That’s Criticism: The Millions Interviews A.O. Scott


New York Times film critic A.O. Scott offers a number of definitions for criticism in his new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. In one early chapter, he describes it as a process of “loving demystification.” Elsewhere he writes, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Later, he adds the highly distilled, harder-than-it-sounds dictum: “[D]escribe what you see; tell us if it’s any good.”

In a sense, the whole book is one big, provocative, often funny definition of criticism that hops from Rainer Maria Rilke to Chuck Berry to Teju Cole’s novel Open City to Yelp to countless other thinkers and cultural artifacts. (The book’s index, from “Abramović, Marina” to “Zuckerberg, Mark,” is six and a half pages long.)

Scott pulls from an array of genres to complete the task. On some pages, the book is a philosophical treatise asking big questions like, “How do we know what we know? Why do we feel what we feel?” On others, we ride shotgun inside his mind as he walks through the Louvre, pondering all of the layers of the place’s meaning. Interspersed with these chapters are self-interviews that read like modern Platonic dialogues seasoned with bits of memoir and odes to Pixar films. And, by book’s end, aspiring critics even find a bit of how-to wisdom. “To resort to the supremely empty word ‘compelling,’” Scott writes in a memorable anti-adjective riff, “is to confess that you have nothing to say.”

In short, Better Living is a book you should read if you want to feel like you’re talking about art and ideas with a low-key, yet scary-smart, guy who seems to have heard every record, read every book, pondered every painting, and seen every movie ever released. And The Millions did just that, last week, when we spoke with Scott over the phone.

The Millions: So, is this your debut book?

A.O. Scott: It is, indeed. I have contributed to a few books. I edited a collection of essays by Mary McCarthy some time ago, but this is the first book I’ve actually written and published.

TM: I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit, because I remember — and I went back and checked the time, it was 10 years ago — you wrote a piece about novels in The Times that ended with a note that said, “He is writing a book on the American novel since World War II.” I don’t want to bring up a sore spot but…

AOS: No, it’s fine. [Laughing]

TM: Is that book still in the works?

AOS: Uh, no. Before I started working at The Times, I was a book critic. And I kind of had this very grand idea, because no one had done it; no one had written, I thought, written a kind of big, sweeping, synthetic, critical, popular book about the American novel after the Second World War. So, being kind of young and arrogant and stupid, I thought I could do it.

And I was working on the proposal and getting it ready, and then I got this job at The Times, sort of by surprise. And being young and arrogant and stupid, I figured, “Oh, no problem. I can be a film critic in the morning and write the definitive history of the American novel since World War II in the afternoon.” And it didn’t really work out. I sort of kept at it, as much as I could, for as long as I could, but at a certain point I had to put it aside. And the publisher was very, very patient for a long time, and then, at a certain point, they were just like, “Look, this is probably not going to happen.” So I’ve moved on from that. But for a long time, yes, it was in my bio and you’re not the first or the last person to ask, “Hey, what about that book?”

TM: I don’t mean to be That Guy who says, “How’s that book coming along?” But, thankfully, we have a great new book we can talk about. And my first question is kind of a loaded question, given what you do and the subject of this book: have you been reading the reviews?

AOS: I’ve been reading all of the reviews. I sort of made a vow that it would be very hypocritical of me to avoid the reviews. I’ve been dishing it out for 20 years or more, in various ways, so I’d better be able to take it. And I have to say I have really enjoyed reading the reviews, including the less glowing reviews. I mean, it’s very nice to read a review like Michael Wood’s that appeared in The New York Times, which I was not tipped off about. It was great to read that in the paper.

But it’s also been really interesting to me to read some of the other, less glowing ones. Because I find that this is a book that — it’s about criticism, so I was hoping all along, in a way, that critics would have something to say about it. And I kind of suspected that a number of them — because we all do it in our own different ways, and have different ideas about how it should be done — that a lot of my colleagues would take issue with it.

TM: Let’s go back to the beginning. Why write this book?

AOS: Well, I’d been thinking about it for a long time, obviously. It’s in my nature to reflect on what I do. And over the years, I’ve written a couple pieces — as I think a lot of critics do — every once in a while, you’ll write an essay either defending what you do from people who complain about critics or trying to explain what critics do, or, as often is the case, complaining about other critics and how they do it wrong. But I hadn’t really thought about it comprehensively.

[And] I think what sparked it was there was a moment around 2010, 2011, which I think was one of many moments of kind of digital triumphalism, where print was collapsing, newspapers were going under right and left, and there was all of this cool stuff coming up. Social media was really on the rise and there were all of these powerful algorithms and there were sites like Yelp and there were Amazon reviews and there was user-generated content. And there was Twitter. And there was Facebook. And there was a certain amount being written and said about, “Well, this means that we don’t needs critics. Critics are finally obsolete. We don’t need people from ivory towers bossing us around and telling us what to like. We’re all just going to like what we like and we’ll hit the ‘Like’ button and share it with our friends. And we’ll do our own thing. We’ll be our own critics.”

