Tag Archives: Gore Vidal

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

8 Jan
Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

 My acquaintance with Thomas Mallon began about twenty years ago when I discovered his novel Henry and Clara, his riveting novel about the couple seated next to Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at the Ford Theater. And so began our small literary friendship that has resulted in my continued interest and appreciation of his novels and thus  a number of interview/ conversations. This latest  chat was occasioned by his newest novel, Finale. Suffice it to say , that as usual, he and I digress from fiction to films to politics to the aging process. No doubt (given the obvious proviso for two geezers) we will be conversating again in a few years.

Allow me to quote from my previous talk with Thomas:

Given the deplorable state of historical literacy in the greatest country in the world, I have long held that if I were allowed to teach history, there are a number of novels I would include in my lesson plans—in addition to the eye-opening, ground-breaking People’s History by Howard Zinn. Thomas Mallon has written a number of those novels—


Robert Birnbaum: Onward and upward (as he readies the recording device).

Thomas Mallon: I’m just very aware of how in the midst of all of the changes in the industry that the essentials for me have stayed very old-fashioned.

Robert Birnbaum: Your publisher is remarkably stable. They have editors that have been there for years at all the various  imprints. The publicity  people have been there years and years. They’re  slick—slick in a good way. They’re decent, they’re efficient, sweet; they know the stuff. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine.

Thomas Mallon: A lot the processes of my writing life have changed dramatically, but the personnel of it have really been stable: Dan[Frank]; the people I write for at the New Yorker, for instance. I have been writing for Dan [at Pantheon] for nearly 20 years now. The Times Book Review, whatever. I’ve moved around a little bit with agents but I’ve been with [Andrew] Wiley now for the last 8 years, so it’s been very happy for me. I’ve been sheltered from the storm.

Robert Birnbaum:  Which may or may not be responsible for the fact that you’ve written some pretty creditable books, on a regular basis.

Thomas Mallon: I’m hoping to retire from teaching next year. I will be 65. Nobody in my-

Robert Birnbaum: No! No, you’re lying.

Thomas Mallon: Next year, sure. Can’t tell, right? As I creep along. I’ll keep writing… I don’t know how many of these [novels] I have left in me.” I think I have a couple more; in fact, I’m signed up to do a couple more and I think I can bring everything in for a soft landing.  If novel-writing seems to become too much, I’d like to think I could have a dignified closing act with essays and reviews and things like that.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re not going to do something as ostentatious as announce your retirement —like some other authors.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, I know who you’re thinking of[Philip Roth], but he was 80; for God sakes.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you believe him, is he absolutely … Are we sure there won’t be another novel.

Thomas Mallon: I don’t know. My God, if I could go to 80, I’d be thrilled. I’m hoping to get past 70 doing it.

Robert Birnbaum: Joseph Epstein  wrote a very funny piece when he turned 70— a spoof on  producer Robert Evans’s memoir. Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned 70.[1] The brilliant thing I thought was that he announces  “You know what, I have a birthday, I just want 10 more years. I don’t want to live forever I just another 10 years,” “A happy amount of time to aspire to wherever you are.”

Thomas Mallon: He says that whenever he has a birthday.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, 10 more, 10 more, 10 more.

Thomas Mallon: He’s really been asking for 20, right?

Robert Birnbaum: When did you start feeling you were aging? And that you had to think about  an end-game, a last quarter?

Thomas Mallon: I think earlier than most people in the same game as I am. I think that may be temperamental, that may be  dark Irish stuff, I don’t know. I did have a sense of being off to a late start as a fiction writer. Not as a non-fiction writer, but I published my first novel when I was 36. It seemed very late at the time. It doesn’t seem so right now, but it did in the ’80s. I think I had a sense early on that I needed to work hard and move quickly where fiction was concerned, once I found my feet. I have seen writers, often writers that I admire extravagantly, who went on too long. It’s very difficult to tell somebody to stop.  I knew Gore Vidal a little bit, I edited him sometimes at GQ. A couple times I even wrote about him.  I remember being on the phone with him one time, and he had written what was his last novel.  I can’t even remember the title, but I think it’s set at the Smithsonian or something. He said to me in that patrician voice, “Well, you know, this will be the last one.” I said something like, “Oh, surely not.” “No,” he replied.  “Well, why?” I asked.  He said, “Well, you know, I get to the end of a chapter now, I have trouble remembering how it began.” I do think that the engineering feats of novel-writing are something to keep in mind. I’ve seen this, again, mostly in writers that I admired a lot. Somebody like Elizabeth Hardwick who went on very, very late. Lizzie was still publishing, I don’t know, well into her 80s or whatever. From anybody else it would have been pretty damn good. But if you had been reading her for years you noticed a falling off. How could you not? Once in a blue moon there are these people like V.S. Pritchett who seem undiminished. Updike seemed quite undiminished, too. He wasn’t of a very great age but well into his 70s. Then that burst of … I think, honestly, at the end, his poetry was fabulous. I think his criticism was still sharp, very sharp as he went along.

Robert Birnbaum:  Updike is one of the writers I just never got around to [reading]. First of all I want to … not first of all but I want to thank you on behalf of ordinary Americans for adding to our knowledge of Iceland’s literacy and food culture, so thank you.

Thomas Mallon: Yes, highest per capita book consumption or something like that.  I’ll tell you one last thing before we leave that topic concerning the writer I most admire.  My mentor, my muse, was Mary McCarthy. Mary died at 77 which seems young, but it wasn’t so young for her generation—hard-living writers. I do remember my sense of Mary in her ’60s and ’70s. She was operating in some ways as if she had all the time in the world. I remember thinking this at the time, also because she wrote a memoir called How I Grew. It’s not my favorite among her books; again, for almost anybody else it would be top drawer. She was going over ground that she had already covered in probably her very best work, Memories of Catholic Girlhood. She was going over it in a way that was certainly interesting to anybody who cared about her work. But it was more literal than Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and I kept thinking, “Why are you giving this 3 years, or whatever it is, of your life? Get on to the 1930s which is what everybody wants to read.” One thing about Mary–and I think that some of her biographers notice this:  she never really thought in career terms. She didn’t have a plan, and there’s something about that that I actually admire.




Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]


Robert Birnbaum: [across from the patio at which we are seated a wild turkey crosses the street The return of the species here…

Thomas Mallon: Unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: They are all over the place.

Thomas Mallon: I feel like I’m back in Westport.

Robert Birnbaum: Wildlife is  everywhere now—returning to urban populated areas.

Thomas Mallon: I’ll be damned.

Robert Birnbaum: There are a couple of recent portrayals of McCarthy . One in particular  impressed me —Janet McTeer played her  in that Hannah Arendt film.[2]

Thomas Mallon: Which I haven’t seen; which I will see.


(the beginning  scene has Arendt and Mary McCarthy in conversation)


Robert Birnbaum: McTeer’s a wonderful actress and I hope her portrayal did her justice. So, the occasion for our conversation here is that you just published a book which is a historical fiction. I have to ask, how much of it is fiction?


Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon



Thomas Mallon: I would say probably about the same quotient, maybe a little higher quotient of fiction than in some of the previous ones. It’s a book that’s on roughly the same scale as Watergate  and it operates in largely the same way with about a half dozen point-of-view characters.

Robert Birnbaum: Right, but to me they were 3 really substantial characters’ points of view.


Finale by Thomas Mallon

Finale by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon:Yeah, there are 2 important characters who are purely fictional characters. Anne Macmurray, who’s revived from my old novel Dewey Defeats Truman—she was the ingenue of that—and this fellow Anders Little on the National Security Council. In Watergate there were only a handful of very minor characters who were fictional. Watergate was different, with this juggernaut plot. You had to go from the break-in to the pardon. This book is somewhat more diffuse. It’s more a portrait of an era than it is a single narrative. The subtitle was somewhat carefully chosen: A Novel of the Reagan Years. It’s not trying to unlock the mystery of Reagan or anything-

Robert Birnbaum: I have to backtrack …there are 4 major characters; I forgot about Nixon.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, Nixon in some ways; he’s my Alice Roosevelt Longworth in this book. He’s become the kind of aged one who’s seen it all. I guess I couldn’t let go of him.

Robert Birnbaum: In so many ways, he was fascinating.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I was surprised by a lot of things … Nixon and Reagan were in touch more often than I expected in the ’80s and the-

Robert Birnbaum: On whose initiative?

