant, shrill and without reason; his father, his poor constipated insurance agent father, is a cog in the lower reaches of establishment business. His sister barely registers beyond the fact that she manages to marry and perhaps continue the pattern. For all the funny/sad set pieces – the ejaculation-soaked livers, the description of a neighbor boy who died in the war – the book lacks weight.

And then there’s the Monkey, the stupid, hillbilly girlfriend Portnoy wrestles with (sometimes, it seems, literally) in the latter half of the novel.

I’m not sure whether the Monkey – so called for her banana-eating, and you know what THAT means – is meant to be sympathetic, underneath her sexual prowess and psychological insecurity. I doubt Roth gave her that much consideration, frankly. So she ends up yet another two-dimensional character, a sad harpy whom Portnoy regrets bedding, because sex has consequences, you know?

But even if Portnoy is desperate to free himself from her clutches – clutches that craze him with their misspelling of easy words – I would have expected more from Roth, who even in his mid-30s had proven to have depth along with wit. (See the short stories in “Goodbye, Columbus.”) Instead, she seems to be the foundation of the “Roth the woman-hater” label that followed him to the end of his life – a label that had some truth, but also sold him short, because, well, sometimes he was a full-bore misanthrope, never mind misogynist. (To be fair, he was also a full-bore humanist, even if a disappointed one.)

Ironically, the one section where “Portnoy’s Complaint” takes flight and starts to measure up to Roth’s other novels is near the end, when Portnoy takes a flight to Israel. Here, Portnoy gazes in wonder at the utopia carved out of the desert … and then impotently attempts to bed a local sabra, a kibbutznik and soldier. Though Portnoy’s side of the conversation is embarrassing, at least he’s paired with someone of strength (even if it’s a kind of clichéd late-‘60s Israeli strength, the little country that won the Six-Day War and made the desert bloom).

If only there had been more.

But in the end, we’re left with Portnoy’s rant and the final punchline, and that leaves “Portnoy’s Complaint” very much a book of its time. In 1969, when it was released, it was shocking to use the c-word and talk about sex so bluntly. It was shocking to air so much Jewish dirty laundry in public. Hell, it was shocking to fuck a piece of liver. (Now, we have the whole series of “American Pie” movies.)

Some of it’s still shocking, but more of it’s embarrassing and not worthy of the post-1980s Roth. He’s written in “The Facts” that he found the writing freeing, much of it coming as it did after the 1968 death of his first wife, Margaret Martinson, whom the Monkey was partially based on. If it made him a bolder writer, all to the best, but if I had to pick the best Roth novels, “Portnoy’s Complaint” would be far down the list.

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Review: ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

Time's ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been putting off writing this review of “Time’s Arrow.”

It’s not because I disliked the book. I didn’t. It’s well written (of course; it’s Martin Amis) and thoughtful and even, dare I say it, clever – a tale about a Nazi doctor told in reverse chronological order.

But it’s not because I loved the book, either, and was unable to put my excitement into words.

The thing is, I felt no excitement. I felt admiration, as if watching a magician pulling off a particularly difficult trick, but not excitement. There seemed to be no stakes.

That’s the thing about Amis, at least for me: The man is such a wizard with language, erudite and even astonishing, and yet his facility puts a distance between his subject and me, the reader. He is not visceral or emotional. His abilities are impressive, but cold to the touch.

And with a story like “Time’s Arrow,” I felt he needed some emotion. This isn’t “London Fields” or “Money: A Suicide Note,” in which numerous characters are contemptible or, at least, an easy source of mockery – phony strivers, posh twits or thick-headed chavs. This is about a Nazi doctor — an assistant to a thinly disguised Josef Mengele — who leaves destruction in his wake, though given the book’s conceit, that destruction eerily re-forms into the whole: broken relationships become passionate and innocent; money is refunded for goods and services; shit re-emerges from toilets and is taken back into the body; and, most movingly (or as close as Amis gets to “moving”), ashes recede down chimneys, becoming living, breathing people, who are eventually transported away from Auschwitz and back to their lives of ever-increasing freedoms.

It’s not like Amis doesn’t take his subject seriously. He wrestles with the depths. The main character is introduced as Tod Friendly (his name bestowed by a trafficker named Kreditor); we are guided on his reverse path by what may be his unknowing soul, a spirit careful to note the good things Friendly appears to do. As time is wound back, Friendly works as an illicit doctor in New England, arrives in New York after World War II, hides out in Portugal and eventually is revealed as Odilo Unverdorben, a mediocre medical man with a dim but questioning wife.

The scenes in Auschwitz, which start about two-thirds of the way into the slim book, are harrowing in their detail. “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat. Next, the façade of the Sprinklerom, the function of whose spouts and nozzles (and numbered seats and wardrobe tickets, and signs in six or seven languages) was merely to reassure and not, alas, to cleanse; and the garden path beyond.”

The gold removed from prisoners’ teeth is reattached; their hair is brought in, “freight car after freight car,” and put back on their heads; the guards give the women back their rings and valuables and stop their wailing.

It’s powerful stuff. Amis is trying to make sense of what he knows is madness. But in doing so, he reduces it to the clinical. Perhaps this is for the best; there’s a whole body of literature devoted to chronicling the Holocaust and its aftermath, and yet it somehow still resists understanding.

