Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and Good Riddance

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Rise of the Slathering Pit Bull

Back in the 1990s, while working as a newspaper columnist in North Carolina, I spent countless hours driving back roads on my way to interview the criminal, the colorful, the obscure and the merely famous. My chariot on those trips through the Piedmont tobacco fields and pine thickets was the paper’s staff car, a bare bones Chevy with no air conditioning and an AM radio that got spotty reception. Which is how I got introduced to that slathering pit bull of right-wing talk radio named Rush Limbaugh.

You’ve seen one tobacco patch, you’ve seen them all. So on those scorching afternoon drives I came to relish the bombardment that began issuing from the dashboard speaker every weekday at noon on the dot, then kept roaring nonstop for three hours — the whining, hectoring, insulting, chortling, blistering, coarse, cruel and often very funny voice of Rush Limbaugh. A typical show would open with a riff from The Pretenders, which made no sense and which surely set Chrissie Hynde spinning in her leather pants. And then: “Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain. This is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of American Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God!”

What the fuck was this? Listening to Limbaugh’s show was like driving past a ghastly car wreck: I was powerless to turn away. He spent three hours every day ridiculing and belittling targets that included feminists (“feminazis”), gays, immigrants, AIDS victims, poor people, environmentalists (“tree-hugging wackos”), all government programs (except the military), and anyone who could be tarred with the label of liberal. “Feminism,” he said, “was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” I had worked in radio in Savannah and Nashville, and as I listened to this river of bile, I kept asking myself, How does he get away with saying this stuff?

Most astonishing of all were the listeners who called in to the show, people who dubbed themselves “dittoheads” because they were proud of the fact that they agreed with every word that came out of Limbaugh’s mouth. It’s obvious they were rigorously screened because they never challenged the host and only rarely engaged in a back-and-forth conversation. They were calling in for one purpose: to fawn.

Too Funny!

By then, Limbaugh, who died Feb. 17 at 70, was on his way to becoming a media phenomenon with an audience estimated at 15 million. He parlayed his megaphone into a career that carried him far beyond the AM dial — to television, the bestseller lists, fabulous wealth, a seaside mansion in Palm Beach and, inevitably, Republican kingmaker. After Limbaugh helped engineer the Republican Revolution in the 1990s, a freshman from Indiana named Mike Pence said, “I’m in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh.” Though no one knew it at the time, the poison Limbaugh was injecting into our national politics would eventually help land Pence in the White House alongside an improbable one-hit wonder named Donald Trump. Trump repaid the favor by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Limbaugh the day after he revealed  that he had terminal lung cancer.

Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. If he accomplished nothing else in his outlandish lifetime, Limbaugh revealed the bankruptcy, hypocrisy, and outright cruelty burning  in the heart of every right-wing moralist. For such people, it’s not enough to believe that abortion is morally wrong; they must see to it that no one can get a legal abortion. Anyone who dares to disagree is open to merciless attack, with mockery as a preferred weapon. In a precursor to a bit of Trumpian shtick, Limbaugh once quivered spasmodically to mimic the actor Michael J. Fox, a card-carrying liberal who had contracted Parkinson’s disease. Anyone who has watched someone die of this horrific affliction knows just how hilarious that bit was. Limbaugh also mocked gay men dying of AIDS during the regular “AIDS Update” segment of his show, playing Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” Too funny!

Doctor Shopping and Pill Popping

In his bestselling book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, the comedian Al Franken pointed out that Limbaugh viciously ridiculed poor people and anyone who takes government handouts — while glossing over the fact that, by his own admission, he once accepted unemployment benefits and spent his jobless time sitting on the sofa gorging on junk food and moping, too lazy to get off his widening ass to mow his own lawn.

Now comes the best part. Limbaugh was an ardent trooper in America’s culture wars and its misguided and unwinnable war on drugs. As he said on his show in 1995: “There’s nothing good about drug use. We know it. It destroys individuals. It destroys families… And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs… And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.” In 2003, the news broke that Limbaugh had bought hundreds of prescription pain pills a month after “doctor shopping” – a crime punishable by five years in prison – but he avoided jail time by agreeing to pay for the police investigation and go into rehab. Big, fat, white, male, right-wing moralists don’t go to prison; they go into rehab.

Off With Their Heads!

Limbaugh didn’t just go into rehab. He also went to the top of the bestseller lists with two books whose titles, respectively, capture the self-righteousness and smugness that drive the right-wing moralist. The books were The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So. When I heard that Limbaugh had died, I remembered the abrasive tone of those books — and I remembered an encounter with another right-wing moralist who made it to the bestseller lists.

This also happened in North Carolina, during an earlier stint at the same newspaper. One day one of the editorial writers invited me to a local beer joint to meet a man who, my colleague assured me, was an intellectual giant on his way to greatness. The man’s name was Bill Bennett, and at that time, the late 1970s, he was the director of the National Humanities Center in nearby Research Triangle Park. As the three of us drank longneck beers and listened to the country music pouring out of the jukebox — I can still hear Jim Ed Brown singing “Pop a top again, I think I’ll have another round…” — Bennett made a point of letting me know that he had degrees from Williams College and Harvard Law School and that he had served as assistant to John Silber, the controversial president of Boston University who resisted faculty efforts to unionize and decried the “homosexual militancy” of gay students. Then, as a Moe Bandy tune came on the jukebox, Bennett gazed out at the rush hour traffic and wistfully remarked, “I miss places like this.” And I thought: You fucking phony egghead Brahmin. Give up the salt-of-the-earth act already.

My first impression of Bennett was validated years later, after he had achieved the predicted greatness – if your idea of greatness is running the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan and then serving as the get-tough drug czar under President George H.W. Bush. Bennett, a devout Catholic, bemoaned “the death of outrage” when people failed to foam at the mouth sufficiently over President Bill Clinton’s moral failings. Like Limbaugh, Bennett was a gung-ho foot soldier in both the culture wars and the war on drugs. On Larry King Live, Bennett proclaimed that a listener’s suggestion that drug dealers should be beheaded was “morally plausible.” This is the right-wing moralist in full plumage: Off with the heads of people who disagree with me or fail to live up to my high standards! In 1993 Bennett published The Book of Virtues, a compendium of bromides about self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, honesty, etc., etc., in which he showed off his vast erudition by quoting Big Thinkers from Aristotle to St. Augustine, Aesop, George Washington, Hilaire Belloc, Kierkegaard and James Baldwin (!).

The book sold well and was adapted into a cartoon series for television called “Adventures From the Book of Virtues.” Small problem. The series was broadcast on PBS, and Bennett, like all good conservative Republicans, is opposed to federal funding for PBS or anything else that has to do with the arts. Robert Mapplethorpe, anyone? The moral of this story is that even right-wing moralists are allowed to swallow their objections when presented with an opportunity to burnish their brand in prime time. “It’s not that I think PBS is bad,” Bennett said at the time, by way of justifying his moral somersault. “It’s the risk of having government involved that I object to.” That’s not even halfway up the mountain to the high moral ground.

Now comes the best part. After publishing this blueprint for virtuous living and co-founding a group called Empower America that opposed the expansion of casino gambling, Bennett, according to an expose in The Washington Monthly, had lost $8 million gambling in those twin citadels of virtue, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Oops. The right-wing moralist’s defense for this disconnect between word and deed? Bennett was raking in $50,000 per speaking engagement, he was rich, and he could afford to blow a few million on his gambling addiction. “I don’t play the ‘milk money,’” Bennett said after the story broke. “I don’t put my family at risk, and I don’t owe anyone anything.” His wife Elayne stood by her man: “We are financially solvent. Our bills are paid.”

The nastiness, phoniness, and brazen hypocrisy of right-wing moralists like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett should do much more than remind us that such men walk on feet made of clay. Their failings — and the hypocrisy they tried but failed to mask — should remind us of the true moral of this story. It is this: Anyone who tries to tell you how to live, regardless of his political stripes, is trying to make you less free. Such people are to be distrusted and avoided. When you see them coming, run for your life. Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and good riddance.

Image Credit: Pexels/cottonbro.

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obits From 2020

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Strange. In a year when more than 330,000 Americans died from Covid-19, just one person on this highly selective list of literary obituaries is known to have died after contracting the novel coronavirus. Maybe that’s not so strange. This was, after all, the year when everything stopped making sense.

Mary Higgins Clark must have done something right. She didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her forties, but every one of her 57 mysteries after that became a bestseller, selling a total of more than 100 million copies before she died on Jan. 31 at 92. Like other brand-name authors who dominate the best-seller lists (Steel, Patterson, King, Grisham, Roberts, Child), Clark found what worked for her, then stuck with it. In her case, she set out to answer the question: “What happens after bad things happen to good people (usually women)?” It worked so well that in 1988 she became the first American writer to sign an eight-figure deal — a $10.1 million, multi-book contract. She sometimes collaborated with her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, and she amassed a fortune that afforded her luxuries few novelists ever experience outside their imaginations, including Cadillacs, jewelry, and homes in Manhattan, New Jersey, Cape Cod, and Florida. Though her fans venerated her, few critics confused her books with literature. She could not possibly have cared less. “Let others decide whether or not I’m a good writer,” this Bronx-born daughter of Irish immigrants said in a 2017 video. “I know I’m a good Irish story-teller.”

A quartet of venerable editors died this year — a woman and three men I have come to think of as The Fantastic Four of the Blue-Pencil Set. Alice Mayhew, who died Feb. 4 at 87, got her start by editing 1974’s All the President’s Men by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the chronicle of their investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up; 55 days after the book was published, President Richard Nixon resigned. That book birthed a genre that might be called Inside-the-Beltway Lit, and Mayhew went on to edit bestsellers by scores of D.C.-centric writers, including Jimmy Carter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Kitty Kelley, Frances Fitzgerald, John Dean, and Richard Reeves (who also died this year, see below). The aptly named Robert Loomis loomed over American publishing for half a century, a reign that put him in a league with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. In his long career, Loomis, who died April 19 at 93, edited Maya Angelou, William Styron, Shelby Foote, Pete Dexter, and Neil Sheehan, among many others. Sheehan, whose nonfiction book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, described Loomis’s approach to editing to the New York Times: “He would help me to understand what he would have done, and then do it his way to make it a better book. That book would not be the book it is without Bob.” Harold Evans, the most recognizable name among the four, died Sept. 23 at 92, after a two-act run that began with a distinguished newspaper career in London and then crossed the Atlantic for a second act that included stints as president and publisher of Random House, magazine editor, and writer of histories and a best-selling memoir — all the while leading a glittery social life with his wife, Tina Brown. And Fred Hills, who died Nov. 7 at 85, edited more than 50 New York Times bestsellers that ranged from the shamelessly commercial to the loftily literary, by writers as different as Jane Fonda, Raymond Carver, Phil Donahue, and David Halberstam. But it was a Russian émigré who most impressed Hills. After working with Vladimir Nabokov on his last completed novel, Look at the Harlequins!, Hills said: “Having worked with many other writers, I still believe that Nabokov was the most dazzling of them all.” These four editors lived an average of just under 90 years, which surely says something about the salutary effects of spending your life trying to improve the writing of others.