Thomas Mallon: Both, and that surprised me too. Nixon did not want to wear out his welcome but he would send memoranda to [Reagan’s] chief of staff, things like that. Reagan would call him up and they talked during Iran-Contra and Nixon makes no bones about it. “Apologize for the son-of-a-bitch and put it behind you. Learn the lesson I failed to.” I think Nixon had a … He knew Reagan had something and he had a certain respect for what Reagan was doing. I think he, at times, shook his head thinking that, from his point of view, things had come awfully easy to Reagan.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, right.  My impression, you don’t treat Reagan negatively, but  you cast this notion of him as being a cipher to so many people that they felt they sort of knew him and  also didn’t know him.

Thomas Mallon:Right, and I think you phrase it exactly. “Cipher” to so many people. I don’t consider him a cipher. I do think he was a formidable figure, but I do think there was a great deal of mystery to him. One of the things I decided almost immediately upon beginning this book was that I was not going to try to turn Reagan into a point-of-view character. I was not going to see anything from inside of him. I had no trouble doing that, or I felt I had no trouble doing that, with Nixon. I felt comfortable writing from Nixon’s point of view, but-

Robert Birnbaum: You didn’t feel comfortable doing it because-

Thomas Mallon: I didn’t feel comfortable at all because I think Reagan has defeated any number of biographers. Which is  not to say that they’ve necessarily been defeated by making an historical assessment of his presidency. Not that, but in terms of his personality they’ve been defeated. When I tried to see things from his point of view I never felt that I had put the skin on. There were times when he seemed very big to me; other times he seemed comically small. I was acutely aware of Edmund Morris’ s frustration with him. I even give Morris a scene with him in the book. I decided I would, to go back to Vidal, I would adopt his approach in Lincoln. He never gets inside Lincoln, it’s all from several different vantage points. I would do that, but I was not trying to render Reagan; I was trying to render the Reagan years. A time about which, politically, I was wildly ambivalent.


Robert Birnbaum: Good for you, good.  As opposed to being so proud of our Exceptionalism.

Thomas Mallon: That part I liked. I do think that Reagan had a lot to do with winning the Cold War. To me it was thrilling when his own national security adviser asked him, “What’s your view of the Cold War?” He said, “We win, they lose.” I thought, “Clarity, at last; as opposed to detail.” It was also, it was a time when I was burying my friends and would have liked to have heard a kind word from him about AIDS, you know?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, well. there were any number of those glaring disjunctions. I never worried about Russian tanks showing up on the Rio Grande.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, I did. The Soviets were truly on the march in the ’70s. Whether it was Angola or and then Afghanistan in 1980. The Soviets were extremely expansionist. Now, of course, it’s easy to say, “Oh, well-

Robert Birnbaum: It ruined them.

Thomas Mallon: It wouldn’t have ruined them if there hadn’t been some push-back. This book doesn’t offer any brief for Iran-Contra but I wouldn’t argue with every tactic and every bit of strategy. People said to me, “Why does Reagan come out … Why does he get off so easily with something like Iran-Contra?” I think it’s because of the Contra part of the scandal, whether you agreed with this tactic of fighting this proxy war or not. People view the scandal, a lot of them, as a blunder or even something pernicious but it was part of a much bigger thing. It was a part of the U.S.-Soviet opposition and, ultimately, he won that.

Robert Birnbaum: If you turn around the telescope, then, yeah, great. The Berlin Wall came down, peace dividends were being declared but I’m not that much interested in the fixing blame on historical personalities. I think the process … Some of the things that started to happen under, or suddenly become more visible, under that administrations really were toxic to the democratic process. I don’t care, having someone like Ollie North running around, having ambassadors who really were cowboys and had no … hey weren’t really answering to anyone. Therefore, you could have things like nuns being murdered in El Salvador. Did the United States really say that was okay? Did we really want that to happen?

Thomas Mallon: Now we have government by executive order.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, so-

Thomas Mallon: I don’t think the democratic process is in terrific shape under this chief executive.

Robert Birnbaum: Certainly the promised transparency is not there. You know what’s interesting to me on Reagan is that Richard Reeves*, for instance, who is not particularly sympathetic to Republicans, wrote not a sympathetic, but an understanding biography of Reagan-

Thomas Mallon: Reeves’s book is quite good, I think. As I said, Reagan himself is at the center but he’s the missing center of this book in a way.  It all swirls around him. I do think that in any administration, in any organization, people spend a lot of time trying to figure out the boss. They want to please the boss, they want to get ahead, etc. In his administration I think people spent an inordinate amount of time doing that. It may have lent it some odd kind of creative energy, along with some overreaching, because I think he baffled some of the people that he worked with. I’ve talked to other people who say, “No,” people who knew him.I had a brief phone conversation a couple weeks ago with George Will. He goes, “This remote stuff is very overrated. He was genial and what you saw was what you got,” and he said, “He had one friend and he married her.” My reaction to that was, “How ordinary is that? Who has one friend and marries the person?” Even Nixon had Bebe Robozo. I do think there was some mystery about Reagan, but I wanted, as always, I wanted to show him operating, the president operating, amidst a lot of accident, chance, fatefulness, opposition. We have Pamela Harriman as my sort of my comic…

Robert Birnbaum: I suspect she was a fun character to play with —a wild card.

Thomas Mallon:One of the reasons I think that Anne Macmurray came back laughs) was I realized I had Nancy Reagan and Pamela Harriman and I have to have a nice woman character among the main ones. The women characters have often run off with my books; I’ve noticed that. People talked a lot about that with Watergate. I didn’t set out to do that, but the women were very crucial in Watergate. I thought that they were, on the surface, they had some similarities, Nancy and Pamela. Nancy is this sort of-

Robert Birnbaum:Pamela, the way you presented her, was much smarter than Nancy. Nancy was shrewd but the scope of her general knowledge was limited

Thomas Mallon: Nancy, to me … I think the picture of her is sympathetic; she’s a raw nerve. I don’t think she enjoyed 10 minutes of the White House. Pamela is one of the least self-curious people ever. She’s just a predator, you know? She goes after one life after another. She’s kind of astonishing and is having this quite late third act.

Robert Birnbaum: Am I correct in assuming she wrote a memoir or autobiography or something?

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: No?


Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon: There are 2 substantial biographies of her. She would have written a fabulous memoir. I think by the time she was ready to write it, she had inherited hundred million dollars and really didn’t need to.

Robert Birnbaum: Since she was not self-curious and had no financial need.

Thomas Mallon: It would not have been an introspective book. She had a tremendous desire for dignity. The really funny thing about her was she was an aristocrat. She was a Digby . Yet, throughout her life her reputation was for being a courtesan. Somebody who was trying to push her way into the respectable world,when in fact, it was the world she was born to.

Robert Birnbaum: In America, was she referred to as a courtesan?

Thomas Mallon: Oh, yeah; routinely.

Robert Birnbaum: I wasn’t aware that Americans recognized that position.

Thomas Mallon: When you say-

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what I mean?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. When you say, “in America,” certainly while she was operating in America she was still referred to as that. Maybe she was more often referred to that way by people who had known her in her European days. It’s an astonishing life but the funny thing, at the end, is that she really craves respectability. She really wanted her reward for everything she did for the Democrats. She has to wait until Bill Clinton to get it and then she gets the ambassadorship to Paris. She felt this kind of strange hunger for respectability even though she had been born into hyper-respectability. She had this kind of raffish early and middle life that she had to overcome.


Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: As you began this book, how much was [Christopher] Hitchens [ 4]going to be a part of it?

Thomas Mallon: At the very beginning I didn’t have him in mind at all. Obviously, he occurred to me in fairly short order because he’s there throughout the whole book. I didn’t know Christopher in the time-

Robert Birnbaum: In that period.

Thomas Mallon: Of the book. I got to know Christopher—I didn’t meet him until well into the ’90s. I got to know him pretty well in the early 2000’s. At the time the novel is set, 1986, he’s always betwixt and between. Should he stay in the States, go back to England? Is he going to make his was through publications like Vanity Fair or The Nation? Is he going to stay in his first marriage or leave it, whatever? I thought I could plausibly deploy him into the narrative in a lot of ways, though he never did a  profile of Pamela Harriman [as the book purports].

Robert Birnbaum: Is that how you got information about Harriman —through him?

