NATURE’S GOD: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart
(W.W. Norton, 2014), 566 pp. This review was originally published in the Boston Globe BOOKS section, July 19, 2014.
“The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” So begins Article XI of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was read aloud in the US Senate and ratified unanimously. Our second president, John Adams, who detested the “spirit of dogmatism and bigotry in clergy and laity” and regarded the resurrection of Jesus as “an absurdity,” promptly signed the treaty into law. It was no big deal then. So why does it all sound so surprising now?
Matthew Stewart’s enthralling and important new book, “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic,’’ argues that we misremember the philosophical and religious origins of the American Revolution. Stewart, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Oxford University, is the author of previous books on the history of Western philosophy, and once again he happily rips into the original sources of Enlightenment thought, this time discovering a radical and profoundly humanistic worldview underlying the American Revolution.
The book is a pleasure to read, its often surprising conclusions supported by elegant prose and more than 1,000 footnotes. Stewart’s erudite analysis confidently rebuts the creeping campaign of Christian nationalism to “ ‘take back’ the nation and make it what it never in fact was.” The next time someone like Jerry Falwell asserts that the United States is “a Christian nation,” he’ll have to answer to “Nature’s God.’’
The United States, Stewart writes, was in fact founded by a “club of radical philosophers and their fellow travelers” who were known as deists in their day and today would be called “humanists, atheists, pantheists, freethinkers, [or] Universalists.” “America’s revolutionary deism remains an uncomfortable and underreported topic,” writes Stewart, and in his view the Revolutionary leaders — famous men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as “Forgotten Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Young, one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party — are themselves partly to blame, since for the most part they veiled their religious unorthodoxy for fear of condemnation.
Franklin, for example, urged his friend Ezra Stiles not to “expose me to Criticism and censure” by making his deistic beliefs known. George Washington, who refused to kneel in church or to take communion, simply declined to answer when asked by clerics whether he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. “[T]he old fox was too cunning for them,” his friend and fellow freethinker Jefferson noted approvingly.
Does it matter in what or in whom the men who wrote our nation’s founding documents believed? After all, we still have the documents; surely those speak for themselves. Yet over 200 years later we are more absorbed with questions about original intent than ever, and the debate in particular over religious freedom — and freedom from religion — grows louder every day. “Nature’s God’’ makes significant new contributions to our understanding of what the founders had in mind.
As Stewart points out, the “broad plurality of people in America remained active and observant within some variety or other of relatively orthodox religion,” and the radical humanism of the Revolutionary leaders “was simply not representative of its people in this respect.” Jefferson nevertheless believed that the Declaration of Independence would inspire people “to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” His views on religion may have differed from most of his countrymen, but in the end he was the one planning and writing the Declaration.
It was Jefferson, too, who invoked “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence’s first sentence. But this was not “the fictitious, meddling deity of the religious imagination but . . . nature itself or the universe comprehended as a whole. It is a way of talking about God long after God is dead.” This is Nature as God, the “presiding deity of the American Revolution.”
To uncover the origins of this revolutionary philosophy, Stewart embarks on a deep investigation into the history of ideas. Just as Stephen Greenblatt argued in 2011’s historical blockbuster, “The Swerve,’’ Stewart cites the the “revival of Epicurean philosophy that followed upon the rediscovery of Lucretius in early modern Europe” as “the decisive episode in the history of modern thought.” He then follows “Epicurus’s dangerous idea” to the 13 Colonies, where its inherently secular, materialist message focused on the importance of attaining a peaceful, happy life during this lifetime, not after death, and inspired a vision of a nation founded on reason, not on faith.
He finds ample evidence of Epicurean influence in the writings of known intellectuals such as Jefferson and Franklin and in some unexpected places, too. “Oracles of Reason’’ (1784), the almost completely forgotten philosophical manifesto of the American revolutionary Ethan Allen, “testifies to the presence in the remotest regions of revolutionary America of modes of thought that have almost universally been regarded as too old, too radical, and too continental to have played a role in the foundation of the American republic.” The thrill Stewart feels upon its discovery is infectious. “Opening its pages,” he exults, “is like discovering an empty bottle of whisky on the moon.”
When he stepped down from his position as commander of the Continental Army in 1783, Washington made a point of reminding his countrymen: “The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition.” The question “Nature’s God’’ implicitly asks is whether we ought to take Washington at his word.
Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters: An Eccentric Englishwoman and Her Lost Kingdom, by Philip Eade (Picador, June 2014), 362 pp.
(This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Books section, June 30, 2014)
Sylvia Brett (1885-1971) and her siblings were born to an aristocratic English family, the kind whose parents who were so consumed with their own social lives that when her father Reggie Brett encountered three children waving at him in the park, he was confused until a friend suggested, “Perhaps they are yours.”  It’s an apt beginning to the biography of Sylvia Brett. Unloved and overlooked as a child, Sylvia was determined to “live flamingly and electrify the world” as an adult.  And after marrying Vyner Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, in 1912 she acquired a nation of subjects whom she would neglect in turn.
