John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
At the book party for All That Is, the new novel by James Salter, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein held forth on Salter as a “colossus” for many young writers and declared the book his favorite of Salter’s work. It was significant that Stein, who is barely 40, introduced Salter: the party was populated by equal parts Silent Generation and Baby Boomers, and Stein — along with a few journalists and a smattering of publicity and editorial assistants — was among the youngest in attendance. Whether Jim Salter himself requested the introduction I don’t know; but at 87, a friend of his told me, he is finally embracing the possibility that his work will influence generations to come, whereas a few years ago he was pessimistic. Stein also told a story about Salter running late to the party at which he would be honored with the TPR’s Hadada Award, because of a flat tire: while Stein wrung his hands, anticipating a ruined evening, a colleague reminded him, “It’s Jim Salter; I think he knows how to change a tire.” (And of course, he did.) Hearty laughter followed Stein’s punchline, as the room was filled with friends and admirers who know Salter as exemplar of a dying breed, the model of a certain kind of manhood — air force pilot, rock climber, linen-suited world traveler, reticent charmer, master of the martini.
I am one young writer who has been influenced by Salter’s work, but I do find that there is a cultishness to Salter fandom: either your eyes go wide and your heart goes pitter-patter, or you don’t really get the hype. A Sport and a Pastime is the book that the uninitiated are encouraged to read in order to encounter the full potency of Salterism, and it’s not a book about which one can feel lukewarm. The provocative sex scenes between Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie are too straightforward and anatomical to be read as arty erotica, too emotionally serious and lyrical to be dismissed (or enjoyed) as cheap pornography. That the nameless narrator claims repeatedly throughout the novel, “I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him out of my own inadequacies” has the effect of making Dean and Anne-Marie’s every word and act feel even more sensually alive, enlarged, insistent:
In solitude one must penetrate, one must endure. The icy beginning is where it is the worst. One must pass all that. One must go forward all the way, through bitterness, through righteous feelings, advancing upon it like a holy city, sensing the true joy.
When reading a Salter story or novel, you’re either all in, or else a battle will ensue in which you resist the text’s inherent demand for surrender — of your analytical cleverness and ironic distance, your progressive social politics, your graduate-school-honed fidelity to the underwhelming epiphany.
A feast of love is beginning…They have founded their domain. A satanic happiness follows.
This is not George Saunders or Lorrie Moore making fun of the ineffectualness of romantic impulses; this is for real.
Feasts, domains, and a happiness so-good-that-it’s-bad are the stuff of greatness, of heroes. In his recent profile for The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote that Salter’s having “fixated on heroism” has contributed to “grounds for a slender reputation.” This supposed “fixation,” which I would characterize in more positive terms — an interest, a belief, a vision — is at the heart of what draws me to Salter’s work, and perhaps, yes, herein is where the road divides: if fumbling, self-undermining antiheroes are your thing, Salter may not be. “I believe there’s a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me,” he said in a 1993 interview. The nameless narrator of Sport, Vernon Rand of Solo Faces, Viri Berland of Light Years, and the many solitary, teeming souls of his short stories may not be heroes or heroines per se, but they are deeply in pursuit of a “right way” — which is a life of greatness and goodness, feeling and fortitude, lust and love. In Salter’s universe, pleasure-seeking is a kind of courage; sexual ecstasy aligned with holiness. A man’s search for pride, honor, triumph, are not separate from, nor opposed to, the sensual, the bodily; rather, these are — must be — of a piece, in a life fully lived. From Solo Faces:
[Rand’s] image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner.
And later, we get this narrative declaration, typical of Salter’s omniscient authorial voice: “The act of love…is still the most serious act of all.”
Age comes up frequently in reference to All That Is. Presumably it is Salter’s final major work, which is both a delicate and unavoidable subtext to any consideration of it.
