Books postsSunday December 13, 2009
Quote of the Day: “City of God”
“If Albert is right, there is consolation to be derived from the planets. For example, that they're all spheroid, that none of them are shaped like dice or the cardboards laundered shirts come folded on. And thinking about their formation—how, from amorphous furious swirls of cosmic dust and gas, everything spins out and cools and organizes itself into a gravitationally operating solar system... And that this has apparently happened elsewhere, that there are bilions of galaxies with stars beyond number, so that even if a fraction of stars have orbitting planets with moons in orbit around them...a few planets, at least, may have the water necessary for the intelligent life that could be suffering the same metaphysical crisis that deranges us. So we have that to feel good about.”
—E.L. Doctorow, “City of God,” pp. 61-62
The Problem with The Shadow
“[Lamont] Cranston himself I thought a little slow-moving; he was fairly sedentary, as compared, say, with the Green Hornet, who could probably lick him in a fight if they went at it visibly. I didn’t think of the Shadow as being able to jump rooftops or climb ropes or run very fast. On the other hand, why should he have to? Also, I wondered about his restraint when he could become invisible anytime he chose. I wondered if he ever took advantage of women, as I surely would. Did he ever watch Margo Lane go to the bathroom? I knew that if I had the power to be invisible I would go into the girls’ bathroom at P.S. 70 and watch them pulling their drawers down. I would watch women take their clothes off in their homes and they wouldn’t even know I was there. I wouldn’t make the mistake of speaking up or making a sound, they would never even know I had been there. But I would forever after know what they looked like. The thought of having this power made my ears hot. Yes, I would spy on naked girls but I would also do good. I would invisibly board a ship, or, better still, a China Clipper, and I would fly to Germany and find out where Adolf Hitler lived. I would in absolute safety, and with no chance of being caught, go to Hitler’s palace, or whatever it was, and kill him. Then I would kill all of his generals and ministers. The Germans would be going crazy trying to find the invisible avenger. I would whisper in their ears to be good and kind, and they would thereafter be thinking God had been speaking. The Shadow had no imagination. He never looked at naked women nor thought of ridding he world of dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. If his program hadn’t been on a Sunday afternoon, I would probably not have listened to it.”
—from E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, which I recently re-read for the first time in 20 years. It’s a beautiful book, and reminds me of Willa Cather’s lyrical My Antonia. Both are coming-of-age stories. This one's about coming into consciousness and perception in the Bronx in the 1930s. Funny, but I never thought about the double meaning of the title before: Not only a destination—the 1939/40 version in Flushing Meadows, New York—but a declaration of the way things are, which, given the circumstances of the story, not to mention our own perceptions, can only be viewed as ironic. Was Doctorow ever going to call it the title of the World's Fair essay contest our protagonist enters? “The Typical American Boy”? And how much of the book grew out of writing The Book of Daniel?
Herman Roth Gets Mugged
Yesterday's reference to Philip Roth’s “Patrimony” reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes ever; it’s on pages 125-26 of the memoir. Philip, dutiful son, is having a late-night talk with his friend Joanna, originally from Poland, about his 86-year-old father, whose body is beginning to break down:
“Did I ever tell you what happened when he was mugged a couple of years ago? He could have got himself killed.”
“No. Tell me.”
“A black kid about fourteen approached him with a gun on a side street leading to their little temple. It was the middle of the afternoon. My father had been at the temple office helping them with mailing or something and he was coming home. The black kids prey on the elderly Jews in his neighborhood even in broad daylight. They bicycle in from Newark, he tells me, take their money, laugh, and go home.
"‘Get in the bushes,’ he tells my father. ‘I’m not getting in any bushes,’ my father says. ‘You can have whatever you want, and you don’t need that piece to get it. You can put that piece away.’ The kid lowers the gun and my father gives him his wallet. ‘Take all the money,’ my father says, ‘ but if the wallet’s of no value to you, I wouldn’t mind it back.’ The kid takes the money, gives back the wallet, and he runs. And you know what my father does? He calls across the street. ‘How much did you get?’ And the kid is obedient—he counts it for him. ‘Twenty-three dollars,’ the kid says. ‘Good,’ my father tells him—‘now don’t go out and spend it on crap.’”
The Right-Wing Pisses on You—Literally
I now “get” that Pup’s greatness was a piece with the way he conducted himself at sea. Great men always have too much canvas up. Great men take risks. It’s the timorous souls—like myself—who err on the side of caution; who take in sail when they see a storm approaching and look for snug harbor. Not my old man. Or as Mum used to put it, “Bill, why are you trying to kill us?”
—Christopher Buckley, “Losing Mum and Pup,” pg. 122
I’m a similar timorous soul, a worst-case scenario man, and so I inevitably feel some admiration for men who are tougher and braver, who venture out in worst-case scenarios rather than imagining them, as I do, during best-case situations.
Not sure where one crosses the line from “adventurer” into “asshole” but William F. Buckley seems to cross it. He constantly plows his boat into docks; he risks lives—including his only son’s—to venture forth in storms; he steals lobsters from the traps of fishermen (but leaves behind bottles of Johnnie Walker as payment); he switches channels and movies and party locations without consultation. Consultation? What’s that? Hell, in his later days he often opened the front door of his car while it was moving to pee. Sometimes he did this in traffic. Onto other cars.
It would be easy to see this as a metaphor for the right-wing in this country but it’s probably a better metaphor for our ruling classes—regardless of political persuasion. Buckley, it turns out, was friends with not just Henry Kissinger but George McGovern and Ted Kennedy. One almost gets the feeling that the whole thing is a game to them and we’re the pieces. A less chilling comparison is to professional sports. Yankees and Red Sox fans may hate each other but it doesn’t mean David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez have to. They’re just two men playing the same game. They have more in common with each other than with the fans in the stands.
In the end no metaphors are truly needed to fathom the conservative mind. Merely go to the footnote on pg 117:
The book [on Goldwater] ends with an anecdote in which I, age twelve at the time, figure. Pup had gotten the details a bit wrong, and I had e-mailed him from Zermatt the correct version. He declined it, saying “I like my version better.” I thought to say, “Pup, it’s not a question of liking your version better, but of using the accurate version,” but then thought, Never mind.
That’s part of the reason why we’re in this mess. They always liked their version better.
As for C. Buckley’s book? It’s breezy and funny—although the humor is occasionally too rim-shot. The book jacket compares Buckley’s effort to Joan Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” but that book was devastating while this one is...kinda fun. Meanwhile, the best book I’ve read in the genre, if you want to call it a genre—“the death of loved ones by famous authors”—is Philip Roth’s “Patrimony,” in which the sickness and eventual death of his father is grounded and specific, and no messy detail is ignored. Put it this way: Christopher may have put up with his father’s shit but Philip cleaned up his father’s.
So we begin with piss and end with shit. The way of the world.
Alec, Charlie & Me
I know the difficulty of the Proust Questionnaire, having done my own now, and I think I appreciate good answers more. In the latest, I like the ying-yang of Alec Baldwin's "traits you most deplore in yourself/others" (Insecurity/Overconfidence), but he completely won me over with this one:
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Now why didn't I think of that? Rats.