The Industrial Visions of Precisionist Artists

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In the early years of the twentieth century, an eight-year-old girl named Elsie Driggs was traveling by train with her parents from Sharon, Pennsylvania, to New York. She had dozed off by the time the train reached Pittsburgh, but as the writer John Loughery would recount years later in Woman’s Art Journal, her sleep was interrupted: “She was awakened by her father to witness the drama of the black night-sky over Pittsburgh ablaze with soaring flames from the steel plants. It was a memorable sight.”

So memorable that 20 years later, with her artistic career beginning to flourish, Driggs returned to Pittsburgh hoping to recapture the scene in paint. But the fiery Bessemer steel-making process had been abandoned by then, so there were no longer any flames spurting into the night sky. Worse, the local mill’s managers insisted that a steel mill was no place for a young lady—and they were suspicious that she was a union organizer or industrial spy. But Driggs did not give up. “Walking up Squirrel Hill to my boarding house one night, I found my view,” she told Loughery. “It was such a steep hill. You looked right down on the Jones and Laughlin mills. You were right there. The forms were so close. And I stared at it and told myself, ‘This shouldn’t be beautiful. But it is.’ And it was all I had. So I drew it.”

And then she made a painting from her sketches. And then, nearly a century later, while viewing an exhibition of the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, my eye was drawn to a smallish black-and-white painting—just 34 by 40 inches—that from a distance appeared to be abstract. A miniature Franz Kline? As I got closer I realized it was a stark depiction of cylindrical industrial smokestacks bound by wires at the top left and a gush of smoke at the bottom right. The smokestacks are black and gray, the only color coming from a hint of sulfur in the pale sky. And that’s it: smokestacks, wires, smoke, sky. No flames, no human beings. How did this unremarkable image manage to be so otherworldly beautiful?

Elsie Driggs, Pittsburgh, 1927. Oil on canvas, 34 1/4 × 40 1/4 in. (87 × 102.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.177

The card on the wall told me that the picture was called “Pittsburgh 1927” and it was painted by Elsie Driggs. She soon followed it with an equally stark painting of silos and ducts and smokestacks called “Blast Furnace,” and then a monumental, faceted painting called “The Queensborough Bridge.” These paintings gained Driggs entry into a group dubbed the Precisionists, an informal movement of mostly young artists who in the 1920s were drawn to America’s emerging industrial landscape of factories and skyscrapers and bridges, which they rendered with both a geometric precision that echoed Cubism and a sparseness that sometimes bordered on abstraction, typified by “Pittsburgh 1927.”

A Visual Gold Mine

There were other Precisionists on the walls of the Whitney the day I discovered Elsie Driggs, most notably Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. While Driggs was in Pittsburgh, Sheeler was in Detroit on a commission to photograph Henry Ford’s sprawling River Rouge complex, the workplace of 75,000 people, then the largest factory in the world. Sheeler’s assignment was part of the corporation’s publicity campaign for the Model A, which was about to replace Ford’s obsolete Model T. Sheeler spent six weeks roaming the complex with his camera, producing 32 prints that the company used for publicity and that are now regarded as high art. Possibly his most memorable image is “Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company,” a picture of two conveyors making an X over a tangled netherworld of fences and buildings and ironwork, all of it topped by eight slender smokestacks that reach into the heavens. (A year later, Driggs did a pencil drawing of the same scene.)

Charles Sheeler, River Rouge Plant, 1932. Oil and pencil on canvas, 20 7/16 × 24 3/8 in. (51.9 × 61.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 32.43

Only one of Sheeler’s works from the Rouge was in the Whitney show—a painting made five years later called simply “River Rouge Plant,” an oddly serene depiction of the factory’s coal processing and storage facility. The exterior walls of the buildings are creamy or tan, the foreground waters of a boat slip are glassy and calm, the sky is blue. There are no workers, no smoke or sparks or grease or slag heaps. The only hint of the repetitive, soul-crushing work that was done there is the nose of a freighter visible on the right. Part of Henry Ford’s genius was to make everything he needed to produce cars—what’s known as vertical integration, the cutting out of all middlemen—and so to make steel he had coal brought up by train from Appalachia, while his fleet of freighters brought iron ore down from Duluth, Minnesota. You would not know this by looking at Sheeler’s stately photographs or serene paintings, nor would you know that Ford was a union-busting anti-Semite who ruthlessly policed the morals of his captive work force. Sheeler was not concerned with such unpleasant facts. For him, all that mattered was that the Rouge was a visual gold mine. “The subject matter,” he wrote to his friend Walter Arensberg, “is undeniably the most thrilling I have ever worked with.” American factories, he added, were “our substitute for the religious experience.”

Hanging on a wall near “River Rouge Plant” was Charles Demuth’s painting “My Egypt” from 1930, a depiction of a grain elevator in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The gray structure, topped by exhaust ducts and flanked by a smokestack, is seen from a low angle, giving it a monumental, nearly monstrous presence. Diagonal lines hint at stained glass—and at the notion, widespread at the time among Sheeler and others, that industrial structures were the cathedrals of the machine age.