Roger Kahn was a member of a small tribe who took sports writing to a new level. The tribe counted Ring Lardner, A.J. Liebling, Bernard Malamud, Roger Angell, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese as members, and Kahn, who died Feb. 4 at 92, merited membership for The Boys of Summer, a classic that mined his Brooklyn boyhood and his time covering the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s. The book, one of some two dozen Kahn wrote, ranged far beyond the baseball diamond to offer meditations on civil rights, fathers and sons, teamwork, and the curveball thrown to all of us by heartbreak. And Kahn knew heartbreak. He, like millions of his fellow baseball-obsessed Brooklynites, never recovered after the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1958.

Charles Portis died Feb. 17 at 86 in an Arkansas hospice, quietly, out of view, without fanfare — the same way he chose to live. One of the most reclusive, original, and flat-out hilarious writers ever produced by America, Portis is best known for his novel True Grit—which was adapted for the screen and resulted in the only Academy Award of John Wayne’s career, then was remade in 2010 by the Coen brothers, with Jeff Bridges in the outsize role of the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Portis’s other four novels have won a zealous fan base that shades toward a cult, but his journalism, travel writing, memoirs, and drama were shamefully neglected until Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany appeared in 2012, lovingly curated and introduced by Jay Jennings. It was an overdue reminder that Portis was, first and last, a brilliant reporter with a laser eye, an unerring ear, and an ability to turn anyone and anything into grist for his delightfully skewed take on life. That grist included dump hotels, country singers, civil rights activists, Civil War veterans, Ku Kluxers, road trips, and Elvis’s mama. Jennings, in his introduction to the miscellany, notes that Portis’s strengths were evident in his very earliest writings: “unpretentious diction, an expert ear for the spoken word, deep knowledge worn lightly, stoic acceptance of trying circumstances, skill with internal combustion engines.” And, I would add, the rare ability to make readers laugh until it hurts.

Grace Edwards published her first novel at the age of 55, then waited another decade to publish If I Should Die, which introduced Mali Anderson, a female cop turned sociologist and amateur sleuth, a stylish black woman who’s better at guiding readers around her beloved Harlem than she is at solving crimes. No matter. Edwards, who died Feb. 25 at 87, knew the hood, as witnessed by this passage from the first of her six Mali Anderson novels: “The women and the old men gathered for comfort where folks were known to do the most talking: The women drifted into Tootsie’s Twist ‘n’ Snap Beauty Saloon, where the air was thick with gossip and fried Dixie peach. The men congregated in Bubba’s Barber Shop to listen to orators, smooth as water-washed pebbles, alter history with mile-long lies.” The woman knew how to write.

One week after Edwards’s death, a kindred soul named Barbara Neely died at 78. A former social activist, Neely turned to writing fiction in her fifties and had an instant hit with Blanche on the Lam, the first of four mysteries starring Blanche White, a heavyset, dark-skinned black maid who solves a murder while working for a wealthy white family. Blanche had enough mother-wit to turn her liability — her invisibility — into an advantage, and she also knew the score far better than her employers did: “For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she really was her own boss, and her clients knew it. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around.” Neely was named the 2020 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

Richard Reeves never achieved the fame of Alice Mayhew’s best-selling authors, but he produced an impressive body of reportage and commentary, plus biographies of presidents and other lesser scoundrels during a long and lustrous career that ended with his death on March 24 at 83. To his credit, Reeves wasn’t afraid of tackling second-rate subjects, which he proved with his witty and insightful — and surprisingly gentle — biography of our 38th president, A Ford, Not a Lincoln. A syndicated columnist and PBS regular, Reeves ranked George W. Bush on a par with three presidents who were forgettable, execrable, or both: James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon. But Reeves saved his frothiest bile for the lame duck now waddling around the White House, calling Donald Trump “a hyperactive kid who’s lived in a bubble for his whole life,” then adding: “The irony that people who voted for him think he relates to their lives — yeah, he’s been above their lives a hundred thousand feet in his private jet flying over Youngstown.”

Christopher Dickey made his name as a globe-trotting war correspondent, wrote nonfiction books about expats, the Civil War, and the New York Police Department, and finally, for good measure, produced a couple of novels. But the book that gut-punched me was his 1998 memoir, Summer of Deliverance, which chronicles his tortured coming to terms with his father, the impossible James Dickey. As I read the book, I kept thinking, “And I thought my father was a monster!” Both men were alcoholics, egomaniacs, and philanderers, but James Dickey, unlike my father, possessed a prodigious literary gift, which brought fame and fortune to Dickey and misery to everyone in his orbit. Given all that, Summer of Deliverance is a surprisingly equable book. Christopher Dickey, who died July 16 at 68, never stoops to whining and never wraps himself in the shroud of the victim so common among today’s memoirists. The book, almost miraculously, winds up being a begrudged homage to a deeply flawed man, a hard-won reconciliation, a laying to rest of a lifetime of grievance. In short, a triumph. “Chris was weirdly objective about his dad,” says Malcolm Jones, who worked with Dickey at Newsweek and more recently at The Daily Beast. “He could talk about the monster stuff, but he didn’t go on about it. And he seemed to genuinely like the work. I think he was really proud of his dad’s writing.” I hope he was at least as proud of his own.

Like the Abstract Expressionists, the Beats were almost exclusively a boys’ club. One of the most dazzling of the female gate crashers was the poet Diane di Prima, who ranged far beyond the Beat movement and produced some 50 books before her death on Oct. 25 at 86. Her career opened with the poetry collection This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, two years after Allen Ginsberg rattled the world with Howl. Di Prima soon became a supernova in the hothouse of Greenwich Village, an avatar of the Beats’ urge to burst out of the beige Eisenhower conformity that was supposedly coating the land. In 1961, The Floating Bear, a literary magazine she published with her lover LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), was seized for obscene content. Eight years later, after the Beat movement had played out and di Prima had decamped to San Francisco, she showed that she wasn’t above cashing in on her adventures in the freewheeling late-’50s, early-’60s counterculture. Her novelistic Memoirs of a Beatnik was commissioned by the French publisher Maurice Girodias, who kept scrawling “MORE SEX!” on the manuscript and sending it back to di Prima for revisions. She obliged. The book was revered as a rare account of a free-spirited woman navigating a subculture dominated by men. Di Prima proceeded to leave that subculture in her dust. “I don’t mind that people use the Beat label,” she told a newspaper reporter in 2000. “It’s just that it’s very much of one time, a long time ago.”

Jan Morris will probably be best remembered for Conundrum, her 1974 account of her gender transition. Fair enough. Conundrum was a shocker when it was published, and it still bristles with insights that speak to our gender blurry times. But Morris, who died Nov. 20 at 94, was much more than a gifted memoirist. She was a travel writer in a class of her own — and, not incidentally, an accomplished historian, biographer, and novelist. She roamed the world, diving into local history, architecture and street life wherever she went, bringing people and places to pungent life on the page. Her best-known travel writing is about obvious glamorous spots, including Manhattan, Venice, Hong Kong and Oxford. But to her credit she said her personal favorite was Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, a loving portrait of the overlooked Italian port on the Adriatic. Here is a writer who roamed the world, looking everywhere for that most elusive of places: nowhere.

Chuck Yeager will be forever known as the first man to break the sound barrier, but he also wrote a best-selling autobiography in 1985 (with the help of Leo Janos). And he was the beating heart of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the elite cowboy test pilots — those swaggering possessors of the right stuff — who were being overshadowed by cool technicians known as astronauts in America’s space race against the Russians. Yeager shot down five German planes in one day during World War II, a total of 13 overall, and he was, in Wolfe’s telling, “the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff.” (He was played in the movie adaptation by Sam Shepard, then at the peak of his heartthrob phase.) But as his memoir revealed, Yeager bristled at the suggestion that he and his fellow test pilots possessed some gift from the gods. “All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.” Yeager also punctured the myth that possession of the so-called right stuff rendered a man fearless in the face of death. “I was always afraid of dying,” he wrote. “Always.”

My introduction to John le Carré came when I was a teenager, soon after his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, had turned the former British spy into an international literary sensation. Having already made the acquaintance of James Bond, I picked up the novel expecting a hero who drove flashy cars, bedded countless women and swilled bone-dry Martinis. Instead, le Carré, who died Dec. 12 at 89, took me deep into a world of moral murk, duplicity, and tragedy—where nothing is what it seems and good people can be made to serve bad causes, and vice versa. The novel’s hero is no James Bond; he’s Alec Leamas, a worn-out spy at the end of his string who is coldly manipulated by his own handlers. What a revelation! Le Carré taught me that, in the right hands, even the tawdriest genre can be made to rise to the level of art.

Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day at 75 after a half-century producing a long shelf of fiction, nonfiction, and essays that strove to reconnect human beings to the miraculous natural world we inhabit. A fool’s errand, perhaps, but Lopez won the 1986 nonfiction National Book Award for Arctic Dreams, his account of five years spent with indigenous Inuit people in a world of lunar barrenness; a frigid, forbidding world that offered its own special magic; a place where “airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars.” In Of Wolves and Men, Lopez sought to set the record straight on an animal that had been demonized for centuries. As part of his research, he raised a wolf pup.

And let’s not forget (in alphabetical order): Stanley Crouch, a member of a dying breed in our kid-glove literary world: the hard-punching iconoclast. Crouch, who died at 74, was a former Black Nationalist who championed jazz and didn’t hesitate to attack such black icons as Toni Morrison, gangsta rap, Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Al Sharpton, Alex Haley, and even post-1960s Miles Davis. Crouch considered himself a “radical pragmatist” on a mission to move “beyond the decoy of race.” In a syndicated newspaper column, criticism, fiction, and biography, he stepped on an unknowable number of toes while striving to remain true to his intellectual lodestars: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Albert Murray.

New York City lost two of its greatest street-level journalists with the deaths of dogged Jim Dwyer at 63 and venerable Pete Hamill at 85.

Shirley Ann Grau’s best-known novel, The Keepers of the House, is the story of a wealthy white widower who has a 30-relationship with his black housekeeper, which produces three children. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights movement, and its taboo subject matter stoked the fury of the local Ku Klux Klan, which burned a cross on Grau’s front lawn. Grau, who died at 91, dismissed the episode as a “Groucho Marx” stunt. Her other five novels and four short story collections, redolent of the weathers and ways of her native Deep South and every bit as unflinching as Keepers, also explored the collisions of that potent quartet: race, class, power, and love.

Poor Winston Groom, who died at 77, was no one-trick pony — he published eight novels, plus histories and biographies, and was a finalist for a nonfiction Pulitzer Prize — but he will be forever locked into the pigeonhole as “the man who wrote Forrest Gump.” The man deserves way better.

Allison Lurie, on the other hand, was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for her 10 novels, plus short story collections and essays that meticulously dissected the amorous follies of smart people who have mastered the art of self-destruction. Lurie, who died at 94, won comparisons to Jane Austen and Henry James and also won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs. Along the way, unlike Groom, she managed to dodge all pigeonholes.

Michael McClure, who died at 87, was present at the beginning: the poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 1955 that has become enshrined as the Beat movement’s blastoff. McClure, who went on to a long career as a poet, playwright, lyricist, and novelist, later wrote of that night: “We had gone beyond a point of no return… None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void — to the land without poetry — to the spiritual drabness.”

Terrence McNally wrote three dozen plays as well as the books for 10 musicals, librettos for operas, and screenplays for movies and TV during a five-decade career that mapped gay America’s journey from the closet to the mainstream. McNally, who won four Tony Awards, died at 81 from complications of the coronavirus.