Thomas Mallon: No. I think to go back to what you were first asking about—how much is fiction, how much isn’t—I think that’s a good example of how I feel I can operate. I don’t operate at the extremes of historical fiction, which is alternate history fiction. Those books where the south wins the Civil War, things like that.

Robert Birnbaum: Bill O’Reilly’s-

Thomas Mallon: I think-

Robert Birnbaum: If one  could call them books.

Thomas Mallon: That doesn’t interest me. It has to be what are  Vidal’s   “agreed-upon facts”  that are adhered to. Then people say, “Why write fiction at all, why not write well-done biographies, things like that?” Obviously, there are ways it has an intimacy to it, historical fiction. There are ways to speculate about people…

Robert Birnbaum: Have you read any biographies of George Washington?

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: I haven’t either but I’m wondering how many of them refer to the fact that Washington was a real hound and would send his junior officers out so he could liaison with their wives. Is that something you think is … I think that’s the kind of thing, whether it’s true or not, that’s the kind of thing you can put in… that Vidal would put in a  story. I’m glad you brought him up because I think those American civilization novels, I think they’re 5?

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: They are better American history than many scholarly texts of the time.

Thomas Mallon: One big … Let me to try to organize my thoughts on this and I will return to him in one minute. In my own books I’m not going to change something like the chronology of the Reykjavik summit. Those negotiating sessions operate almost exactly…

Robert Birnbaum: I assume that.

Thomas Mallon: The stuff I will change is the smaller stuff that you can plausibly change. For instance, something like, was Hitchens at Reykjavik? No. But is it plausible for him to have been there? Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: Does it make a difference?

Thomas Mallon: Right, and it’s the sort of thing where the only way the reader is going to know that it’s fiction is if the reader looks it up and discovers, “No, there’s no record of him having been there,” things like that. That’s a rule of thumb.  It’s not what happened instead of the big things but what might have happened in addition to the big things. What might have happened behind the scenes, whatever. One difference I would say between me and Vidal, aside from the fact that he remains the maestro, is a … His works have a higher thematic content than mine do. He’s hugely working the thesis, the thesis of American empire, whatever. I’m more interested in serendipity, accident, quirks, telling a story. I think in that sense I’m operating more as a novelist than he is because there’s always a … He goes about more of the business of a historian than I do.

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon


Robert Birnbaum: Nonetheless you have Truman that’s 1948, and Fellow Travelers covers the early ’50s, and Watergate, the late 60’s , early 70’s. I don’t remember was there a novel that’s set in the ’60s?

Thomas Mallon: Aurora 7, an early book but it’s not really political. Kennedy has a couple of scenes in it but it’s mostly my bildungsroman. It’s all set on the day  of Scott Carpenter’s space flight … Finale is dedicated to Scott, who died a couple of years ago.

Robert Birnbaum: Then Watergate and now this. One could say that’s sort of a kind of American history. Do you want to fill in anything?

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon


Thomas Mallon: It is kind of a Republican saga. If you go back to Henry and Clara, you’ve got Lincoln-

Robert Birnbaum: My favorite of your books.

Thomas Mallon: Thank you.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s such a novel  perspective to look at Lincoln’s assassination from.

Thomas Mallon: Also, now that I think of it, the Hayes administration in Two Moons—another Republican administration. I am now writing —and it’s so close that I don’t know that you’d be able to call it historical fiction—about the George W. Bush years.

Robert Birnbaum: Is it fiction?

Thomas Mallon:It’s fiction, yeah. A novel called Landfall. I always seem to throw these presidents into the soup. I have them at their lowest points. Reagan here; Nixon during Watergate; and the Bush book is mostly set in ’05, ’06—Katrina, the Iraq insurgency, everything.  I also want to go back to the Civil War one more time. I’ve sold these next two books as proposals and the one thing they said was … I was going to do the Civil War book first. They said, “No, we want you to flip them, and we want you to do the Bush book first and complete the trilogy.” I didn’t know I was writing one. They see Watergate, Finale and the Bush book. To use the phrase that DH Lawrence used dismissively about Ulysses—he said, “It’s so on purpose”—I think my books, in some intellectual, thematic way,  are less “on purpose” than Vidal’s were. I don’t have a point to prove about the country.

Robert Birnbaum: They’re not quite Teddy White’s Making of the President.

Robert Birnbaum: As they say, Vidal had cojones. He believed in himself, yes, and-

Thomas Mallon: He was unfailingly nice to me, too. Jay Parini’s biography of him is about to come out.

Robert Birnbaum: Parini is executor of his estate, I think.

Thomas Mallon: Yes, Jay knew him very, very well. I didn’t know him nearly as well. I have to say I was always—in some ways I was scared of getting to know him any better because, I thought, if I do, at some point I’m going to feel the lash. There’ll be the falling out, there’ll be-

Robert Birnbaum: I hear you.  How are you feeling about the city on the hill these days?

Thomas Mallon: Somebody asked, “You going to do a novel about Trump if he goes all the way?” I said, “It’s already a novel.” I wish he would recede quickly. I’m not sure it’s going to happen now. I still think … I do not think he’s going to go the distance. I don’t think he’s going to go the distance to the nomination. On the other hand, I am a terrible prognosticator.

Robert Birnbaum: What is the possibility that the American public becomes disenchanted with him?


Thomas Mallon: Yeah, they become disenchanted with a lot of people, so why not with him?  It would be really different if he were 1 of 4, you know? The fact that he’s 1 of 16 or whatever it is, and that a dozen of them are almost completely unknown to the public, is what’s made the race more ridiculous than it would have been otherwise. I think the best thing that could happen to the Republican party right now would be for half of these people running to get out immediately.

Robert Birnbaum: This interesting thing about the status of Ronald Reagan within the Republican party, for me, is that these aspiring politicians really don’t have a grasp of who he was . But he’s given them the confidence to think that they could be president of the United States. Honestly, I look at that group and I would like them to explain, what makes them think they are qualified to be president?

Thomas Mallon:Certainly, Reagan had business running for president; a 2-term governor of California has the chops for it. He did raise the appropriate age so that if Biden gets in we’re going to have the altacocker  primary in the Democratic party, I mean between Bernie and Hillary and Biden. Reagan did that. I’m sure I would get different opinions, but I would argue that nobody did more to lower the credentials factor for the presidency than Barack Obama.  I’m not wild about the idea of electing people who have been in the Senate for a couple years—3 years, whatever it was—as president. I’ve often said this to people:  “I hold Barack Obama responsible for Sarah Palin.”

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs)

Thomas Mallon:I was not a fan of Governor Palin, but do you remember much talk when she was picked by John McCain?  Do you remember much talk of, “God, McCain’s going to put somebody a heartbeat away from the presidency who’s been governor of Alaska for a year and a half?”  They couldn’t do it, the Democrats couldn’t make that point because of Obama.

Robert Birnbaum: Why would they need to?  She was self-discrediting.

Thomas Mallon: You have all of these first-term Senators running. I rather like Rubio, I will say that. But I think something’s wrong.

Robert Birnbaum: Except these  guys are talking  pie-in-the-sky economics and that they— are going make the American worker ,who’s being screwed by the Democrats, they’re going to make their lives better for them. Really, with their voodoo economics? Their  supply side economics and deficit austerity?

Thomas Mallon: You see, Robert, now you’re getting into issues, and I hate that part of politics.

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

Thomas Mallon: I would much rather … If I were truly interested in issues I’d be a historian, but it’s personalities …

Robert Birnbaum: Its no longer  about experience  in governance as much … I don’t think you can argue that he’s not a very smart man.

Thomas Mallon: Who?

Robert Birnbaum: Obama.

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: That he’s a quick read and that he does have respect for history. In fact , look at the disenchantment by left Democrats. Obama’s a centrist all the way. Bringing Goldman Sachs people into the economic advisory mix, what makes him radical? The right  calls him a socialist …

Thomas Mallon: I can’t see him as a centrist but I know the point you’re making.

Robert Birnbaum:  What operating room do you have if the opposition says, from day one,”We’re gong to do everything we can to make sure he’s a 1-term president.” How do you negotiate? Govern?

Thomas Mallon: As opposed to the gigantic elbow room the Democrats gave Reagan throughout the ’80s? Come on. The Republicans gave Obama the stimulus he asked for.

Robert Birnbaum: The Tip O’Neill-Ron Reagan ‘friendship  was just a myth?

Thomas Mallon: I think it’s overblown, I do. Others will argue differently. There’s that Chris Matthews book about the whole thing. I don’t think either one liked the other.