Still, I think of another fictional assembly of details, the passages of Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried,” and I wonder why the lists of items in O’Brien’s work convey such weight and sadness. Maybe it’s because his soldiers have an essential humanity that Unverdorben lacks: “Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.”

In the end, of course, Unverdorben becomes nothing, a being that enters his mother, “how she will weep and scream.” He is also an infant, his dreams “all colors and noises,” before he will grow up to become a monster – a banal evil that not even Amis can explain.

“Time’s Arrow” is a valiant effort. I wanted it to work. I wanted to be moved and dazzled (well, I was often dazzled). But as I closed the final page, the last thing I wanted to do was start again from the beginning. Sometimes you don’t want to know how the trick is done. And sometimes, you wish it weren’t a trick.

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Philip Roth, 1933-2018

philip-roth
Image via Showbiz411.com (of all places).

Philip Roth died last night. He was 85.

I don’t have much to say to add to the appreciations and accolades he’s received in death, as he did in life. Baseball writer Bill James once noted that Hank Aaron ended his career with a brilliant “finishing kick,” piling up home runs in what should have been his waning years to surpass Babe Ruth. Roth, too, had an amazing finishing kick: In his last 20 years as a writer — after he turned 60 but before he finally put the pen down for good in 2012 — he wrote “Sabbath’s Theater,” the amazing “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America” and “Everyman.” Roth should have been rewarded with the Nobel Prize, but for whatever reason — anti-Americanism, distaste with the accusations of Roth as misogynist (ironic, given the reason there will be no Nobel Prize for Literature this year), simple dislike of his work — he never got the award.

It’s the Swedish Academy’s loss. Everybody knew Roth ranked as one of the greatest writers in the world, and perhaps — along with Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo — the greatest living American novelist, period. The Nobel would have been a mere rubber stamp, if an incredibly valuable acknowledgement.

I’ve probably read just under half of Roth’s books, and I’ve rarely failed to be bowled over, even with slighter works such as “Indignation.” Simply put, the man could write, and his later works had an energy — a distillation of force, rage, empathy and, yes, humor — that I could only envy.

“American Pastoral,” in my opinion the greatest Roth novel, bursts with such power and fluidity that I sometimes felt I was inhaling it, particularly his exacting scenes of glovemaking in Newark (how does someone learn about that lost trade and describe it with such poetry and precision?) and the appearance of Swede Levov’s daughter as a squalid Jain. I’ve always felt the book falls apart during the closing dinner party, full of Levov’s ruminations, but the material before that is among the greatest I’ve read.

“The Plot Against America” is painfully prescient and “Everyman” is a gorgeous, if melancholy, eulogy.

I haven’t loved it all. I was bored by the Zuckerman books, particularly the one largely set in Eastern Europe. And I’ve put off reading others — “I Married a Communist,” notably — because … well, his books can be heavy, and it’s easier to deflect.

(Of course, they’re also brave. In “The Facts,” he talks about his feelings upon hearing that his ex-wife — a troubled woman who caused him much grief — has died. He was thrilled, freed of alimony payments and practically skipping home, if I recall correctly. Roth often used his life as a jumping-off point, fictionalizing many elements to the point where the reader wondered if he was writing memoir or simply playing with literary convention or both, but this has the ring of truth.)

For a Jewish (and American) male, I came to Roth late. I never had to read “Goodbye, Columbus” in high school and didn’t really get into him until the ’90s, though I’d read “The Counterlife” and “The Great American Novel” years before. (I should pick those back up … but I say that about a lot of books. I’m just now reading “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” for the first time in 30 years!) He was an author I always admired; in his later years, though, he became undeniable.

When I was at CNN, I desperately wanted to interview him, but his publisher’s PR rep couldn’t convince him. He apparently expected interviewers to be highly conversant with his work, and he had a narrow set of news outlets he talked to — The New York Times, NPR, the Guardian. CNN (or CNN.com), he probably felt, wasn’t in their league.

He was probably right; he would have had to announce he was fucking Britney Spears to move the needle on traffic. Even then, the average CNN.com reader would likely have wondered what this Roth fellow did for a living. (I seem to recall that Saul Bellow’s obituary was one of the most poorly read stories the day it appeared, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez probably did well only thanks to international users.)

Anyway, the giant is gone. May his memory be a blessing — and may the rest of us never look at a “maddened piece of liver” without laughing.

 

 

Tom Wolfe, 1930-2018

tom-wolfe-died-rolling-stone-writer-died-c0167ef2-8238-4428-a97e-eb7634d56326
Image via Rolling Stone.

The story goes that Tom Wolfe, having spent months reporting and not writing a story on car customizing in California, was pressed by Esquire editor Byron Dobell to come up with something, anything, because Esquire had just spent $1,000 on a photograph of some of the cars and was going to run a piece in the next issue. Wolfe had until Friday, Dobell told him; the photograph would go to the engraver on Monday.

On Friday Wolfe called back. He was blocked. Esquire editor Harold Hayes made plans for another Esquire editor to turn Wolfe’s notes into a workable piece. So Dobell told Wolfe to type out his notes.