The novel’s epigraph — “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real” — is a quote by… James Salter. To my mind, it announces to the reader that the author has reached that stage of life that warrants staking out his own ideas and insights, deference and deflection be damned. When you’ve lived as long and fully as Jim Salter has, it is perhaps as good a time as any to be forthrightly self-referential. Of course the quotation is printed without attribution — four lines in a sea of white space. So too, the protagonist Phillip Bowman is an unexplicit incarnation of Salter — a young man returning from war and going on to find his way in life, letters, and love.
The “factual” alignments are both skeletal and notable: both men born in 1925, in Manhattan, raised as the only child of a doting mother in New Jersey; both serving in the military and recognizing the experience as the most important of their lives, “the pride he would never lose.” Bowman’s early marriage is to a girl named Vivian Amussen from a Virginia horse-country family, like Salter’s first wife Ann; the fictional marriage ends as the real-life one did, in divorce. Vivian thinks of herself as daring, “taking the train up to see a man she had met in a bar, whose background she did not know but who seemed to have depth and originality.” It does not feel like an effort to hear a youthful Salter thinking of himself in this way, through Vivian’s, or Ann’s, eyes. Of course there are divergences: Bowman is an editor, not a writer. He fought in Okinawa in the Navy, Salter in Korea as an Air Force pilot. Bowman goes to Harvard, Salter graduated West Point. Bowman and Vivian divorce before there are any children, Jim and Ann Salter had four children, one of whom died tragically as a young adult.
Still, “facts” aside, All That Is strikes me as the most autobiographical of Salter’s work to date, which is to say the author is more present in these pages than he’s ever been. His final novel reads like his own particular bird’s-eye of the reality he believes in, cherishes, proffers to readers as worthy of transcription from “dream” to immortality — the criteria for which may be rather straightforward: “All you have in life is what you remember,” he said once, his paraphrase of the Renoir quote he used as the epigraph for Light Years. I read All That Is as a kind of impressionistic record of Salter’s memory — the people, places, emotions, perceptions, and anecdotes that have stuck, and have thus mattered. Bowman’s story, for example, begins at age 20, returns in flashback to memories of childhood (his mother primarily), and ends as he approaches 60; these, presumably, are the years in a man’s life that most matter. “What has your life been like?” asks “an older woman with a marvelous face like a prune” whom Bowman meets at a dinner in England. “What are the things that have mattered?” He is 45 years old and goes on to say something about the war, but
He was not sure he had told the truth. His mind had just drifted back to it [the war] involuntarily. And among his dreams it had been the one that most consistently recurred.
The author, the narrator, and the character are all present in this scene: Bowman thinks maybe being a naval officer has so far mattered most; the narrator reveals to us that this is a provisional notion; and the author, it seems to me, suggests that the woman’s “marvelous face,” along with her line and manner of questioning, contend for the truly immortal element. At 45, there were dreams, and uncertainty; but at 87, dear reader, here is reality, and a record of what has mattered. Fiction (character) and memory (author) dance together elegantly here, with a signature strangeness. The minor character feels as important, surely as memorable, as the major one.
All That Is is filled with moments and episodes like these, where a minor player’s story comes forth in full color, detail, and mystery, only to never reappear again.
[One] of his writers had been to school only through the seventh grade though he didn’t explain why. His mother had given him a library card and told him, go and read the books.
“The books. That’s what she said. She’d wanted to be a teacher but she had these children. She was a disappointed woman. She said, you come from decent, hardworking people. Serious people.”
Serious was the word that had haunted his life…
His name was Keith Crowley. He was a slight man who looked to the side when he talked. Bowman liked him and liked his writing, but his novel didn’t sell, two or three thousand copies was all. He wrote two more, one of which Bowman published, and then dropped from sight.