Charles Demuth, My Egypt, 1927. Oil, fabricated chalk, and graphite pencil on composition board, 35 15/16 × 30 in. (91.3 × 76.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.172

Only later did I learn that Demuth had painted a picture called “Incense of a New Church” in 1921, which made the link between industry and religion explicit. In the foreground, ropes of smoke—from incense or machines?—coil through a dark world of smokestacks and machinery. Though there are no people visible in either painting, the title “My Egypt” hints at the slave labor that built the pyramids in ancient Egypt and, by extension, at the dehumanizing pressures of the machine age.

But it’s a veiled hint at best. By depicting industrial architecture and machinery but not the humans who built and operated it, the Precisionists left themselves open to the charge that they were glorifying the machine while minimizing or simply ignoring its human costs.

An Ethereal Experience

While Driggs was in Pittsburgh, Sheeler was in Detroit and Demuth was in Pennsylvania, Margaret Bourke-White was in Cleveland photographing the Otis Steel Works. Like Driggs, Bourke-White was drawn to the steel mill by a memory from her girlhood, in this case a visit to a New Jersey foundry with her father. Her recollection of the episode was quoted in the catalog for a 2018 exhibit called “Cult of the Machine” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco: “I remember climbing with him to a sooty balcony and looking down into the mysterious depths below. ‘Wait,’ father said, and then in a rush the blackness was broken by a sudden magic of flowing metal and flying sparks. I can hardly describe my joy…. Later when I became a photographer…this memory was so vivid and so alive that it shaped the whole course of my career.”

Unlike Driggs, Bourke-White gained access to the interior of the Cleveland mill, and after five months she had produced hundreds of prints but only a dozen that satisfied her. One of them, the 1928 print “Otis Steel Works,” was included in “Cult of the Machine.” The picture is an exterior, two railroad tracks running from the bottom left of the frame into the middle distance under an iron bridge. On the left are the brooding vertical forms of the mill, including two stacks that send smudges of smoke into the gray sky; in the middle of it all is a ghostly puff of steam. Only after close looking do you realize that there are two human forms in the distance, under the bridge, reduced to the scale of ants by all this monstrous machinery. In the show’s catalog, the curator Lauren Palmor writes:

Between the steel, iron, and smoke, it is easy to overlook the two minuscule workers in the distance, standing near the tracks like specters. Their diminutive portrayal is consistent with Bourke-White’s early tendency to focus on machines rather than their operators. Even when she includes workers in her images of the mill’s interior, as in this work, they are visually subsumed by machinery, as though they are merely more of its moving parts.

What was behind the Precisionists’ tendency to focus on machines rather than their operators, on the mechanical rather than the human? Was it a way of condemning the pulverizing power of the industrial age? Or was it a way of glorifying these monuments to human ingenuity and will? Or could it be that it was not one or the other, but a bit of both? Or neither? 

One possible answer comes from Elsie Driggs. The year she painted “Pittsburgh 1927,” Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. A year later, Driggs experienced her first flight, aboard a Ford Tri-Motor that carried her from Cleveland to Detroit. It was an ethereal experience, judging by the painting she executed that year, “Aeroplane,” which was included in “Cult of the Machine.” It shows a curvaceous, silvery plane floating through the heavens. Black diagonal lines suggest the whirring of propellers—and identify it as the work of a Precisionist. It’s a lovely, loving homage, clearly a way of glorifying this airborne monument to human ingenuity and will.

“Anything Can Be Interesting and Beautiful.”

The Precisionists are long gone but their impulses live on. A contemporary artist who is also drawn to the pictorial possibilities of American industry is the British-born painter Rackstraw Downes, who has spent the past half century producing plein-air paintings of what he calls “disprized” places—lumber yards, sewage treatment plants, exhausted oil fields, the underbellies of highway bridges and elevated train tracks. He finds most of his scenes near his home in New York and in south Texas, but in 1976 he ventured to Pittsburgh as part of the project by the U.S. Department of the Interior to have 45 artists offer their versions of the American landscape. Downes was given the choice of painting Cape Cod or Pittsburgh. It was an easy call. “Cape Cod is a boring old subject that everybody has done,” Downes told me in a recent interview. “It’s like a warm glass of milk. I like a shot of whiskey myself.”

After driving around Pittsburg for a couple of days, he found his spot: the view from the Clairton-Glassport Bridge over the Monongahela River, with the massive Clairton Coke Works on the right bank. “It was immediately apparent to me that that was the place,” Downes said, echoing Elsie Driggs’s epiphany half a century earlier. “It was the largest coke works in the world. It was sensational with all that smoke going up. It was terribly filthy, and I loved it.” He drew sketches and then completed the painting called “The Coke Works at Clairton, Pa.” that became part of a traveling bicentennial show, “America 1976.” In the foreground, the nose of a barge is visible passing under the bridge while the factory pumps its smoke and toxins into the sky. The barren land on the left bank was, according to Downes, “absolutely dead ground.”