According to Carol Polsgrove’s “It Wasn’t Pretty Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties,” Wolfe sat down at 8 p.m. that night. Ten hours later he pulled the last of 49 pages from his typewriter. Dobell pulled the “Dear Byron” salutation, made some minor edits, and the piece ran in full as “There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy Kolored (THPHHHHHH) tangerine-flake streamline baby (RAHGHHHH!) around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM …” (The headline was courtesy of David Newman, who with Esquire pal Robert Benton later wrote the “Bonnie and Clyde” screenplay.)

That Wolfe story has been told in pretty much every Wolfe obit I’ve read today, as the great American author died Tuesday at 88. (Some sources list him as 87.) And no wonder; it’s symbolic of the beginnings of what’s been called the New Journalism, which is the kind of journalism most every journalist aspires to write — not just AP-style inverted pyramids, but colorful, rapturous, liberally punctuated reportage that reads like fiction.

I know I wanted to write like that, and I didn’t even aspire to be a journalist. I just wanted to have one-fourth the zest Wolfe instilled in his works.

Gay Talese may have been more formal — Wolfe could never have gotten away with “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or that great Joe DiMaggio story in which Marilyn Monroe tells DiMaggio, “You never heard such cheering,” and DiMaggio responds, “Yes, I have” — and Wolfe’s New York Herald Tribune colleague Jimmy Breslin may have been more earthy. (Breslin’s story of John F. Kennedy’s gravedigger, written on deadline when the rest of the journalism world was looking in the opposite direction, is one of my all-time favorites. I wish I could write like Breslin, too.) And no tribute to Wolfe should be without a tribute to his editors, including Dobell, Hayes, Clay Felker and Jann Wenner. Somebody had to let the greyhound run.

But Wolfe, who coupled hyperbole (all those exclamation points!) with such precise detail that it seemed like he lived in his subjects’ lapels, was a style unto himself. (Literally, too.)

He chronicled celebrities and their milieus, but he never wrote the expected hack profile. Tell him to talk about the New Yorker, and he positively sneered at what was then the fattest, richest magazine in America. Let him in to Leonard Bernstein’s Black Panthers fundraiser, and you got “Radical Chic.” Even when he did approach hagiography, as in the portrayals of Chuck Yeager and the Mercury astronauts in “The Right Stuff,” it was leavened with such grit and realism — what they call reporting — that it was earned.

Wolfe could drive me crazy. Sometimes, particularly after he became the regularly best-selling brand name Tom Wolfe, his reported essays approached polemics. I share his dismal opinion of Brutalism, for example, but his shots in “From Bauhaus to Our House” feel gratuitous.

The same attitude could infect his novels. “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” his debut novel, had a brilliant eye for ’80s New York, but upon my rereading it a few years ago its characters were revealed as cardboard cutouts. “A Man in Full,” his expansive novel set partly in my longtime hometown of Atlanta, managed to miss the more cosmopolitan aspects of what is admittedly still a provincial place — of course, so is New York in its own way — and also had one of his characters making an impossible trip from Midtown to Buckhead. (There’s poetic license, but should it carry over to making Piedmont Avenue one-way in the wrong direction?)

By the time I finished “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” I thought he’d let his reporting become almost superfluous, a few glittering details he could attach to laments on the demise of Western civilization.

Still, the glittering details and the language was what mattered, so that’s not taking much away from a man whose descriptions of clothes, accessories, vehicles, housing, and even genitalia bordered on the fetishistic, they were so rich. (It’s no wonder his phrases — “Me Decade,” “the right stuff,” “radical chic” — entered the lexicon.) In doing so, he captured whole worlds — often those of the wealthy, but also those of the rest of us, scrambling to climb the American ladder. Indeed, Wolfe’s works, taken together, were nothing else if not the story of the United States in the last chunk of the 20th century.

All in all, it makes for one hell of a story. I’m glad Wolfe got to write so much of it.

RIP, Doctor.

Review: ‘True Grit’ by Charles Portis

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I posted on Facebook that my next book was to be Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” one of my friends quickly chimed in.

“You are in for a profound treat,” he wrote.

Was he ever right.

I feel like I’d been misled about “True Grit” for years. When I was younger, all I knew was the John Wayne movie, which seemed very Hollywood-y, with Wayne winning a lifetime achievement Oscar (yeah, it was best actor, but it was one of those sentimental honors) and co-starring the now almost unknown Kim Darby and the then-rising Glen Campbell. I’m not a big fan of Westerns and was dismissive of the film, which seemed somehow phony.

Years later, I saw the hardcover edition in a used bookstore. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the cover did the book no favors, with a primitive, almost two-dimensional rendering of the humorless Mattie Ross and the title in a bland sans-serif font. And who was Charles Portis? Was the book a reprint of some minor novel of the 1920s, brought back because of the 1969 Wayne film?

It wasn’t until the Coen brothers’ 2010 version came out – with accompanying press about the underrated Portis, who’s still very much alive – that I realized what a jewel I’d overlooked. The Coen brothers’ film was terrific, of course – truer to the novel than the 1969 Henry Hathaway version – but I kept hearing that it was the book, the book, the book that really mattered. The book was funnier and truer and just better than any film.

Which, indeed, it is.