There are other writers that Salter wants us to remember — individuals and types at once, like the aging William Swangren, who told stories about Greta Garbo, Somerset Maugham, Thornton Wilder, and “talked about…homosexuality in the ancient world, the intercrural pleasures of the Greeks and his own experiences with gonorrhea. It took eighteenth months to cure with a French doctor putting a tube up him every day and painting the lesions with Argyrol.” Bowman was supposed to reject Swangren’s book, but he “liked him so much that he changed his mind about [it]. They took it. Unfortunately, it sold few copies.” There are also publisher types, like Berggren the Swede, who “had been made for women,” married three times, and who sweeps on and off stage in two pages:
With Karen, Berggren did not feel young again but something better. Sex was more than a pleasure, at this age he felt joined to the myths. He had accidentally seen, a few years earlier, a wonderful thing, his mother dressing — his back was to him, she was seventy-two at the time, her buttocks were smooth and perfect, her waist firm. It was in his genes, then, he could perhaps go on and on, but one day he saw something else, perfectly innocent, Karen and a girlfriend she had known since school lying on the grass in their skimpy bathing suits tanning themselves, face down, side by side, talking to one another and occasionally the leg of one of them kicked idly up into the sun that was soothing their bare backs….He did not try to imagine what they were talking about, it was only their idle happiness in doing it while his own habits were less joyful and animated…On that day and other days he accepted the reality of what happened with women he loved, wives, principally, which was one of the things that led, despite his position and intelligence and the high regard in which he was held, to his suicide at the age of fifty-three, in the year that he and Karen parted.
And so in All That Is, there is a compelling and beautiful dance between the foregrounding and backgrounding of characters, lives, narratives. Whereas in the conventional novel, one would neaten up the relative positionings, guide the reader toward narrative priorities, in All That Is Salter reminds us that the “things” of his epigraph are deliberately unspecified; which is notable for a writer known for precision. What happens and what is remembered are distinct narrative lines; the overlap is frequent, yes, but unpredictable; where, how, and why they diverge is deeply interesting. Bowman’s story is told chronologically, and yet each chapter reads like a Rorschach that won’t hold still: here is what happened, here is what is — what will be — remembered. Which of it matters? Yes. Exactly.
But there is a clear throughline for Bowman’s journey, which is a journey from female to female, in search of the ideal in both sex and love. Bowman is a late-bloomer in both these areas, and he comes to them naïve, hopeful: he wants to believe in their purity, their absolute meaning, and is incredulous when he discovers otherwise: “It was not possible that she did not feel as he did,” he thinks, after the first time Vivian expresses disinterest in sex. And yet his faith revives, time and again — he aspires to the pure and the virginal with each encounter — even as it evolves out of innocence into something darker. With Enid, a married Englishwoman, “He felt like a god; they were only beginning,” and
He saw himself now to be another kind of man, the kind he had hoped, fully a man, used to the wonder. Enid smoked cigarettes, she did it only now and again, and breathed out the rich fragrance slowly. The light in the Ritz made her beautiful. The sounds of her high heels. There is no other, there will never be another.
Similarly, his affair with Christine — who later betrays him brutally — is
a brilliant dream…With Christine it would be unimaginably rich, living in the sunlight, on the water, on terraces hidden by vines, in the bare rooms of hotels…He wanted the Greek words for morning, night, thank you, love. He wanted some dirty Greek words so he could whisper them.
In a recent review of All That Is, John Freeman wrote that the book is “riddled with the sentiments about women of a past time,” and that “In bed, Bowman is always in charge.” I find this sort of reaction to Salter — indictments of his supposed social regressiveness — endlessly interesting, because it causes me to interrogate my alternate reaction. Freeman’s observations, strictly speaking, are not inaccurate: but there is the shadow of mistrust in his reading — of Salter the author, for failing to shake an antiquated worldview, which is something I too have certainly felt reading other white male authors. But with All That Is, I found that my own implicit trust in Salter’s vision of both eroticism and romanticism — which has been there since I first read Sport several years ago — began to make sense.