This is a tale of British colonialism in its waning days. Sarawak, a region in the northwest section of the island of Borneo (now part of Malaysia), fell into the hands of Vyner Brooke’s ancestor James Brooke (1803-1868), who instituted a monarchy in a mild version of the classic British colonial style: three parts paternalism mixed with one part railroad-building and a liberal splash of gin to keep its British administrators cheerful. Luckily for the Brookes, Sarawak was a relatively peaceful place that required little political oversight.
A narcissistic, dramatic young woman, Sylvia was called “a female Iago”  by her own brother and marrying the scion of the Sarawak dynasty proved to be an ideal golden ticket. She was described by one Sarawak official as “one of the most superficial people I have met… with a firm eye on the main chance.”  Had she remained in England she may have remained just another foolish debutante obsessed with lunch dates and nightclubs, but thanks to her status as the Ranee she became, in one American newspaper’s words, “the most charming of despots.” 
While Vyner busied himself with matters of state, including keeping the peace with the infamous local Dayak headhunters who give the book its title, Sylvia wrote novels based on her childhood, played tennis, drank gin slings, and received visitors. Although she seemed to be genuinely touched by the beauty of Sarawak and the kindness of its people, the notion that she should make any personal sacrifice in her service as their queen never occurred to her. Sylvia (and Vyner to a lesser extent) spent more than half of every year away from Sarawak during her nearly thirty-year rule, going “home” to England or on trips to the USA the rest of the time (she adored Hollywood).
And the Brookes chose to leave Sarawak when it really counted. In the autumn of 1941, threat of war with Japan in the Pacific was imminent and it was at this point that both Sylvia and Vyner decided to go on vacation.  At least one Sarawak official balked at the Rajah’s departure, writing that it suggested a lack of a “sense of duty toward [his country] that would have been expected from a ruler really interested in the welfare of his people.”  Vyner had left his chief secretary Cyril Le Gros Clark in charge of things while he was away; during the war Clark was taken prisoner, tortured, and executed by the Japanese. 
What effect this news had on Sylvia and Vyner, Eade doesn’t say, but they were certainly sad to give up their royal status when the war ended and Sarawak was ceded to Great Britain, “shorn of our glory, and faced with the necessity of adjusting to a world in which we were no longer emperors,” as Sylvia wrote. 
There is undoubtedly an important story to be told about the Brookes and their kingdom of Sarawak: How did the native population of Sarawak really feel about the Brookes, one wonders? What was the daily life of a Sarawak citizen like? As a biographer, Eade focuses solely on Sylvia, and since Sylvia focused solely on herself, a deeper understanding of the people, culture, and history of Sarawak is not to be found in these pages. Perhaps it’s not fair to ask for more about the common folk in a book devoted to their queen. But had her life been more connected to the lives of her citizens, her biography and her legacy would be more worthy of remembrance.
Above: Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy Awards Ceremony
TAKE THIS MAN: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse (Simon & Schuster, 2014), 259 pp.
(This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe BOOKS section, June 18, 2014).
“I was a full-blooded Indian boy in a Mexican neighborhood who now had a white older sister that live on another coast,”  writes Brando Skyhorse in his memoir, Take This Man. Only one of those biographical facts turned out to be true: Echo Park was, in fact, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ‘80s where the author grew up. But he wasn’t full-blooded Indian, nor did he have a white older sister. If the young Brando Skyhorse was constantly searching for a stable sense of identity in his Southern California home, his mother – the source of all information true and imagined – was the San Andreas Fault.
What was it like to grow up the son of Maria Teresa Bonaga/Ulloa/Skyhorse/Zamora, et cetera (she was married five times, though she never divorced her first husband, and Skyhorse omits the surnames of most of his short-time stepfathers)? To put it a different way: What was it like to grow up the son of a pathological liar? “Much the way certain singers perform a song a different way each time they sing it, my mother told her stories a different way each time she spoke them,” Skyhorse writes. “Her history and her experiences were mercury in a barometer, fluctuating based on what she felt you wanted to believe.” 
A young, beautiful Mexican-American woman with long black hair, Maria Bonaga grew up in Echo Park with a mother who was obsessed with Hollywood. “A manufactured identity is nothing new in Los Angeles,”  Skyhorse writes, so it follows that Maria would first get the idea to adopt a wholly invented racial identity while watching the Oscars. When the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Marlon Brando’s Academy Award for “The Godfather” in 1973, the pregnant Maria turned to her Mexican husband Candido Ulloa and declared that their baby’s name would be Brando. It was “a great way to honor her own nonexistent Indian heritage,” Skyhorse notes in a rare moment of humor. Then again, a childhood filled with psychological and physical abuse isn’t very funny – or prolonged.  “You’re already five years old,” his mother once admonished him: “You’re not a child anymore.” 