And I thought, “Well, that’s really interesting.” I wondered if that was true. I thought, “Well, am I the last of the breed on my way out? Is this thing that I’ve enjoyed doing so much, that’s sort of been my vocation and my job — is that over?” So I kind of sat down to try to think about that and to try to think about it in as unprejudiced way as I could. Not to be just defensive and not say, “Oh, all you people on the Internet are…idiots. Who gave you the right to have these opinions?”

I didn’t want to just be defending my job and its prerogatives. But I wanted to explain, first of all to myself, what criticism was. Where does it come from? Why does it exist? Why do people do it? How is it a job? How is it something other than a job? How is it something that exists independently of the careers and professions of people like me?

TM: And then Samuel L. Jackson picked a fight with you.

AOS: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was pretty early. I had been working on this I guess for about a year. And it was a great gift. Because one of the things I’d been thinking about was why people seem to hate critics so much. Because you hear it a lot, if you review stuff, whatever you review, people get mad at you and people want you to go away. And people think you’re ruining their fun or you’re just some kind of egghead spoilsport raining on everyone’s parade.

So I wrote a review of The Avengers. And it was actually not an entirely negative review, by any means. It was, I thought, very measured and balanced and fair. And I really like the cast of that movie a lot, including Samuel L. Jackson. But it was also…I was complaining about the blockbuster imperative and the way that all of these movies, that whatever talent or wit or intelligence or originality that they seem to have often seems kind of compromised by the need to make them these big tent pole, giant-sized-blockbuster, globally profitable movies. And Samuel L. Jackson went on Twitter and said, “Avengers fans, we need to find A.O. Scott a new job — one he can actually do.” Which I thought was very funny. Because, I’d been thinking about it, [while] researching and starting to write this book, “Well, what is my job? How does one actually do it?”

And so I tweeted something back and it turned into one of those little Twitter tempests. Which are always hilarious. For about 12 hours, everyone is obsessed about it. And entertainment writers are writing about it. “Oh! A.O. Scott and Samuel L. Jackson!” And then it sort of moves on and people forget about it.

Interestingly, he didn’t forget about it. He came back in an interview like six months later, in The Huffington Post to elaborate on his problems with me and my review and with how critics, in his view, don’t get movies like The Avengers. And that was very useful to me, too. That really gave me material to work with and kind of helped me to think about and to write about, “Well, what is the nature of the subject? What is the tension between fans and critics? Or between artists and critics? What is the problem with thinking hard about popular culture?”

TM: That strain of hating critics and the idea of “There have never been any statues erected for critics” is strong in our culture, and you talk about it in the book. But I can think of at least one person who bucked the trend, and I know he’s someone you knew, because you appeared in the documentary about him. And that was Roger Ebert, who was perhaps the most beloved critic our culture has seen. What did people love so much about him, do you think?

AOS: It’s fascinating how that happened. And I’m not sure he was always loved. I think he grew into that and the audience grew to appreciate him over the years. And I think it’s partly because Roger was both — and I don’t think any other critic, maybe, has done this quite as well — he was both an extremely sophisticated and intelligent and knowledgeable judge and analyst of movies. I mean, he knew more about film history, more about cinematic form, more about how movies work than whole faculties at film departments in universities. He could have taught any course on film at any university. And he sometimes did.

But he was also a thoroughly democratic — small “d” — person. He had this kind of Midwestern, populist, public-spirited ethic. He never left the Chicago Sun-Times. He certainly didn’t need that salary after his TV show took off. He could have gone to any newspaper or magazine in the country. But he stayed at the Sun-Times, which is a blue-collar paper in Chicago. And he wrote in very plain, accessible language. And he never condescended to readers. And he never dumbed down his ideas.

People know him from television. He was a wonderful television personality. But if you read his writing, you see the open-mindedness and the generosity of spirit and the humanism, the feeling like he’s a person talking to you. He saw this movie, you saw this movie, and you’re having a conversation about it. He embodied that idea of criticism, which for me is a very, very attractive and important one, better than anyone else.

And I think it’s interesting when you look back at the film critics of the past, there are certainly giant and important figures. People talk about Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris as certainly the big ones of the ’60s and ’70s. I think of that period of the later 20th century, he turned out to be the giant. He turned out to be the one who really figured how to write with maximum intelligence and literary acumen about this popular art form that everybody loves.

TM: I recently saw Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, and he dedicated the movie to him! It’s like the inverse of your Samuel L. Jackson feud. It’s almost unimaginable.

AOS: It is. When Roger died, I went on Charlie Rose to talk about him with Dana Stevens, the film critic from Slate, and Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog was there by video feed from Los Angeles — he was this kind of giant floating head in the Charlie Rose studio. And he was talking about, in a classic Werner Herzog way, about how Roger Ebert was a “soldier of cinema” and a “warrior for ecstatic truth.” And I thought, “Well, yeah. You know, that’s about right.”

TM: The title of your book suggests almost a kind of self-help impulse. How can criticism — either consuming it or producing it — make our lives better?