Bowman, an only child raised by his mother, comes to both sex and romance relatively late, and with a singular, strong influence on his budding manhood, which is the war and the qualities of courage and honor he internalized. Like all of Salter’s protagonists, Bowman is both flawed and fundamentally honorable — solitary, resistant to corruption, quietly ambitious, and deeply convinced that the erotic and the Platonic are one in the same; that The act of love is the most serious act of all. There is something distinct about a man discovering his dignity, his pride and valor, prior to his first sexual experience. Freeman compares Bowman to Don Draper, and I too have made similar comparisons between Salter’s world and Matthew Weiner’s. But Don’s psychology as a womanizer is portrayed (in the current season, in fact) as a prurient neurosis, traced back to his having been raised in a brothel by a stepmother who despised him. I once asked Salter about Mad Men, and he hadn’t at the time ever seen the show. And in a previous email, he’d written, “I admire the cardinal virtues, prudence, fortitude, justice, and mercy,” in relation to a question I asked about the relationship between an artist and his work. Admiring and enacting are different things, of course; both Salter and Bowman I believe recognize this. (As for Don Draper, I’m not so sure.)
What goes wrong for Bowman is that he loses the tether to his original influences: the war is long over, his mother has passed, and his friend Eddins, whose interspersed chapters portray the ideal (loving, passionate) mateship that Bowman seeks, has lost that ideal to a tragic accident. Bowman then begins to confound sexual prowess with actual prowess. If All That Is is Bowman’s late-blooming coming-of-age story, then this phase, his late 40s, is his adolescent stage, unseemly and shameless. He commits an ugly act of vengeance, sexual in nature, following Christine’s betrayal, and while the novel does not exactly “punish” him for it, he goes forth into later manhood shaken, self-conscious, and, in the last pages, humbled with gratitude:
He wanted nothing more. Her presence was miraculous…He was unsure of himself and of her. He was too old to marry. He didn’t want some late, sentimental compromise. He had known too much for that. He’d been married once, wholeheartedly, and been mistaken…
By novel’s end, he — Salter, Bowman — has not lost his faith in the seriousness of love, nor the glory of the erotic; but he no longer approaches them with such notions as “attainment,” “possession,” or “supremacy.”
While much has been said about Salter’s sentences — their elegant concision, “expensive” diction, the deftness of surprising pivots, syntax that is both fragmented and polished — Salter himself reportedly wrote to a friend that, with All That Is, he wanted to “get past the great writer-of-sentences thing,” and presumably the “writers’ writer” thing. Has he done it? The book party was held at the home of Salter’s friends Yves-André Istel and Kathleen Begala, at a tony address on Central Park West, notably similar to the location of Phillip Bowman’s first encounter with the narrow gates of social-class access (which are slammed in his face in that scene). A venerable authoress in attendance swooned — over both the novel and the man — when I asked what she thought. When Salter followed Stein’s remarks with a few of his own, he spoke of all the attention the book has been getting and said that it felt like, for once in his literary life, he’d been ushered to the “front of the line.” Later, when I asked him how everything is going, he said, “It’s been big. A lot of stuff. Interviews and coverage. It’s enough to make you envious and me tired.” At 87, Jim Salter did not look tired, but rather energized and elegant, ready as ever to change a tire, then maybe enjoy an excellent martini. “I’ve read the book and will be writing about it,” I said, at that moment not quite sure what I would be writing. He looked up from signing a book none too concerned, an eager fan at his other side. “That would be wonderful,” he replied.
Four years ago I wrote an essay here about a smallish southern city where I used to write for the newspaper by day and work on my fiction at night. It was, and is, a pleasant place for a writer to live and work, a city with a rich literary tradition but none of the self-importance of Iowa City or Brooklyn, a place content to operate under the radar and leave its writers in peace. Randall Jarrell, who taught at the state university’s local campus for many years, referred to the place as “Sleeping Beauty.” In a letter to his friend Robert Lowell, Jarrell wrote, “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.”
I mentioned many local writers in that essay about Greensboro, NC, from native son O. Henry right up to the biggest contemporary brand name, Orson Scott Card. Among those many writers was Lee Zacharias, who has just come out with a collection of essays, her first, called The Only Sounds We Make.