Maybe the literary world’s cruelest loss in this cruelest of years was Anthony Veasna So, a son of Cambodian immigrants who died at 28, just months before the publication of his highly anticipated debut story collection, Afterparties. When he died, So was working on a novel called Straight Through Cambotown. One of his last pieces of published writing was his posthumous entry in The Millions’s Year in Reading wrap-up earlier this month. In it, So wrote about the futility of reading books in an effort to locate his own novel’s voice, structure and ancestors: “I realized how hopeless it was to locate heirs for my stoner novel about queer Khmer Americans. Might as well be my own daddy.” Wise words from a promising talent gone too soon.

Image credit: Pexels/Markus Winkler.

A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

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This was the year I finally, belatedly, decided to figure out why people make such a fuss about Joy Williams. Since 2015, her career-spanning collection, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, has been staring down from my bookshelf, daring me to find out if Williams’s fiercely dedicated fans know what they’re talking about. They do. These 33 stories drawn from earlier collections, plus 13 new ones, are a summation of a four-decade career that proves what her fans have known all along: Joy Williams is a master of the short story, one of our great fiction writers, a maker of sentences that veer and startle and delight, a conjurer of worlds that are at once unnerving and familiar, disorienting yet able to provide solace and even, on occasion, the possibility of redemption. She reminds us, in case we’ve fallen asleep, that the world is a deeply strange and wondrous place.

This collection’s title story
displays all of Williams’s gifts. The words in her sentences are both unruly
and surgically precise. They may bushwhack you, but they’re just doing their
job, which is to remind us that we’re all alone in a meaningless world, as this
story’s protagonist, Donna, puts it after she visits her friend Cynthia in a mental
institution and gets sucked into the lopsided orbit of Cynthia’s roommates, an
elderly woman and two obese teenagers. While playing cards with the elderly
woman, Donna imagines she’s on a boat, taking a short safe trip to a lovely
island. Later she imagines she’s a docent in the mental institution. She
imagines the fat teenagers are her jailers. Walking down a hospital corridor,
she imagines she’s a virus moving through someone’s body. This unfocused yearning
to escape is shared by many of Williams’s characters, and Donna soon comes to
believe she has found her vocation – her way out of her aimless life – in doing
small favors for the elderly lady. Of course, since this is a Joy Williams
short story, she’s wrong. The woman tips over dead while everyone is eating
Jell-O, and eventually Donna’s visiting privilege is revoked. She goes home to
her same old life, changed but still trapped.

When I say Williams writes
sentences that veer and startle and delight, here’s what I mean: “A year after
my mother moved farther out, she became obsessed with building a tortoise
enclosure.” And: “People preferred the equivocal, they found comfort in it.
They were heartened by the news that more panthers were killed by one another
than by mercury or cars.” And: “The inhabitants of the place were in many
respects peculiar, poor and cruel with extraordinary dark eyebrows, but the
cream teas were excellent. The dogs were polite. The gulls were big, the crows
enormous.”

The story “Marabou” takes its title
from a species of stork – animals, as the preceding sentences indicate, are
everywhere in Williams’s world, in trees, on playing cards and rugs, on the
roofs and in the back seats of cars, in cages, in oceans. Rats pour out of a
burning palm tree. A woman swims with a dolphin that sports a stupendous boner.
Animals are both a barometer of human malfeasance and a possible ticket to
redemption from that malfeasance. “Marabou” opens with a woman named Anne
attending her son Harry’s funeral, which is not going well because some sort of
celebrity is being buried simultaneously at a nearby grave, and mourning fans
are carrying on loudly under a lurid striped tent. It gets worse: “Still more
fans pressed against the cemetery’s wrought-iron gates, screaming and eating potato
chips.” Potato chips! Harry died of an unspecified cause, probably a drug
overdose, and Anne dutifully takes his friends out for a lavish lunch after the
burial: “They had calamari, duck, champagne, everything.” With six words and
three commas, Williams captures the manic way people act in the immediate
aftermath of death. She is a master of this kind of compression. The fuss, it
turns out, is richly merited.

C Pam Zhang’s debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, was long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize. With vigorous, inventive prose, the novel makes visible characters who have gone too long unseen, both in American history and literature: the Chinese-Americans, both immigrants and native-born, who worked the mines and railroads that were so vital to America’s westward expansion. This novel is much more than a corrective, though; it’s the arrival of a thrilling new talent.

Kent Russell’s In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida was his uneven follow-up to his much-praised 2015 debut collection of essays, I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son. In the new book, Russell and two friends walk from the Florida panhandle to Miami, filming as they go, hoping to produce a documentary movie (and this book). The book’s sharpest insight into the soul of Florida (and America) comes from Russell’s “unapologetically Canadian” traveling companion Glenn, who blurts out: “All of this Rebel flag, meth lab, Breaking-Bad-slave-compound militia business. Like, ‘I got a God-given right to defend my crappy, ignorant life! You wanna make my existence better? You wanna send my kids to school? You wanna give me healthcare? Fuck you!’” I haven’t read a better explanation why 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump this year.

Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood is a spellbinding take on how the making of a great movie heralded the death of the auteur-driven New Hollywood. The book has many pleasures, including extensive interviews with the perfectionist director Roman Polanski and the high-flying producer Robert Evans, plus a scathing portrait of the film’s femme fatale, Faye Dunaway. But the book’s major revelation, for me, was that Robert Towne, who won the best original screenplay Oscar in 1975 for his Chinatown script, got extensive – and un-credited – help from his friend and long-time collaborator Edward Taylor. So much help, in fact, that when Taylor declined to insist on a screenwriting credit, his stepdaughter pleaded with him: “What are you doing? You can’t not get credit. It’s not fair and it’s not accurate.” Wasson fails to come up with an explanation for Taylor’s demurral, which leaves open an intriguing question: Should Robert Towne’s Chinatown Oscar come with an asterisk? 

Much of my reading this year was research for a nonfiction book I’m writing, and I took a deep dive into 19th-century American history. A few of the highlights were Edmund Morris’s magisterial biography, Edison, which moves backwards in time to paint a richly nuanced portrait of a genius. Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War argues that American slave owners were conflicted from day one, in 1619, when the first enslaved Africans came ashore at Point Comfort, Virginia. The simple truth, Delbanco contends, was that the slave-holding Founding Fathers and people of like mind learned to live with their misgivings about slavery because it served their interests. It was convenient, it was profitable and, perhaps most crucial of all, it had always been so. “All other arguments on its behalf were bogus…” Delbanco writes, “and somewhere, in heart if not head, they knew it.” Thomas J. Schlereth’s Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life is a delightful, street-level look at the exuberance that colored the ways Americans worked, played, learned, shopped and traveled in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, Thomas P. Hughes takes us into the fertile minds of the American inventors who, in the century after the Civil War, produced a “gigantic tidal wave” of life-changing devices, including the telephone, gyrocompass, electric light, automobile, wireless telegraphy, phonograph, radio, airplane and moving pictures, to name a few. Despite its clunky title, Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 is a nimble and deeply researched chronicle of how this nation marched from a calamitous war to the buzzing threshold of the modern age. Like all of the best historical writing, it lets us live briefly in the messy past so we emerge wiser about how the world we live in today came to be.

As this grim year winds down, I’m dipping into the radiant new novel from Alice Randall, Black Bottom Saints, which derives its title from the long-gone African American neighborhood in Detroit that once pulsed with life and vivid characters, including Dinah Washington, Joe Louis and Randall’s protagonist, Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson, newspaper columnist, man about town, and founder of the Ziggy Johnson School of the Theatre. If the promise of the early pages holds up, Black Bottom Saints will soon go up on my long and growing shelf of unforgettable books inspired by my battered and beloved hometown, Detroit. If ever there was a year that reading saved me, this was it.

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On the Oldest Road: U.S. 1, Robert Kramer, the Buick, and Me

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Six Sidewalks to the Moon

In early 1981, while Ronald Reagan was getting settled in at the White House, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter and drove my lipstick-red-and-black 1954 Buick to the top of Maine. When I got to Fort Kent, which looks out across the St. John River at the deep forests of Canada, I made a U-turn and began the 2,446-mile drive down the length of highway U.S. 1, a journey that would deposit me and my Buick six months later at “The End of the Rainbow,” as the sign proclaims in Key West, Fla., where the road runs into the sea.

Seven years later, as Reagan’s presidency was winding to a close, the avant-garde filmmaker Robert Kramer retraced my tire tracks in the company of his friend Paul McInnis, known as Doc, who had spent the previous 10 years practicing medicine in Africa. Though Kramer, Doc, and I literally covered the same ground, and though we seem to have been driven by similar compulsions, we produced two works that could hardly be more different. One of the few things they have in common, it turns out, is their shared fatal flaw.

Kramer’s trip resulted in Route One/USA, a four-hour documentary that’s almost as exhilarating and exhausting as the long drive down America’s oldest road. My trip resulted in a 348-page nonfiction manuscript that attracted the interest of a New York literary agent but failed to sell. The typescript then crawled into a box in my closet, where it slept for nearly 40 years—until I heard that Film at Lincoln Center was streaming Route One, with a wider virtual video release coming soon. Watching Kramer’s movie for the first time, I realized our projects formed mismatched bookends to the Gipper’s presidency.

Like Kramer’s best-known works—Ice, The Edge, Milestones, and Doc’s Kingdom—the unscripted Route One is a willful repudiation of conventional filmmaking. His early work won praise from aficionados of experimental film but failed to attract a wide American audience. Frustrated, Kramer moved to France in 1980, where he was highly esteemed and able to win funding for new politically tinged projects.

With money in hand, the expat decided to come back home in the late 1980s and go “looking for America,” as he put it in an interview. Like John Steinbeck, Robert Frank, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and countless others before and since, Kramer decided there’s no better place to go looking than the open road, that endless blank slate where it’s possible to connect with the essential American impulses—disaffection, curiosity, the itch to move on, and the perverse habit of despoiling the natural world in the pursuit of so-called progress and convenience. I hit the road in 1981 for similar but slightly different reasons. After cranking out newspaper copy for the previous five years, I was dissatisfied with my daily contributions to what I had come to think of as “the conventional wisdom,” the media’s canned view of American life that obeyed one unbendable commandment—Thou Shalt Not Offend—and had to be delivered in language an eighth grader could understand. I itched to write longer and deeper stories about people who were not considered newsworthy, and I decided the open road would be the best place to find them.

With so many roads to choose from, why did Kramer and I settle on U.S. 1? I have a hunch he was attracted to the tidy narrative arc the road provided—to my ears, “from Canada to Key West” sounds like it was made for a movie poster. My attraction was a bit more complicated. The road runs “from frost belt to sun belt,” as I wrote in my book’s introduction, “through some of the wooliest wilderness and grubbiest ghettoes known to mankind.” But just as important as its variety, this road offered the kind of historical serendipity that has always been irresistible to me. My Buick rolled off the assembly line in April of 1954, a few weeks before Vice President Richard Nixon unveiled President Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to build a nationwide network of “interstate” highways. It was to be the most ambitious public works project in human history, an achievement of such magnitude that it sent bland bald Ike into an uncharacteristic fit of poetry. As he put it in his memoirs: “The amount of concrete poured to form these roadways would build 80 Hoover Dams or six sidewalks to the moon. To build them, bulldozers and shovels would move enough dirt and rock to bury all of Connecticut two feet deep.” Cars of the ’50s like my Buick, with its mammiferous chrome bumpers and fire-breathing V-8 engine and two-tone paint job, had outgrown America’s patchwork roads, including U.S. 1, which follows one of the three original Post Roads that connected New York and Boston during colonial times and would become the most heavily travelled road in the world by the 1930s. This disconnect between the cars of the ’50s and the pre-interstate roads they travelled on was intriguing to me, and it was captured with acid precision by Richard Yates in his masterpiece Revolutionary Road. Yates’s 1950s suburbanites had many misgivings—about their marriages, their jobs, their kids, and their “foolishly misplaced” homes. “Their automobiles didn’t look right either,” Yates wrote, “unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that fed from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel – KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT – but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road…”

Yates had found his metaphor for postwar America in his fictional Route Twelve. Kramer and I found our own 1980s surrogate: the real Route One.