The story itself is uncomplicated: In the late 1870s – the year is never identified but there’s a passing reference to President Hayes — 14-year-old Mattie is looking for a man to avenge the death of her father at the hands of Tom Chaney. She finds a lawman with “grit,” Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, and says she’ll pay him $100 to bring down Chaney.

Cogburn is a man old before his time, a 40-something former Confederate soldier who got tangled with the violent William Quantrill, made his way to western Arkansas and makes his living as a tracker and bounty hunter. He and a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf, who’s pursuing Chaney for different reasons, join forces and try to dismiss Mattie, but she stays part of their group as they make their way into Indian Territory to get Chaney and the Lucky Ned Pepper gang he’s joined.

Along the way they find other outlaws, have a gun battle with Pepper and his gang, and end up succeeding in their mission. They also gain respect for one another and display heroics when necessary. The end.

But such a description doesn’t do the story justice. This is a tale of outsized, beautifully drawn characters and stark, colorful writing. Ross may be the most humorless child in American literature: literal, sexless, every bit the chilly adult at 14 as she would be 50 years later, when she’s recalling the tale as a spinster (and banker — she was always shrewd with finances). But not only does the reader find amusement in her humorlessness, there’s also admiration, because she, too, has “grit.” It’s not many people who would have the presence of mind to keep snakes and bats at bay with human remains while wedged into a pit.

And then there’s Cogburn. I can’t do justice to Portis’ dialogue, so I’ll just quote a bit of it, from a long conversation between Mattie and Rooster as they camp out on a cold Oklahoma night:

“Now you are working for the Yankees,” Mattie says.

“Well, the times has changed since Betsy died. I would have never thought it back then. The Red Legs from Kansas burned my folks out and took their stock. They didn’t have nothing to eat but clabber and roasting ears. You can eat a peck of roasting ears and go to bed hungry.”

“What did you do when the war was over?”

“Well, I will tell you what I done. When we heard they had all give up in Virginia, Potter and me rode into Independence and turned over our arms. They asked us was we ready to respect the Government in Washington city and take an oath to the Stars and Stripes. We said yes, we was about ready. We done it, we swallowed the puppy, but they wouldn’t let us go right then. They give us a one-day parole and told us to report back in the morning. We heard there was a Kansas major coming in that night to look over everybody for bushwhackers.”

It is simple, unadorned, contraction-less language, and yet it gives you a wealth of information about Cogburn: He’s devious and brutal, proud and ashamed, unapologetic and resolute. He’s filled with bold shades of gray.

Even LaBeouf, somewhat of a dandy, proves to have unexpected depths.

I don’t know how Portis does it. It takes a brilliant writer to create such characters, throw in a few winks at the audience, but never condescend to the characters themselves. And it takes an even more brilliant writer to create such a casual, loping story then stud it with brief action scenes that are sudden, violent and moving. I dare anyone to read the last 40 pages and not get choked up. I read them on a dead run and shed tears for a character I didn’t know I cared about.

As I mentioned before, I had several reasons why I hadn’t read “True Grit” years earlier. I’ll reduce it to one word: ignorance. But learn from me and don’t delay your own reading of this classic. You are in for a profound treat.

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Review: ‘The Library’ by Stuart Kells

The Library: A Catalogue of WondersThe Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I approached Stuart Kells’ “The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders” warily. A book about books and book collecting? As much as I love books, I had little desire to lose myself in 250-odd pages about ancients, eccentrics and the vagaries of printing if the narrator came off as too pleased with himself, as bibliophiles sometimes do. (Listen, I resemble that remark.) Even the publishing business could be made dull, as I found with Robert Gottlieb’s tedious “Avid Reader.”

I needn’t have worried. Kells’ book is generally engaging and breezy, and at its best when the author is digging into his prodigious knowledge of the literary trade – doing so without being too high-flown about it.

“The Library” starts out slowly, as it must – since libraries are a relatively recent invention, dependent as they are on a written language and portability. (It’s not like they could house a battalion of griots and bards. Who would feed them?) So early libraries – those of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians – contained clay tablets (often kept on trays) and rolls of papyrus. All were handwritten, of course; Gutenberg doesn’t enter the picture until the 15th century, which makes the achievements of the scribes and monks of previous millennia all the more amazing.

Also amazing, in a sad way, is how much literature has been lost. Though there weren’t thousands of copies of the same work, copies were made and held in famed libraries such as the one at Alexandria, as well as in private homes. But fires, looting and natural disaster took their tolls. It’s astonishing, frankly, we have as much as we do; some books were saved purely by chance, found in garbage pits or smuggled by explorers.

Still, it’s in the post-Gutenberg age that Kells, an Australian-born book-trade historian who’s written a history of Penguin Books, really comes into his own, because it’s here when the “The Library” becomes as much about people as it does about books. And people who are fond of books are certainly an odd lot.

Take diarist Samuel Pepys. He “could not tolerate even the slightest deviation from straightness,” Kells writes. “Pepys had even less patience for the ragged line that occurs when books of different heights are shelved together. He commissioned tailor-made blocks – little wooden plinths disguised with leather – and placed them under his books so that the tops would be exactly even.”

