Oh, So That Happened . . .

I think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that Donald Trump — or as he is now known, the 45th President of the United States of America — has invaded mental spaces like few other public figures. Book Club was not immune to this moment, and so we found ourselves reading Wayne Barrett's Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, The Downfall, The Reinvention.

Barrett's work about Trump obviously gained some currency after 2016 and is a good jumping off point for understanding some of the hijinks of Trump's early career. Some of the more unbecoming biographical details that came up in the campaign are covered here (and are maybe even the source?): the less-than-hands-on approach to fatherhood, the lawyering up, for example. But the source material loses a little bit of punch when his post-2015 persona or caricature is so villainous and/or cretin-like. Something interesting that didn't escape anyone who read Trump was how little it really highlighted his boorishness, specifically toward women. In fact, it doesn't really come up at all until the waning pages of the book — like page 441 out of 445 waning. Some posited that it could have been because Barrett is (more accurately "was," since he just passed away) "another old white guy" — i.e., someone for whom sexism and misogyny is not particularly salient. Honestly, that seems like a stretch: as an 80s tabloid kind of person he just seems sort of basically tabloid, of the era.

"Of the era" comes up a lot, at least for me. Barrett himself suggests that as an organizing principle for the book itself: the "why it matters" when it comes to Trump — at least to a reader in the early 1990s, when Trump: The Deals and the Downfall (i.e., the original title of the book) was first published, that Trump's story was the lens to view an entire era of bad deals, bubbly real estate markets and incompetent-negligent banking practices. Which is to say — somewhat to say — that the seediness of Trump's rise and fall necessarily includes mobbed-up entities (who else is building casinos in Atlantic City or pouring concrete in Midtown Manhattan?), corrupt and quasi-corrupt elected officials and whatever other unsavory figures (Roy Cohn, Roger Stone) operated in the New York-New Jersey area between the 1970s and 1990s. It's too easy to point to all of it and instinctively want to turn away. (It's also probably why American Democracy persists in elevating these Eliot Ness prosecutor types to higher office: Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Fucking Cuomo, etc., etc., etc.; sometimes it seems the easiest thing in the world to do is leverage crime fighting to higher office.) So I think you can be forgiven reading Trump and kind of shrugging: as my grandmother used to say, they're all crooks.

In fact, the kind of brilliance of Trump the candidate is exactly this: America is safer — and probably on more solid economic footing — if Donald Trump is not busy overleveraging hometown banks, buying off local councilmembers and clogging up an already overburdened legal system with lawsuits. Instead, we need to deploy his special talents to troll North Korea, bug the crap out of Iran and generally annoying all the bad hombre regimes who don't deserve our best intentions in the first place. Take him out of our mental space and send them to theirs. If you need a one-for-one guide while reading Trump, substitute Iran for the Ed Koch administration, ISIS for unethical tenants' rights lawyers and North Korea for the USFL.

As far as a reading experience, Greatest Show on Earth is, honestly ("honestly" is such a great word to throw around when discussing Trump), a bit of a slog. The tone and scope conjures Robert Caro's The Power Broker, and as such often pulls you deep into the weeds with the subject matter. It's a valiant endeavor: someone somewhere needs to tell the full story of what happens (what happens generally, I suppose) but it's ultimately quixotic. After 300-some-odd pages about the smallest details in the ins and outs of New York-New Jersey crony capitalism, a chapter about Trump's USFL days starts out really promising (the story became a tidy, entertaining 30 For 30) but again loses itself in the weeds of various New York State agencies and authorities. It's not untrue but it's just deadly to get through. (Andrew Cuomo gets a lot of attention in this part, and merits a special mention in Barrett's acknowledgements — in this case, some distress on the author's part that he nailed the future governor's "influence peddling" — perhaps this will come up again should Cuomo decide to challenge the book's subject in 2020.)

One thing I do want to add — and it's only because the publisher brought it up — is that for how many colons the title has, there's very little — really nothing — about "The Reinvention" that was promised in the title. It's an odd feeling to come down to the final pages and still expect to hear something about it. Not blaming Barrett: he spent far too long doing the heavy lifting reporting on someone so mind-numbingly soulless (this 1980s version of Trump); this guy's no Robert Moses even. So he paid his dues. I just expected a tiny bit more than nothing. (An Amazon review I just saw notes this and adds that the "updated introduction" featured prominently on the cover of Trump actually exists in the Kindle version. Not the same.)

In the end, it's interesting — Trump seems both bad and less bad than you think — which is a mind-bending kind of almost maybe post-modern rule of post-Obama America (i.e., the Trump Administration). Reading Trump helps you make more sense of him as an executive: his interviewing Mitt Romney for Secretary of State and appointing John Huntsman to be Russian ambassador (both stalwart anti-Trumpers during the campaign) is directly out of the Trump playbook according to Barrett — over and over Trump would battle enemies and then hire them on.

But ultimately there's this odd feeling you get over the course of reading Trump with this magical dramatic irony you understand (if Barrett had suggested by the end of the book, written in the 1990s, that Trump could in any way be in line to be president only three presidents later, it would be absurd. And yet obviously that's what happened. So to go back and read it to find meaning in part what you alight on is that Donald Trump right now may be in the job best suited to him: DC politics and the two-party system at the federal level seems more than ever to only be about one side or the other winning (and suffice it to say, "winning" is not about "good policy"). Donald Trump more than anything else seems devoted to winning; he'll probably succeed at what he does, as opposed to the politicians who work to maintain the fiction of public service as a thin veneer over the desire to win. If you find this excessively cynical, please explain Andrew Cuomo to me, especially in his battle with Bill de Blasio. And maybe we'll learn something yet about ourselves.