Robert Birnbaum: Chris Matthews?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: My, my.

Thomas Mallon: You know, Jesse Jackson used to say, “I would rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse.” I would have to say that, because of the basic sense he had of what he wanted to do with the presidency, I would rather have Ronald Reagan at the beginning of geriatric exhaustion—I’m not saying senility—

Robert Birnbaum: Right, got you.

Thomas Mallon: At the beginning of his geriatric exhaustion, than Obama at the head of the Law Review.

Robert Birnbaum: That does point to the fact that there’s this whole bouillabaisse of credentials and characteristics that one would think make a good president but you really don’t know what the mixture is. It’s a mystery, right?

Thomas Mallon: Right, and you really don’t know what opportunities they’re going to have to use the better parts of themselves, you know? I think it’s … It won’t be me but Obama would certainly be interesting for a novelist. Much more interesting than Clinton.

Robert Birnbaum: What about someone like Ulysses S. Grant for whom, I think, his historical stature is being revised . He’s been rehabilitated. I don’t think Americans know his story, they think he was a drunk and a crook, you know? How many people do you think have read his memoirs which I am  told are quite good?

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

Memoirs by U.S. Grant


Thomas Mallon: Very few.

Robert Birnbaum: …and were published by Mark Twain, right?

Thomas Mallon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Birnbaum: And then Eisenhower, I don’t think … He turned out to be, looked like a much better president today than he was when people were laughing at his golfing and his lack of polish as a public speaker.

Thomas Mallon:  It’s amazing that the United States has this 10-year stretch with two of the most baroque personalities ever as president— Johnson and Nixon, with their incredible complexities. And then it goes Main Street with Jerry Ford.

Robert Birnbaum: That was sort of accidental. He would have never been elected.

Thomas Mallon: He came close. Clinton would not interest me as a novelist because while Clinton is complicated, yes; everybody’s always talking about Clinton as being compartmentalized, whatever. I don’t think he’s the least bit mysterious.  Can see the different compartments, you know? Obama, is  a much more opaque figure. Much harder to read, harder to get at.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a duo, a comedy due called Key & Peele. They have a  routine where they have an anger  translator for Obama.And Obama brought him to the last White House Correspondent’s dinner

Thomas Mallon: Suppressed anger, I think, is fascinating. I always thought and continue to think, even as I wish him well in his current state of ill health, that Jimmy Carter was a very angry man beneath the surface. Very angry and resentful.

Robert Birnbaum: Is he a Baptist or Methodist ?

Thomas Mallon: Baptist, I think.

Robert Birnbaum:A  more  austere form of Protestantism?

Robert Birnbaum: Well he did  a good job of anger management didn’t he?

Thomas Mallon:That’s the thing, though.  Anger management is not the same thing as anger suppression, because anger management entails letting it out as appropriate, you know? I would be interested to know just how cool Barack Obama really is or how much anger he suppresses. What he’s angry about? I think that it might be something entirely different from what we think. It’s not for me, but I think there’s good material for a novelist there and-

Robert Birnbaum: In all these cases you have a very volatile world setting. There’s lots of stuff going on that you can pull out to deal with. Has anyone talked about making a movie out of any of the books? You optioned?

Thomas Mallon: Say that louder. The options come and go. They don’t buy up properties with the alacrity they used to. Hollywood has the same kind of cautionary chill about it that publishing has now. Henry and Clara options have come and gone. Dewey Defeats Truman was not only optioned, it was bought. I paid for half of my house in Connecticut with it and then they never made it. They could still make it. It was a period piece to begin with.

Robert Birnbaum: What I notice is this expansion of the scope of what the so called cable industry and HBO, Showcase, A & E. They’re making things they’re … The HBO special that David Simon just did [Show Me A Hero]. Can you imagine somebody actually making a movie about the housing crisis in Yonkers?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I would much prefer if somebody were going to film this. My strong preference would be to have it done for television in 8 parts or something. I think that would be a much closer match to the construction of the novel. Television is doing such interesting things with narrative right now. Much more so, I think, than film.

Robert Birnbaum: I think I find myself reading somewhat less and watching more of these extended series. When it comes down to it, my interest in stories, good stories.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, right.

Robert Birnbaum: The streaming services are  a great reservoir of  wonderful movies but, again, in terms of commercial interest, starting with the Sopranos and the Wire , producers  are buying into getting writers writing good stories; investing —like Nick Pizolatto, His True Detective [at least season one][5]was genius.

Thomas Mallon: In terms of adaptation, something like Wolf Hall. If you were going to do Wolf Hall, to me the proper way to do it was the way it was done on television.

Robert Birnbaum: Right,  I don’t know about you but I couldn’t read the book but I thought the dramatization was fabulous. The lead actor Mark Rylance, just perfect.

Thomas Mallon: I like the book, I’ve never read the second one, the one that came after. Maybe I will at some point

Robert Birnbaum: Also the  BBC  did a splendid job on William Boyd’s [novel ]Any Given Heart.[6]  It’s about a writer’s life, from about 1910 I think up until the ’60s or ’70s. 3 It’s just a wonderful story and again, ist based on a worthy text

Thomas Mallon: The single, greatest television experience I have ever had—and I remember the first run of the Honeymooners as a rug rat in the mid-’50s—the greatest television experience I ever had was Deadwood. If you have not seen Deadwood…

Robert Birnbaum:  I have seen Deadwood and I read Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name. There was a piece on the HBO series producer David Milch in the New Yorker. I don’t remember if they referenced Dexter’s skepticism about Milch’s claim  saying he never read Dexter’s book.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, really?  It was one of those things where after a couple of episodes I still wasn’t in the groove with it. I’m thinking, “Am I going to commit to this?” or whatever. Then I got past that crucial point very much as you often have to do with a novel. “Now, I’m in; I’m investing,” whatever. After that, I just felt the whole thing was so audacious, so atmospheric. It just, it didn’t build and build in a narrative way, it didn’t build and build to the climax of the story, but it deepened and deepened and deepened.

Robert Birnbaum: I always loved John Hawkes[plays Sol Star in Deadwood]. Do you know his work? He does  a lot of comedy but in Winter’s Bone he’s resoundingly sinister.

Thomas Mallon: A little bit, yeah. The main character, Al Swearengen, there was a part of him that reminded me of my old boss Art Cooper.

Robert Birnbaum: I think the next time I saw Swearingen was in some odd NBC special about some futuristic kingdom where he’s the king.  Have you seen Winter’s Bone?

Thomas Mallon: No, I know what it is, though.

Robert Birnbaum: It takes place in a hard scrabble Ozarks, really tough people with their own code, insular; 2 really interesting characters. Based on a novel written by a wonderful writer,  Daniel Woodrell credited with creating “redneck noir”.   Are you engaged in this book tour for some period of time? Is it a distraction? Is it hard for you?

Thomas Mallon: No, it’s not steady…

Robert Birnbaum: You’re going to tell me you’re glad they asked you because…

Thomas Mallon: Actually, yes. It would be wrong to say anything else. It’s a little bit different; it’s more broken up than it used to be. In the old days they put you out on the road for a long time. I go home tomorrow and then I’m at home for 10 days; then I go to St. Louis. Then I’m at home for a week and I go to New York.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s good. There will have been time for people to actually read the book?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, over a couple of months it adds up to a lot.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s smart.

Thomas Mallon: Then there’ll be a California leg of it, whatever. I still, I’m always keeping my journalistic life afloat. The truly hair-raising aspect of this week was not just the traveling, not just waiting on reviews. I had to close a piece for the New Yorker this week. From the hotel room in Texas and then at my apartment in New York, I was on the phone with the fact-checkers and getting proof after proof after proof. I’m a nervous closer even during a slow week at home, so my hands have been shaky.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s the state of writing, too.  Writers used to say, “I never write on the road.” Now people are forced to  write on the road.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, I couldn’t actually write on the road but I have to do other stuff on the road. One of the things that I’ve also noticed is a bit of a change in my non-fiction life. I think I’m writing … I’m still writing literary criticism, but I’m writing more about politics and political books that I’m used to. This piece I just closed was about The Drew Pearson Diaries from the 1960s

Robert Birnbaum: He was an influential columnist-

Thomas Mallon: Incredibly so, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: In the  Washington Post, right?  There were a handful of those guys, also Lippmann, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson?