Related are bibliophiles who purchase books that are precisely the width of the space on their shelves. I can’t help but be reminded of the rock star played by Daniel Stern in “Hannah and Her Sisters” who wants to buy a painting from Max von Sydow’s artist not because of his talent, but because his giant works will fill Stern’s walls and match his décor. “You don’t buy paintings to blend in with the sofa!” thunders von Sydow.

Despite – or perhaps because of – these folks, libraries flourish. Thomas Bodley wanted to establish a library at Oxford; thus was born the Bodleian, which tripled its collection just three years after it opened in the early 17th century. The Vatican has a renowned library that’s actually not as mysterious as reputation would have it, Kells says, though its aura hasn’t hurt its collection. There are libraries devoted to Shakespeare (Washington, D.C.’s, Folger, established by a Standard Oil executive) and libraries that disdained Shakespeare (Tolstoy was apparently not a fan).

They’re also beautiful buildings. Kells devotes several pages to J.P. Morgan’s marble pile in Manhattan; when Morgan died in 1913, half his fortune was tied up in the library’s collection of books and art. (Morgan’s library also benefited from having a great librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, a colorful character who seems worthy of a book in her own right.)

Still, what is to become of libraries in this digital age? Kells addresses that topic, too, though not as energetically as he does the library overseen by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins and other characters in Middle-earth. (I’m not a “Lord of the Rings” fan, so the Tolkien excursion went on for a few pages too long.) He makes passing mention of Nicholson Baker’s “Double Fold,” a book about book and newspaper destruction, and notes that digital conversion of books is no answer to retaining knowledge, since there’s no guarantee discs or computer memory will last as long as well-preserved paper – or be as readable, books such as the Voynich manuscript to the contrary. (We won’t even talk about card catalogs.) Still, he leaves the question hanging. Let someone else write a book about new uses for libraries; for Kells, they’re places to hold written volumes.

Near the beginning of “The Library,” Kells tells the story of Jorge Luis Borges, who turned an unhappy interlude working at a Buenos Aires library into “The Library of Babel,” his famed short story about a library that contains an infinite number of books, where the sheer yawning expanse of the collection provokes religious arguments and even suicide. Later, Borges became the head of the city’s National Library, where he was much happier. It wasn’t the books Borges loathed; it was the people and tedium at his old job. Fortunately, Kells’ “Library” offers more of the joy of books than the dreariness. I wonder what he’d think of Robert Gottlieb’s work.

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Review: ‘Born to Run’ by Bruce Springsteen

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Bruce Springsteen can write.

Sure, anyone who’s paid attention to the career of the man who wrote songs such as “Adam Raised a Cain” or “Spare Parts” or “Hungry Heart” (“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back” – there’s a whole tale in two lines) or – of course — “Born to Run,” knew Springsteen could tell a story. Forget the songs; he would devote long portions of his concerts to hypnotic monologues.

But “Born to Run,” Bruce’s memoir, still caught me by surprise. The man can really, really write.

Rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, even good ones, usually give you stories of touring and recording while skimming over the actual lives of the authors. Graham Nash’s book is full of marvelous tales of the Hollies – he and Allan Clarke had known each other since they were kids – but somehow remains cautiously distant. (And the stories of Crosby, Stills and Nash are generally tedious.) Rod Stewart’s book is humbler than I expected, with plenty of good humor, but it’s disposable. Keith Richards’ “Life” offers more revelations about his guitars (and, to be fair, his grandfather) than about his inner core.

That’s OK; it’s not like I expect a great deal of self-reckoning from these books. If you want novelistic examination, you’re better off with a biography by someone like Peter Guralnick or Philip Norman — and even they wade carefully into their subjects’ psyches.

But Springsteen never lets himself off the hook, and he has the gift of describing his soul with, well, soul.

Music is just the beginning. For Bruce, music is the very air he breathes, the food he eats, the lifeforce itself. For him, it’s always 1965, he’s in a big American car, and the AM radio is playing the hits. He shares his loneliness with Roy Orbison, bonds with Steven Van Zandt over bar bands and jukeboxes, and lets Jon Landau tutor him in the origins.

Still, it’s when he puts music aside that “Born to Run” really sings. Springsteen talks candidly about his struggles with romance – how he’d get to the three-year mark in a relationship and head for the exit. His matter-of-fact memories of his first marriage, to Julianne Phillips, shiver with doom:

… The bedside lamp caught a glint of my wedding ring. I’d never taken it off; something inside of me told me I never would, never should. I sat on the edge of the bed, gave it a light tug and watched as it slid off my finger. An ocean of despair swept over me and I felt faint.

(Of course, anyone who listened halfway closely to his 1987 album “Tunnel of Love” knew the marriage was on shaky ground.)

Then there are the battles with his father, the taciturn and troubled Doug Springsteen, who’d come home from work and sit, silent, at the kitchen table, his son helpless (or furious) to reach him. It’s a familiar picture for anyone who heard one of Bruce’s concert monologues, but in “Born to Run” the relationship is a spectre that haunts the entire book – not least because Bruce apparently inherited some of his father’s depressive illness.

About that depression. I don’t think even William Styron offered such a visceral take on the subject. It’s a surprise when Springsteen first brings it up – this rock ‘n’ roll beast, this joyful, passionate performer, has been in therapy for more than 30 years – but as he grows older, richer and wiser, he seems like he’s handled it.

