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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

This week's Book Review is so entertaining that it may have undermined my critical fortitude. The issue has a non-seasonal theme, and a title to go with it: "Bad Boys, Mean Girls, Revolutionaries, Outlaws, and Beautiful Losers." It's an irresistible rubric.

Bad Boys

Not being plugged in to the deeper layers of New York's media culture, I don't know just why the Review invited filmmaker John Waters to write an appreciation of Tennessee Williams, à propos of nothing in particular, for the "Bad Boy" issue. (Ha! There's undoubtedly a career-serving à propos underneath it somewhere - and I don't necessarily mean John Waters's.) It's a sweet piece, but because it's so strong about the very things that I long ago decided that I could live without out in Williams, it doesn't inspire me to reconsider my decision that the playwright is not on my list. Perhaps the following will make my case:

Of course, I knew who Tennessee Williams was. he was a bad man because the nuns in Catholic Sunday School had told us we'd go to hell if we saw that movie he wrote, Baby Doll - the one with the great ad campaign, with Carroll Baker in the crib sucking her thumb, that made Cardinal Spellman have a nation-wide hissy fit. The same ad I clipped out of The Baltimore Sun countless times and pasted in my secret scrapbook. The movie I planned to show over and overin the fantasy dirty-movie theatre in my mind that I was going to open later in life, causing a scandal in my parents' neighborhood.

The sad truth is that John Waters is far more my type of bad boy than Tennessee Williams could ever be. Williams is quoted in the piece as having said "I've had a wonderful and terrible life and I wouldn't cry for myself. Would you?" I don't buy this bit of braggadocio - not from the author of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I admire Mr Waters for believing it, though.

Stephen Heller's review of I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life, by Al Goldstein and Josh Alan Friedman, is electric for one reason only: Mr Heller drops the fact, by way of disclosure, that he was the first art editor of Screw - at the age of seventeen. There is really nothing that Al Goldstein can have done, in his long and picaresque exploitation of the First Amendment, that equals Mr Heller's professional precocity. But something about the review suggests that Mr Heller may have learned a thing or two about generosity from his former boss.

Goldstein, in addition to being a porn king, made an art of self-loathing. It pervades I, Goldstein, and was his most driving and destructive force. Despite his aggressively funny writing style, Goldstein doubted he was truly intelligent.

There is currently no more emphatic praise than to say of someone that he or she doubted his or her intelligence. Mr Heller may be forgiven, under the circumstances, for having much more to say about Al Goldstein than he has to say about Mr Goldstein's memoir, which is almost definitely review-proof.

Ron Powers nails Barry Miles's biography, Charles Bukowski, in one line - to which I'll add the one that follows.

Since Miles curiously offers hardly any examples of Bukowski's poetry, he is in a competition that only his subject can win. Why bother to read the biographer's endless prosaic variations on "He drowned himself in alcohol" when we have access to the master's own testimony.

Mr Powers also thinks that Howard Sounes's 1999's Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life is a better study. He does suggest, however, that Mr Miles writes better than he thinks he does.

Ralph Steadman, the excoriating illustrator who among other things was Hunter S Thompson's sidekick on several gonzo journalistic exploits, has given us The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S Thompson, and Me. Will Blythe notes that "For a few years in the 1970s, it did appear that insanity was a great career move," and/but concludes that "His illustrator tries to put the best possible light on the matter, but betrayed and appalled, he can't." I myself have had all photographs taken of me during the early Seventies destroyed, and I advise you to do likewise. Only the women came out of that time looking good.

Given the company, it seems almost cruel to hold up Tom Sykes against the deranged examples set by his elder betters, but the former "nightlife columnist and occasional [New York Post] Page Six [gossip] reporter at large" leaves us no choice - or at least the editors of the Review don't. What Did I Do Last Night?: A Drunkard's Tale is a title that I fell in love with on sight, because it was so nice to know that someone was asking that question, but Campbell Robertson's review is not promising - and if anybody could have sold this book, it's the blazingly clever Mr Robertson, whose own far superior gossip column in the Times was put to a stop by the Spanish Inquisition. Coming from an ordinary Times reviewer, the following sentence would be discouraging: "Sykes's book is not ambitious: there are few attempts at insight or sparking observations." But coming from Campbell Robertson, it's utterly flattening. One would spend the whole time wishing that Mr Robertson had written the book.

Mean Girls

Naturally, there aren't nearly as many girls as there are boys - only two - and while both are enthusiastically "bad," it seems unjust to label either as "mean." Courtney Love is certainly ambitious, but, far from sounding heartless, she reminds me of Jay Gatsby. It may be ridiculous to claim that the "man I most want to sleep with: W B Yeats," but it's plucky. Emily Nussbaum regards Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love, edited by Ava Stander, as premature and messy, but it's possible that those two adjectives describe the singing star's appeal, and Ms Nussbaum seems aware of this. Her review teeters on condescension but is certainly never withering. One wonders if Ms Love will suffer the fate of Alice Denham, i e oblivion, just as one wonder if Ms Denham's Sleeping With Bad Boys, A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the Fifties and Sixties will resuscitate her claim to fame. Stacey D'Erasmo's review is wide-eyed but sympathetic.

A feminist critique of her position in those years weaves through the book - what happened to women who liked sex, the incredible arrogance of the male lit stars, the hypocrisy of the age - but the younger Denham, the eager black-clad artiste and adventurer, seems heartbreakingly credulous. When James Jones went to her apartment with a bottle of liquor and a bouquet of compliments on her first published short story (about a woman who accepts money for sex), did she truly believe they were outlaw writers together? Did she believe it a few hours later? When Playboy reprinted that same short story in the issue for which she was the centerfold, did she honestly think the magazine was interested in her literary skills?