Thomas Mallon: Anderson was Pearson’s assistant. Until he took over the column. Lippmann and people like Joe Alsop—they were sort of these mandarins of commentary. Although Anderson also had some reporting in his column. Lippmann was very much speaking ex cathedra but Pearson was the Washington equivalent of the Hollywood gossip columnist. A lot of digging, and the diaries are really fascinating. It’s odd, a volume of them covering the ’50s was edited 40 years ago. This volume covering the ’60s is only coming out now. What they really show is the degree to which he operated as somebody seeking political influence behind the scenes. He was often rounding up Senate votes on something. You would think he was the majority whip rather than a columnist; a very interesting dynamic compared to what we have today. And so, in a sense, maybe there’s more overlap between the 2 kinds of writing I am doing, fiction and non-fiction, than there used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow, time flies, as usual it’s been a pleasure.

Thomas Mallon: Same here.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m glad we’re both still walking and talking.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, a little more stiffly but still doing it.




1 The Kid Turns Seventy:And  No one Cares —The Weekly Standard

2 Trailer for Hannah Arendt

3 Conversation with Richard Reeves

4  Identitytheory conversation with Christopher Hitchens

5 True Detective / Season 1 trailer

6 Any Human Heart Episode 1

The Power of the Dog

24 Mar
The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

A few years back I came across a novel, Don Winslow‘s’ The Power of the Dog , that as I reread it over the past weekend, retained the same power to engage and excite as I felt on my initial take. And back then I so enjoyed Winslow’s Drug War magnum opus that I have since read most of his oeuvre. All were competently written but falling short of the potency of The Power of the Dog. I suspect that Winslow has exponentially enlarged his audience by two film adaptations— one of them, of his 2010 novel Savages directed by Oliver Stone:

and the other for an earlier (1997)novel The Death and Life of Bobby Z.

My first reading of Winslow’s Drug War saga in 2005 reminded me of the revelations about drugs for guns shenanigans by the CIA reported by Gary Webb (portrayed by the film Kill The Messenger). It had all the plausibility and verisimilitude of John LeCarre’s depictions of security agency corruption, rogue agents and free lancing spooks, incompetence and inter-agency squabbling as well as the complicity of major institutions such as the Church,left wing guerillas,foreign governments and of course the Mob. It is a rich array of criminal activity that skillfully blurred the lines of an already soft boundary between what is right and what is legal — a dichotomy that seems only considered in the breech.

As a first rate crime story, The Power of the Dog is peopled with complicated protagonists, seriously committed to their agendas and well represented by dialogue and conversational riffs as captivating as you might find in a George Higgins or Elmore Leonard yarn. All of which make for a propulsive narrative arc that travels smoothly from the first page to the 500th.

The Cartel by  Don Winslow

The Cartel by Don Winslow

The good news is that Winslow has written a sequel(The Cartel)that follows the drug war up to the present — which if it follows in the first installment’s path will be a fictional true account of objective realities (in the same way that Lincoln and other novels in Gore Vidal’s Empire Series were. Additionally, Shane Salerno is writing a script with Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg (all of whom who worked with Winslow and Stone on the Savages script). Arcel is directing. Salerno is producing and and the film may be out by year’s end.

Pennies from the Land of Lincoln

13 Feb


I grew up in Chicago, which, being located in a state called Illinois, celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th. I have always found it curious that it is Illinois and not Kentucky(his actual birthplace) that claims for itself the rubric “Land of Lincoln”. And I have been told, though it may be apocryphal, that the only reason for the penny’s existence is the State of Illinois’s insistence.


Be that as it may, apparently in other parts of the country regard for the Great Emancipator has diminished —so that he must now share a car sales holiday with the father of our country,George Washington—Presidents’s Day. So it goes. In any case , I believe I have learned about as much as I need to know about Lincoln, having availed myself of Gore Vidal’s novel of the same name.In fact, let me venture (to the sure fire opprobrium of some of my more judicious friends) to opine that reading Vidal’s fictional history of of the USA offers a better insight into the real story than the usual academic texts.

Angels and Apes by Adam Gopnik

Angels and Apes by Adam Gopnik

Recently Adam Gopnik fabricated Angels and Apes, a clever book based on the coincidence of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin’s birthdays.What I recall from my reading  of that tome is that books on Lincoln rival in number those of Jesus Christ. (the popularity of Lincoln books obviously an easy path to publication, I considered marshaling my considerable historical research skills to create a book about Lincoln’s dog.)

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

Lincoln A novel by Gore Vidal ( Random House/ 1984)

Lincoln's Body by Richard Wightman Fox

Lincoln’s Body by Richard Wightman Fox

Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History by Richard Wightman Fox ( W. W. Norton )

“Lincoln’s Body explores how a president ungainly in body and downright “ugly” of aspect came to mean so much to us.”

President Lincoln Assassinated!!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, by Harold Holzer

President Lincoln Assassinated!!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, by Harold Holzer

President Lincoln Assassinated!!: The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, by Harold Holzer (A Special Publication of The Library of America)

This enormous story is told in more than eighty original documents—eyewitness reports, medical records, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, diary entries, and poems—by more than seventy-five participants and observers, including the assassin John Wilkes Booth and Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot him. Also included eulogies by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, and Benjamin Disraeli and poetry by Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Julia Ward Howe two speeches by Frederick Douglass—one of them never before published—reveal

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes(Yale University Press)

“Hodes brings to life a key moment of national uncertainty and confusion, when competing visions of America’s future proved irreconcilable and hopes for racial justice in the aftermath of the Civil War slipped from the nation’s grasp. Hodes masterfully brings the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination alive in human terms—terms that continue to stagger and rivet us one hundred and fifty years after the event they so strikingly describe.”

 Lincoln for Beginners by Paul Buhle

Lincoln for Beginners by Paul Buhle

Lincoln For Beginners by Paul Buhle and Sharon Rudahl (For Beginners)

Looking at Paul Buhle’s bibliography reveals a rich assortment of picture history books—FDR and the New Deal For Beginners, A People’s History of American Empire with Howard Zinn, Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. The Beats: A Graphic History, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. And my favorite Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form In this tome, Buhle attempts to simplify the who Lincoln was out of a morass of historiography

Lincoln's Greatest Case by Brian McGinnty

Lincoln’s Greatest Case by Brian McGinnty

Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America by Brian McGinty( Liveright)

In May 6, 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton barreled into a pillar of the Rock Island Bridge—the first railroad bridge ever to span the Mississippi River. Soon after, the newly constructed vessel erupted into flames and sank in the river below, taking much of the bridge with it.This case, Hurd et al. v. The Railroad Bridge Company,as  presented by Lincoln scholarBrian McGinty is viewed as the most consequential trial in Lincoln’s career as a lawyer.

What I did not know anything about in Lincoln’s history

The Conspirator by Robert Redford

The Conspirator by Robert Redford

was the tragic case of Mary Surratt who was the lone female charged, found guilty and hung as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. Robert Redford’s 2010 film,The Conspirator,makes Secretary of War Edward Stanton the villain as he pressures for a conviction. Fine performance by Robin Penn.


Currently reading Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Larry Siems (Little Brown)

What You Missed

18 Nov

It had to happen—for years I have been railing against the lazy journalism that relies on lists to provide serviceable information and now I am about to offer a list of my own. In the spirit of the devil quoting scripture for his own purpose, I recall that poet Paul Zimmer’s reading of his “Zimmer Imagines Heaven” legitimizes lists. And, of course, garrulous Italian author and semiotician Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists exhibits the possibility of something original attaching to list making. But I digress…

Netflix is, of course, a boon to cinema lovers, procrastinators and agoraphobics. Not to mention the ostensive evidence of how many wonderful films apparently are not (so it is alleged) sufficiently commercially viable to make it to the limited number of screens in the USA. And thus go unheeded by film audiences. Needless to say (but it must be repeated)the juncture of art and commerce is a tough enterprise and in the show business commerce regularly trumps everything.


A great vehicle for the non-pareil Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy who survived the ambush portrayed in the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Fine performances by Eduardo Noriega and Stephen Rea and additionally vivid Bolivian locations make a eye catching background

Perfect Sense

A chef (Ewan McGregor) and an epidemiologist (Eva Green) meet against the backdrop of a worldwide epidemic of the loss of the sense of taste. And more.