“The Coke Works at Clairton, Pa.” by Rackstraw Downes (1976)

Downes studied literature at Cambridge before he turned to art, and what sets him apart is that he chooses his subjects not only for their visual and sociological properties but also for their potential to produce a narrative. His narratives typically reveal the pulverizing power of the industrial age and, sometimes, the natural world’s way of pushing back. This comes through in his rendering of the Clairton Coke Works in the act of scarring the surrounding river and air and rolling hills. It comes through even more vividly in a 1990 painting called “In the High Island Oil Field, February, After the Passage of a Cold Front.” At first glance, the painting, which is 10 feet long and just 16 inches high, does not seem particularly compelling. It’s a panorama of some wheezing oil rigs and a ditch full of reddish water on a platter of scrub somewhere in south Texas. But if you keep looking, the details begin to multiply—a reminder that Downes paints onsite, without benefit of a camera, sometimes revisiting a spot dozens of times over many months to produce a single picture. And now listen to Downes as he explains what you’re seeing in his 2004 book In Relation to the Whole:

Cows, horses and wading birds share this 1,200-acre field with the pumps, and when strong winds blow in from the north after the passage of a cold front, the sediments that are pumped up with the oil and natural gas and which collect in the bottoms of the ditches are stirred up so the ditch water looks red. The perspective down the center of this painting is the raised embankment of an old railroad bed. The cows like to congregate and lie down to rest on this long-infertile ground because it dries off quickly after a rain; and so they dung it up intensively too. So, it is gradually beginning to regain fertility and support a sparse cover of weeds.… Here the tenses of a landscape imagery which represents what is lost or threatened are reversed; we see decaying industrialization being replaced or reclaimed by the progress of nature. These weeds interest me more than ancient redwoods…

Downes sees beauty and narrative potential even in something as prosaic as razor wire. In 1999, he painted a four-panel series of the coils of razor wire on the fence around a subway maintenance yard in Brooklyn. In a recent phone conversation, Downes tried to explain the visual and sociological elements that drew him to this subject. “If you pay close attention, anything can be interesting and beautiful,” he told me. “I didn’t make the razor wire beautiful. I just painted what was there. Painting it was extremely difficult—the light was always glinting—and it’s vile in its sociological implications. It’s all about keeping people out or keeping people in. It’s nasty stuff.” And yet in his hands it becomes the stuff of high art. 

What Downes and these very different artists share is the ability to find beauty in unpromising places. “These industrial forms,” Bourke-White said of the Cleveland steel mill, “were all the more beautiful because they were not designed to be beautiful.” In other words, beauty is not confined to the picturesque vistas that attracted Albert Bierstadt and Ansel Adams and the members of the Hudson River School. Beauty can be accidental, unintended, counterintuitive—even anti-pastoral. And it takes an attuned sensibility to discern such beauty. 

All of this is not an attempt to burnish the old chestnut that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it’s to suggest that beauty is everywhere if you know how to look for it. Which is what artists like Driggs, Sheeler, Demuth, Bourke-White and Downes know how to do. Beyond knowing where—and how— to look for beauty, they also know how to capture it and present it and make it interesting. This is what elevates them from mere painters and photographers to true artists. I’m reminded of a remark Downes made to me several years ago at the opening of an exhibition of his paintings at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. I asked him about his propensity for choosing subjects that most people think of as anything but beautiful. He replied, “As for beauty, people say to me, ‘Why do you paint such banal subjects? There’s nothing beautiful there.’ It’s not my job to paint something beautiful; it’s my job to make a beautiful painting of something. And that something is something that intrigues me. Sometimes it intrigues me because it’s very modest, very ordinary or very neglected—but I have to have good feelings about it.”

Downes’ remark reminded me of a remark the renowned art critic Henry McBride made in the New York Sun back when “Pittsburgh 1927” was fresh in the world. “Elsie Driggs,” he wrote, “is capable of interesting us in anything in which she herself is interested.”

That, to my mind, is the measure of greatness in any artist.

 

Is It So Wrong to Accessorize with Books?