America’s Lust for the Hideous

For all their differences, Kramer’s movie and my book do have some overlap. Both works set up shop in the margins of American life, where the malcontents, the paranoids, and the fever dreamers dwell, apart from the mainstream operators who wind up on the front page and the six o’clock news. Kramer filmed Doc talking to a gallery of these marginalized people, including a coven of witches, abortion clinic protesters, newlyweds, Penobscot Native Americans, supporters of the televangelist Pat Robertson, Haitian immigrants, soldiers, a rabid minister, refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, and a journalist investigating murders connected to white supremacists. Doc doesn’t so much interview these subjects as he tries to make them comfortable enough to open up, and he’s good at it. Like all skilled reporters, he’s curious and nonjudgmental. Though they do visit some postcard places—Walden Pond, for one, and the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum, which features the Jayne Mansfield death car—Doc and Kramer stick mostly to unremarkable spots, such as housing projects, soup kitchens, army bases, and wedding chapels. Hovering over the trip like a fog is the scourge of AIDS and the Reagan administration’s dilatory response to it. The result of all this is a fragmented mosaic rather than a coherent portrait of a nation. The overall mood is one of melancholy.

My trip took place just before the AIDS scourge descended, but the people I met were not unlike the ones Kramer encountered: an itinerant Boston stripper working the back-road bars in Maine, a former NHL hockey star in the twilight of his career, people living uneasily in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Seabrook nuclear reactor, a Vietnam vet who actually missed the war, a Guardian Angel organizer in a Providence housing project, a gaggle of sozzled prosecutors at a convention of North Carolina district attorneys, the rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, the stock-car king Richard Petty, a Vietnamese refugee, a tattoo artist, a newspaper publisher, an immigrant activist in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Rather than melancholy, I sensed a pervasive mood of drift. After enduring the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Iranian hostage crisis, most of the people I met felt unmoored, hungry for something they could believe in and cling to. Which went a long way toward explaining why sunny Ronald Reagan had just won the presidency in a landslide.

One of the highlights of my trip was a long hot day in Edgefield, S.C., hometown of segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, where 2,000 activists, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, gathered at Strom Thurmond High School to rally against Thurmond’s proposal to let certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expire. Most of the white townsfolk I talked to were not thrilled to have a couple thousand black people descend on their sleepy town on a Sunday morning and turn it into the wrong kind of national news.

After Jesse Jackson warmed up the crowd at the high school, I decided to skip the four-mile march into town. As I drove slowly past the long line of singing, chanting marchers, I realized they were outnumbered by cops—in marked cars, unmarked cars, a hovering helicopter. When I passed the marchers and accelerated toward town, the cops pulled me over and swarmed around the Buick, rifling through my trunk looking for weapons, grilling me about what I was doing in town, why I had a collection of out-of-state license plates, where I was going. After they let me go on my way, I would write: “They were just doing their job. No matter how many quiet years have passed, these men have not forgotten the blood and the ugliness that can spill out of afternoons like this.” The encounter with the cops was unnerving, but it was the exception that proved the rule. More times than I could count, my Buick was an ice-breaker and conversation starter, an entrée to worlds that would otherwise have been closed to me, an enabler of small grace notes. One of them happened on the afternoon I reached New York City. As I wrote:
You know you’ve crossed into the Bronx when you start noticing cars with no tires parked on their roofs. At a red light, a Chrysler Imperial glides up beside me. A girl is sitting on the front seat beside her father – grandfather? – slurping an ice cream cone. The man leans over and calls out: “That Buick a fifty-four or a fifty-five?”
 Fifty-four.”
“We use to have a fifty-six.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
He laughs. The girl, unfazed, slurps her ice cream. The man says, “That Buick’s worth a lotta money.”
“You haven’t driven it.”
More laughter. The girl looks over at me – not at the car, at Me – to see what her grandfather could possibly be so excited about. She goes right back to her ice cream cone. The light changes and immediately horns start blaring behind us. This is New York City, all right. The man takes one last long look at the Buick and waves goodbye and punches his Imperial down Boston Road.
By the time Kramer and I made our trips, of course, I-95 had turned U.S. 1 into a string of traffic lights through forgotten backwaters and the occasional big city, an afterthought, a scarred and unloved service road. I can’t speak for Kramer, but this was part of the point for me—to travel on 1954’s idea of a major highway while steering clear of the crushing monotony of the interstates. Surely there would be flecks of local color, maybe even archaeological relics from Yates’s roadside palaces dedicated to KING KONE MOBILGAS SHOPORAMA EAT. Other writers have had the same idea. In 1960 John Steinbeck climbed into a retrofitted pickup with a poodle named Charley and set out “in search of America,” driving a 10,000-mile counterclockwise loop around the edges of the lower 48 states, avoiding Ike’s new interstates as much as possible. “These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside,” Steinbeck wrote. “No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” And in 1982, the year after my trip, William Least Heat-Moon published a bestseller called Blue Highways, his account of a trip around the lower 48 states. Heat-Moon’s mix of reportage and historical vignettes was guided by his determination to stick to back roads and shun interstates, cities, and fast food. While neither of us discovered any roadside stands selling squash juice, our very different trips did have a fleeting moment of connection. “I knew U.S. 1, stretching from the Canadian border to Key West, was capable of putting a man in an institution,” Heat-Moon wrote as he drove out of Maine toward Boston on my chosen road. “The highway was still a nightmare vision of the twentieth century, a four-lane representing (as Mencken put it) ‘the American lust for the hideous, the delight in ugliness for its own sake.’”

When I read those words, I knew I had chosen my route well.

The End of the Rainbow

Which brings us, finally, to the fatal flaw shared by Kramer’s movie and my book. The flaw is that road trips like ours are, by definition, built on the need for constant motion, which tends to result in a string of snapshots rather than deep dives into people’s lives. Indeed, one of Kramer’s stylistic tics is to string together a series of still photographs—a river gorge, the rings in a tree stump, dock ropes, a sunset—usually shown over dirge-like cello music. Establishing a mood of melancholy takes precedence over developing a narrative arc or a coherent view of the people Kramer meets. “Route One never explains itself,” as J. Hoberman wrote recently in The New York Times. “One thing simply follows another.”

It occurs to me only now that maybe Kramer was trying to make the point that there’s no time for patience in America, this land of restless, hopped-up go-getters who are always looking ahead to the next big score. My book didn’t try to make such a point. My urge to keep moving was partly motivated by economics—I needed to make it to Key West before I ran out of gas money—but mainly I was eager to see what waited around the next curve in the road. After my trip I found myself wondering if staying in one place might have yielded richer results, the way David Simon and Edward Burns spent a year observing the drug bazaar at the intersection of Monroe and Fayette Streets in West Baltimore in The Corner, or the way Richard Price dug like a dogged anthropologist into the lives of a cocaine-dealing crew in a New Jersey housing project in Clockers.

In a final irony, Kramer and I had one last thing in common: neither of us bought into Ronald Reagan’s Morning-in-America, feel-good, trickle-down horseshit. We had no way of knowing that our trips bookended the presidency that was the beginning of the nation’s seismic shift to the right, the beginning of the four-decade campaign to limit voting and abortion rights, to reduce environmental regulations, to free corporations and their lords to grow astronomically rich at the expense of the lower and middle classes. That shift from democracy to plutocracy is just now being understood and dissected in such books as Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. America, in Andersen’s telling, has come down to this: “everybody for themselves, everything’s for sale, greed is good, the rich get richer, buyer beware, unfairness can’t be helped, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers.”

The seismic shift began amid a national mood of melancholy and a sense of drift, the smoky things Kramer and I did our best to chronicle on our trips down U.S. 1. The shift hasn’t slowed down since, and it has, finally, landed America in the mess it’s in today: the rich getting richer, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers: the end of the rainbow.

Correcting History: On C Pam Zhang’s ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’

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1.
As a life-long lover of long shots, I was delighted by the news that C Pam Zhang’s stunning debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, made the long list for this year’s Booker Prize. The field was larded with the predictable odds-on favorites, including two-time winner Hilary Mantel (who was up for the third installment in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light), plus the much-decorated thoroughbreds Anne Tyler (Redhead by the Side of the Road) and Colum McCann (Apeirogon).

Though Zhang’s chances against this field appeared slim, her gorgeously written novel deserves praise not only for its artistry but also for its attempt to fill a shameful gap: the scarcity of Chinese characters in the literature and history of the American West. Yet Zhang’s novel is much more than a long-overdue corrective; it’s an absorbing, richly imagined account of one Chinese family scrabbling to survive the violence and racism that prevailed in the California gold fields and in the gangs that built the transcontinental railroad. Historians have been less neglectful than novelists in probing this material. To name just a few of the many valuable history books: Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang; the oral history Voices from the Railroad: Stories by the Descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers, edited by Connie Young Yu and Sue Lee; and Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Natives, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad by Manu Karuka. Despite these commendable efforts, there are too many stories still untold.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold opens with two young sisters, Lucy and Sam, setting out to bury their father, a tortuous, gruesome mission that will invite inevitable comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But Zhang uses this mission as a springboard to tell the story of how the father, Ba, met his wife, Ma, and how they were brought together by a horrific accident and, possibly, by the attack of a mythical tiger. These passages, narrated by Ba from inside his coffin, are the needed beginnings of the creation of an American anti-myth, a first step toward dismantling the widely accepted narrative that the American West was won through rugged individualism, resourcefulness, persistence, and hard work. The truth is that the California railroads were built with taxpayers’ dollars and the sweat and blood of underpaid immigrants who remain largely invisible to this day. That invisibility is at the heart of this novel, and it’s the source of Sam’s desire to cross the Pacific and live one day in a land that might become a true home. “Over there they won’t just look,” Sam says. “They’ll actually see me.”

2.
To understand just how overdue Zhang’s novel is, we need to flash back to an event from a century and a half ago that has become a cornerstone of the myth America chooses to believe about itself. On May 10, 1869, a pair of locomotives was parked nose-to-nose on a stark stretch of Utah desert called Promontory Summit. Facing east was the Jupiter of the Central Pacific Railroad; a few yards away, facing west, was No. 119 of the Union Pacific. Standing on the tracks between them with a silver maul in his soft hands was a portly, bearded robber baron named Leland Stanford, a former Sacramento shopkeeper and a former governor of California who had used lavish federal subsidies to buy the land and lay the track from Sacramento to this historic spot. He was surrounded by a boisterous throng of politicians, dignitaries, businessmen, reporters, and photographers. Someone is holding a bottle of champagne aloft, the crowning touch on the nation’s first orchestrated media event. As cameras clicked, Stanford raised the maul and dropped it on a ceremonial golden spike, sinking it into a pre-drilled hole in a laurel tie. The spike was wired to a telegraph line that sent a simple message jittering across the land and, via the undersea telegraphic cable, all the way to the United Kingdom: “DONE!”