AOS: There is a self-help component. It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously. But not entirely. And I think that what I’m arguing for, what I’m arguing that criticism provides or that criticism is, is a more thorough and thoughtful and open-minded engagement with our own experience, beginning — and particularly in this book — with our experience of works of art and products of culture.

These things are very powerful and complicated and sometimes mysterious vessels of meaning and emotion and products of human intention, and we need to take them seriously. We need to take our own experiences and our own pleasures seriously. We need to learn, I think, to think outside our own prejudices and to open our minds and our senses to what the world has to offer.

And I guess what I think of criticism as really being is that kind of thinking, that approach to experience, that approach to life. It’s different from — because art is different from — politics or morality or religion or any of these other things. But it is one of the things, one of the modes of expression and experience, that fulfills our lives.

TM: And, at the same time, the book is very good about telling people how much they are already doing criticism in their everyday lives.

AOS: For me, criticism starts with the conversation that you have about your experience. So, it can be a conversation in your head, or a literal conversation with other people. But I always think for me, movie criticism, long before I was a professional movie critic, [was] the experience of going to a movie with your friends and then arguing about it in the coffee shop or the bar afterwards. Or, in less pleasant scenarios, getting in a huge fight with your date about what a good movie is about. [Laughs.] That’s criticism.

When we take things seriously and react to them and think about what happened to us: Why do you love this song? Why do you play it over and over and over again? How are these things so meaningful to us? When you binge-watch a certain television show and you can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it and you go online and read the recaps. Or you go on Facebook with your friends and try to hash out, “What did that episode mean?” “What happened?” Or the kind of cliché of the “water cooler conversation.” That’s criticism. We’re doing it. It’s kind of wired into us. Something happens — we see something, we feel something — we want to make sense about it. We want to talk about it.

TM: In a recent Times piece that’s adapted from the book, you wrote, “The days of the all-powerful critic are over.” But, you still must have a pretty significant amount of power, as one of the lead critics in The Times. How much power do you feel you have? And, if at all, does that affect the way you go about doing your job?

AOS: I try not to think about it as I go about my job. I think it would be really paralyzing and it would kind of make me a bad person if I thought about that. You know, “I’m the mighty critic of The New York Times. I’m going to make you or break you, you little movie.” I have the good fortune and the luxury to be able to do most of my writing at home. So I can kind of pretend that this mighty institution —

TM: You mean you don’t have an office in the top floor of The New York Times skyscraper?

AOS: No. I have a little cubicle on the fourth floor. Which is basically where there are piles of books and DVDs. But I mostly am working from home in Brooklyn, so I can pretend I’m just like every other writer in Brooklyn, sitting with my laptop, either at home or in the coffee shop.

But I like to think that the power of critics is like the power of any other writer. It’s, finally, the power of persuasion. I might have influence to the extent that what I write can make sense to people and can make a strong argument and persuade them, at least, of the value of what I’m saying, of the complete truth of it. And I think where that influence, let’s say, comes from is the idea that a critic is an independent and honest voice in the culture.

Which doesn’t mean [a critic is] always right. I’m only one person doing my best to make sense of things and, to a very large extent, what I’m writing comes out of my own subjective experience, and my own views, and maybe my own biases, and my own history. But I’m trying to turn that into something, into some writing that people can find useful and that also is not — and I think this is very important and this is why criticism does matter in the world we live in now — that it’s not part of the machinery of advertising and publicity and marketing. That it’s independent.

Movie studios are able to flood the media with all kinds of publicity and promotion and marketing and advertising, including some that happens kind of under the guise of journalism. They can get lots of soft, appreciative features and profiles. And they can send the stars out onto the talk shows and stuff and create a climate of reception for these movies. And it’s important to have voices in the mix that can be heard that are speaking independently and truthfully about that.

Going back to Roger Ebert, the great appeal of that show, one of the ways that it lasted as long as it did, was that it was a place where people could go to hear two guys speaking their mind, speaking honestly and without compromise about movies.

TM: You talk in the book about a critic who “had seen too many movies.” Surely you’ve seen an extraordinary number of movies. How do you avoid that ailment?

AOS: I think the movies help a lot. The fact that there are so many of them and there’s such a variety and there are so many different kinds. And sometimes I can choose my assignments in a way that will refresh my sense of what the movies have to offer. For example, this year, after November and December and the Oscar movies, I was sort of exhausted and I was a little tapped-out with Hollywood movies, although I liked a lot of them. And so in the first month of the year, I was lucky enough to be able to review — I think in the month of January I reviewed only foreign-language films.

And it wasn’t that I loved all of them. Some of them I really liked; some of them were a little disappointing or flawed in some way. But they were different. They gave me another kind of filmmaking to think about. Different aesthetic questions…different kinds of stories. They came from different places. And the movies offer that variety. In a given week, I will review a documentary, a big blockbuster, a low-budget horror movie, a movie from Iceland or Mexico or China. So that keeps it very fresh and I’ve always thought that, the point at which I get tired, the point at which I get jaded, the point at which I start to think that’s it’s all been done, that all of the great or interesting movies are in the past, that’s when I should stop and get out of the way and let someone else do it.