When Brando was three Maria finally ditched not only her husband, but her own name and her Mexican identity, too. Brando Ulloa became Brando Skyhorse Johnson, adopted son of an imprisoned American Indian Movement (AIM) activist whom she met after placing a (dishonest) personal ad: “Young, single Indian mother searching for a good Indian father and devoted husband.”  Maria became Running Deer Skyhorse and she and her son suddenly became Indians.
Skyhorse’s memoir is structured as a succession of portraits of would-be fathers, some sweet, some surly, all hapless and ultimately doomed to dismissal by his mother’s insanity and abuse. “First I was forced to accept” each new father figure, Skyhorse writes, “then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them. Then they left.”  The repetition of this theme, while essential to understanding the troubled young man he became, can sometimes be wearing for the reader. We, too, know that each new father, however exciting at first – Frank, the bumbling straight man; Robert, the sexy Aleutian thief – will eventually misstep and then suddenly disappear.
Yet Skyhorse is a thoughtful, lyrical writer and his memoir is filled with epigrammatic observations that keep his story from becoming a mere catalogue of misery. He writes of his family: “The difference between a leap of faith and a leap of madness depends on where you land.” 
Brando Skyhorse never stops loving his mother. If anything, he’s angrier with his biological father for leaving the family; his mother was maddening but she was also always present in his life. And they shared something else, too. “My mother lied in her stories for the same reason I’ve told the truth in this one… stories sustain us,” he writes. Like his mother, Brando became a storyteller. He understands why she couldn’t stop reinventing her own life. “[Stories] carry us through the lives we convince ourselves we can’t escape,” he writes, “to get to the lives we need to live instead.” 
Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (New York: Little, Brown, 2013). 784 pages.
so many words.
You’ve heard about The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s big blockbuster of a novel, her third. Yes, I heard about it, too. People were digging it, they were loving it, they were staying up all night to read it. I wasn’t sure I was ready to commit. BECAUSE IT’S 784 PAGES LONG, PEOPLE. But then one day I noticed it was only $2.99 for the Kindle version (and even 784 pages can’t add more than a few Kindle ounces, I figured) so I took the plunge.
The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker, a boy in Manhattan whose mother is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he is 13. “Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” Theo tells us right up front. And he’s right: the novel tells the story of all the bad choices, bad luck, and some good luck, he finds in the decade or so after her death. Sheltered by strangers, some kind and some odd; exploited by his ne’er-do-well father; befriended by freaks and hustlers, Theo somehow manages to keep his head just above water and survive the storm that takes over his life after his mother dies. Just barely.
There’s a lot to like and even love in The Goldfinch. Tartt is a meticulous observer of detail, from the way paint covers a canvas to the subtle interior monologues we have with ourselves, minute by minute each day. “Was it wrong,” Theo wonders, “wanting to sleep late with the covers over my head and wander around a peaceful house with old seashells in drawers and wicker baskets of folded upholstery fabric stored under the parlor secretary, sunset falling in drastic coral spokes through the fanlight over the front door?” Those “drastic coral spikes:” those are so nice.
But the interested reader has heard what’s great about The Goldfinch already: it’s a ripping yarn; it’s a Dickensian tale of morality for our time; it pulls you into its own special world. Fine, if it does that for you. At times, it did for me. But the more I read of The Goldfinch, the longer my list of questions and grievances grew. I didn’t even know I had a list at first, but looking back over my notes, question marks, and increasingly agitated exlamations, I realized I had some Goldfinch Gripes. They boil down to three things: Why Are They Talking Like That?; Snobs; Plot vs. Action.
1. Why Are They Talking Like That?
Tartt is terrific at getting visual details right but not so great at the aural. This is especially the case with the way her characters speak. Theo… Theo’s fine. It’s Theo’s friends who drove me crazy.
Boris, for instance. It makes sense that Theo’s Russian friend Boris would named in honor of the mustache-twirling bad guy of “Bullwinkle” fame, Boris Badenov, because that’s exactly how he talks. “Allow me to introducing myself. I am Boris Badenov, world’s greatest no-goodnik.” This is not a quote from The Goldfinch (it’s from Rocky and Bullwinkle) but that’s what I heard every time Boris opened his mouth. “Likely you will end up in jail, Potter,” is a typical Boris comment. “Loose morals, slave to the economy. Very bad citizen, you.” Pottsylvania is not named as one of the dozen countries in which Boris had lived, but I wouldn’t be surprised; all the Badenovs come from there.