The transcontinental railroad was complete. It was now possible for people and goods to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific on a patchwork of iron rails that had only one gap. The Missouri River would not be spanned for another three years, so passengers and cargo had to be ferried between Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa. This trifle failed to dampen the spirits of the coast-to-cost celebrants, who were too giddy to be bothered by a few inconvenient truths. The first of these truths is revealed by the iconic photograph of that historic day at Promontory Summit—or, more precisely, by what is missing from that iconic photograph. In keeping with the jingoistic spirit of the pre-packaged event, there are no immigrants in the picture, even though Stanford and his partners—known alternately as the Big Four and the Associates—employed more than 20,000 Chinese laborers to do the brutal, deadly work of blasting a path and laying track from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada mountains to Utah. And the pay given these laborers? Half of what they paid white workers, mainly Irish immigrants.

That famous photograph finds its way into the closing pages of How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Lucy, now a teenager, has wound up in San Francisco, where she has spent years working off a debt run up by her wild, androgynous sister Sam, who has fled across the Pacific seeking that home where people will actually see her. When the telegraph wire announces that the transcontinental railroad has been completed, Zhang writes of Lucy: “She hears the cheer that goes through the city the day the last railroad tie is hammered. A golden spike holds track to earth. A picture is drawn for the history books, a picture that shows none of the people who look like her, who built it.”

3.
Leland Stanford had been swept west with the gold rush just as the first Opium War and famine were pushing tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants across the Pacific to California, where they flooded the gold fields and joined the gangs of workers laying railroad tracks. (Zhang’s fictional Ma was one of these desperate immigrants; Ba was born in California, a nice dig at the stereotype that all Chinese in the West were recent immigrants.) Inevitably, violence flared between white miners and the Chinese newcomers, and the state responded in 1852 by passing the Foreign Miners Tax—$3 a month on non-citizens—and two years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Chinese immigrants, like African Americans and Native Americans, were forbidden from testifying in court, leaving them virtually defenseless against mob violence.

Also missing from the record of that historic day at Promontory Summit are these remarks Stanford had made at his inauguration as governor of California in 1862: “To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population…It will afford me great pleasure to concur with the Legislature in any constitutional action, having for its object the repression of the immigration of the Asiatic races.”

It took 20 years for Stanford’s dream to come true in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years and made Chinese immigrants already in the country ineligible for naturalization. It was the first of many laws to restrict immigration, but it fit a pattern already established in California and much of the rest of the nation, a pattern stoked by fear that immigrants would seize jobs from Americans—that is, white people—while depressing overall wages. The 1882 law was also a precursor to the Immigration Act of 1924, which set strict quotas designed to encourage immigration from Western Europe, block most immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and bar all immigration from Asia. The law was, in the words of the eugenicist Madison Grant, an attempt to protect Americans from “competition with the intrusive people drained from the lowest races.” It is not a stretch to say that these precedents made possible—even inevitable—the brutal internment of American citizens of Japanese descent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This history illustrates that the xenophobia that helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016 is nothing new. Such deep-rooted xenophobia in a nation made mostly of immigrants and their descendants is the second of this nation’s two abiding paradoxes. The first, of course, is that men who owned human beings were able to conceive and publicly embrace the notion that all men are created equal.

4.
Now we flash forward to the present day. While the president of the United States strains to build a wall along the Mexican border to repress immigration from Latin America, it comes to light that dozens of people doing menial, low-paying jobs at his resorts and golf clubs are undocumented immigrants from Latin America. So venality and duplicity, like the desire to wall out the “dregs” and “rapists” of an “inferior” race, are simply old pillars of American politics that refuse to die. In keeping with the Sinophobia first codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act, this president has dubbed the current global pandemic “the Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” In doing so, he has completed the second of the two knee-jerk reactions that have greeted the arrival of pandemics throughout human history. The first reaction is denial, which Trump has expressed masterfully; and the second is the need to blame the disease on an outside source. During the plague in Athens in 430 B.C., Thucydides, who contracted the disease and survived, claimed it originated in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya before entering the Greek world in the Mediterranean. During a smallpox plague in the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians, who’d failed to appease the Roman gods. During the Black Death that decimated Europe in the 14th century, Jews were the scapegoat, falsely accused of poisoning wells. Today in America, according to our government, it’s the Chinese—not the appalling failures of our government.

These events, coupled with our current national reckoning over race, make How Much of These Hills Is Gold not only overdue but also vital and timely. As I’d expected, Zhang did not make the short list for this year’s Booker Prize. Unexpectedly, neither did Mantel, Tyler, or McCann. No matter. I’m hoping for many more novels like How Much of These Hills Is Gold: novels that breathe life into people who have gone unseen too long.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

Kent Russell’s Long March

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When Kent Russell published his debut collection of essays back in 2015, I readily enlisted in his growing army of fans. My review of Russell’s book, the unfortunately titled I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, praised his imagery and sentence-making and his empathy with fringe characters, while lamenting his tedious dissection of his relationship with his impossible father. Readers reacted to that review with some foam-at-the-mouth vitriol. One reader identified as Toad wrote: “It’s not uncommon for young, confidence-lacking writers to baldly ape their influences (and to pepper their work with obscure, incorrectly utilized mega-words), but such attempts are better left in the desk drawer.” A reader named Anon suggested this alternative title for the book: I Am So Tired To Think That These Types of Books by These Types of Insufferable Twits Are Still Being Published and Will Continue to Be Until My Asshole Bleeds Out.

Wow. Russell is now out with a new book called In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida that’s sure to make readers like Toad and Anon foam and bleed all over again. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it is wildly uneven—with flashes of brilliance that are too often bogged down by half-baked analysis, clunky mega-words and, most disappointing of all, muddy writing.

The trouble begins in the opening pages, which are written in screenplay format. Why? Because our three heroes—Glenn, Noah and Kent—have loaded up a shopping cart with camping packs and film gear, and they’ve embarked on a thousand-mile walk from the Florida panhandle all the way to Russell’s hometown, Miami, a journey they hope to turn into a “gonzo” documentary movie—and this book. Kent, our author and tour guide, is described in screenplay-ese as a “PAUNCHY NEBBISH” and “something of an ARTIST and/or INTELLECTUAL” who grew a “long flowing mullet” for this return to his home state. Glenn is “a blond, blue-eyed, dad-bodied man in his early thirties” who is “UNAPLOGETICALLY CANADIAN.” And Noah is “a short, scowling IRAQ WAR VETERAN” whose once-bulging muscles are now swaddled in fat, “as if the action figure of his past life has been packed away under Bubble Wrap.” So far, sorta so-so. The real trouble is Kent’s reason for embarking on this journey: “I owed $37,000 in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. For, you see, when you are granted an advance on a book prior to its publication, the check you receive has none of your federal, state, or city taxes deducted from it. It’s one big lump sum, like the number stamped on an over-sized game-show check.”

So there you have it. Kent Russell is a graduate of the University of Florida, he has taught at Columbia University—and yet when he sold his first book to a major New York publisher, he was unaware that writers, like all other working stiffs under God’s sun, have to pay income taxes. What do they teach the kids down there in Gainesville? So by page 13, you’re aware that you’re reading a back-taxes-plus-penalties-and-interest book. A little later, Russell comes right out with his motivation for undertaking this project: “I am in debt up to my fucking eyeballs.”

From this unpromising set-up, the book tries to take flight, and sometimes it succeeds. Russell is especially good at thumbnail historical sketches of the avarice and chicanery that made Florida possible, beginning with the first white visitors from Spain and running right up to American industrialist Henry Flagler and Walt Disney. We learn interesting things not only about conquistadors and tourism and orange groves, but also about the influx of retirees, the spread of military installations, the importance of air conditioning, the demise of the Apalachicola oyster beds, the rapaciousness of real-estate developers, and Donald Trump’s deeply visceral appeal to Floridians. (The trip took place during the 2016 presidential campaign, which now feels like the Paleozoic Era.) Along the way we meet some engaging characters, including shrimpers, strippers, swamp dwellers, a “nuisance-alligator wrestler” (nice work if you can get it), and a recovering junkie named Rodrigo who plays Jesus at Disney World’s Holy Land Experience. These people go beyond being merely colorful, all the way to perceptive and, frequently, insightful. They’re also a reminder that Russell is at his best when he gets out of his own skull and does what good reporters do: he listens.

Less successful are Russell’s attempts to analyze What Florida Means. This produces a cloud of gas and a bushel of those mega-words that so infuriated Toad, including simulacrum (a word only a French philosopher could love), synecdoche (don’t bother looking it up, just watch the pretentious Charlie Kaufman movie with the word in its title), plus pestiferous, scrying, gibbous, plosive, syncretic, and strabismic. This is tricky terrain. No writer should be faulted for having an expansive vocabulary, but there’s a fine line between using unfamiliar words to good effect and using unfamiliar words to show off or, worse, to give badly assembled ideas a glossy paintjob. Too often, Russell uses these candy-apple words to dress up analyses that are, to be kind, on the thin side. Consider St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, which, according to Russell, has been turned into “a taxidermied approximation of its former self” and “a historical fiction like Colonial Williamsburg” and an “olde tyme simulacrum of Spanish Florida.” Which leads to these 10-cent aperçus: “History qua history matters only to the extent that it can be monetized. That it can be disarticulated into a series of attractions—a competitive advantage.” And: “The lure and blur of the real. That’s what St. Augustine had to work with.” Our trio deals with the lure and blur by pitching a coke-fuelled blackout drunk.

That world “real” keeps popping up. At one point, Glenn voices a reasonable fear: “I’m afraid we aren’t getting the real Florida. Right now we are just drifting through towns barely scratching the surface.” Russell shoots back: “You wanna get Florida? OK, well—you get Florida by inventing an interpretation of it. Preferably a for-profit interpretation. Think of, like…Seaside. Seaside got Florida by substituting its own simulation ‘Florida’ in the place of Florida.” I think I get it, but I’m not sure.

In this meta vein we learn why Dale, the aforementioned nuisance-alligator wrestler, rebuffed the overtures of a “real ‘reality’ TV” crew from L.A. but allowed Russell and his fellow gonzo documentarians into his world—because the L.A. crew had come to Florida “wanting to show the country how they already think we are back in L.A.” This leads Russell to an epiphany about the makers of “reality” TV that’s worth quoting at length:
These folks have power, real power, to fabricate narratives about the world. And Dale with his practical knowledge—his common sense—will forever be at odds with the malleable “reality” encoded and presented by television, social media, all of it. This malleable “reality” (which, let’s be honest, is displacing Dale’s reality via every screen in the land) is largely a rhetorical achievement. “Reality” no longer refers to the natural world and its limits. “Reality” rejects preconditions. “Reality” is whatever people want it to be, and then say it is, individually and en masse, making it so. In a sense, the real “reality” folks and the stars they have produced really are a breed of artist. Credit where credit is due…These artists, they act natural. And that is their art. The real “reality” artist is his own best fiction. His best fiction is his true self. One thing you could say about him—he’ll never be found guilty of insincerity! Or, for that matter, sincerity. “Kent” can no more be separated from Kent (were I one of these cretins) than lightning could be separated from its flashing.
Shortly after that flash of insight, Russell agrees to give a talk to a magazine-writing class at his alma mater. Russell’s writing has appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s, GQ, n+1, and The Believer, among other venues, so his former thesis adviser figures he has some “real”-world wisdom to pass along to the students. “Brass tacks,” Russell begins, while chugging on a Contigo full of hundred-proof booze, “if you’re going to be a magazine writer, you’re going to have to deal with magazine editors. You will prepare for these editors a free-range, pan-roasted squab of a story, OK, and they will take it, and they will rip it apart, and they will pluck nuance and complexity like so many fine bones.” Chug, chug. Lowering his voice, he staggers on, “This is the secret to all publishing, from magazines, to books, to I don’t care what. If you really want to get published, what you do is ape the stuff that’s already succeeded. You go after consensus. You tell a story to these editors about the things they already believe to be true. You hand them a mirror they can see themselves in. Or see themselves as they wish they were. Now, if that sounds less like writing than flattery, well…Not everybody is cut out for this business. I’m not even sure I am, now that I think about it.” After delivering this cynical screed, Russell polishes off the Contigo and heads for the exit while saying, “Writing is serving. Living is serving. Choose what you’re gonna serve…Point is, you gotta serve something.” If I were paying tuition for such hard-won wisdom, I’d demand my money back.