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While visiting a friend of a friend in Key West many winters ago, I was smitten by the bookshelves in his living room. The built-in shelves wrapped around a window and ran to the ceiling, obviously the work of an expert craftsman. But from across the room it was the books themselves that dazzled my eye—their spines, meticulously arranged by size and color, made the wall look like a gigantic pointillist painting. When I complimented my host on his bookshelves and asked what he liked to read, he looked at me as if I was one very dim bulb. “I bought those books by the yard,” he said. “Then I arranged them in a way that’s pleasing to my eye. I haven’t actually read them.”
A proud philistine, the man saw books as accessories, décor, objects that derived their value not from their contents but from their appearance. And he is hardly alone in thinking so. Recently actress and singer Ashley Tisdale made a similar admission on-camera during a tour of her newly renovated home for Architectural Digest’s “Open Door” series. Motioning toward her colorful bookshelves, Tisdale said, “These bookshelves, I have to be honest, actually did not have books in it a couple of days ago. I had my husband go to a bookstore, and I was like, ‘You need to get 400 books.’ Obviously my husband’s like, ‘We should be collecting books over time and putting them on our shelves.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, no. Not when AD comes.’” 
Twitter like lit up with comments: “The richness is just painful for people who can’t even afford new books.” And: “That’s so sad. It took me a few months to fill up my new shelves, all special and important to me. Not magazine worthy but I like it!” And: “Can you imagine being able to buy 400 books at once?”
There was, predictably, outrage over the outrage, including: “Are we mad at Ashley Tisdale for supporting bookstores? In this economy?” And: “The way people are criticizing Ashley Tisdale for…buying books?? Supporting authors and a bookstore??? Like who gives af if she reads them…” Finally Tisdale came to her own defense: “Let’s clear this up. There are some of my books from over the years in there but yea 36 shelves that hold 22 books I did not have and any interior designer would have done the same. They do it all the time, I was just honest about it.”
Nikki Griffiths, writing for independent publisher Melvile House’s book blog MobyLives, tried to bring a little perspective to the squabble. “Is it really so terrible buying hundreds of books from an independent bookshop?” Griffiths asked. “Tisdale clearly did not realize she would unleash the wrath of the bookish community over her shelf confession… Plus let’s be honest, how many of us are jealous because we wish we had the money to splash out on 400 books?”
It turns out there are plenty of people who have that kind of money. Enter library curators, a new crop of professionals who, for a price, will fill clients’ shelves with books that reflect on their status, interests, or character—regardless of whether they’ve actually read them. Books are “a great way for people to accessorize,” Jenna Hipp told the New York Times Style Magazine. Hipp, described as “a 40-year-old mostly retired celebrity nail artist,” works with her husband Josh Spencer putting together libraries for people for a fee that can run to $200,000. Their clients, says Hipp, “care more about how it looks than about the actual books…. Clients will say to us, ‘I want people to think I’m about this. I want people to think I’m about that.’”

The fashion world has also recently adopted this books-as-accessories aesthetic. In the Times article, Nick Haramis explores how fashion houses have begun weaving books into their promotions, from runway shows to panel discussions to podcasts. At Dior’s 2022 fall menswear show, for instance, the runway consisted of a giant replica of the scroll of typing paper on which Jack Kerouac pounded out the original draft of On the Road. Etro recently sent each of its models onto the runway holding a small, nondescript book. Meanwhile, the supermodel Gigi Hadid trooped around Milan Fashion Week clutching a copy of Camus’s The Stranger. “The worlds of literature and fashion have flirted with each other since long before Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot in 1956,” Haramis writes, “but in the past few years, books have become such coveted signifiers of taste and self-expression that the objects themselves are now status symbols.”
The power of books as “signifiers of taste and self-expression” has been inflated by the pandemic. Parsing the background bookshelves of attendees in Zoom events has become a cottage industry, exemplified by the Twitter account @BookcaseCredibility, which collates screenshots of celebrities’ bookshelf backdrops. It has more than 115,000 followers, proof that people have an abiding belief in the power of books to reveal character or an insatiable hunger for the hardware of celebrity. Or maybe a bit of both.
But this kerfuffle is not about the use—or misuse—of books as fashion accessories, home décor, or branding tools. Call me Pollyanna, but I don’t think that Ashley Tisdale and Dior and Gigi Hadid are trivializing books. They’re doing precisely the opposite: they’re reminding us of books’ outsize power to shape our perceptions of their owners. You want to understand someone? Peruse the contents of her medicine chest, her garbage can, and her bookshelf. One’s literary tastes can reveal not just aesthetic preferences but aspects of character. This is because of the investment books require—not only of money, but of time and psychic energy.
Even if Key West Guy or Ashley Tisdale hasn’t read any of the books on their shelves, those books say something about how they want the world to think about them—and that is a big part of who we are. That beautiful wall of unread books in Key West tells us that their owner values appearances over substance, form over content. (This aligns him with Oscar Wilde, a writer he has surely never read: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”) No crime there. At least he had a good sense of color and proportion. And as for the models clutching copies of trendy titles between runway shows, everyone from Oprah to Reese Witherspoon knows that celebrity sells books, and I’m all for anything that sells books. But I’ve got a problem with Gigi Hadid and her copy of The Stranger. I always figured her as more the Sartre type. 