Zacharias, who had previously published a collection of short stories and two novels, brings a pair of vital skills to the enterprise of essay writing: she notices, and she remembers. These skills are invaluable to any writer, but especially so to the creator of the kind of deeply personal essays Zacharias has produced in this collection. When noticing and remembering are fused, as they are here, they can breathe life into anything, from the most intimate moments to the most cosmic subjects – the nature of light, writers’ workplaces, a father’s suicide, the visible and invisible lessons of the Grand Canyon, even the surprising allure of buzzards.
One of the most poignant passages in the book comes midway through an essay called “Morning Light,” which is ostensibly about photography. Making photographs, as Zacharias discovers, requires more than an understanding of f-stops and depth of field. “To make a photograph,” she writes, “you must learn how to read light. You must develop a feel for its chemistry, its texture and color; its purity must become palpable to you. But to read light is to experience ephemerality, to know your own mortality, the fleeting nature of all things.” This effortless veering from the practical to the philosophical continues with this explanation of Zacharias’s motives for taking up photography:
I learned to read light because there was a time when I needed to be without language, when I needed to travel back to that place where nothing is named and we dream in pure light and color. When I failed to publish my second novel, I believed that words had failed me, and I didn’t want to write another just because I was expected to. If I was to write again, it would be because I needed words, not because I was a writer.
She stopped writing for two years, then wrote another novel, which also failed to sell. “How, without whining, is one to describe the way her world dims?” she asks. “It’s as if she’s been a member of a club; then one day she tries the clubhouse door to find the lock has been changed.” She continues:
And so I taught myself to speak another tongue. For a decade marked by the faltering of my career, my father’s suicide, my son’s troubled adolescence, the decline of our remaining parents, and the sudden irreversibility of aging, I made photographs.
Zacharias, who taught in the creative writing program at UNC-Greensboro for many years and edited The Greensboro Review literary journal, eventually came back to writing. But 32 years would pass between the publication of her second book and her third, a novel called At Random. Now, a mere year later, comes The Only Sounds We Make. Zacharias tells me she has finished another novel and is at work on a new one set in western Michigan during the Depression. It appears she has relocated the key to the clubhouse door.
Zacharias’s writing about her childhood and her difficult parents is some of her best. In the essay “Mud Pies” she tells about her early years on the South Side of Chicago and her family’s eventual flight to a raw new suburban development in Hammond, Indiana. Zacharias’s writing is supple but never flashy, and she is typically clear-eyed about how this massive social convulsion touched her life: “I would not pretend that I actively miss Chicago lest I be accused of sentimentality – I was not yet five years old when I left – yet I do feel nostalgia, the kind Pete Hamill speaks of in his book about Lower Manhattan, Downtown. Sentimentality is about lies, he says, nostalgia about ‘real things gone,’ not so much about what we remember, but itself ‘an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.’ The body cannot remember a lie.” The essay ends on this grace note:
I used to believe that my nostalgia was so intense because I felt I had lost something I never possessed. But the truth is that we do not possess our lives. As true exiles know, we stand too easily to lose them, and in the end we are all just passing through. It is what we remember of the journey that we possess. I own a little girl sitting on a curb in Chicago in the barefoot sandals her mother always made her wear with socks, and in the curious stillness of that moment when she looks up from her mud pie and cocks her head in wait, I know that what she is waiting for is something to remember.
Zacharias’s parents, who eventually divorced, were a couple of tough customers. Her mother was “manipulative,” “overbearing,” and “exhausting,” and yet “no mother’s love could have been more unconditional.” Her father was a misogynist, a tightwad with no close friends who, to top it off, was ashamed of his daughter’s vocation. “He was ashamed not just of the writing itself but of the fact that I wrote,” Zacharias says. “He didn’t see the point. He kept a log of his gas mileage, but he never kept a journal…He had beautiful handwriting, but no use for words.” Hard to believe that such a couple’s daughter would become an accomplished writer, but Zacharias’s life is a reminder that there is no template, no blueprint for making writers. They come from anywhere and nowhere and everywhere in between. After her father fired a .357-caliber bullet from a Bulldog revolver into his own head, Zacharias was able to write words that seem nearly heroic, yet she makes them sound simple, even humble, possibly inevitable: “My father was who he was. He died how he died. But because he was my father I loved him.”