Then, in the book’s waning pages, as he enters his sixties, it returns with a vengeance: first mostly keeping him in bed for more than two years, then after some recovery causing a crash. “For the first time, I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss,” he writes. “The fact that I understood this, that I could feel this, emptied my heart out and left me in a cold fright.”

I’ve been there. I’ve seen others go there. But I never imagined Bruce had walked that path.

None of this is to imply that “Born to Run” also isn’t as jubilant as the “pulling out of here to win” close of “Thunder Road.” Bruce offers sharp character sketches of Mike Appel, the motor-mouthed manager made of equal parts faith, bravado and music-biz underhandedness; Danny Federici, the organ-playing savant; and any number of forgotten pals from his early Jersey years. Bruce, of course, hasn’t forgotten at all.

The book is also shot through with Springsteen’s never-say-die determination, the kind of heart that allows him to play in crummy bars and empty bedrooms, never losing sight of the mountain peak. His resolve in the face of his insecurity is enough to make you nod your head when he talks about the do-or-die nature of the “Born to Run” album, which came after two well-received but poor-selling LPs. Hell, it took him until the early ‘80s to start buying things like a rock star, so deep in debt – and so wary of ending up back in the spare bedroom of the surf shop where he’d spent the early ‘70s – was he until “The River.” Indeed, even now, when his daughter is a dressage champion and he’s well established in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon, he talks about remaining close to his working-class roots.

He’s also a fan: A scene late in the book, when he gets to sit in on a Rolling Stones rehearsal, is every “Satisfaction”-playing hopeful’s fantasy come true – and it’s Bruce’s, too.

All along, you can feel the hunger for connection that Springsteen has always craved. It’s there in his band, it’s there in his concerts, it’s there in his marriage and family – and it’s there in this book. Human beings, Springsteen insists over and over again, are fragile; it’s the electricity in our souls that makes us more than we are. Without that, we’re just skin and bone.

“Before he passed, I stood over my father and studied his body,” he writes. “It was the body of his generation. It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man.”

The brilliance of “Born to Run” is that, for his father and Bruce and everybody else, that’s just a part of a beautifully written story.

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Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review of “The Underground Railroad” contains what might be considered spoilers. At least they were to me. For that, you can blame Google.

Now, it was not my intention to run into spoilers when I began reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. I knew little of the book besides what I’d read in reviews when it came out: that it was about the journey of a runaway Georgia slave in the mid-19th century on an Underground Railroad made flesh — a genuine subterranean track of steel and locomotives and hidden train stations and clandestine conductors. That was enough; I got caught up in it very easily.

But about a third of the way into the book, Cora, the runaway, enters a South Carolina fantastically different from the one I was familiar with from school. At this point, Whitehead made a reference to a 12-story structure called the Griffin Building.

This started me down an Internet rabbit hole. I understood the literary license of an altered South Carolina, but having some familiarity with the state — and a fascination with skyscrapers — I started to wonder where this Griffin Building was and if it still existed. Did I walk by it in Charleston? Was it in Columbia? Greenville? What happened to it? And could such a building have existed in the South of the 1850s, before the days of common safety elevators? It sounded like a fascinating story in itself.

(The spoilers start here.)

Curiosity having gotten the better of me, I typed “Griffin Building” into Google. Foolish me. Immediately, I got referred to … reviews and synopses of “The Underground Railroad.”

In other words, there IS no Griffin Building. Whitehead made it up, like Ralph Ellison did with the paint factory in “Invisible Man.”

And thus, in a tiny way, broke the spell the book had cast over me.

This wasn’t a terrible thing, not like having a friend reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father before you see “The Empire Strikes Back.” (For the three people who haven’t seen “The Empire Strikes Back,” sorry. Would it help if I didn’t tell you about Rosebud?) Nevertheless, it was mildly disappointing, because until that point, aside from the Underground Railroad itself, I thought Whitehead’s book was more anchored in reality than metaphor – and I was completely absorbed in that reality.

This is largely because of the opening section of the book, a tour de force chronicle of the Middle Passage and plantation life.

I haven’t read much in the way of slave narratives or antebellum histories, but I can’t remember reading a more casually incisive description of American slavery. In Whitehead’s brutal storytelling, you never forget that slaves are seen as barely animate property; the owners and overseers call the enslaved “it,” coolly erasing their humanity in one word. They’re whipped and raped and degraded. Their only value is as field workers or concubines.

I struggled to get through that opening portion. Not because of the writing – which is uniformly brilliant – but because of the characters’ cruelty, rooted in history, sharp edges showing.

Cora, the character at the heart of the novel, is the daughter of a slave named Mabel, who had fled their plantation when Cora was a child. The abandoned Cora finally bolts herself, as much in pursuit of her mother as freedom. She and Caesar, another slave, make their way to a stop on the Railroad, with slavecatchers led by the grim Ridgeway in pursuit.

From here, Whitehead’s South becomes a combination of reality and dream (or nightmare, depending on the action). The unnamed South Carolina town, which appears to treat blacks well – at least, they are allowed jobs and reasonable housing – turns out to be a cover for an insidious plot. Cora then escapes to North Carolina, where she is housed in a tiny attic crawl space (shades of Anne Frank) and watches a daily display in which blacks and their white helpers are tortured and put to death amid a cheery, “Music Man”-type gathering. (Or, perhaps, “The Lottery.”)