Then there’s Hobie. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped while reading his dialogue and asked myself (and the book): Wait, did Tartt say Hobie’s from upstate New York? She did, didn’t she? She did. And yet everything Hobie says sounds like something my favorite Leeds-born, London-living writer Alan Bennett would say. “Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once you’ve made it,” Hobie tells Theo. I have no idea what that means, not being British myself, but then again NEITHER IS HOBIE.
Nor, for that matter, are the Barbours, the wealthy family that shelters Theo after his mother’s death. Are they supposed to be some 21st-century version of Salinger’s Glass family? I guess not, because the Glass family did not say thing like: “Well, you know, I slightly think she’s out there playing golf today.” (Kitsey Barbour) or “We none of us drink it—Daddy always ordered this kind” (Kitsey again). Keep in mind, Kitsey is supposed to be a twentysomething young woman born sometime during the Clinton administration and raised in New York City, not in an interwar British girls’ school run by Lord Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear. “You seem in a really dire mood,” Kitsey says. YES, IT’S BECAUSE OF THE WAY YOU’RE TALKING, KITSEY.
Kitsey’s a nice lead-in to the next issue: snobs and snobbishness. When Theo, who is from a lower middle-class family, is orphaned and then taken in by the Barbours, he’s stunned by their wealth. The huge antique-filled apartment on the Upper East Side, the art, the chauffers, the staff… it’s as much of an aesthetic thrill for him as the painting of the goldfinch. Tartt is terrific at describing the textures of life with the ultra-WASPs. But try as she might, she can’t quite make them into the bad guys they really are. At first I thought this was Theo’s issue and it made sense: they did take him in when his mother died, after all. Then they coldly cast him aside as we always suspected they would. Later, he’s brought back into the fold, but only because it suits their purposes and eases their guilt. They’re not good people and yet Theo — and more importantly, Tartt — can’t bring themselves to walk away from the Barbours and their money, their glamor, and most importantly, their status. THE BARBOURS ARE A**HOLES, OK? They’re snobs. But somehow we’re supposed to like them, or if not like them, forgive them, or if not forgive them, find them fascinating?
Meanwhile the poorest people in the novel, Theo’s deadbeat dad and his girlfriend, a stripper named Xandra, are simply pathetic; every aspect of Xandra, from her profession to her self-styled name (it’s really Sandra) to the fact that she hails from Florida are neon signs flashing “CHEAP” and attached to characters about whom we’re not expected to care. Xandra in particular is immediately recognizable as the kind of bimbo usually only seen in Woody Allen movies (think Mighty Aphrodite). We’re supposed to think she’s lame. But a working-class girl from Florida who decides to juice up her name by adding an X to it is light years less phony than someone like Kitsey Barbour–or any of the cold-blooded social-climbing Barbours. An adult woman (Kitsey) who refers to high heels as “Hurty-hurty shoes!” and calls her boyfriend “Meanypants” is not a glamorous ditz. She’s not even a manic pixie dream girl (that honor goes to Pippa–but let’s not even go there). She’s just a fake. While eventually even Theo manages to escape her thrall, one senses that Tartt is never fully out of love with the Barbours. Xandra can be tossed out with yesterday’s newspapers but the Barbours somehow deserve a better fate.”I was only one step away from some trailer park loner,” thinks Theo, musing about his obsession with Pippa, “stalking a girl he’d spotted in the mall.” No, not a trailer park! Not a… a… mall! The horror, folks. The horror.
3. Plot vs. Action
No question, a lot of stuff happens in The Goldfinch; that’s the “ripping” part of the yarn. But action is not the same as plot. And this novel’s plot is beside the point. There’s one MacGuffin that emerges in the beginning of the novel and is never satisfactorily resolved: Theo’s possession of the stolen Goldfinch painting. Yes, he took the painting from the Metropolitan Museum in the aftermath of the explosion. And yes, it would require some explaining on his part to make the authorities understand why a teenaged boy has this masterpiece stored in a pillowcase, but HE COULD JUST RETURN THE PAINTING TO THE AUTHORITIES AT ANY POINT WITHOUT ANY REAL NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES. They’re not going to throw him in jail or torture him or.. anything! They’ll just be happy to get the painting back. So when, after 780 (!!) pages HE DOES EXACTLY THIS I kind of wanted to throw the book across the room. But as I mentioned, I was reading it on a Kindle and I didn’t want to dent the precious gadget.
With only 5 pages to go, I finished the novel. There’s a lot to admire in this book. But it would have been much better had it been edited more carefully and its length cut by, say, 40 perecent. That would have cut lines like this description of people in Amsterdam: “rosy housewives with armloads of flowers, tobacco-stained hippies in wire-rimmed glasses”– what, no flaxen-braided milkmaids wearing wooden clogs in this Dutch cartoon?–or this internal monologue of Theo’s: “I wanted to say goodbye to Pippa but she was nowhere in sight. Where was she? The library? The loo?” Again: NONE OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE BRITISH. Sigh.