Which brings us to the muddy writing. In Timid Son, Russell showed himself to be capable of producing dazzling sentences and diamond-hard metaphors, but here the writing is frequently fuzzy and imprecise. A few samples: “Kent’s glare ratchets toward him like the head of a socket wrench.” (This makes no sense if you have ever used a socket wrench.) “Torn clouds flew overhead like the last shavings of a buzz saw nicking through wood.” (Likening clouds to buzz saw shavings strikes me as a stretch.) “Children kept their eyes trained on us while remaining still as things trapped under ice.” (Shouldn’t that be “trapped in ice”?) “The green inferno was humid to the point of hindered exhalation.” (This is what I mean by fuzzy and imprecise.) Disney World brings out the worst in Russell. There he boards a trolley that’s full of “a whole honking gaggle of Europeans.” These geese-like “Euros,” as he calls them, carry “water-bladderesque purses,” smoke unfiltered cigarettes and wear Capri pants “hemmed at inspired lengths.” Then: “I stretched out as the Euros exited the trolley. To the driver they trilled thank-yous, their English scented with accents that sounded the way flavored waters taste.” This sounds like it was written by one of the 200 million Americans who don’t own a passport and who, having never traveled to Europe, assume that all “Euros” share an accent, whether they come from Latvia or Luxembourg. It’s just plain bad writing—condescending, provincial and lazy.

Russell claims to loathe walking narratives, their “epiphanies” and “treacly sentimentality.” But the truth is that walking trips have inspired memorable writing by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Muir (whose own thousand-mile walk ended not far from where Russell’s began), Jon Krakauer, Bill Bryson, and Cheryl Strayed, to name a few. You could even throw Mao Zedong into the mix. At its best moments, In the Land of Good Living is a reminder of the walking narrative’s chief virtue: it allows a writer to pass through ever-changing worlds, observing and absorbing at a leisurely pace. In our revved-up, screen-addicted age, it’s quite possibly an idea whose time has come again.

In the end, Russell does arrive at some sharp insights. “Florida isn’t just Weird America,” he writes, “it is Impending America.” Meaning it’s where we’re headed as a nation— straight off the cliff and into the deep warm sea. Florida, he adds, is an “unplanned, untenable boondoggle,” a place where “fixed meanings are prohibited by the spirit if not the letter of the law.” Surprisingly, the book’s sharpest insight comes from UNAPOLOGETICALLY CANADIAN Glenn, who looks around at the human flotsam of central Florida and delivers an observation that explains a lot of things, right up to America’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Some 300 miles into the journey, Glenn stretches out his arms and blurts: “All of this Rebel flag, meth lab, Breaking-Bad-slave-compound militia business. Like, ‘I got a God-given right to defend my crappy, ignorant life! You wanna make my existence better? You wanna send my kids to school? You wanna give me healthcare? Fuck you!’” It would not be much of a stretch to update this sentiment with: “You wanna try to tell me to wear a mask? You wanna try to tell me to stay six feet away from that sneezing meth-cooker in the MAGA hat? I’m an American! Fuck you!”

I’m not giving up on Kurt Russell because of one uneven book. He has too much talent and too much promise. I just hope he clears up his back taxes and finds a subject that springs from his pure passion—as opposed to his need for a quick buck. And when he embarks on his next book, I hope he has the good sense to ditch the Canadian and the Iraq War vet, then keep his mouth shut and listen to the people he meets along the way.

Please! Hold Off on That Novel Coronavirus Novel!

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Got some bad news for you, on the off chance your bad news supply chain is breaking down. American publishers have gone on a spending spree in hopes of snagging breakout books spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. “Three months into the biggest public health and economic crisis of our era,” The New York Times reports, “authors and publishers are racing to produce timely accounts of the coronavirus outbreak, with works that range from reported narratives about the science of pandemics and autobiographical accounts of being quarantined, to spiritual guides on coping with grief and loss, to a book about the ethical and philosophical quandaries raised by the pandemic, written by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.”

The operative words in that sentence are racing and timely because they point to an irony that can be viewed as an axiom: writing that’s forged in the cauldron of a crisis almost always winds up being undercooked. A writer racing to be timely is, by definition, not pausing to digest, muse, rethink, revise. Some of the forthcoming writing about the pandemic might throb with immediacy, but the bulk of it will likely be solipsistic and slapdash, especially the fiction and diaries and, ugh, those autobiographical accounts of being quarantined. In this case, writing that’s timely is likely to be ephemeral, destined to fade soon after the virus runs its course or gets vanquished by a vaccine. Remember the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all those proclamations that irony was dead? Irony didn’t merely rise from the ashes of the Twin Towers; it went on to become the gyroscope of much contemporary fiction, sometimes for better, mostly for worse, and by now it has become a universal mechanism for coping with day-to-day life in a rattled world. And that was before this pandemic descended.

Some of the forthcoming plague books might prove me wrong, especially the nonfiction titles about the economic fallout of the pandemic, frontline accounts from overwhelmed hospitals, forensic studies of how the virus took root in human hosts, and a forthcoming collection of case studies of how Covid-19 and other infectious diseases spread. (The question must be asked: who’s racing to write the books about cooking, binge TV watching, pet grooming, and Donald Trump’s golf scores during this pandemic?)

Far less promising is the coming glut of personal accounts, whether they’re fiction, poetry, diaries, or journals. Exhibit A: the ongoing “Pandemic Journal” series in The New York Review of Books, which features writers all over the world sending in personal dispatches. These accounts blur after a while because they swim in a soup of sameness and lack the specificity that brings writing to life. When everybody in the world is doing the same thing, just how unique or interesting can it be? For instance, we learn that there are chronic toilet paper shortages in both London and Sydney (and, I’m guessing, in every other hamlet on the planet). Ali Bhutto writes from Karachi that the usual hum of traffic coming through the bedroom window “has been replaced by silence” (Ditto here in downtown Manhattan). Liza Batkin writes from Rhinebeck, N.Y., that she had to pause to ask her mother if she should dry the dishes with a dish towel or a paper one (I know the feeling). Christopher Robbins writes from New York that “a playground writhing with children in 60-degree weather feels downright sinister” (Got that right). If I know these feelings, do I benefit from knowing that millions of other people know them, too?

Exhibit B: a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, which features a roster of writers relating “What We’ve Learned in Quarantine.” Among the predictable lessons are that many people liken quarantine to being in prison or at war, yet there are salutary rewards to be found in such solitary activities as braiding your own hair, learning to play the piano, watching birds, and photographing your daughters. Most of these accounts barely rise to the level of tepid uplift, and they’re further proof just how difficult it is to say something wise, or even original, about a pandemic. If you doubt this, I present Exhibit C: a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review by Michiko Kakutani, who was struck by the eerie silence and emptiness of the streets in New York, which, she reminds us, used to be known as “the city that never sleeps.” When the high priestess of American lit crit is reduced to borrowing clichés from Ol’ Blue Eyes, you know you’re in trouble. Kakutani then reminds us just how primitive life was in 17th-century London when the bubonic plague descended: “There was no Purell back then, no Clorox wipes or Lysol spray, no grocery deliveries from Fresh Direct and Whole Foods, no Netflix or Roku to help pass the time.” Thanks for the heads-up, Michiko!

Now I’d be the last person to knock writers who have the good sense and the good luck to get paid for their work. So on one hand, I say bravo to all the writers with freshly inked contracts for pandemic books. On the other hand, I would like to make a simple plea, especially to the writers of poetry and fiction: don’t rush, take your time, let the current horrors seep in deep before you try to make art out of this nightmare we’re all living through. For inspiration, novelists and poets and short story writers should look at the examples set by two writers, one from the 18th century, the other working today.

Daniel Defoe took his time before writing about his era’s horrific calamity, publishing A Journal of the Plague Year almost 50 years after the bubonic plague ravaged London in 1665. The book purports to be a first-person account of that grim year, and its rich detail and plausibility led many readers to regard it as a work of nonfiction rather than what it was—a deeply researched work of imaginative historical fiction. (Defoe was five years old during the plague.) The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has spent the past four years researching and writing an historical novel called Nights of Plague about an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions in Asia in 1901, more than a century ago. Before putting pen to paper, Defoe and Pamuk had the good sense to let time do its work of giving traumas context and perspective.

Back on April 8, Edan Lepucki, a gifted novelist and one very funny mother of three, imagined the “least anticipated” fiction that might come out of the pandemic that was then beginning to unleash its ghastly fury. If ever there was a time that demanded a good laugh, this was it. And Lepucki delivered, imagining novels with such titles as Social Distance Warrior, The Spread and my personal favorite, Stay-at-Home Mom. This last, in Lepucki’s overheated imagining, is the story of a woman named Hannah who’s cooped up in her tiny Brooklyn apartment with her husband and daughter and feels her sanity slipping. Slipping so badly, in fact, that “sometimes she imagines cutting off her own arms and legs and hoisting her bleeding torso into her rollaway suitcase and zipping it up (with her teeth) and rotting there forever.” (After being cooped up in my tiny apartment for 11 weeks, I know the feeling.) “And,” Hannah muses, “how all this is better than her old publishing job where she was regularly expected to kiss the egomaniacal asses of Bookstagrammers who never read the novels they posed next to succulents and mugs of bone broth.” Now there’s a novel coronavirus novel I would pay good money to read.

Image Credit: health.mil.

Bonus Link:
On Pandemic and Literature

Does Robert Towne’s ‘Chinatown’ Oscar Need an Asterisk?

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The advance obituary is an odd little literary mongrel. If it involves an interview, there is a tacit understanding between the interviewer and the subject that the substance of the interview, like the story of the subject’s life, won’t see print until the subject has had the decency to drop dead.

Most subjects take this in stride, part of the price of being a noteworthy person. For instance, when I interviewed Keith Botsford, a longtime friend and collaborator of Saul Bellow’s, for a planned New York Times obit, he was cordial, forthcoming, witty. The man was a born storyteller, and he was obviously delighted to be given one last chance to tell the story of his life in his own way. Four years after that interview, Botsford died at 90, and the obituary ran last summer.