Then it’s to Tennessee, where she’s caught by Ridgeway and his bizarre band. There’s one more escape – to a utopian community in Indiana – and a final showdown with Ridgeway.

Whitehead’s metaphorical plotting has a point: He’s tracing a path of African-American history, in Cora’s stops obliquely referencing the Scottsboro Boys, the Ku Klux Klan and perhaps a cross of Back to Africa with New Harmony or Oneida. Thanks to Whitehead’s imaginative gifts, the book’s atmosphere is constantly energized.

But there also seems to be a bit of 19th-century dime novel in the book as well. Ridgeway, in particular, comes across as a kind of Bond villain, an almost-cultured man capable of brisk violence as well as a taunting patience. Even when he’s off stage, you know he’s going to emerge for a final battle, like a monster in a horror movie.

“The Underground Railroad” concludes on a rather inconclusive note, as if Whitehead is saying a future of reconciliation and equality, after all this injustice, is not yet written. (He’s right, of course.) It’s both somewhat unsatisfying and absolutely appropriate.

Which gets back to my Googling and spoiler revelations, which felt like a spell being broken. It’s a spell that would have broken anyway – by the end of the South Carolina chapter, it’s obvious that Whitehead is using a kind of magical (metaphorical?) realism to tell his tale – but I wondered when I would have figured that out for myself, rather than through perusing year-old reviews.

But maybe that’s appropriate, too. Americans have too often told stories of slavery and the Old South that soften the reality, whether it’s through singing darkies or noble plantation owners or the so-called Lost Cause. But no amount of magic can remove the stain of slavery – and racism — on American history. So despite its touch of the unreal, “The Underground Railroad” always has a hard reality, just below the surface. It’s one we’re still grappling with more than 150 years later.

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Review: ‘Avid Reader’ by Robert Gottlieb

Avid Reader: A LifeAvid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about “Avid Reader.”

You’d think Robert Gottlieb would have a rich life to draw from in his memoir: a Manhattan childhood; an early, perfect job as an editor at Simon & Schuster; an even more perfect job as the editor-in-chief at Knopf; editor of the New Yorker; and relationships with dozens of the century’s most famous writers, including Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Caro, Joseph Heller and John le Carre.

But, to steal a line from another review on Goodreads, Gottlieb could have used a good editor.

“Avid Reader” starts out reasonably, with Gottlieb’s descriptions of his distant parents and his experiences at Columbia and Cambridge. There are hints of joy, stray bits of sadness (a rushed first marriage in particular) and the confidence of a man who, once he finds his course, plans to follow it with energy and devotion.

Which, frankly, he does. But he leaves the rest of us behind.

The problem, to me, is in Gottlieb’s bloodless style. “Avid Reader” reads like one of those drippy Bob Colacello Vanity Fair articles about wealthy WASPs or European nobility, with the tone of an overly pleased man who wishes to convey how wonderful life is for his elite friends while avoiding making any waves so he can get invited to the next party or return unscathed to his comfortable life.

So everybody is dear and talented and handsome and admirable and interesting and charming, and his family and their families spend vacations together, and he’s been friends with them for 20 years, or 30 years, or 40 years, or until they die, at which point he gives a pleasant eulogy.

Even his critiques come off as quibbles: Michael Crichton “wasn’t a very good writer,” more interested in machines than people; Katharine Hepburn was needy; William Shawn was sad. (He does get in a sharp poke at Shawn’s mistress, Lillian Ross, whose book “Here but not Here” “embarrassed everybody but herself.”) This is generous of Gottlieb – and Lord knows I’d rather have a kind-hearted observer like him than an axe-grinder like Michael Wolff – but the overall effect is breezy and shallow, with no details on how he figured out advances and print runs, shaved words from “Something Happened,” or dealt with most of the New Yorker writers.

He does offer useful glimpses of many people, but they’re just that: glimpses, like brief scenes caught from a fast-moving train.

It’s not like Gottlieb doesn’t have material to work with. At one point he underwent classical Freudian analysis, visiting an analyst four times a week. But he reveals little and when his therapy is done, so is he with the subject.

Or his occasional trips with pretty assistants. These are all platonic, he says, and I have no reason to doubt him; his wife, he mentions at one point, doesn’t like to travel. (And they’ve been married for more than 40 years.) But he’s almost too casual in the way he brings it all up. And as for his long marriage, about the only rough times we’re exposed to have to do with his son, who’s on the spectrum. But even that works out after a few pages. No guidance, few musings, little pain.

No soul-baring, in other words, for better or for worse.

I wish I could be more generous about “Avid Reader.” I still admire Gottlieb’s work – the list of the books he edited would make an excellent course on 20th-century literature. And the book is certainly well written. But it may have been better served as a magazine article (ironically, it was condensed to one in Vanity Fair) or an appearance on a talk show.

Even there, Gottlieb would probably fall far short of one of his mentions, the raconteur Alexander King – though, given the usual seven minutes and three anecdotes, few would notice. The short form may have been the best form for “Avid Reader.”