Allen Ginsberg and Edward Abbey may have misbehaved from time to time, but it was always for a good cause, not in pursuit of irresistible impulses. Calling them "revolutionaries" may seem to be a stretch, but both were untiring critics of American complacency who, unlike the bad boys, expected better of the United States.

Walter Kirn writes generously of Ginsberg's life and work. The poetry has recently been collected (Collected Poems, 1947-1997), and Mr Kirn's take on it is revitalizing.

Even Whitman, Ginsberg's spiritual mentor, had never dreamed of such democracy. The egalitarianism of looming extinction. No wonder so many of Ginsberg's poems, especially those he wrote in his full potency, took the form of roll calls, lists and litanies, dispensing with time-consuming syntax and substituting ampersands for "ands." Cold war America, in Ginsberg's view, was Now or Never Land. Either speak up immediately and fully or, perhaps, miss the chance to speak at all.

As for I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, by Bill Morgan, Mr Kirn's judgment is extremely brisk: it's "exhaustive yet not exhausting, swiftly readable new biography." Mr Morgan might be forgiven for wishing that the review had a little more to say about his book in the very great space afforded to Mr Kirn, who, in context, seems impatient to be done with it.

If the English produce eccentrics, then we Americans produce cranks, and Edward Abbey is a prime specimen. The novelist was an inveterate writer of letters to editors, and they form a substantial portion of Postcards From Ed: Dispatches and Salvos From an American Iconoclast, edited by David Petersen. Jonathan Miles's review is amused, and he provides scads of provocative quotes. In the end, though, he prefers Abbey's novels and journals, noting that the letters show the writer "from the neck up." Sprinkled throughout his piece are hints of a formidable misogyny, disguised as an enthusiasm for beautiful women. (Abbey married five times.)


The outlaws are all fictional, except for one of the authors, Subcomandante Marcos, of Chiapas guerilla fame. The subcommandant has teamed up with a seasoned Mexican detective novelist, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, to write alternating chapters in a book entitled The Uncomfortable Dead (What's Missing Is Missing), translated by Carlos Lopez. Andrey Slivka dismisses the result as a "gimmick."

The problem is mostly with Marcos, whose chapters ramble on at almost twice the length of Taibo's. The subcomandante, who isn't a first time author ... is simply not a talented fiction writer; it's sometimes hard even to know what his sentences mean.

... It's like watching Thelonious Monk being shoved off the stool by a thumping fellow in a mask.

Concerned readers will be relieved to know that Mr Slivka is "based in Kiev" - or will they? Natalie Moore's review of Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin, is not quite so negative, but Ms Moore stresses that this book, originally published under a pseudonym in 1994, shows just how much the notable creator of John Rebus had to learn as recently as twelve years ago. A scene set in Seattle prompts her to write, "A reader's credulity stretches only so far." As for Mark Winegardner's The Godfather's Revenge, Michael Agger says of its central character, Nick Geraci, that he is "somewhat unbelievable. He's a wiseguy in search of a Renaissance weekend." In the end, Mr Agger feels that the book adds nothing to the Corleone literary tradition, leaving one with the question, However did this book get into the Review?

Beautiful Losers

More false promise (see "Outlaws"). The only beautiful loser that I can find in the Review is Neal Cassady, who was beautiful and who, because, as James Campbell puts is in his review of Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero, by David Sandison and Graham Vickers,

In the early days, Cassady had ambitions to write, but a rudimentary education compounded by an inability to concentrate on tasks requiring sustained effort mean his attempts (mostly fragments of autobiography, collected in 1971 as The First Third) lack refinement - even the refinement required to make them read "raw" - and structure. Cassady understood this, while others did not.

Mr Campbell treats the authors' claim that Cassady was "a uniquely creative mind that somehow managed to change the course of American literature by proxy" as "not exaggerated," but he has almost nothing to say by way of evaluating the biography. As well as beautiful, Cassady is still somewhat dazzling.

The only other losers are trends. There's the Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications, 1965-1975, explored in a book by Jean-François Bizot, reviewed by Gary Kamiya. The book "reminds us that the alternative press could be juvenile, didactic, and impossibly heavy-handed - but also hilarious, Swiftian and brilliantly creative," but

There will never be publications quite like these agian, because the culture form which they sprang is gone forever. And these journals were not the highest achievement of that culture - that honor goes to music.

The other loser, sort of, is the downtown culture of Old New York, as in Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, a collection edited by Brandon Stosuy. The book is necessarily elegiac: it's a retrospective of those aspects of New York's hip edginess that are no longer current. Meghan O'Rourke puts her finger on what has changed:

Up Is Up drives home the argument that it wasn't just rising rents but AIDS that brought this period to a definitive end. The age of outrageous play was replaced by an age of sex ed and condo conversions. The media may proclaim Red Hook or Bushwick the new Bohemia, but these neighborhoods simply don't have the seedy charge of the East Village in the 1970s and '80s - a contemporary hipster style, intellectual and sartorial, hardly has the same anti-authoritarian bristle.

Sadly, Ms O'Rourke declines to offer a judgment of the book as a collection. Perhaps because, as she notes, she and her brother were riveted as kids by the first Mohawks, she's in no position to tell us whether Mr Stosuy's selection is as judicious as it might have been.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Art of the Feud," is remarkable for emphasizing, as it goes along, its own complete lack of necessity. Does the exchange of insults between and among writers and critics somehow revitalize literature? Does it amount to more than squalid entertainment? If you have to ask, then you may go to your room and live without everyone but Amis and Mailer until you see the error of your ways.


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