A 315-page Goldfinch? Yes, pelase. As Hobie says, it might have been a “Tough pull to get in but then a doddle once you’ve made it.”
AMERICAN FUN: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt
By John Beckman
Pantheon, 432 pp., $28.95
[This review was originally published in the Boston Globe Sunday BOOKS section, February 2, 2014.]
You’ve heard the story of the Englishman who sailed to North America in the 1620s in search of a new way of life. He looked back on the fraught religious environment of England and swore that on this continent life would be different. He envisioned a civilization based on equality, freedom, and above all, “a barrel of excellent beare [beer].” This man was, of course, Thomas Morton.
In what is now Quincy, Morton founded Merry Mount, “an experiment in insanely energized democracy”  that offered if only for a few years (1627-1630) a different vision of the way American culture might have developed — had William Bradford, governor of the Mayflower Colony, and his fellow Pilgrim killjoys never shown up.
John Beckman’s new book, “American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt,’’ is an attempt to drag yahoos like Morton back into the mainstream of American history because, as Beckman writes, “American democracy hasn’t been fortified by passive citizens . . . but by active, resistive, DIY citizens.”  Citizens, he suggests, like Morton, who was “cheerful, curious, horny, and lawless . . . a radical democrat and reckless hedonist.” 
Beckman, an English professor at the US Naval Academy, pits Bradford against his b?te-noir Morton, thus establishing a key conflict in the nascent American psyche: The Man vs. He Who Sticks it to The Man. Bradford battled the native Wampanoag; Morton befriended them. Bradford outlawed “gameing [sic] and reveling in the streets” ; Morton encouraged it. Most significantly, Morton released his English bondsmen from their labor contracts and treated them and the local Native Americans as equal partners in building a new society.
As a result, Merry Mount prospered, celebrating its success with drinking, parties, and a raucous May Day celebration. But this “harmless mirth” brought the wrath of their hardass Calvinist neighbors, who in 1628 attacked with an armed militia and forced the settlement to disband.  When John Winthrop and his fellow Puritans showed up two years later to build their “city on a hill,” one of their first acts was burning what was left of Merry Mount to the ground. 
From our post-“Animal House’’ vantage point we readers already know that Merry Mount was merely the start of the American party. “American Fun’’ takes the reader from the Colonial period (the Boston Tea Party) through the antebellum South (slave gatherings in New Orleans’s Congo Square) through westward expansion (Mark Twain’s reports from the Gold Rush boomtowns and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show) to 1920s flappers, Woodstock, and finally the punk scene of 1980s California.
Beckman states right away that he’s not interested in mere “entertainment” nor simple “amusement” [xvii] but “outrageous, even life-threatening fun.” [xiii] He isolates “three tributaries” of American fun: “the commercial, the playful, and radically political . . . [that] pour nutrients, pollutants, and sheer life force in to the great American gulf.” [xxiii] The pursuit of happiness is, after all, every American citizen’s unalienable right.
Analyzing fun, however, is no joke: the better one does it, the more one risks sounding like a hungover college roommate describing last night’s epic pub crawl. While Beckman, whose previous book was the novel “The Winter Zoo’’ (2002), writes with wit and energy and mostly rises to the challenge he’s set for himself, it can be a bit of a buzzkill to hear a joke explained.
Beckman wants to show how fun has functioned as an engine of democracy, a unifying force for “the teeming masses, the mixing millions who would exploit the New World as an open playground for freedom, equality, and saucy frolic.” His admiration for the “unsung America of rebels, merrymakers, outlaws, and freaks”  is obvious.
Yet apart from Morton’s quashed experiment, did fun really bring Americans together? Raucous merrymaking helped solidify distinct group identities, but it rarely seemed to unify Americans across racial, gender, or class boundaries.
From the muddled racial politics of the original 1773 Boston Tea Party, which featured white men dressed like Indians (but no actual Indians), or Pinkster, the 19th century celebrations, which allowed African-Americans to celebrate their culture apart from whites, most of the fun times featured here are members-only events. The rough “fun” of the California Gold Rush era was, as Beckman points out, a racially- and gender- segregated phenomenon, not to mention a genocidal tragedy for the Native Californians. And on it goes, from Los Angeles’s anti-Latino Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 to the nearly all-white hippies and Yippies of the 1960s. Did Americans have fun? Sure. Did that fun “allow people to form close bonds in spite of prejudices, rivalries, and laws”? [xiv] Maybe not.
And what’s so American about “American fun,” anyway? Beckman argues that there is a “striking pattern” here: “A group of rebels . . . takes joy in resisting a stern ruling class and entices the people to follow its lead . . . it’s the fun of breaking the master’s laws.” OK, but isn’t that what fun is everywhere? Visions of ecstatic Brazilian samba lines danced in my mind as I pondered this new frontier of American exceptionalism.