Those Who Left Us: Literary Obits of 2021

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This highly selective list of literary lights that were extinguished during the past year ranges from brand names to barely-knowns. Feel free to add your own names to the list in the comments section below. Joan Didion, anyone?
Scott Donaldson
While working as a newspaper reporter in Virginia in 1988, I got sent to the College of William & Mary to interview Scott Donaldson, a professor who had just published a biography of John Cheever. Donaldson spent a long afternoon telling me about how his one encounter with Cheever in the summer of 1976 blossomed into a critically acclaimed biography. The conversation wandered to other topics—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s drinking, the Cheever family’s protective attitude toward John, the impossibility of ever truly understanding another person’s life. As I wrote of Donaldson in my newspaper article: “It was his turn to do the talking, and he, like Cheever a dozen summers ago on Nantucket, had plenty to say.”
Donaldson, who died on Dec. 1, 2020 at 92 (the announcement came too late for last year’s wrap-up), also produced biographies and critical studies of Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Winfield Townley Scott, and Charles Fenton. Donaldson’s book about this last subject, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story, led me to interview him again in 2012 for The Millions. By then, Blake Bailey had come out with his own critically acclaimed—and much darker—biography of Cheever, and Donaldson had mellowed after some sharp skirmishing with Bailey and the Cheever family. During our second interview, Donaldson shared a passage from a work in progress that became his final book, The Impossible Craft, a study of the art of writing literary biography. The passage closed with Donaldson’s clear-eyed, nearly cold-blooded assessment of his Cheever biography: “Perhaps no life ends happily, but I depicted Cheever—as I had Fitzgerald, a man he resembled in many ways—as heroic for overcoming addiction and soldiering on. In doing so, I may well have traveled from unjustified fault-finding to unwarranted praise.”
See also: The Millions Interviews Scott Donaldson
Eric Jerome Dickey
Known for his complex Black female characters and scorching sex scenes, Eric Jerome Dickey was a perennial fixture on bestseller lists before his death on Jan. 3 at 59. After dabbling in software development and stand-up comedy, Dickey fell into novel writing almost by accident. Explaining the genesis of his 1996 debut, Sister, Sister, he told his hometown newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal: “I thought I was writing a short story, and it kept going… You have these characters, and you say, ‘What if, what if, what if,’ and the thing starts to grow, and it grew to 300 pages, and I was sitting there looking at it thinking, ‘Man, this is a book.’”
Dubbed a “king of chick lit” by one headline writer, Dickey said he got inside the heads of his female characters by reading women’s magazines, from Cosmo to Essence, and by using one of the oldest tools in the novelist’s kit: he listened. Then he picked up not only on what was said but what was left unsaid. And it worked. He was selling half a million books a year when his life and thriving career were cut short by cancer.
Neil Sheehan
His role in getting the Pentagon Papers published in The New York Times may be his major legacy, but to me Neil Sheehan’s greatest achievement was his sweeping, devastating nonfiction book about America’s first failed war. Sixteen years in the making, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Sheehan, who died on Jan. 7 at 84. It’s the story of a charismatic American soldier turned adviser to South Vietnamese troops who became disillusioned with the war effort in the early 1960s and began leaking damaging truths to Sheehan and other American correspondents, truths that ran counter to the sunshine the U.S. military was peddling. That relationship with Vann was the seed for the book, which consumed Sheehan’s life as his discoveries grew darker and twistier. It turned out that Vann, who awakened Sheehan to the government’s lie about the war, was living a lie of his own. The overall effect is devastating. “It was a grim business,” Sheehan said about writing the book, before adding: “I hope it endures as a piece of history to be read again and again. All I can say in my later days, I’m deeply satisfied.”
Ved Mehta
The Indian writer Ved Mehta lost his eyesight as a child but didn’t let that deter him from writing more than two dozen volumes that included reportage (much of it published in The New Yorker), as well as forays into philosophy, theology, and linguistics, all of it capped by his 12-volume, million-word history of modern India in the form of a prolonged autobiography collectively known as Continents of Exile. Mehta, who died on Jan. 9 at 86, suffered a bout of cerebrospinal meningitis shortly before his fourth birthday, which left him blind. Yet through memory and imagination, he was able to produce vividly visual prose, which he dictated to an assistant, who then read it back to him over and over until he had polished it to a high shine. The loss of eyesight sharpened his other senses, and Mehta claimed he could tell the make of a passing car by the sound of its engine. He traveled widely, without benefit of guide dog or cane, and he said that his work was driven by a singular impulse: “To write as if I could see.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ed McClanahan, and Larry McMurtry

The graying ranks of the Beat generation and its psychedelicized spawn got a little thinner this year. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, owner of San Francisco’s beloved City Lights bookstore, and author of the foundational Beat poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, died on Feb. 22 at 101. He was working right to the end of his long life. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, Ferlinghetti published a cuddly little mongrel of a book called Little Boy, a fictionalized memoir about a character he called “an imaginary me.” It was a lovely valedictory to a life well-lived.
See also: Ferlinghetti at 100: An Appreciation