Night Catches Us

1976, Philadelphia. A former Black Panther (Anthony Mackie) returns to his boyhood home and takes up with his martyred dead brother’s widow (Kerry Washington). He’s been labeled a snitch and additionally his hood is still a volatile battleground policed by racist honkie pigs.Great newsreel footage of real Panther activities. Images of murdered Chicago Panther Fred Hampton may bring tears to those who remember him.

United States of Amnesia

The inimitable Gore Vidal shines in an informative survey of his accomplished life—his famous tiffs with crypto fascist William Buckley and pugnacious Norman Mailer, his political campaigns and clear eyed commentary from both friends and foes.

The Conspirator

Robert Redford film depicts the woman Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) tried by a military kangaroo court in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.The film is a plausible depiction of the state of the union in the tense post assassination period that feels much like the post 9/11 period.

Killing Emmett Young

A young Philadelphia homicide detective(Scott Wolf)is in pursuit of a serial murderer—when he learns that he is terminally ill. He arranges to have himself killed at a time unknown to him. He then finds out that there has been a medical test mixup and he is not dying. He plods on working the murder cases His problem: how does he call off his imminent assassination? And can he solve his big case? Gabriel Byrne and Tim Roth are the bad guys and smooth-as-silk Khandi Alexander is Wolf’s partner.

Night Train To Lisbon

A professorial type finds an odd clue in an old Portuguese memoir and leaves his responsibilities and takes a train to Lisbon to track down the mysterious circumstances of people depicted in their lives under the dictator Salazar. Jeremy Irons’s restrained portrayal makes solving the mystery both a historical and personal triumph.

Unfinished Sky

A widowed Australian farmer finds a distressed vagabond woman who speaks no English on his land. He discovers she is a Afghan refugee employed as a sex slave by the local thugs. She has come to Australia to find her child. Does she avoid recapture by the thugs from whom she has escaped? Does she find her child? I won’t tell.

Berlin Job

Also entitled St George’s Day. Who doesn’t love a good criminal enterprise? Two highly successful London gangsters lose a $50 million shipment of a ruthless Russian Mafioso’s cocaine— he once shot a man to see if his gun worked.Needless to say, mayhem and foxfire ensue. Smart, funny and honest thieves— they scheme a job in Berlin to earn the money to honor their debt to the Rusky.

Just a Sigh

A British man (Gabriel Byrne) takes a train to Paris for a funeral; Emmanuelle Devos plays an actress also on the train to Paris. An improbable love story (maybe they all are) follows.Well nuanced with hearty rending performances by fine actors.You’ll cry and you may laugh.

Layer Cake

Perhaps every smart crook understands their criminality has a shelf life and thus they ruminate on an exit plan. Coke dealer Daniel Craig (who sees himself as a businessman) is looking for that last deal to take him out of the game. But he has to answer to the volatile and hinky Jimmy Price. And then the even more ruthless Eddie Temple (Micheal Gambon).On the other end he has to deal with some really stupid crooks and an intractable Serbian assassin. Colm Meaney is turning into an Irish Robert Duval and some unknowns (at the time)— Sienna Miller, Tom Hardy Ben Whishaw show their thespian chops.

David Thomson circa 2004 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

David Thomson circa 2004 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Though I rarely read reviews of anything (unless I enjoy a writer’s style and point of view expressed in other genre—essays, poems, novels) but obviously many people do. David Thomson, who happens to be an astute film scholar and historian,
(and shares my appreciation for Nicole Kidman) is the kind of writer I refer to above and amongst his prolific output are 3 editions of the quintessential A Biographical Dictionary of Film ,his illuminating The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and his very useful and insight laden “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films . I am pleased to have spoken to David a number of times. Here and here.

Currently reading Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House Books)

The Four Most Beautiful Words

10 Nov

The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so. Gore Vidal

A young Gore Vidal

A young Gore Vidal

Noticing that there was much consternation and despair afoot in the land before,during, and after the midterm elections, I sought refuge in a review of my long que of films at Netflix. And to my great anticipated pleasure I came across the 2013 documentary The United States of Amnesia, which is an engrossing and concise documentary on the life and times of the inimitable novelist /screenwriter /playwright/truth-teller Gore Vidal (who passed in 2012).

Australian director Nicholas Wrathall’s survey of Vidal’s rich and eventful life is a useful survey of one of the last American literary lions. Vidal’s upper crust genealogy provides some clues especially since he makes quite much of it throughout his life, pointing out the access it had given him to the wealthy and powerful. His grandfather was was Thomas Pryor Gore, a US Senator from Oklahoma (reportedly the only senator from that oil rich state to die poor) who because he was blind brought his grandson to the floor of the Senate. The preternaturally attentive young Vidal (he changed his name from Eugene Louis so he could be a Gore) no doubt gained a rich education from that experience.

Vidal wrote over twenty novels, over a dozen screenplays (Ben Hur) and countless book reviews and essays for the major journals of his time. But it is his sure-handed “Narratives of Empire”, a seven-book series ( Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, Washington D.C.,The Golden Age ) though nominally fiction which presented a vivid and accurate sense of American history (borrowing from primary sources)providing a clearer and more accurate insight into the American political system and its cast than put forth in public school history courses.Among others, Harold Bloom extolled these historical novels, “Vidal’s imagination of American politics . . . is so powerful as to compel awe.” Thus along with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History a more accurate vision of American reality and mythology is accessible

Vidal’s essay anthologyUnited States: Essays 1952–1992 won the National Book Award in 1993 and gives ample example of his unblinking view of the degraded state of the American Republic.Another collection followedThe Last Empire: essays 1992–2000 capped off with the Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia entitled as such because Vidal understood Americans failure to understand recall their own history.

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.Gore Vidal

The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return. Gore Vidal

One associate has described Vidal as a “nasty, witty, shrewd, contemptible fellow,” and by other acquaintances viewed him as as a warm, personable, caring gentleman,‚both sides of which are on display in an earlier biographical documentary, Education of Gore Vidal (2003). What is apparent after dipping into this and other accounts, Vidal is that he occupies a significant space in the mid century and beyond american culture and no matter one’s politics, Vidal’s pronouncements and charisma was wholly engaging.

We should stop going around babbling about how we’re the greatest democracy on earth, when we’re not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic. Gore Vidal

Time Magazine (Mar 5 1976)

Time Magazine (Mar 5 1976)

The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity – much less dissent. Gore vidal

Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either. Gore Vidal

An aged Gore Vidal

An aged Gore Vidal

Here’s a conversation Gore Vidal had with his literary executor Jay Parini

Reading and reviewing Gore Vidal’s scrutiny of American history up to its imperial present one wonders what it might take to wake up the great number of Americans who are being denied the fruits of what is promised in the founding documents of the Republic. Clear sighted commentators from Noam Chomskyand Tom Englehardt to Naomi Klein and Thomas Frank are marginalized by Murdoch’s howling, flying monkeys and the like.And media sentinels (like Media Matters) waste their time listing the lies and distortions of Fox and the Koch funded Super Pacs to the minority of Americans who already recognize the political shell game.

So what has to happen? The post WWII generation has blown it and maybe the following generation has also. My teenage son’s peers, whose overwhelmingly ambitions are careers in finance, will be disappointed when they discover the reality of that world when its clear that only a very few prosper. Will that disappointment lead to real change? To quote the great Thomas Waller, “One never know, do one?”

Currently reading The Last Empire by Gore Vidal (Knopf)

Fifty Years is a Long Time,Isn’t It?”

7 Oct
New York Review of Books's 50th Anniversary Cover

New York Review of Books’s 50th Anniversary Cover

Acquiring knowledge serendipitously is a mostly a joyful happenstance—much like taking a different route to a destination to an oft travelled-to destination. Anyway, I had not known about Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary, The Fifty Year Argument until I saw a reference to a review jauntily entitled “There’s a Lot of Gray Hair in Martin Scorsese’s Documentary on The New York Review of Books” in Vogue (having a grasshopper mind I immediately wondered how many people who read Vogue read the New York Review?) The film’s subject is of courseThe New York Review of Books, the world’s preeminent literary publication, and it’s beatific founding and continuing editor, Robert Silver. I read Nathaniel Heller’s essay and requested the film from HBO. Even as a I watched the The Fifty Year Argument I thought that Heller had viewed a film different than I that which I was watching. His critique read like a judgment on a bottle of wine based on the meal it was served with.

“The origin of the Review has been documented and it should suffice it to cite Robert Silver”When we started the paper we weren’t seeking to be part of the establishment. We were seeking quite the opposite…to examine the workings and truthfulness of establishments,whether political or cultural.”