Where Americans have really excelled is in the art of making fun pay. P.T. Barnum was famous not only for his circus acts but for his inspirational books, the last of which was titled, “The Art of Money-Getting” (1880).  George C. Tilyou, creator of Coney Island’s modern amusement park, learned Barnum’s lessons well. “We Americans want to be either thrilled or amused and we are ready to pay for either sensation,” Tilyou explained. ”Laughter,” he boasted, “made me a million dollars.”  Not everyone was laughing. When Maxim Gorky visited Coney Island in 1906 it didn’t seem fun at all. “What a sad people you must be,” Gorky said. 
Let’s blame it on William Bradford.
Review: Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. (Penguin: 1987/2012) 384 pp.
The humble, fractal cauliflower. Its fractal structure is evident in the way that its structural patterns repeat over and over again on ever-smaller scales.
There are two ways of looking at it. From one perspective, the fact that I was stunned and shocked by a 26 year-old book subtitled “Making a New Science” was depressing; I mean, why hadn’t I learned this stuff 26 years ago? From the other, the fact that James Gleick’s magnificent book Chaos: Making a New Science (Penguin: 1987, 384 pp.) still had the power to blow my mind merely reinforces the book’s central thesis: Chaos theory can be overwhelmingly obvious and invisible at the same time. Like gravity, it was always a central fact that governed everything we did, it just took a genius like Isaac Newton to “discover” it. I’m grateful and humbled to finally have discovered this book.
I was already a huge fan of his most recent book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Vintage: 2012, 544 pp.) so I was ready to like Chaos. But he does something different in each book. In The Information Gleick starts with something we’re all familiar with, the World Wide Web, and lifts the screen to reveal how it got there. Along the way it becomes the story of the alphabet, the “talking” drums of Africa, Morse Code and a million other forms of communication. It’s a masterpiece.
In Chaos Gleick goes in the opposite direction, taking seemingly unpredictable phenomena — global weather, long-term stock market pricing, the timing intervals of a dripping faucet — and revealing that “within the most disorderly realms of data lived an unexpected order.” Chaos theory, which applies to dynamical systems, is a bizarre mix of predictability (when a dynamical process involving three or more initial variables is set in motion, we can predict that certain patterns will eventually emerge) and unpredictability (although patterns will emerge, we cannot precisely predict what outcome will happen at what time, if ever).
The rules of chaos (that’s not a contradictory statement) result in similarly confounding realities. Gleick quotes mathematician Arthur Lorenz, one of the founders of chaos theory and the person who coined the term “the butterfly effect,” saying: “We might have trouble forecasting the temperature of [this cup of] coffee one minute in advance, but we should have little difficulty in forecasting it an hour ahead.” That is, we know the coffee’s temperature will eventually equilibriate with the room and air temperature. But between now and then, the forces of convection, cooling and friction are so complicated and chaotic, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the first minute.
It would take thousands of words to adequately describe all the features of chaos that Gleick manages to illuminate in the book. But his most profound contribution is in helping the reader understand something intuitive: “Our feeling for beauty is inspired by the harmonious arrangement of order and disorder as it occurs in natural objects–in clouds, trees, mountain ranges, or snow crystals. The shapes of all these are dynamical processes jelled into physical forms,” explains physicist Gert Eilenberger, and those dynamical processes are chaotic, with all the beautiful fractal patterns associated with them. The structure of snowflakes, of seashells, of the Milky Way, of whirlpools and fingerprints, all these owe their beauty and form to chaos theory.
Very few writers can translate difficult science into readable and fascinating prose like Gleick. As far as I can tell, both the scientists he interviews and the reading public feel he is on “their” side and I think they’re both right. Like the mathematical foundation of the theory itself, Chaos is a beautiful and profound book that helped me reconsider physics, philosophy and the universe itself.
Gleick captures both the concrete details of this science along with the revelatory and emotional resonance the discovery of chaos theory has had on the people who work in the field. “It’s an experience like no other I can describe,” said physicist Leo Kadanoff, “the best thing that can happen to a scientist, realizing that something that’s happened in his or her own mind exactly corresponds to something that happens in nature. It’s startling every time it occurs… A great shock, and a great, great joy.” Which was exactly my experience of reading this book.
Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. (HarperCollins: 2012) 320 pp.
Tom Wolfe haunts Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the 2012 novel by Ben Fountain. The first three sentences plunge the reader into a you-are-there sensory overload POV that Wolfe brought to nonfiction 50 years ago:
The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and windwhipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and the limo’s minibar. Five drinks in forty minutes is probably pushing it, but Billy needs some refreshment after the hotel lobby, where overcaffeinated tag teams of grateful citizens trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.