You don’t necessarily have to be a starry-eyed Pollyanna. But it’s important to keep faith in the art form. To not get cynical. To not get jaded. To not get nostalgic. And sometime, when I take vacations, I have to just not see any movies. [Laughs.] You know, go sit on an island off the coast of Maine and look at the water for a week.

TM: Do you think there’s a viable path to becoming a professional critic today? What would you say to a student taking one of your classes [Scott is a Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University] who comes up to you — maybe this has happened — and says, “I want to be a critic. What do I do?”

AOS: It has happened. And it’s definitely a challenging time to embark on any kind of writing career or journalistic career. Although I think that things are maybe looking a little better than they were, say, four or five years ago when it just seemed like it was all bottoming out. But one thing is: people like to be sort of gloomy and nostalgic, but it’s never been — it’s not like any guidance counselor would ever have pointed a young person in a direction and said, “Oh yeah, film criticism. That’s the ticket. That’s the way to go.” It’s always been an uphill climb.

But I think that there are way more entry points and fewer barriers to entry than there used to be to getting your work out there, to getting your voice heard. There may also be fewer ways to get paid. And that’s kind of always the paradox of the Internet: you have this access, but how to monetize your content, as they say, is always the challenge.

But I have one example of a student of mine, from the first year I taught the course at Wesleyan. A brilliant student who followed a lot of critics and writers on Twitter and would get in these conversations and had these really smart things to say in 140 characters. And at a certain point, one of the people she was following and talking with about movies and TV was an editor at The Daily Beast who got in touch with her and said, “Hey, you want to write something?” And she’s been writing for that and for other outlets for a while now. I didn’t advise her [on any of that]; I can take no credit at all.

TM: It’s a modern-day Cinderella story.

AOS: It sort of is a modern Cinderella story. And the lesson is not about how to make a Twitter profile. But it was encouraging to me, because I thought, “If you have something to say, and you’re smart, and right, you can find ways to knock at the doors and to get noticed.” I mean, it doesn’t work all the time. It’s hard. There can be a long period of frustration, of not getting noticed or of having to kind of struggle to find an outlet. But in a way that’s no different.

I can remember when I was starting out, I was writing book criticism instead of film criticism. But I had one clip and I sent it out to like 60 different people and I heard nothing. But then I eventually heard from someone and got another assignment and another clip [and] slowly, slowly, slowly built something. But even then I remember talking to one editor I’d been writing for, when I was just kind of starting to get a taste for writing criticism in magazines and newspapers and stuff. And he said, “Well, you know, it’s impossible to make a living.” So that’s always been true. And yet people do.

TM: For people out there who are skeptical that criticism is an art form, in and of itself, how would you try to persuade them?

AOS: I would persuade them by saying, “Have a look at the theatre chronicles of Mary McCarthy, the music criticism of Greil Marcus, the film criticism of James Agee and Pauline Kael, and just about anything Susan Sontag ever wrote.”

I mean, if that’s not art, I don’t know what is.

The Corporate Drug Cartel: On Sam Quinones’s ‘Dreamland’

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Pick a state, any state.

In California, heroin-related hospital visits are surging. In Massachusetts, more than 1,000 people died from opiate-related ODs last year. In Missouri, the number of heroin-related deaths recently doubled. In Ohio, heroin deaths are reaching record highs. Meanwhile, “Heroin deaths in Connecticut continue to skyrocket, a burgeoning, exploding crisis that requires immediate, substantial attention,” a U.S. senator recently warned.

In Oregon, former beauty queens are busted for possession of heroin, which officials call the state’s top drug threat. In Utah, authorities say a recent mammoth heroin bust represents “a real shift in the narcotics problem.” In North Carolina, magazines ask, “Why are kids…from Charlotte’s wealthy neighborhoods and good schools, turning to the deadliest drugs?” In Rhode Island, the number of babies born addicted (“most commonly [to] opioids like prescription pain medications or heroin”) almost doubled between 2005 and 2012. In Vermont, the governor spent his entire 2014 “State of the State” address talking about a single subject. ”What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” he said, as he began.

This is America in 2015, and as Sam Quinones describes in his astonishing, monumental new book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, we’re in the midst of “the worst drug scourge to ever hit the country,” measuring by its death toll. Unlike the heroin plague of the 1970s or the crack epidemic of the 1980s, however, the current disaster is “happening quietly,” he writes. This has a lot to do with the population perhaps hardest hit: middle-class and affluent white folks. Shock and shame are powerful silencers.

“Children of the most privileged group in the wealthiest country in the history of the world were getting hooked and dying in almost epidemic numbers from substances meant to, of all things, numb pain,” he writes. “Crime was at historic lows, drug overdose deaths at record highs. A happy facade covered a disturbing reality.”