Posted: March 28th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , ,

The Gravest Generation

We stopped watching Walking Dead a few seasons into the series not because it wasn't good — at least for me — but rather because it was so fatiguing: week after week of watching characters under a constant threat of zombie annihilation without the slightest glimmer of hope just wears you down after a while. Max Brooks' World War Z overcomes this by telling the story of the great world war against zombiedom in a series of post-war debrief interviews. I think — and maybe it's just me, but I don't think it's entirely just me — that you have to write a zombie story like this. There's no living alongside of zombies in some kind of brokered detente — no one will rest easy until they're eradicated, and stories like that are going to be unsettling.

Instead of a narrative Z is structured as series of oral history transcripts — first person accounts. To Brooks' credit, he is super ambitious about the number of interviews and different voices he includes — people from every continent and both sexes. Writing these characters in the first person is totally audacious, bordering on arrogant. Which is to say, a criticism that the voices tend to sound the same is slightly misplaced — you try making all these people sound individual! Also, I think it's stylistically plausible that the veterans of the great zombie war to save civilization speak a similar language . . . to an extent.

At some point — OK, why not now? — it will have to be talked about (preferably in the passive voice) why we're in such a zombie moment. Z was published in 2006 (the original Walking Dead comic debuted in 2003, and the show in 2010). Part of the fantasy of Z is how at peace the world is following the great zombie war — nothing unifies humanity like an inhuman existential threat. And there's a great glow in like a clear and convincing win against it. And for a while there after 2001 there was that sort of cartoonish existential threat that a lot of people, maybe even some sci-fi and comic enthusiasts, maybe responded to in a visceral sort of way — you know, it's easy to feel good about mowing down Zeke (World War Z slang for zombie) like it maybe/might feel good to dispatch some zombie-like terries ("Draxx them sklounst" all around!). At any rate, it makes sense to me.

(A parenthetical about the film version of the book, or what was ostensibly the film version: as audacious as it was for Books to try to write a gazillion different characters in the first person it was equally so to think you could make this book a film: a faithful adaption would cost a billion dollars. So I don't expect lavish on-location scenes, or whatnot. And even though the film happens contemporaneously — as opposed to the oral history of the book — I suppose it works in that respect. I don't even mind that all of humanity is saved by one gorgeous Brad Pitt of a character [though that hair is not great] in a way that diverges 1000 percent from the book. No, what really makes my blood run black is that the zombies in the film travel faster than the speed of light. Kind of like those super speedy True Blood vampires, but with face eating. It's dumb because the one organizing principle of zombies is that they're slow as shit. And I don't believe that humanity can win a war against fast zombies. It's ridiculous. Absurd even. That said, the thing made half a billion dollars, so what do I know?)

Posted: March 27th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , ,

The Most Entertaining Chapters Of The Worst Chapters Of Human History

If you don't have or know children there's this cloying kids' show from the Jim Henson empire called Dinosaur Train which basically combines the top two things kids are obsessed with: dinosaurs and trains. It's about a group of animated dinosaurs that either work on or like to ride trains. It's about as crass as can be. The only thing worse would be if they took trains to other planets.

Similarly, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad combines the best parts of slavery — graphic violence and psychological torment — with actual trains. It's like Ken Burns meets the Lionel-Industrial Complex. Here's hoping that Railroad is never taught to high schoolers, lest they starting thinking the Underground Railroad was a literal subway from Georgia to the North.

It's not that magical realism should be unwelcome when depicting brutal chapters of human history, but it can seem a little wrong. Once, back in the 1990s, I remember cheerfully asking an older colleague if she had seen the quirky, heartwarming Life Is Beautiful. "I didn't need to see it," she tersely answered. At the time, I hadn't realized she was a Holocaust survivor.

Of course you can argue that if you took the choo-choo parts out of Underground, it'd be a straight-up tale of an escaped slave. Sure, but then you start to think about why it's a piece of fiction in the first place. Which is why I think there's a reason 12 Years a Slave exists — same brutal imagery, but being an adaptation of a first-person account it's insulated from this criticism.

At this point I would like to take a minute to humbly announce that I have read Moby Dick — as an adult, in fact — and in proving so, note the similarity between the slavecatcher character in Railroad and Melville's iconic Ahab. In Dick the obsessive was tracking a whale. In Underground, a human. It's provocative. Also weird.

Speaking of ridiculously, unaccountably obvious statements to make, Whitehead has a habit of beating a point to death. Or at least underscoring it twenty times and referring back to it later on, just to make sure you realized it. Kind of like Scorsese's Rat. In Whitehead's case, the line "Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America" — because they're in a darkened tunnel, get it? No seriously, do you get it?

Look, I know people are dim. I didn't really think about the line the first time I read it. But why not just let it be? Maybe if it comes up again, or someone smarter mentions it, or a TA blows minds with all manner deep cuts then it could be a nice little moment. Instead it becomes THE FUCKING BIG SYMBOLIC STATEMENT YOU NEED TO REMEMBER ABOUT THIS UNDERGROUND — NO, LITERALLY UNDERGROUND — TRAIN SYSTEM.

Which is sort of when you start to see Underground as a giant spec script or something. Because, after all, the only thing people love more than human misery is trains, and this thing could have a lot of legs, if only . . . oh wait.

And so when we read Railroad in book club, you know how many people this bothered? Exactly no one. Which goes to show, I suppose . . . but people, really? (I'm saying this to 12 really brilliant, interested readers . . .) No one? Not one of you thinks it's a little weird? And no one does.

So it's clearly just my own hangup. I'll get over it.

Posted: March 24th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,