Sorry, Mr. Gottlieb. May I suggest you talk to Terry McDonell?

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Review: ‘The Accidental Life’ by Terry McDonell

The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and WritersThe Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers by Terry McDonell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like any good book, Terry McDonell’s “The Accidental Life” kept me riveted from the get-go, laughing out loud, admiring occasional turns of prose, angered on his behalf and unwilling to turn to the last page.

I even cried at the end.

If that’s unusual behavior for reading a memoir – and a memoir about journalism, writing and editing, of all things – well, McDonell’s is an unusual book. For one thing, it’s not written in the classic, clichéd “And then I …” succession of chapters. (Not that McDonell wouldn’t have had an excuse: the guy was the editor of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Us Weekly and Sports Illustrated, among others, and even blow-by-blow accounts of his adventures would have been quite entertaining.) Instead, McDonell wrote the book as a series of vignettes, some as short as a sidebar, others worthy of an SI bonus piece. He even offers word counts and “ENDIT”s.

For another, McDonell spends little time blowing his own horn. Oh, you can tell he’s proud of his work – proud of increasing profits and raising circulation, proud of succeeding at the weekly or monthly grind of the magazine business. But what he’s really proud of is giving writers an opportunity. Some are well-known figures he sought out, such as Thomas McGuane or George Plimpton; others are people he helps to elevate to new, and deserved, heights, such as Tim Cahill, who got the job of a lifetime when McDonell made him a go-to correspondent for Outside.

And he loves writers. McDonell is no slouch himself; his prose is diamond-hard, free of the kind of windiness that someone like (well) me would indulge in. (You can see he learned his wire-service lessons well.) But he often breaks to quote from one of the many people he edited or knew, passages that obviously have great emotional meaning to him. He defers. He quotes Liz Tilberis, a fellow editor (she was at Harper’s Bazaar), when she was confronting her death. Or James Salter on his free-spirited days in London. Or Tom Wolfe on LSD.

I’m reminded of generations past, when people were taught to memorize poetry and could quote a verse when grasping for invention. (Witness Robert Kennedy informing a crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had died.) It’s a sign of both knowledge and humility, of deep feeling. It’s also a vanishing talent, if “talent” is the right word. McDonell would probably gently offer a better one.

He offers capsule profiles of a number of figures, perhaps most notably McGuane, Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke and Warren Hinckle. (Hinckle, who edited the seminal ‘60s journal Ramparts, gave Thompson his break as a gonzo journalist.) He’s fair to all, celebrating their strengths and lamenting their flaws. If he has some axes to grind, he’s remarkably dispassionate about them.

Late in the book, he has a chapter on SI’s Rick Reilly, who’d become the magazine’s star with his humor-filled back-page columns. Reilly had become smug about his fame – McDonell describes him as “a cocky teenager” – and when he finally left for ESPN, McDonell wrote an editor’s letter focusing on the future, not the past. Reilly was pissed and wrote McDonell a furious email that ended, “Screw you sideways.” McDonell says that Reilly was right in his fury. I don’t think I would have been so generous. But then again, Reilly had been getting on my nerves for years. (I will give him credit for one of the funniest jokes I ever read in any magazine, that “La Quinta is Spanish for ‘next door to Denny’s,’ ” but that doesn’t make up for years of overpraised casuals. Steve Rushin may have been too heavy on the puns, but I got the feeling the guy’s heart was genuine.)

None of this is to downplay McDonell’s own story, especially if – like me – you’re fascinated by an era when many editors were household names and Time Inc. offered generous expense accounts. He built some magazines from nothing, others into something new, and was fearless about pursuing name writers, even if most of his readers wouldn’t recognize the names.

And when it all comes crashing down after the fat-and-happy ‘90s, McDonell gives the digital world his best shot but, to mix metaphors, he was tilting against a rising tide.

“When we did talk about our journalism, the naïve thinking among most of the editors was that we just needed our resources back,” he writes. “We should have been thinking about content-management systems to deliver what we had.”

It’s revealing that SI came up with a particularly good digital model, but couldn’t make it work in Apple’s iPad platform because Steve Jobs wanted the subscriber data, including credit card numbers. Jobs was thinking about his own model, of course – that’s why Facebook and Google are so powerful – but it ends up killing the eggs, if not the goose. Which is where we stand today, with magazine circulations down even as everything is slapped up on the web, free for the taking.

I have to strain to find failings in “The Accidental Life.” I wish McDonell had offered more about HIS accidental life – the private side, that is. He’s apparently at least once-divorced and, given some anecdotes, unafraid of adventure, but there’s little internal probing. The book is about writing and writers, and for the most part he stays in that lane — when it comes to others, at least.

Still, there’s plenty of soul, even if you have to read between the lines to find it. And much to learn, especially in this age of soulless algorithms.

“When bad editors talk about mix, they mean formula: how much service, how much news, how much celebrity and, most recently perhaps, how many top ten lists of ways to serve kale,” McDonell writes. “They should think about eccentricity: what is the most surprising piece they can run without leaving readers scratching their heads, or alienated and angry.”

It’s no wonder I enjoyed Terry McDonell’s magazines, and it’s no wonder I loved his book. Thanks for the surprises, Terry.

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