This is the story of Bravo Company during one epically weird day on their “victory” tour of the USA in the midst of the Iraq war of the early 2000s. Set in Texas Stadium before, during and after a Dallas Cowboys game, the soldiers are exposed to America at its most extreme, a nonstop chorus of hysterically sincere gratitude Fountain evokes in floating word clouds: nina leven… terrRist… evil… values… God… currj. Wolfian, n’est-ce pas? Lupine, even.
Wolfe’s kaleidoscopic, oversaturated literary technique begat pieces of reportage like “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored-Tangerine-Flake-Streamline Baby” (1964) and “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers” (1970). He’s probably equally famous at this point, FIFTY YEARS LATER (!!!), for his 1989 “literary manifesto for the new social novel” in his Harper’s essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in which he warned that the American novel would become “irrelevant” if it failed to engage with contemporary life the way journalism did. “America today, in a headlong rush of her own,” Wolfe wrote, “may or may not truly need a literature worthy of her vastness. But American novelists, without any doubt, truly need, in this neurasthenic hour, the spirit to go along for that wild ride.”
Wolfe’s own subsequent novels failed to prove his point, though. A Man in Full (1998), I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) and Back to Blood (2012) were mostly received as overblown and out of touch. So I hope he’s reading Ben Fountain. Because Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk realizes all Wolfe’s dreams. This is a fiction steeped in realism that manages to illuminates the weirdness and beauty of contemporary American life. Here’s one of Billy Lynn’s many philosophical musings, squeezed in between endless handshakes, backslaps and selfies with the fans:
Without ever exactly putting his mind to it, he’s come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory… you might keep the project stoked for a while but eventually, ultimately, it’s going down. This is a truth so brutally self-evident that he can’t fathom why it’s not more widely perceived, hence his contempt for the usual shock and public outrage when a particular situation goes to hell. The war is fucked? Well, duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.
Billy Lynn is a beautiful, funny and dark portrayal of America in the post-9/11 era. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll throw your red Solo cup at the TV. The social novel is alive, Mr. Wolfe. It’s weaving its drunken way through the inner corridors of Texas Stadium, smoking weed with the catering staff and falling in love with Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Like we all do.
Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn
(Little, Brown: 2013) 679 pages
(Photo credit: Jim Marshall, Folsom Prison concert, California, 1969)
This review was originally published on October 27, 2013 in the Sunday Books section of the Boston Globe.
The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.
Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?
According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.
Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.
Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.
Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.
In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”
After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.
Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”
Justin Cronin, The Passage (Ballantine: 2010), 784 pages.
Jamie Lee Curtis, as “final girl” Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).
I just couldn’t do it. But I did try. I’d heard great things about The Passage, the 700+ page thriller by Justin Cronin. I checked the ebook out from my local public library and downloaded it to my Kindle and began tearing through it like a death-row inmate infected by a terrifyingly aggressive Amazonian bat virus… YIKES.
I’ve had this problem before, in fact I’ve had it all my life: I’m too squeamish for horror. The only scary movie I truly love is The Shining, which is less a horror movie than a Kubrick movie. All his movies are scary in some way (though The Shining is much less scary when recut as a family-friendly comedy, as seen here). The only reason I got any enjoyment out of Halloween, the 1978 John Carpenter movie, was because I was able to watch it on a meta-level, with Jamie Lee Curtis as the classic “final girl“, the victim who overcomes her torturers, thanks to Carol Clover’s fantastic book, Men, Women & Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. (Alert: BEST BOOK TITLE EVER).
I tried to read Stephen King’s The Stand and quit once it got too… horrific. But I had high hopes for The Passage, perhaps because I thought it would be more of a dystopian fantasy along the lines of The Hunger Games (a novel about children killing each other – is there anything more horrifying?), which I was able to appreciate, if not enjoy.
The Passage begins with a classic Hubris of Man setup: American scientists hacking through the South American jungle in search of a miracle virus that will cure cancer and, possibly, death. Where are the bioethicists when you need them? Not in this scene, unfortunately, and thus a killer virus begins its journey from hidden bat cave to the rest of the planet. We then cut to various character setups: the early life of young Amy Bellafonte, the girl who will save the world; Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent who will save Amy; etc. We see the initial stages of disaster unfolding faster than the general public realizes or could even imagine and it’s thrilling, as a thriller should be. The writing is perfect: fast but not cheap. A young cop is described as “a fresh recruit with a face pink as a slice of ham” and storm clouds are “a wall of spring thunderheads ascending from the horizon like a bank of blooming flowers in a time-lapse video.”