Dreamland is really two stories, divided by a prescription pad. On one side is the painkiller OxyContin, which clocked a reported $3.1 billion in annual sales, even after its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, paid a $634.5 million criminal fine in 2007 for misleading marketing practices. On the other side is a “sticky dark substance known as ‘black tar,’ a semi-processed heroin.” Chemically, the substances aren’t so different.

The story of black tar heroin traces back to a small, dirt-poor town in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Xalisco wouldn’t be noteworthy were it not a staging area for what Quinones — a former veteran L.A. Times reporter, who writes with clarity and confidence — describes as a “new kind of drug trafficking in America.” The trafficking system took root outside Los Angeles, in the late 1980s and ’90s and has since spread to San Diego, Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Indianapolis, Nashville, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and other cities. If you’ve heard about heroin in your town, there’s a good chance it came from opium poppies growing in the Mexican mountains.

The Xalisco Boys aren’t the flashy, gun-slinging gangsters you’ve seen in Hollywood films, though. The network’s foot soldiers — a near-endless supply of farm boys eager to make cash to send or bring back home — are polite, nonviolent, salaried, and sober. Their product is cheap and pure, and “Their job is to drive the city with their mouths full of little uninflated balloons of black tar heroin, twenty-five or thirty at a time in one mouth,” Quinones writes. “They look like chipmunks…[with] a bottle of water at the ready so if police pull them over, they swig the water and swallow the balloons.” Quinones, who has written two previous books about Mexico, is particularly good at taking us inside the minds of these low-level dealers. “Back in the ranchos, nothing said that a man had moved up in the world like walking around in public in dark-blue [Levi’s] 501s,” he writes.

In one of the book’s more captivating chapters, he describes the establishment of a “cell” in Columbus, Ohio, from the perspective of regional manager identified as “the Man.” After arriving in town, the Man sends for more “kids from Xalisco,” finds a car lot willing to swap for new delivery cars every few months, and establishes twice-daily shifts of drivers who meet addicts at Burger King and in Kmart parking lots. Soon, the Man has to hire a tailor in L.A. to sew custom underwear for female members of his crew. “For more than a year, he sent two girls a month back to Mexico with a hundred thousand dollars in pure Columbus, Ohio, profit tucked in their corsets.”

To addicts across the U.S., the little balloons from Xalisco Boys “became a brand every bit as dependable as a Coke can or a Holiday Inn sign,” Quinones reports. And the distribution network — which lacked a central power structure that could be easily toppled — grew resilient enough to absorb the largest joint DEA/FBI operation in U.S. history, involving more than 180 arrests in a dozen cities. After “Operation Tar Pit,” heroin deliveries in Santa Fe paused only for a day.

In the other half of Dreamland, Quinones takes readers over some of the terrain New York Times reporter Barry Meier mapped in his 2003 book on OxyContin, Pain Killer: A “Wonder” Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death. Quinones introduces readers to the man Meier called a “scientific superstar:” Dr. Russell Portenoy, a pain expert and opiate evangelist who helped usher in an era when patients’ pain is measured as a “fifth vital sign” alongside temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. We also meet Arthur Sackler, the fantastically rich (and now deceased) co-owner of Purdue Pharma whom Meier described as a hybrid M.D.-adman who, many believed, “cloaked his pursuit of profit and power behind the veil of science and research.”

Dreamland picks up the same threads that Meier explored, and Quinones’s chapter-long riff on OxyContin’s rise is a masterpiece. I would reprint here it in full, if I could; it’s that important and well reported. But I’ll just quote a passage in which he frames the story:

The decade of the 1990s was the era of the blockbuster drug, the billion-dollar pill, and a pharmaceutical sales force arms race was a part of the excess of the time. The industry’s business model was based on creating a pill – for cholesterol, depression, pain, or impotence — and then promoting it with growing numbers of salespeople. During the 1990s and into the next decade, Arthur Sackler’s vision of pharmaceutical promotion reached its most exquisite expression as drug companies hired ever-larger sales teams. In 1995, 35,000 Americans were pharmaceutical sales reps. Ten years later, a record 110,000 people — Sackler’s progeny all — were traveling the country selling legal drugs in America.

Quinones adds layers of nauseating detail: the exorbitant bonuses for Purdue salespeople who peddled OxyContin to primary-care docs under-trained in treating chronic pain; the promotional videos that under-reported the pill’s addictive potential (never vetted by the FDA, as they ought to have been); the OxyContin-branded hats, toys, mugs, golf balls, CDs, pads, and pens that rained down on doctors; the Purdue lawyers who made phone calls to folks talking candidly about addiction in small-town newspapers. At one point, during a 2007 sentencing hearing for Purdue executives, the mother of an OxyContin overdose victim tells them, “You are nothing more than a large corporate drug cartel.”