Ed McClanahan, a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who went on to become a renowned novelist, journalist, and teacher, died on Nov. 27 at 89. McClanahan met Kesey in 1962 in a creative writing workshop at Stanford, then happily joined the LSD-fueled happenings that became fodder for Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. McClanahan, known as “Captain Kentucky” by his fellow Pranksters, brought the writer Robert Stone into a fold that included a writer from Texas named Larry McMurtry, who died on March 25 at 84. McMurtry, author of more than 30 novels and as many screenplays, as well as books of essays, memoir, and history, said his mission was to dismantle “the myth of the cowboy.” He did so, brilliantly, in his sprawling masterpiece, Lonesome Dove, which became a hit TV series, and in his screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, for which he shared an Academy Award. Many of McMurtry’s fictions transitioned successfully to the screen, including Horseman, Pass By (which became Hud, starring Paul Newman), The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. McMurtry, like Ferlinghetti, also owned a bookstore—Booked Up, a collection of rare books in his native Archer City, Texas, that grew to some 400,000 volumes housed in six buildings. McMurtry’s personal library numbered about 30,000 volumes. He called it “an achievement equal to if not better than my writings themselves.”
Anne Beatts
Without getting too grand about it, Anne Beatts, who died on April 7 at 74, was a pioneer. At a time when comedy writing was dominated by men, she didn’t merely break barriers—she smashed them and then hoisted fellow female writers through the breach. Beatts got her start writing for the male-dominated The National Lampoon in the early 1970s, then got hired by Lorne Michaels in 1975 as one of the original writers for a new show called Saturday Night Live. Working in collaboration with Rosie Shuster, her most memorable creation was the geeky, lovable Nerds—Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner) and Todd DiLaMuca (Bill Murray).
Beatts almost turned down the SNL gig because she was busy collaborating on a book with a fellow comedy writer, Deanne Stillman. That book, Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women, was published in 1976 and led Beatts to bring Stillman along as a writer on her next project, the TV comedy series Square Pegs, about a group of high school misfits starring the then-unknown Sara Jessica Parker as Patty, a character based on Beatts’s own experience as one of the uncool kids at her Westchester County high school. As Stillman recalled for the L.A. Review of Books in 2019: “When Anne created Square Pegs, it was her policy to hire as many female writers as she could wrangle network approval for, and thus that show became the first television comedy to have mostly women writers in staff positions.” Beatts was known for writing that produced laughs wrapped around razor blades. Here, for instance, is how she described her five years at SNL: “It was a combination of summer camp and concentration camp.”
Janet Malcolm
It’s a safe bet that a few hundred thousand journalists have memorized the indelible opening sentence of Janet Malcolm’s masterpiece: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” From there The Journalist and the Murderer expanded into much more than a recounting of the duplicity of bestselling author Joe McGinniss as he put together his true-crime book Fatal Vision, the story of Green Beret Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald’s conviction for murdering his pregnant wife and their two children at Fort Bragg, N.C. Specifically, Malcolm charged that McGinniss continued to profess his belief in MacDonald’s innocence long after he had become convinced of his guilt. MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract, claiming the book was the opposite of what McGinniss had promised to write. (McGinniss wound up settling the case for $325,000.) The Journalist and the Murderer then became nothing less than a dissection of the journalist’s craft, with all of its subterfuge, slippery truths, moral equivocation, and ultimate ruthlessness. The book’s opening continues with this portrayal of the journalist at work: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Malcolm, who died on June 16 at 86, became famous for this merciless view of journalism, and in return there were journalists who were happy to be merciless toward her. After The New Yorker published The Journalist and the Murderer in two installments, these disgruntled writers pointed out that no mention had been made of the prolonged libel suit that grew out of Malcolm’s 1983 profile of the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, who claimed Malcolm had stitched together dozens of interviews and turned them into a single lunchtime monologue. Malcolm claimed that inaccurate reporting about the lawsuit turned her into “the fallen woman of journalism.” The jury concluded that Malcolm’s quotes, while flawed, were not written with reckless disregard for the truth and therefore were not libelous. But Malcolm surely would have admitted that they were laced with malice. In her book Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, Malcolm had this to say about her chosen craft: “Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse.”
Eloise Greenfield and Leon Litwack
Two writers who mined the African American experience to great effect—one for popular children’s books, the other for provocative works of history—died on Aug. 5. Eloise Greenfield, 92, grew up in a Washington, D.C., housing project, where she studied piano and buried herself in the public library. She started writing books during lulls in her drudge job as a clerk in the patent office but endured years of rejection from mainstream—that is, white—publishers. She finally broke through with the 1972 picture book for children, Bubbles, which was published by Drum and Spear Press, an independent house founded by former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Greenfield was on her way. She wound up producing more than 40 picture books, novels, poetry collections, and biographies. Through it all, Greenfield said she was guided by a simple but profound desire: “I wanted my books to enable Black children to realize how beautiful and smart they are.” But she didn’t write feel-good write fluff. Her stories drew on neighborhood drug dealers, sibling rivalries, the Great Migration, African American midwives, orphan girls, and imaginary trips to ancestral homes in Africa, and her biographies captured the lives of such luminaries as Rosa Parks and Paul Robeson. Greenfield explained her attraction to historical figures and events this way: “It is necessary for Black children to have a true knowledge of their past and present in order that they may develop an informed sense of direction for their future.”