I had a very different experience when I got assigned to write the advance obit of Robert Towne, now 85, the screenwriter who won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Chinatown in 1975. When I called Towne’s agent in Los Angeles to ask if he could arrange a telephone interview, the man was aghast. “That’s so morbid!” he said. “I would never ask Robert to agree to be interviewed for his own obituary. What are you thinking?” As I hung up the phone, I was thinking that people in Lala Land are all soft in the head. I wrote the obit without ever talking to Towne.

Towne also declined to be interviewed for Sam Wasson’s absorbing new book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. The book is built on the premise that Chinatown is more than one of the greatest American movies ever made; it was the pinnacle of an era that was about to vanish, the so-called New Hollywood, when directors took over the industry and put out a blizzard of brilliant, idiosyncratic movies before the suits regained control and started cooking up the tedious blockbusters, franchises, and special-effects comic book yarns that audiences are still being fed today.

To make his case, Wasson gets into the minds of the four men who shaped Chinatown: director Roman Polanski, still reeling from the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson gang; male lead Jack Nicholson, stepping into his first starring role; legendary producer Robert Evans; and Towne, whose Oscar win for Chinatown was sandwiched between nominations for his scripts of The Last Detail and Shampoo. Nicholson also declined to be interviewed by Wasson, as did the female lead, Faye Dunaway, after asking how much “participation”—money—was in it for her and learning the answer was zero.

These rebuffs didn’t derail Wasson. He interviewed Polanski and Evans extensively, along with a small army of friends, lovers, enemies, collaborators, ex-wives, and children of his four principals. He freely dipped into the seemingly bottomless well of Hollywood biographies, memoirs, and celebrity interviews. The result is a rich, knowing portrait of the making of a single movie that manages to pull back and give a wide-focus view of an entire industry at a peak moment, just before the deluge. Wasson writes beautiful sentences (along with a few purplish ones), and he is an astute chronicler of Los Angeles and its weather and flora, its social strata and geography and history and light. While struggling with his Chinatown script, Towne revisits his boyhood hometown, the blue-collar fishing port of San Pedro, and finds it largely unchanged. Wasson writes:
The brick buildings of Beacon Street, Whispering Joe’s and Shanghai Red’s, the tattoo parlors, the ferry to Terminal Island. He stood listening at the waterfront, where as a boy he’d watched the tuna fishermen set off to sea and, as a young man one summer, set off with them. He watched his childhood home on Sixth Street and revisited his earliest memory, sitting in the backyard by the paint-splattered Philco radio, listening to Seabiscuit win yet another race.
Yes, when it comes to portraying the textures of Los Angeles and its major industry, Wasson is in a league with Nathanael West, Bruce Weber, David Thomson, and Joan Didion.

Much as I loved Wasson’s portraits and his accounts of the battles on both sides of the camera during the making of Chinatown, the book’s most startling revelation was about what happened before the cameras started to roll. My earlier research of Towne’s life for that advance obituary had alerted me to the extensive rewriting Polanski contributed to the script, most notably the ending. As written by Towne, the femme fatale, played by Dunaway, shoots her incestuous father, played by John Huston, and regains custody of their daughter. A happy ending, sort of, as evil is punished. Polanski, a survivor of the Holocaust with fresh memories of his wife’s horrific murder, needed something darker. After director and screenwriter fought like a couple of tomcats over the proposed revisions, Polanski’s version wound up on the screen: on a night street in Chinatown, a cop shoots Dunaway through the head as she tries to flee with her daughter, and the father makes off with the fruit of his incest. Evil goes unpunished. Much darker, and much better.

Wasson tops that story with the stunning revelation that Edward Taylor, a former college roommate and frequent collaborator of Towne’s, contributed extensively to the Chinatown script long before Polanski started putting his fingerprints on it. “Towne referred to Taylor as ‘my editor,’” Wasson writes, “but rarely spoke of his existence to anyone in Hollywood.”

Then this:
As in any partnership, the attribution of creative input remains an inexact science…and considering that most creative partnerships, like (Ben) Hecht’s and (Charles) Lederer’s, are properly credited on screen, there is rarely any need to investigate the question of authorship. It is openly shared. But in the case of Edward Taylor, whose intimate and ongoing involvement in the conceptualization and production of Towne’s screenplays, whose cache of Chinatown notes—stacks of legal pads filled with Taylor’s original scenes, plans for restructuring subsequent drafts, long swaths of dialogue, character sketches, synopses of projected material, and more—and whose in-person and on-phone discussions with Towne on a sometimes daily basis reveal him to be a generative intelligence, invited not merely to respond to the work as an editor would, but to participate in the creation and evolution of a script moment by moment from the project’s inception, reveal Taylor’s influence to be no different from that of any other co-creator—save for one thing: Towne held the veto power.
This open secret among the people close to Towne and Taylor led many of them to ask the inevitable question: why didn’t Taylor insist on a screenwriting credit, and the money that would flow with it? When Taylor’s stepdaughter implored him, “What are you doing? You can’t not get credit. It’s not fair and it’s not accurate,” he replied: “That’s not important. What’s important is my friendship with Robert.”

Wasson is left to speculate what was behind Taylor’s selfless, undying allegiance to his friend. Was it because Towne had rushed Taylor to the hospital when Taylor’s appendix burst, probably saving his life? Was it because Towne helped him through the aftermath of a former girlfriend’s suicide? Or because Towne arranged an abortion for another girlfriend? Or was it that fame and fortune simply didn’t matter to bookish Edward Taylor?

If there was an answer, it went to the grave with Taylor, who died on Feb. 12, 2013. For his part, Polanski had no interest in fighting Towne for a credit for his contributions to the screenplay. “Not my style,” Polanski told Wasson.

Though Wasson was unable to locate the motivation behind his book’s big reveal, The Big Goodbye yields abundant pleasures. Wasson takes us inside the minds of people as they struggle and fight and cooperate to make a movie masterpiece. We watch Chinatown’s production designer, Richard Sylbert, as he scouts locations, trying to find echoes of vanished 1930s Los Angeles, before the big migration and the freeways and the smog. Like Polanski, Sylbert is a perfectionist, no detail too small to merit his attention. We learn that Sylbert, who won an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, hand-selected every book on George’s shelves for that movie. Such care produced a seamless visual structure in all of his work, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge.

Sylbert’s sister-in-law Anthea Sylbert, Chinatown’s costume designer, was equally obsessive. And it didn’t stop with how she dressed the cast. “I used to even think about what was in their pockets,” she said. “There are those people who have one key. There are those people who have three keys. There are those people who have five keys. They’re different and they come from different places.”

“To Polanski,” Wasson writes, “there were no minutiae.” And so we watch him trying to coax an ant across supine Jack Nicholson’s face, and yanking an unruly hair out of Faye Dunaway’s scalp (shrieking ensued), and obsessing over camera movements and lighting.

Some of this has been told before, notably in Peter Biskind’s superb Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Biskind posits that the New Hollywood began with 1969’s Easy Rider and ended with 1980’s Raging Bull, which puts his chronology modestly at odds with Wasson’s. “In retrospect,” Wasson writes, “1974 represents the final flowering of a film garden passionately tended by liberated studio executives and an unspoken agreement between audiences and filmmakers.” No matter. Both writers agree on Biskind’s obituary of that scorching golden age: “The fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed. The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free. But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.”

And now, 45 years after the slaughter, we learn that Robert Towne’s Oscar needs an asterisk.

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obituaries of 2019

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Death didn’t discriminate in 2019—it took down the acclaimed, the obscure, and a little bit of everything in between.

Here, in more or less chronological order, is a highly selective list of literary lights that were extinguished in the past year.

The Giants

Someone needs to buy a granite mountain and get out the chisels and jackhammers and start carving a monument to the three literary giants who left us this year: the decorated poet laureate W.S. Merwin, on March 15 at 91; the beloved Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, on Aug. 5 at 88; and the empyrean critic Harold Bloom, on Oct. 14 at 89. This monument will put Mount Rushmore in the shade.

The Two-Bit Publisher

Elizabeth Norah Jones was born in 1919 in India, where her British father worked as an agent in the lucrative opium trade. After marrying an American named Ian Ballantine and changing her name to Betty, she sailed with her husband from London to New York in 1939 to escape the looming war and undertake a daring mission: to establish an American beachhead of Penguin books, the British publisher that had hit upon the novel idea of reprinting quality literature between paper covers at the irresistible price of 25 cents.

Betty Ballantine, who died on Feb. 12 at 99, faced daunting challenges. There were just 1,500 bookstores in America at the time, so Betty and Ian started displaying their books—by H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse and other British writers—in drugstores, newsstands, train stations, and department stores. In 1952, when the Ballantines opened their own eponymous line of both original and reprinted paperbacks, Betty demonstrated that she was no genre snob. She scoured the pulps for promising science fiction stories and worked to turn their authors into novelists, among them Samuel R. Delany, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. She also published fantasy, westerns, mysteries, even romance. The Ballantines democratized literature by literally bringing it to the streets. Writing in 1989, on the 50th anniversary of their arrival in New York, Betty wrote that Ian and she were “the only surviving father and mother of the paperback revolution.”

The Biographer

Edmund Morris has posthumously published another magisterial biography. His Edison belongs on the same shelf with his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, the first of which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Edison, published five months after Morris died on May 24 at 78, opens with the great inventor’s death in 1931—an event of national importance—and it then moves backward in time to his birth in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. This narrative ploy is jarring at first, but eventually it coheres, unlike Morris’s decision to inject a fictional character named Edmund Morris into his nonfiction book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. That book got mixed reviews, including charges that it was “dishonorable” and “bizarre” and “a loony hodgepodge.” Morris, who got a $3 million advance, was unfazed. He claimed he was not a historian and was less interested in politics and government than in “character, narrative, the strangeness of reality.” And in Ronald Reagan he might have found his ideal subject. “He was,” Morris said, “truly one of the strangest men who ever lived.”

The Queen of Poolside Reading

Judith Krantz understood that people will buy your books by the tens of millions, no matter how they’re written, as long as they’re packed with those most seductive and timeless of human pursuits: money, sex, and shopping. Known as the Queen of Poolside Reading, Krantz, who died on June 22 at 91, reigned atop the bestseller lists for two decades, beginning with Scruples in 1978. I was an apprentice writer at the time, and I read the novel in the hopes of understanding what it takes to send a book to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. The answer was in the opening paragraphs: money. The titular boutique is described as “the world’s most lavish specialty store, a virtual club for the floating principality of the very, very rich and the truly famous.” The floating rich? I thought the very, very rich traveled in private Leer jets. Scruples was nestled on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, “the most staggering display of luxury in the whole world.”

In a single sentence, Krantz mentions the fashion houses of Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Balmain, Givenchy, and Chanel. I had never heard of Balmain, but I remember being impressed by the brazenness of Krantz’s brand name-dropping. And then, of course, there was the sex. Here’s our heroine seducing her pilot after he has taken her aloft so she can scatter her late husband’s ashes: “Now her lips and tongue were working together around the almost erect penis, which, though fairly short, was thick, as sturdily built as the rest of him. As he grew thick and then thicker still, she shifted her mouth slightly and worked only the swelling tip, treating it with strong, unfaltering suction, while the fingers of bother her hands now slid up and down his wet, straining shaft.” After taking a cold shower, I realized I had learned an invaluable lesson. Though I had no interest in reading or writing such prose, I had genuine admiration for someone who could pull it off without a hint of apology or shame. Krantz claimed she wrote “Horatio Alger stories for women.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that she sold more than 85 million books and made many millions of dollars. You can’t take it with you, but during her long productive life Judith Krantz raked in a whole lot of it by sticking to an unbeatable formula: She gave her readers exactly what they wanted.