Dreamland’s chapters jump in time and place from a heroin trafficker’s childhood in Nayarit to a legless addict in Portland, Ore. to a grief-stricken parent in Southern Ohio, and so on. It’s an ambitious approach reminiscent of Eugene Jarecki’s sweeping 2012 documentary, The House I Live In, which offered a devastating, pointillist portrait of the War on Drugs, through interviews with professors from Ohio State and Harvard, drug cops from Florida to New Mexico, a federal judge in Iowa, and a prisoner in Oklahoma who tells Jarecki, “I have life without parole for three ounces of methamphetamine.” In Dreamland, so many names, facts, and breakdowns of complex concepts can be overwhelming, at times; I found myself pausing to give my brain a chance to breathe.

But such a wide-reaching approach seems necessary to convey the “catastrophic synergy” when the paths of Purdue Pharma and the Xalisco Boys cross. “And so it went,” he writes:

OxyContin [came] first, introduced by reps from Purdue Pharma over steak and dessert and in air-conditioned doctors’ offices. Within a few years, black tar heroin followed in tiny, uninflated balloons held in the mouths of sugarcane farm boys from Xalisco driving old Nissan Sentras to meet-ups in McDonald’s parking lots…

“I’ve yet to find one who didn’t start with OxyContin, [a family physician in Southern Ohio] said. “They wouldn’t be selling this quantity of heroin on the street right now if they hadn’t made these decisions in the boardroom.”

The U.S. will never solve its deadly opiate epidemic if we don’t first admit we have a problem. And Dreamland is one of those rare books that’s big and vivid and horrifying enough to shake up our collective consciousness. In that sense, its comparable to Nick Reding’s 2009 book, Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town, which landed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review thanks to a Walter Kirn review quoting Reding’s description of what it’s like inside an exploding meth lab: “His skin was dripping off his body in sheets…His nose was all but gone now, too, and he ran back and forth among the gathered neighbors, unable to scream, for his esophagus and his voice box had cooked inside his throat.”

Methland covers different ground than Dreamland, chemically and geographically. But it’s a similar attempt to sweep startling images into readers’ minds. Consider these passages from the books’ introductions. First, an excerpt from Dreamland, after Quinones describes the heroin overdose death of a private-school-educated 21 year old from Columbus, Ohio:

Drug overdoses were killing more people every year than car accidents…Kids were dying in the Rust Belt of Ohio and the Bible Belt of Tennessee. Some of the worst of it was in Charlotte’s best country club enclaves. It was in Mission Viejo and Simi Valley in suburban Southern California, and in Indianapolis, Salt Lake, and Albuquerque, in Oregon and Minnesota and Oklahoma and Alabama. For each of the thousands who died every year, many hundreds more were addicted.

Via pills, heroin had entered the mainstream. The new addicts were football players and cheerleaders; football was almost a gateway to opiate addiction. Wounded soldiers returned from Afghanistan hooked on pain pills and died in America. Kids got hooked in college and died there. Some of these addicts were from rough corners of rural Appalachia. But many more were from the U.S. middle class. They lived in communities where the driveways were clean, the cars were new, and the shopping centers attracted congregations of Starbucks, Home Depot, CVS, and Applebee’s. They were the daughters of preachers, the sons of cops and doctors, the children of contractors and teachers and business owners and bankers.

This section from Methland, meanwhile, follows an idyllic description of Oelwein, Iowa, (population 6,772), where much of the book is set:

And yet, things are not entirely what they seem. On a sultry May evening, with…temperatures approaching ninety degrees at dusk, pass by the Perk and Hub City on the way into Oelwein’s tiny Ninth Ward. Look down at the collapsing sidewalk, or across the vacant lot at a burned-out home. At the Conoco station, just a few blocks south of Sacred Heart [Catholic Church], a young man in a trench coat picks through the Dumpster, shaking despite the heat. Here, amid the double-wides of the Ninth Ward, among the packs of teenage boys riding, gang-like, on their Huffy bicycles, the economy and culture of Oelwein are more securely tied to a drug than to either of the two industries that have forever sustained the town: farming and small business. This is the part of Oelwein, and of the small-town United States, not visible from the plane window as the flat stretch of the country rolls by. After sundown in the Ninth Ward, the warm, nostalgic light that had bathed the nation beneath a late-afternoon transcontinental flight is gone.

Against the oppressive humidity, the night’s spells begin to take shape. Mixed with the moist, organic scent of cut grass at dew point is the ether-stink of methamphetamine cooks at work in their kitchens. Main Street, just three blocks distant, feels as far away as Chicago. For life in Oelwein is not, in fact, a picture-postcard amalgamation of farms and churches and pickup trucks, Fourth of July fireworks and Nativity scenes, bake sales and Friday-night football games. Nor is life simpler or better or truer here than it is in Los Angeles or New York or Tampa or Houston. Life in the small-town United States has, though, changed considerably in the last three decades…Main Street was no longer divided between Leo’s and the Do Drop Inn, or between the Perk and the Bakery: it was partitioned between the farmer and the tweaker.