There a number of riveting snippets—James Baldwin pointing out that “black people didn’t event the nigger, white people did.” And a youthful and beguiling Susan Sontag asking (well actually, telling) Norman Mailer his use of the word ‘lady was offensive. And Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show have entertaining verbal dust up with Mailer accusing Vidal of connecting him to Charles Manson. And Zoe Heller charmingly explaining that the Review educated her adding it probably was the case for others “even though they would never admit it.” And Darryl Pickney talking about his 13 year old self riding in a car on the way to Disneyland,sitting between his two sisters, reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. You get the idea, yes?

It should also be noted that one of the impetuses for the Review was Elizabeth Hardwick’s famous (in the literary world) 1959 Harper’s piece The Decline of Book Reviewing:

For the world of books, for readers and writers, the torpor of the New York Times Book Review is more affecting. There come to mind all those high-school English teachers, those faithful librarians and booksellers, those trusting suburbanites, those bright young men and women in the provinces, all those who believe in the judgment of the Times and who need its direction. The worst result of its decline is that it acts as a sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally. The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday “Book Pages.” (The New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic, the news and opinion weeklies, the literary magazines all devote a good deal of space and thought to the reviewing of books. The often awkward and the always variable results should not go unremarked. However, in these magazines the reviews are only a part of the claim upon the reader’s attention, and the peculiar disappointments of the manner in which books are sometimes treated cannot be understood without a close study of each magazine as a whole.

Is it 1959 all over again?

And finally, the New York Review was from the beginning steadfastly against the Bushist Iraqi adventure. To its everlasting credit…

Currently reading Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco (Ecco)

Talking with Michael Dahlie (The Best of Youth)

22 Apr

Butler University mentor Michael Dahlie who’s debut novel A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living won a PEN/ Hemingway Award is unremarkable in one important way—his second effort The Best of Youth (WW Norton) joins the ranks of worthy and useful novels that are substantially ignored by the various gatekeepers of literature (except for wide- of-the-mark scribbling in Boston’s New York Times subsidiary.

How I came to choose this book, read and enjoy it, is of course, the wonderful serendipity that attends my ceaseless sifting through seemingly endless pyramids of books. Having enjoyed Dahlie’s novel I was pleased to converse with him on all manner of subjects, including video series such as Girls and Deadwood. Ian McShane, Brooklyn,having a happy family, Indianapolis, Charles Newman,University of Wisconsin (at Madison), popular historians,Dahlie’s new novel, hypochondria and what not.

Read on.

Micheal Dahlie by Robert Birnbaum

Micheal Dahlie by Robert Birnbaum

RB:Why should I believe that profile that’s on your webpage —the story of your marriage proposal? And how your child was conceived at a Van Halen concert

MD:To what are you referring?

RB:The proposal in Brooklyn walking down the street?

MD:Oh well, there’s no reason not to believe the proposal. As for–

RB:What about just being skeptical about the conception?

MD:You’re really skeptical? Well, have you been to a Van Halen concert recently?

RB:I’ve never been to a Van Halen concert at all.

MD:Ever? I can’t answer this properly. This is something that’s going to get me into trouble.

RB:I don’t want to put you in that position, I’m very sorry. But I do know that you were, in fact, married in Martha’s Vineyard.

MD:Yes, I was.

RB:And the news of your marriage was actually carried in a wedding notice in the New York Times.

MD:That’s correct.

RB:That doesn’t seem like you.

MD:That doesn’t seem like me? Well, why doesn’t it seem like me?

RB:Well, I think that given the sort of modesty that is on display in the novel, which I can’t help but think reflects something about you, it doesn’t seem like a gesture that you would make, especially if you made up odd ball stuff about the marriage.

MD:Right. Well, the deal was is that I was–I guess I got married when I was–36? No, 38? I don’t remember how old I was–but my wife and I did not want to have a proper wedding we felt–we in fact are too shy to sort of stand up in front of a bunch of people and emote, and–so we just picked a place that would be easy for all of our family to get to. I had never been to Martha’s Vineyard. My wife had once or twice, but–I mean, I’ve been to the cape a bunch, and just to kind of–you know, every year or so, we’d rent a place for a week or–

RB:What’s your recollection of that day? Was it a pleasant day?

MD:It was a great day. It was very small. It was just my family, and it was in Menemsha Bay, and again, I don’t know the Vineyard that well, but it was a kind of secluded area.

RB:What time of year was it?

MD:It was summer. July. And I–

RB:I always had a picture of the island being overrun in the summer.

MD:You know, it was after we went to Edgartown for a couple nights–my wife and I (before) we were married, and that was very busy–but Menemsha it was–there’s just a lot of kind of marshland on that end, and there’s also really strict zoning.

RB:Must be for the people with horses.

MD:Well, you’re not allowed to buy liquor in that part of the Vineyard too, and you know, you want to keep the Boston people away from the place. That’s how to do it.

RB:Well, they’ll just [brown bag it] bring their own.

MD:And that’s what people do. You go to one of the places, and you bring your own. But still, there’s no honkey-tonk bar scene, and if you want a lobster roll, you’ve got to bring your own wine and go down to the one kind of a shack that the–

RB:It’s nice your recollection of the day was pleasant and happy. I think that, frequently, weddings are sort of strange.

MD:I remember we were there with this guy, James Pringle, who was a Justice of the Peace in Martha’s Vineyard, and he was just this quintessential Yankee sort of secular, sort of the authority in the area, and he was really nice. And I remember walking around with my mom and my in-laws and saying, “Well, where should we do this? Where should we do this?” We finally found a little spot on the lawn, and my sister-in-law, I think, gave a quick reading, and we said our vows, and soon, we were up on the patio–

RB:Who wrote the wedding announcement for the New York Times? Did you write that, or did they have someone–?

MD:It’s an interesting story because–basically–well, my wife wrote something, but they’ve got a staff–

RB: She’s written a novel, hasn’t she?

MD:Well, she wrote a novel, right. But they have a staff at the New York Times that is pretty–they not only seem to be pretty extensive but they’re pretty cutthroat. I remember getting fact-checked by this guy, and, you know, at this point–

RB:About yourself?

MD:Yeah, and at this point, I had a book contract with Norton for my first book, and they wouldn’t put that in the announcement. The guy, for some reason, thought that unless the book was out— I was like– –

RB:Well, did you get back to them later, you know, when it won the PEN?

MD:Right. Actually, I was so frightened by this fact-checker, he was so aggressive with me, and I think I’m just going to let this one slide.

RB:Well, that’s more modesty! Look,that sort of plays into the overarching feeling I got from your book, which was that the character Henry has this really wonderful empathy and sympathy for elder people, which I find to be, in my own experience, unusual. Where does that come from?

MD:Well, I don’t know. I think Henry — I think he likely would have more empathy for people his own age as well if he understood them all or got along with them at all, but he’s so baffled by his own social world that it—I actually have spent a lot of time in Williamsburg and Brooklyn, the place that this set, but only because of my younger sister —I saw it as an outsider, and it was a weird time. She moved there when she was 22, right out of college, and I had, as was often the case with me when I was a freelance writer, I’d go from eating peanut butter for months and not getting any paycheck at all to getting a big one, which, if you lay it out over the months¬, it’s a reasonable wage, but if you get this gigantic check and you’ve got nothing, you’re like “Oh, my God, I’m rich!” So I just leased an apartment in Paris, and I was living there, and my apartment in Brooklyn was really, really cheap, so I could keep that. But my dad died, so I came back, and my sister decided that she was going to go work on some organic farm–you know, some kind of post-college adventure–but she moved to the city instead, so the family was kind of all close–

RB:What farm was there in Brooklyn?

MD:What? I think it was Idaho is where she was–

RB:How old is she?

MD:Well, now, she’s 30.

RB:And how old was she then?

MD:She was 22. And I was 34.

RB:Would she be of the generation that loves the series Girls? Would she be portrayed in that series?

MD:She must be because she lives in Greenpoint. But I don’t know. I never asked her about that. And I don’t know if she watches that. She’s actually a television producer, so she’s up on a lot of kind of the shows, but that’s never come up.

The Best  of  Youth by Michael Dahlie

The Best of Youth by Michael Dahlie

RB:Have you watched Girls?