There is levity in these pages, too, most notably on the day of Zacharias’s second wedding, when she and the groom stood in their living room with a minister who was an old friend. The only witnesses were their dogs, one of whom spent the ceremony vigorously humping the minister’s leg. The minister kept shaking his leg, trying to soldier on. “His voice quavered with the effort,” the bride reports, “and every word he read sounded like a sob.”
The dozen essays in this collection appeared in a variety of journals, including Antaeus, Southern Quarterly, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Humanities Review. My favorite, “Buzzards,” was reprinted in The Best American Essays 2008. It is an astonishment, with glints of etymology, zoology, mythology, photography, family dynamics, and the various roles buzzards have played in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Federico Garcia Lorca, Darwin, Hemingway, Faulkner, and the Bible. Despite her wide reading on these mysterious unloved birds, Zacharias fails to mention the timeless opening of Jim Harrison’s novella, Revenge, so I’ll quote it here:
You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns.
Zacharias’s sin of omission is forgiven because she knows all about the ancient patterns. And because she can write lines like these: “What I discovered when I took a close look at the hidden world all around me is that each of its creatures is as serious about its life as I am about mine.” And these: “I do not dream of vultures. I have never dreamed of flying, though as a child, lying in the dark, awake, voiceless, listening to my parents fight, I used to dream of escape. Perhaps that’s why I grew up to be a writer.”
Perhaps. Probably. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Lee Zacharias is back inside the clubhouse. She has published a splendid book of essays and she has more books in her. And that’s very good news for us all.
From time to time I read your glossy publications. One of my favorite things to do is visit my mom, lie on her couch, and read Hello magazine or Vanity Fair (she has the TLS, too, but that’s not very glossy). Sometimes I look at the pictures in Paris Match. My mom and her friends have an ingenious cost-saving publication cooperative, wherein one shopping bag full of books and magazines gets passed around until everyone has read its contents.
Lacking such a network, and not being in a position to spend six dollars on a photo spread of a celebrity dressed up to look like another, different celebrity, I occasionally try to recreate the experience online (it’s not even close). This is where I found Sam Kashner’s telling of the sad story of William Manchester, the historian tapped by Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy to preempt the jackals and write the authorized account of JFK’s assassination. According to the article, Manchester researched and wrote himself into illness. Then Jacqueline, regretting her hours of private taped meetings with Manchester and the revelations made therein, launched an assault against the author and his work. The fallout and the eventual publication history is all there in the article. The experience crushed Manchester, although the book, The Death of a President, did eventually appear.
The story caught my fancy. I started thinking about it from the market perspective, and spent a fun half hour trawling the internet and gawking at choice specimens of Kennedyana. Eventually, I bought a copy of Manchester’s book. (Since the book is out of print, some online selling algorithms have inflated its price substantially. Even so, inexpensive copies of first editions and early reprints proliferate online and are easily found on meta-search sites like Via Libri.)
Obviously, a billion trees’ worth of pages, glossy and unglossy, have been devoted to various Kennedys (sex, scandals, outfits, and deaths, mainly). I’ve absorbed through osmosis that which floats around in the collective American consciousness, but I didn’t actually know much about Kennedy’s politics, the assassination, or the political climate at the time.
The Death of a President, unsurprisingly, is pure hagiography, but that’s actually the large part of its charm. For one, Manchester had been given this herculean task directly from the boss, so to speak, and the pressure must have been enormous to do justice to his subject. Additionally, his devotion to the slain president is evident on every page, and the prose has a dated, chivalrous quality that would seem comic in a contemporary work of non-fiction. It goes without saying that Marilyn does not feature in this story, nor Jackie (maybe) looking sideways at Bobby. Here’s JFK on the gurney: “By now, one would think, Kennedy would have bled white, but his great heart continued to pump…” It’s not just Manchester, though, who is painting an idealized picture. Everyone was in it together in the construction of Camelot–the family’s Secret Service names were Lancer, Lace, Lyric, and Lark, for God’s sake.