There is a David Lynch-y vibe to both of these passages, where, like in Twin Peaks or the opening sequence of Blue Velvet, we zoom in on wholesome archetypes to find them broken, corrupted — a Norman Rockwell painting on a rotting canvas. But there’s a key difference between Lynch’s work and Pain Killer, Methland, and Dreamland, which, together, make a searing nonfiction triptych of 21st-century American life. Switching off the TV won’t make these stories disappear.

Becoming James Brown: On RJ Smith’s The One

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RJ Smith doesn’t draw an exact line marking when James Brown, the 5’6” son of a South Carolina turpentine maker, became James Brown, Sex Machine/Black Elvis/Mr. Please, Please, Please/etc. But I will.

It happens about a third of the way through Smith’s remarkable new book, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. Brown’s smash album, Live at the Apollo, has just spent 66 weeks on the pop charts, vaulting the performer from the sweaty dives of the chitlin’ circuit into a higher, neon-lit level of exposure. Money is pouring in fast enough for Brown to buy a mansion in Queens with a moat, and, after $65,000 in renovations, an interior lined with faux leather and pictures of himself. The singer has renovated his body, too. He pays a California dentist to fix the gap between his teeth and hires a traveling hairstylist to whirl his hair into shining bouffant praised, in the slang of the time, as “expoobident.”

Meanwhile, Brown’s tour is becoming more militaristic. He hires goons to clear the way to and from shows. Onstage, he fines his musicians for missed notes or wrinkled uniforms. Offstage, he is armed and ready. “You notice how many pictures of James Brown, he’s got a coat over his arm?” the Rev. Al Sharpton asks, in the book. “That’s because he had his gun under it.”

Most importantly, Brown is leaving behind blues, rock, doo-wop, and gospel in favor of a raw sound filled with screams, popping bass, and furious counter-rhythms. He is inventing the genre we currently refer to as “funk.” Smith describes the singer’s February 1965 stop in at a converted barn in Charlotte, N.C., where a control booth sits in the old hayloft. “It was time to record a tricky piece of rhythm Brown had been thinking about for a while,” he writes:

The musicians set up, playing this and that while waiting for the boss to arrive. Finally, Brown’s customized white Cadillac with the tinted windows appeared, and the singer swaggered in. “He stopped the place. You just knew that somebody of significance was present,” said Clay Smith, Arthur’s [the owner of the studio] boy. Constantly in motion and talking so fast he could have used a translator, Brown was not one of the guys. “James was in charge,” Arthur Smith remembered later. “I knew I owned the studio, but I knew he was going to do what he wanted to there.”

What Brown wanted to do was lay down a strutting, macho anthem marked by explosions of brass and a guitar that sounds like chrome wheels spinning. He hums a melody to the sax player and a bass line to the bassist. He thumps out a beat for the drummer. He watches a trumpet player struggle, fires him, then re-hires him moments later. And when the singer is ready, he screams out a set of lyrics scratched on a sheet of paper. The song is called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

“Keep on Fighting” is the title of the chapter in which all of this takes place. And no matter how many superhero movies you have seen, the transformation it describes is exhilarating. Like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman or Clark Kent becoming Superman, we have just watched James Brown become Soul Brother Number One.

A former Los Angeles magazine editor and contributor to Blender, Spin, and The Village Voice, Smith is not the flashiest, most purely talented writer to take on the Godfather of Soul. That title, I believe, goes to Jonathan Lethem for his dazzling 2006 Rolling Stone profile, “Being James Brown.” (More on that in a minute.) In the beginning of The One, Smith struggles slightly to find the tone to tell this story. Some of his images fall flat, like when he writes that the chord structure of “Cold Sweat” was “as visionary and protean as Frida Kahlo’s one eyebrow.” At other times, his voice cracks when he reaches beyond his natural range. His description of the “lachrymose mood” of Brown’s early ballad “Try Me” feels over-academic for a performer as lusty and physical as Brown. Elsewhere, Smith sounds uncomfortably un-academic. After a street fight with estranged band members early in his career, Smith ventures inside Brown’s head. “At least them motherfuckers weren’t gonna be calling him Monk Brown to his face anymore,” he writes, in an ill-advised estimation of J.B.’s inner monologue.

As a funk nerd (an oxymoron, but still true), I have other quibbles with the book. I would have liked to learn more about the nine children Brown fathered with nearly as many mothers. We see them playing Monopoly with real money during one scene, then suing for royalties later on, and that’s about it. I would have also relished a glimpse or two more inside the marathon, early-’70s recording sessions that produced “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing,” “Mind Power,” and other predecessors of modern hip-hop.

But, it would be unfair to judge Smith’s book on a few slip-ups, especially when the majority of the book feels so good. Like his subject, Smith is man of stamina and drive. The fruits of his prodigious reporting are evident on every page: a secret tape of Richard Nixon whining “I don’t want any more blacks, and I don’t want any more Jews, between now and the election,” before a visit from Brown at the White House; a heartwrenching moment when Brown’s guitarist, Jimmy Nolen, asks his wife to pass on a message to Brown after Nolen’s death. “’The next person you get to work for you,’ the wife dutifully reports to The Godfather, ‘I hope you treat them better than you did us.’”