Leon Litwack, 91, also immersed himself in African American history—specifically the Black experience of Reconstruction and its aftermath. At a time when that history was told from a largely white perspective, Litwack, the blue-collar son of Russian Jewish immigrants, took the radical step of plundering obscure archives and telling the story through the voices of the Black people who lived it. His career was launched, spectacularly, with North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, which made the discomfiting point that racial segregation was birthed not in the post-Civil War South but in the antebellum North. His most notable book was 1979’s Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Equally powerful was his last major book, 1998’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. In granular detail it delves into the survival strategies that enabled Black southerners to survive and sometimes thrive under the crushing day-to-day strictures of a separate-and-unequal world. Yet Litwack was pilloried for the very sin he spent his career trying to rectify. Writing in The Nation, the historian Nell Irvin Painter contended that Trouble in Mind portrayed “Black southerners as victims rather than Black southerners as people.” She added that the book was “stale.” In his 2005 book The Rural Face of White Supremacy: Beyond Jim Crow, Mark Schultz seconded Painter’s contention that Litwack painted the South as a region where “African Americans had for centuries been victims and rarely agents…the descendants of a long line of pawns and impotent victims, which evokes not fellow feeling but pity and condescension.” Despite such barbs, Litwack, a lover of blues music, will be remembered as a ground-breaking historian and a hugely popular professor at the University of California-Berkeley. When he gave his last lecture there in 2007, thousands of current and former students packed the hall as he strode onto the stage wearing his trademark leather jacket, the sound system blasting the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power.”
Melvin Van Peebles
To call Melvin Van Peebles a writer doesn’t begin to get it. Yes, he published novels (in French as well as English) and short fiction, he wrote and produced two Broadway musicals, and he wrote and performed spoken-word albums that presaged rap. But he also worked as a portrait painter in Mexico City, a navigator of a B-47 Air Force bomber, a Paris street performer, a San Francisco cable-car driver, an options trader in New York, a visual artist, a postal worker, and a much-in-demand gigolo. Somehow he found time to raise the money, write the script and the music, direct and play the lead role in the 1971 movie that gave birth to Blaxploitation: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The movie pimp-slapped me the first time I saw it—a Black hero working in a sex show at a brothel beats up two racist white cops and flees to Mexico…lots of blood and sex and funk music…all of it driven by gleeful fury toward the white power structure. There had never been anything close to it, and Van Peebles, who died Sept. 22 at 89, dedicated it “to all the Black brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man.” Though it opened in just two theaters, one in Detroit and the other in Atlanta, the word-of-mouth became a brush fire and the movie wound up taking in a staggering $15 million. The Black Panthers considered it “required viewing.” The NAACP loathed it. Van Peebles called it a “take-no-prisoners political manifesto,” and he was not pleased with all of its offspring, which, as he saw it, watered down the political message but kept the skin and the flash and the funk. Sweetback paved the way for generations of Black actors and directors ranging from Gordon Parks to Rudy Ray Moore, Richard Pryor, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Dominique Morisseau, and many others. After Melvin Van Peebles, the long-overdue deluge.
Robert Bly
A friend of mine interviewed Robert Bly for a documentary in the early 1990s, when his manifesto, Iron John: A Book About Men, was on top of the bestseller lists and the “men’s movement” it helped spawn was in full flower. My friend came away from that interview with a two-word verdict on Bly: “Unbelievable gasbag.” She was not the only one who felt that way. Many people mocked the men who flocked to Bly’s sylvan retreats to form drum circles and study mythology and recite poetry in an attempt to get back in touch with their innate manliness, which, according to Bly, had been watered down by the Industrial Revolution. He declared at the time: “The primary experience of the American man is to be inadequate.” In a 2000 interview with The Paris Review, Bly defended his weekend seminars: “Men we saw took a deep interest in poetry and mythology. I thought it was beautiful. The media dismissed all this work as drumming and running in the woods, which reduced it to something ridiculous.” He added that the news media missed the importance of poetry in the gatherings. “The media doesn’t want to know that,” he said. “The media has tried to paint things differently. The most powerful opponents of men’s openness are the corporate men. Three or four years ago there were hundreds of posters in New York saying, ‘You don’t need to beat a drum or hug a tree to be a man.’ At the bottom: ‘Dewar’s Whiskey.’”
Say what you will about Iron John and the men’s movement, there’s no denying that Bly’s 50 books of poetry, nonfiction, anthologies, and translations—from the Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Spanish—are fruits of a towering intelligence. His social engagement, most notably his loud and vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War, brought stinging rebukes from purists who believed poetry and politics are a poisonous pair. Bly was a co-founder of American Writers Against the Vietnam War, and when he won a National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection of poetry, The Light Around the Body, he donated the $1,000 prize to the draft resistance movement. When asked if he would spend so much time and energy protesting another Vietnam War, he replied, to his eternal credit, with one word: “Certainly.”