Poetic flights notwithstanding, Manchester accounts for every moment leading up to November 22, and the ones that followed. While it would be easy to make this exhaustive approach a very tedious read, Manchester imbues the pages before the denouement with a palpable sense of dread, creating this inexorable pace. The suspense he conjures is all quite distinct from the things which the reader necessarily brings to the book. He also does an extraordinary job of describing the absolute chaos following the assassination, even and especially within the Kennedy/Johnson camp, which was, apparently, wholly unprepared for this contingency. Manchester paints a picture of a country adrift. People cramming the streets, wandering aimlessly, putting on one sock, calling the White House.
Like many people, I’ve got Mad Men fever. That may have been one of the reasons I felt compelled to read this book; it’s got that attractive reek of cigarettes and hair pomade. The book, as far as research and writing style, is a perfect snapshot of a time, which is what everyone says about Mad Men. Except this book is like, real, and Mad Men is a television show. Where Mad Men has a man playing Conrad Hilton, Manchester’s book features the authentic young Bill Moyers, and Walter Cronkite saying “This is Walter Cronkite, and you’re a goddamned idiot.” For someone who missed this period of history, it’s fascinating. I’m sure it holds a different appeal for the people who didn’t.
Despite its throw-back feel, The Death of a President also seems (terrifyingly) timely. On the one hand, I guess you can take comfort from Manchester’s descriptions of Texas generally, and Dallas particularly, before the assassination, in the sense that venomous, ugly invective of a political nature is nothing new. The Warren commission, Manchester points out, declared that the political climate of Dallas had no bearing on the actions of Oswald, who was a lone, pseudo-communist, ex-military whack job. On the other hand, Manchester spends a lot of time talking about and roundly condemning the Dallas climate, positing that an act like Oswald’s simply cannot take place in a vacuum. I found these portions of the text chilling. On Dallas:
In that third year of the Kennedy Presidency a kind of fever lay over Dallas County. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed “Impeach Earl Warren.” Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas. Fanatical young matrons swayed in public to the chant, “Stevenson’s going to die–his heart will stop, stop, stop and he will burn, burn burn!” Radical Right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy’s name was booed in classrooms; junior executives were required to attend radical seminars. Dallas had become the mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation Convention, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies . . . In Dallas a retired major general flew the American flag upside down in front of his house, and when, on Labor Day of 1963, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted right side up outside his own home by County Treasurer Warren G. Harding–named by Democratic parents for a Republican President in an era when all Texas children were taught to respect the Presidency, regardless of party–Harding was accosted by a physician’s son, who remarked bitterly, “That’s the Democrat flag. Why not just run up the hammer and sickle while you’re at it?
On the day Kennedy arrived in Dallas, a local group took out a full-page ad in the paper which said, among other things “Why have you ordered or permitted your brother Bobby, the Attorney General, to go soft on Communists, fellow-travelers, and ultra-leftists in America, while permitting him to persecute loyal Americans who criticize you, your administration, and your leadership?”
This all sounds too familiar. It goes on for pages. Politicians like William Fulbright and Adlai Stevenson worried about the President’s safety in Dallas, although they expected harm to come from one of the vocal groups who loathed Kennedy, not some loner weirdo. It’s like going into a pit with bears and tigers and hippos, and then being killed by a tiny venomous bug. The irony about all this is that, as with our own President, the accusations leveled at JFK were largely centered on his purported Communist sympathies, even though, as my beloved puts it, “Nobody hated Commies more than JFK.” Now, as then, bewildered Communists everywhere are looking at each other and thinking, if this President is a Communist (and a Nazi, against all odds) maybe I should change parties?
I want to focus on the positive. The world has changed. But sometimes it doesn’t seem that it has changed very much. The Birchers became Birthers; the Minutemen kept the same name. And in every town in America, there’s an unaffiliated loon with a military-grade weapon (or ten). And it gives me the goddamned willies.