These facts and details provide a driving, powerful rhythm for the book, and, over time, the story seeps into your bones. In a scene that is jarringly reminiscent of the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we learn that, as a young man in Augusta, Ga., Brown was blindfolded and thrust into a boxing ring for a “battle royal,” while wealthy white men smoked cigars and looked on. Later in Brown’s career, we learn that country musicians in Nashville recorded a white-response to “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” with the lyrics, “I’m proud and I’m white with a song to sing…” We are also there inside Brown’s Learjet when the engine stalls and the plane begins to drop precipitously. After the engines kick back in, Brown calmly turned to an acquaintance and asks if he was scared. When the man says, “Yes,” Brown responds, “It’s not your time. You with me.”

Smith’s reporting is never better than his account of the singer’s 1967 trip to perform for troops in Vietnam. From the USO press release describing “primitive and somewhat savage” beat of  Brown’s music to a walkie-talkie squawking, “Get ’em out of there, there’s a mortar attack coming in” as the band traveled between shows, we are not simply reading, anymore. We are being hauled across time and space to an amphitheatre carved out of a hillside east of Saigon:

At the end of a song, from behind the stage, the musicians suddenly heard the unmistakable ack-ack-ack of American guns firing on VC to the rear. Everybody was watching the band, and now they were really watching, as confusion and then anxiety played across the musicians’ faces. Finally, one of the guys sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage spoke to the band: “Aw, don’t worry. We won’t let Charlie get ya!” And then Brown took the microphone and continued the show: “Hit me!”

Indeed, it Smith’s dogged research that leads to the book’s greatest achievement. James Brown was a man who went to extreme lengths to conceal any signs of weakness. The author includes plenty of examples of this — going back on tour the day after his son Teddy’s funeral, for example — but he also provides access to the man during rare moments of distress. We watch Brown nearly knock out his teeth as he learns the tip-the-mic-drop-to-a-split-then-bounce-back-catch-the-mic trick that would later appear effortless. As his grip on the singles charts weakens in the late 1970s, we see him tell his trombonist, Fred Wesley, to write knockoffs of other artists’ hits, like David Bowie’s “Fame.” (This was “a head-scratcher,” Smith writes, “because ‘Fame’ itself is a pale version of Brown’s 1970s sound.”) And when the IRS comes searching for millions in unpaid taxes we watch the collision of Brown’s colossal ego with one of the few forces strong enough to tame it. With the government threatening to throw a padlock on his mansion, Brown summons his accountant, Fred Daviss, to downtown Augusta one night, where they sit quietly in the singer’s van. His hair was tousled. He was sweating. “Finally, he reached under the seat and pulled out a sack of money, like he was extracting a molar,” Smith writes. “’Hold on to it as long as you can,’ he told Daviss, ‘But then pay ’em.’”

“Someday, someone will write a great biography of James Brown,” Lethem wrote in Rolling Stone in 2006. “It will by necessity, though, be more than a biography. It will be the history of a half-century of the contradictions and tragedies embodied in the fate of African Americans in the New World; it will be a parable, even of the contradictions of the individual in the capitalist society, portentous as that may sound.”

Smith has written such a book: a clear, linear, trustworthy account of one of the most complex and influential musicians in American history. His biography upholds the mystique of a man whom characters in the book call “black messiah,” “the personification of Blackness,” “the ultimate god of funk,” a man with “more musical genius than Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart put together,” and, in the case of a disgruntled former drummer, “a black Hitler.” At the same time, it gamely steers through the cloud of myth and misinformation that Lethem identified as “The James Brown Zone of Confusion,” and returns the singer back to earth.

Toward the end of Brown’s life, the author ushers readers into a new James Brown Zone of Confusion — one based entirely in reality. The elderly Brown’s life was marked, on one hand, by laurels from the Kennedy Center and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, on the other, ever-stranger behavior due to drug abuse. The collision of these two worlds, as Smith reports, was often surreal. At one point Brown gets a young Wall Street investment banker to secure a $30 million loan against his future music royalties. When they meet each other to finalize the deal, Brown asks the startled banker, “You ever smoke gorilla [PCP]?”

All of this is not to say that The One is the “definitive biography of James Brown,” as the book’s promotional copy reads. Such a book will never exist. Smith’s book is not a substitute for Fred Wesley’s indispensable, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman or many of the pieces (including Lethem’s) in 2008’s The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul. “Entire forests have been decimated to build the newsprint mountain that recounts his exploits, declarations, and influence,” wrote Nelson George in the introduction to that anthology. The term “definitive” attempts to seal off a man whose music, if not his heart, still thumps on.

On vinyl, on YouTube, and in the musical DNA of countless current performers, James Brown lives for a new generation of writers like me, who want to drop to the floor in splits; to dance, scream, and sweat, in his honor. RJ Smith has perhaps gone further than any writer before in telling this man’s story, but his book is not definitive. It is merely expoobident.

Image Credit: Wikipedia