This was all good. Exciting, fun, great language. But then it got scary. I’m not even going to get into it, because if you like this kind of thing you will read it for yourself and if you don’t it will just sound icky. It is icky, but more than that, it’s actually frightening. Cronin succeeds in describing an apocalypse that will make you worry not just about bats but about future natural disasters and what happens when the things that keep society glued together break down, from communication pathways (Wolgast realizes things are getting really bad when USA Today is reduced to two short pages) to electrical power plants to food production systems. And VAMPIRES! There, I said it.
I always enjoy the setups more than the outcomes, whether it’s Harry Potter first encountering Diagon Alley to buy his wizardry supplies or walking through Dignan’s 75-year plan for success in Wes Anderson’s first movie, Bottle Rocket (1996), but in the case of horror it turns out it’s the only part I am capable of enjoying. The decision to not finish it, however, did allow me the pleasure of spoiling the entire series (The Passage is the first of three novels, two of which have been published so far) by reading its Wikipedia page, something I also do on a guilt-free basis when the Game of Thrones books bog down. I recommend it.
So I apologize, Justin Cronin. You’ve written a terrific horror novel. It’s just too scary to read.
The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner (Scribner: 2013, 400 pages).
Freeway overpass, Spiral Jetty, you get the idea…
There’s a sweet little riff in the second chapter of Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers, when the book is still zipping ahead with energy in which Kushner writes of former First Lady Pat Nixon, “Hair dyed the color of whiskey and whipped into an unmoving wave… she was a ratted beauty-parlor tough… from Nevada, like me.” This is supposed to be the voice of Reno, the young, Nevada-born aspiring artist at the heart of the novel and as of Chapter 2 I was still reading it that way, but by the end of the novel I stopped believing in that voice, despite how much I admired it.
In list form, The Flamethrowers is about: The 1970s Land Art movement; The meanings of speed vs. stasis; The New York City art scene; Motorcycles; Italian fascism; European student movements; China girls; Female sexuality; Minimalism; Futurism; Global capitalism; Corruption; The Bonneville Salt Flats and the World Land Speed Record. The writing is gorgeous. I could hardly wait to start.
Reno is a young woman on a mission to transcend her station, to get out of the doomed blue-collar world of dirtbikes and cheap beer in which she grew up and create a niche for herself in the art world of 1970s New York. If she can make it there, she can make it anywhere. Strangely, although she does sort of make it there – if you can count going to all the cool parties and sleeping with all the cool artists “making it,” which you probably can – she fades as a character once she arrives. She a passive – frustratingly passive – protagonist. Which brings us to Maria Wyeth.
Maria Wyeth is the deader-than-deadpan, self-abnegating antiheroine of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays and Maria haunts The Flamethrowers like Reno’s more sophisticated twin. Like Reno, Maria Wyeth is a native of Nevada who claws her way to New York City where she is valued for her beauty and carelessly used by abusive men. Both of these characters define themselves by their passivity, their “resigned tranquility,” as Didion puts it. Both women find momentary agency through driving, Reno on a motorcycle and Wyeth in a car through a maze of Los Angeles freeways, and on and on. Lots of similarities. Yet somehow Didion makes Maria Wyeth’s dispassion the subject of the novel; more than a coping mechanism, it’s a rational response to the craziness of the world around her. In Play It As It Lays, the events of the novel are a backdrop to real subject: Maria and her mood. In The Flamethrowers Reno becomes the backdrop.
Reno functions less as a character and more as a stand-in for the author, a partial observer who keeps all her observations – brilliant as they often are – hidden in an internal monologue. It’s a cliché to ask why a reader should care for a character but in this case one wonders: Why do the other characters care for her? “Hmm. Let’s see,” says Reno’s friend Giddle: “You’re young.” Reno is young, beautiful and compliant. That’s why they like her. It gets tiresome. Writing about housewives in the 1950s, Kushner observes: “The woman senses that time is more purely hers if she squanders it and keeps it empty, holds it, feels it pass by, and resists filling it with anything that might put some too-useful dent in its open, airy emptiness.” And that’s the problem. Reno doesn’t have to be a hero but after watching her merely float past the action of most of the novel I stopped believing she was capable of the observations Kushner was writing on her behalf.
There’s no question Kushner is a talented observer of people and their peccadilloes, a writer who in less than ten pages can set young Reno up in a romance with a motel maintenance man named Stretch - Stretch! – and make you not only believe it but want to see the Rachel Kushner-directed version of the short film based on the interlude. That film doesn’t exist, but if it did I would watch it.
“On occasion I let my thoughts fall into that airy space between me and whatever Stretch’s idea of me was,” Kushner writes. I know the feeling: ever since finishing The Flamethrowers I’ve let my thoughts fall into that airy space between the novel and whatever I hoped it might be. The Flamethrowers is worth reading for its gorgeous language and fascinating ideas. But like that hot guy on the motorcycle who becomes the world’s worst boyfriend, it might also break your heart.