The Immigrants’ Daughter

Paule Marshall was born and raised in Brooklyn by parents who had emigrated from Barbados. Throughout her five novels and various short story collections and novellas, Marshall used the rhythms of West Indian speech to paint pictures of resolute black women who had tasted loss but refused to become acquainted with defeat. Her breakout novel was 1959’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, about a couple from Barbados living in a Brooklyn brownstone that is riven by a conflict: As told by their daughter Selina, “a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore,” the mother dreams of buying the brownstone, while the father dreams of returning home to Barbados. The pungent, richly atmospheric novel was championed by Langston Hughes and was, in the words of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, “the beginning of contemporary African-American women’s writings.”

Paule (the “e” was silent) Marshall, who died on Aug. 12 at 90, said that her life as a writer began at her family’s kitchen table. She came to regard the West Indian women who gathered around that table as poets. These women spent their days scrubbing floors to earn “a few raw-mouth pennies,” and they had come to understand that language was their only weapon in America, a forbidding place they called “this man world.” As in: “In this man world, you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!” Language was also therapy, a refuge, a homeland, an outlet for their rumbustious creative energy. To be pregnant was to be “tumbling big,” which inspired: “Guess who I butt up on in the market the other day tumbling big again!” The young girl doing her homework in the corner drank in every word, and a writer was born.

“They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art,” Marshall wrote in The New York Times in 1983. “They trained my ear.” She also noted that other early influences included Austen, Thackeray, Fielding, and Dickens—and then, belatedly, Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poetry and fiction taught her that her own experience, including the stories told by those strong women at her family’s kitchen table, could become the stuff of literature. When Brown Girl was reissued in 1983, Darryl Pinckney wrote in an introduction: “Paule Marshall does not let the black women in her fiction lose.”

The Bartender’s Son

There are three things I remember about the day in 2000 when I interviewed Nick Tosches at his go-to lunch spot, the celebrity hangout Da Silvano restaurant in Greenwich Village. The first was his black fedora, the second was the cloud of cigarette that seemed to wreath his head for hours, and the third was what happened when the magazine magnate S.I. Newhouse passed our table. Tosches said, “Hi, Si, how’s it going?” To which Newhouse replied, “Not bad, Nick. You?” I was stunned—this slash-and-burn writer, this street-rat son of a Newark bartender, was on a first-name basis with power and money!

Just as memorable about that day was Tosches’s excited talk about the novel he was working on, which would become 2002’s In the Hand of Dante. Tosches, who died on Oct. 20 at 69, predicted that the novel was going to be his “big book,” the one that would overshadow his celebrated rock ’n’ roll journalism and his bestselling biographies of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis. I enjoyed the book, but I’ll let the critics judge if he was right. Eventually that day at Da Silvano, Tosches and I got around to talking about the thing I had come there to talk about: his weird little new book, The Devil and Sonny Liston, which was not quite a biography, not quite a memoir, more a riff on the journey of a man who came from nowhere, rose to the pinnacle of the boxing world, then crashed and abruptly returned to oblivion. The story of the man who dethroned Liston, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), did not interest a writer with Tosches’s deliciously skewed sensibilities. Sonny Liston’s life, on the other hand, was Tosches’s idea of the perfect parable about the killing cost of fame in America. Like everything else he produced, it was a book only Nick Tosches could have written.

The Sharecroppers’ Son

Ernest J. Gaines, the son of Louisiana sharecroppers, will be best remembered for creating a 110-year-old black character named Jane Pittman who was born a slave on a Louisiana plantation and lived long enough to fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Gaines’s 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was a critical hit, a bestseller, and fodder for a TV movie starring Cicely Tyson that won nine Emmy Awards. The novel, told in Jane Pittman’s distinctive vernacular, is an act of ventriloquism in a league with Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and anything Mark Twain ever wrote. Gaines, who died on Nov. 5 at 86, followed his breakthrough with A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama, and in 1993 he received a MacArthur “genius” grant. Quite a journey for someone who grew up on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La., where he attended school five months of the year because he had to spend the other seven months working.

The Pit Bull

Stephen Dixon came to fiction writing after studying international relations and dentistry, but once he found his voice, there was no stopping him. In prose that was “knotty” and “challenging”—these are words used by his devoted fans—Dixon poured out 18 novels and some 600 stories, pounding away on a portable typewriter like a pit bull on steroids. His subjects included random spasms of violence in suburbia, a drive-by shooting on an interstate highway, a bar owner’s battle against corrupt garbage collectors—in short, the undertow of unease in modern urban life. Two of his novels, Frog and Interstate, were finalists for the National Book Award, but his writing never sold well. His paragraphs had no desire to end, sometimes running for pages, veering from marital bickering to tender depictions of friendship, love, and the writing life, and many of his stories entertain possible alternate futures. His most memorable creation may have been his compulsively randy alter-ego, the writer Gould Bookbinder, whose overheated libido inspires one of his seduction targets to tell him: “You’re not only a big schmo, but a pathetic jerk.” A complicated, fascinating, pathetic jerk.

Dixon taught at Johns Hopkins University for many years, where he gave his students a copy of his guide to pitching stories to magazines, which included dozens of publications, the names of editors, rates, and insider tips on what to try to sell them. As one of his students, David Dudley, put it: “Dixon seemed to approach the whole Art of Fiction thing with a refreshing absence of pretense; writing was more like steam-fitting or hanging drywall, a craft performed by hand, every day, until you got halfway good at it and could get paid.” Stephen Dixon, who died on Nov. 6 at 83, understood that writing was work, it was a job, it was something you do every day because you have to do it and because it’s worth doing and it’s worth doing well as you possibly can.

The Polymath

Clive James succeeded in marrying that oddest of couples: erudition and television. James, who died Nov. 24 at 80, was a polymath who wrote novels, poems, memoirs, translations, song lyrics, journalism, and criticism. He seemed to be interested in everything, from Dante to tango to Formula One racing. He was a serious writer—and wit—who became a television star in England, where he settled after leaving his native Australia. He called his television column in The Observer “the real backbone of my career as a writer,” and its popularity—along with his ubiquitous appearances on the small screen—probably lowered critical opinion of the rest of his writing. Life can be as unfair as death. As if to rehabilitate his reputation as a serious critic, James published Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts in 2007, an alphabetical compendium of everyone he considered worth knowing in the 20th century. A giddy, wide-ranging mash-up of high and low, the book was 40 years in the making, and it’s a delight to read. Here’s how James described his approach: “The writer represents all the expressive people to whom he has ever paid attention, even if he disapproved of what they expressed.” Thus he gives us sparkling sketches of Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher, as well as Albert Camus and Dick Cavett (the closest any American has come to being a Clive James), W.C. Fields and Gustave Flaubert. How did Tacitus make the cut? Don’t ask, just enjoy. Who ever decreed that food that’s good for you brain shouldn’t be fun to read?

James has been called a comic public intellectual, but he had the mashed face of a pub brawler or, as he put it, a bank robber who forgot to take the stocking off his head. Looks can be a blessing in disguise. With James, as with all writers, the work is all that matters. And this polymath’s work was built on solid rock. As he was dying from leukemia and emphysema, he said that if a plaque were ever erected in his honor, he would like it to read: He loved the written word, and told the young.

The Sidekick

This last one is personal. Keith Botsford, a versatile man of letters who was a friend and collaborator of Saul Bellow’s, died in London the summer before last, on Aug. 19, 2018, at 90. His death went largely unnoticed until this past summer, when The New York Times obituary desk was updating a prepared obituary of Botsford and learned, belatedly, of his death. I was the writer of that advance obituary, and it ran in The Times on June 14 of this year, nearly 10 months after Botsford’s death. It was the delayed realization of a lifelong dream for me—to publish an obituary in The New York Times.

The obituary noted that Botsford met Bellow when both were teaching at Bard College in the early 1950s. At a cocktail party one night, Botsford, then a budding novelist in his mid-20s, looked across the room and saw a colleague in distress. “It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Botsford told me when I interviewed him by phone for the obituary. “I had just read The Adventures of Augie March, so I walked up and started talking to him.”

A friendship blossomed, and the two men wound up collaborating on several literary magazines, including The Noble Savage, ANON, and News From the Republic of Letters. Bellow, who died in 2005 at 89, called this last effort “a tabloid for literates,” and he described himself and Botsford as “a pair of utopian codgers who feel we have a duty to literature.”

In his long life, Botsford wore many hats—novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher and translator. He was also a composer of chamber works, choral music, and a ballet, and was fluent in half a dozen languages. He said he helped Bellow write his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. “We had an intellectual love for each other,” Botsford said of his long-time friend. “He liked to call me his sidekick. I found the title perfectly honorable.” I get the feeling that after living such a long, rich life, Keith Botsford died a happy man.

A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

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The highlight of my reading life this year was, no contest, the new novel from the Irish volcano Kevin Barry. His Night Boat to Tangier was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and it provides all the pleasures his fans have come to expect, including pyrotechnical language, a delicious stew of high lit and low slang, lovable bunged-up characters, rapturous storytelling, and a fair bit of the old U(ltra) V(iolence), in the form of a knife to a knee, a gouged-out eye, and heart-crushing betrayal. The setup—two aging Irish gangsters waiting for a woman at the ferry terminal in the seedy Spanish port of Algeciras—has obvious echoes of Beckett. But Barry told me in an interview that while writing the book he was actually much more under the sway of Harold Pinter’s early plays from the 1960s, especially The Caretaker and The Birthday Party, with their sneaky undertows of menace. Don’t bother trying to parse the influences. Do yourself a favor and read Night Boat to Tangier, then go to Barry’s earlier, equally brilliant work.

While writing an essay on the great comedian and Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore—occasioned by Eddie Murphy’s comeback role as Moore in the new movie Dolemite Is My Name—I happened upon an insightful book by Jim Dawson called The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words. The book places trash-talkin’, kung-fu-kickin’, full-time-pimpin’ Moore in a context of other broad and bawdy black comedians, from Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham through Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. Dawson makes the valuable point that Moore’s cult status among black audiences was based on his authenticity, which in turn was built on his decision to “stay on the fringes, below white society’s radar.” Smart move. The man was a sui generis genius.

As research for a nonfiction book I’m writing, I read a pair of books that explore the origins and contours of America’s class system. The first was the classic The Mind of the South by a North Carolina newspaperman named W.J. Cash, who committed suicide five months after the book’s publication. Its cold appraisal of the Southern class system, from the loftiest aristocrats down to the lowliest trash, led C. Vann Woodward to call it “the perfect foil” for Margaret Mitchell’s magnolia-scented fantasy Gone with the Wind, published two years earlier. The second book was Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, which generated an unexpected flash of insight: Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson are actually the same person! Isenberg must have been thinking of Trump when she wrote this about Jackson: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself.” She adds that the presidential personality “was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance.” I grew suspicious that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Trump, but I realized that was unlikely because the book was published five months before the 2016 election. And some people still doubt that history repeats itself.

I got my first taste of Edwidge Danticat’s fiction through her terrific new collection of short stories, Everything Inside, deft explorations of the small moments of joy available to the Haitians who populate these tales, set mostly in Haiti and Miami. And finally, on the occasion of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday, on March 24, I read his new memoir, Little Boy, an ebullient summing up of a century of life richly lived.