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

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From the first weeks of this year to the last, I was distracted from news of the plague by news of Donald Trump’s nearly successful attempt to annihilate American democracy. Once I went down that rabbit hole, there was no climbing out. I couldn’t stop reading about Trump’s inflammatory speech on Jan. 6, which led to the storming of the Capitol, the rioting, the killings, the manhunts, the arrests, the trials. The distraction was sickening but, after a year of lockdown and anti-mask squabbling and unnecessary death, it was also a weird kind of relief. The drab drumbeat of Covid news gave way to the fluorescent lunacy in and around the Capitol building—the QAnon shaman Jacob Chansley sporting his makeup, horned helmet, and hairy chest; Richard Barnett with his boot resting on Nancy Pelosi’s desk; yokels waving Confederate flags; Ashli Babbitt getting shot dead while trying to break down a door in the Capitol, then getting turned into a “martyr” and “murder victim” by people who believe they have a God-given right to storm federal property and overthrow an elected government. As the year draws to a close, my addiction shows no signs of abating. Today, for instance, I read every word about the sentencing of Brendan Hunt, the anti-Semitic white supremacist who got 19 months in prison (instead of the maximum 10 years) for online posts on the eve of the Capitol riot, urging like-minded citizens to “start up the firing squads, mow down these commies, and let’s take america back!” Two days after the riot, he posted a video entitled “KILL YOUR SENATORS.” Hunt claimed during his trial that his rants were harmless “online blathering.” He obviously fails to understand that words matter—and they can be deadly. And they carry a cost.

On a lighter note, much of my other reading this year, like last year, was research for a nonfiction book I’m writing. While this reading may have been work-related, it was also pleasurable. I get pleasure from just about everything I read, from literary novels to newspapers, letters, auto repair manuals, graphic novels, cigar catalogs, even the lists of ingredients on food labels. Califia cold brew espresso contains locust bean gum! Who knew?

My purest reading pleasure of the year was my first stab at the work of Percival Everett, the gifted, prolific, genre-bending author of some 30 works of fiction. Everett’s latest novel, The Trees, is an ingenious mash-up of broad comedy, crime yarn, ghost story, and revenge fantasy. In the town of Money, Miss., the bodies of dead white racists start showing up—alongside the battered, unidentifiable corpse of a black man with barbed wire wrapped around his neck. That mysterious corpse keeps disappearing from the morgue, then reappearing at the scene of the next murder of white victims. The murders soon spread across the country like a berserk brushfire. What’s going on here?

Astute readers by now are hearing echoes of the murder of the black teenager Emmett Till in Money in the summer of 1955, when he has kidnapped and beaten to death, then dumped in the Tallahatchie River with barbed wire wrapped around his neck. His sin? Supposedly whistling at a white woman and grabbing her inside her family’s grocery store. The matriarch of the white clan at the center of The Trees is Granny Carolyn, who goes by Granny C, tells her daughter-in-law Charlene she’s thinking, “About something I wished I hadn’t done” to a boy she describes with two racist slurs. “Oh Lawd,” Charlene replies. “We on that again.”

The past isn’t even past—and it never will be, not in Money, Miss., or anywhere else in race-haunted America. So Granny C is Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who claimed 65 summers ago that Emmett Till had whistled at her and grabbed her, which inspired her husband and his half-brother to murder Till so viciously that his corpse was not identifiable, just like the corpses that keep showing up in The Trees. What the novel doesn’t say—doesn’t need to say—is that Carolyn Bryant recently admitted to the historian Timothy Tyson that she had fabricated the story about Till’s transgression. The boy died for no reason—and her accuser is alive today, planning to publish her memoir. The novel also leaves unsaid the coda to this story, the way it turned Jim Crow on his head. Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, insisted that his coffin remain open during the funeral so strangers and press photographers could witness the appalling effects of lynching. “Let the world see what I’ve seen,” she declared. She had rendered the invisible visible, and in doing so she had appropriated white supremacists’ most potent tool of terror and turned it into the source of international outrage over lynching and other facets of Jim Crow “justice.” See his face, then say his name.

The Trees accomplishes a similar miracle. Picking up where Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley left off, Everett has made Till and the thousands of other victims of Jim Crow visible, largely through the efforts of a character named Mama Z, a 105-year-old shaman who has chronicled every lynching since she was born in 1913—and has a roomful of bulging file cabinets to prove it. She’s a 21st-century Ida B. Wells. When a cop asks her why she undertook this monstrous task of cataloging atrocity, she replies, “Because somebody has to. When I die and this place is made known, I hope it will become a monument to the dead.”

The Trees is also a monument to the dead. A welcome, timely, up-to-the-minute, hilarious, and appalling monument to the dead. Read it.

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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.