MD:I’ve never watched it. Actually, I feel like I should because it, of course, has a similar setting to The Best of Youth, but I don’t watch anything unless it’s on Netflix, and I don’t think it’s out in that form yet.

RB:No, HBO doesn’t do that. Sometimes, I watch two or three at a time. I brought it up because I only recently–I was aware of the noise [or buzz if you are simpatico] out there about Girls and Lena Dunham–but I read something in New York Magazine that had something to do with Elizabeth Wurtzel She wrote Prozac Nation. Do you remember her?

MD:Oh, yeah, well, of course, I remember the book, yeah.

RB:And it was a take down of her, in which she identified with the girls, you know, in “Girls.” So I started watching it, and I was–it’s compelling as hell. But it’s also currently some kind of–given to self-consciousness with kids–it’s some kind of big thing, you know, matter of controversy. I ask young girls, and they go, “Ooh!”


RB:They’re like, “I don’t believe that Leah Dunham wrote all that stuff!” Or something like that.

MD:Yeah, I don’t know, I know so little about it that it’s hard for me to even kind of come up with a comment, and again, this is–this is bad–but I have been thinking this, in order for me to get HBO it would involve so many difficult mental challenges, I don’t have any idea how I would–

RB:There are all these narratives flying around beyond the literary world that are actually thoughtful and compelling, and, you know, I actually traded off not using Facebook anymore for starting to watch certain videos, you know, Justified, which is a series based on an Elmore Leonard character and a new one called The Following with Kevin Bacon, about a serial murder cult. I was a great devotee and still am of The Wire.

MD:Yeah, yeah.

RB:There are all these wonderful stories that are available, and part of the reason is based on places like HBO giving writers an opportunity to really write original stuff.

MD:Right. Well, I–usually the way it happens for me is that I’m several years behind because that is–you know, once these networks have kind of exhausted their revenue streams from cable etc., it comes out on Netflix, so I watch these things like you do. I must have watched The Wire in–you know, the whole thing in like–a couple months. I don’t understand how people don’t do it that way. I think it would really make me want to blow my brains out to have to wait a week between each–I don’t–it just would seem so debilitating–

RB:I wonder if it just speaks to a different sense of time for, you know, sort of contemporary attentions.

MD:Yeah. You know what–one of the things that I think is really interesting too because my sister, like I said. she’s up on a lot this stuff and she has all the technology, so she’s got this kind of nice DVR machine, and for her, a lot of these shows are also very social.

RB:Social, meaning?

MD:Meaning Downton Abbey is no fun unless she’s got five friends over, and she’s made something special to eat. And for me, I’m also–I like being in the dark, watching it on my computer, not being annoyed by anyone else. And I also–I probably suffer, quite a bit from that constant distraction, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched any of these things without stopping every ten to fifteen minutes, even when I’m loving it. In fact, I often stop at the most tense moments because I can’t quite–

RB:Well, the choice is yours.

MD:Right, exactly.

RB:You’re supposed to, like, every eleven minutes, there’s a commercial.

MD:Right, right, right.

RB:My son and I have been watching all five seasons of [76 episodes] Friday Night Lights.

MD:My sister actually loves that. Have you done Deadwood yet?

RB:I have an unexamined prejudice against Deadwood because of David Milch. This may not even be true—I’m friendly with Pete Dexter, who wrote a novel called Deadwood years ago.

MD:Uh huh.

RB:He’s totally vexed by David Milch’s’s claim in the New Yorker that he had actually never read Dexter’s book, which seems to be very, very close to the way the story unfolds in the series. But it was brilliant nonetheless. You know, Ian McShane and John Hawkes and Tim Oliphant. They are great character actors.

MD:I thought that they were great. I think¬–and I really have done so many of these shows–but I really think that’s the best one, mostly because–I mean, I hate to–I don’t want Pete Dexter to write me some kind of nasty email, but– however authentic people claim things are, all fiction is like an act of illusion and smoke and mirrors. And it may be that every single article of clothing and the filth of the streets and everything else may be totally authentic, but what’s such a lie–the fundamental lie of that show–is that you have a town full of basically illiterate people speaking such beautiful, beautiful language.

RB:Except for Ian McShane.

MD:Well, right, except for Ian McShane, but–have you ever seen Love Joy? This was a long, long-running British hour-long drama that starred him, and he was kind of an antiques conman. Semi-con–he was a conman for the good. And that’s worth getting on Netflix just to check him out in such a different setting.

RB:I found a film the other day with him in it, in which he plays a middle-aged, astute, unabashed homosexual.

MD: Huh.

RB:It’s called 44-Inch Chest. And the core story is that a guy, after 20 years of marriage, the guy’s wife tells him that she’s found someone else, and he does something bad to her, and then is inconsolable to all his friends, which include Ian McShane, are now trying to help him end, get through this. In the meantime, they have the paramour of his wife bound and gagged in a closet.

MD:Is he–is that a new movie?

RB:I don’t think it is.

MD:One of the last episodes of one of the seasons of Love Joy, they interviewed the cast. This particular show is–I loved it, but it’s like, it appealed to my kind of British nostalgia, so I’m not sure I’d say that it’s something you should race out and watch other than to see an episode to see him in that setting, but he was being interviewed, and when it kind of came to him, they showed clips of all the work he’d done. And he’s kind of one of these actors that, you don’t realize this because he seems to appear out of nowhere in some magnificent role, but I think had been a fulltime working actor since he was 16 and was in everything! They had this old scene he played Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and he’s running around as this wild man on a moor, and it’s sort of this really crappy 1960s television black-and-white kind of footage. It’s really fun–

RB:Did you see him in–it was an NBC series called Kings or something like that–

MD:You know, I didn’t see it because it got canceled before it ever made it onto Netflix.

RB:This whole phenomenon, I mean there are two things that have happened for me that are a joy and a burden: the opportunity to sample all these films that are pretty decent that just never had PR budgets or, you know, for some reason, were ignored. But again, all these opportunities to watch all these–you know, my current queue is 300 movies.

MD:Yeah, you know, and it’s really depressing. My wife actually has a novel coming out in the summer, and she–Thomas Carlyle comes up in it, and–I want to take credit for feeding her this line–which she uses, which I love, which is that Thomas Carlyle, I guess when he died, when he was being honored, someone said, “This is the last man on Earth to have read everything, and he always will be.” And you think about it, a man’s reading or a person’s reading obligations that don’t include Proust and Beckett and Thomas Mann and Tolstoy–anyway, the point is that it’s very depressing at this point in time because you just know you’re going to die, and there’s going to be entire worlds of narrative that you’re never ever going to even know about.

RB:That’s right. So I think that for people–I don’t know what the dividing line is, but the (cultural) consciousness of our civilization seems to shrink, you know. Twenty years–oh wow, its twenty maybe–twenty years, maybe it’s ten years now–I mean, I remember pretty much everything since the end of World War II, I mean, you know, I’ve lived some of it and I’ve read pretty close to (that amount), so having that sort of general knowledge makes me interested in too much. And you’re right, it can be really–you know, “depressing” isn’t the right word, but sort of just unsatisfying.

MD:You’re never going to get to the end of it or the bottom of it.

RB:So I think you probably just have to resign yourself to enjoying all this stuff. So you mentioned that your wife’s got a book coming out. So you’re both novelists.


RB:What’s that like? What’s that like for your kid?

MD: He’s four and a half. He doesn’t seem to be too damaged yet, but– I don’t know. I have a very happy family, and I don’t know if it’s–I mean, there are a lot of examples of why there are advantages of having two writers in the family. I mean, it’s very easy for me to be grouchy and say, “I had a crappy morning. I don’t want to talk.” And I don’t have to explain that. She knows what I’m talking about. And it was–

RB:Do you show each other your work?

MD:Yeah. Definitely, and I think that we–our stuff is–she writes very literary stuff, but–it’s just different than mine, so there doesn’t feel like any competition.

RB:Do you think your wife is a better writer than you?

Allison Lynn, author of the Exiles

Allison Lynn, author of the Exiles

MD:Nah, no! Definitely not!

RB:Would you tell her that?

MD:Maybe that’s the illusion that keeps our marriage together.

RB:Would you say it to her?

MD:Yes, in fact, I would, and she’d laugh like you’re laughing, and just as my Van Halen detail, you’d be left to your own thoughts to figure out whether I was joking or not.

RB:Let me ask you why Indianapolis was–what did you call it? –“the strangest place in the world? “ “In the the Universe?”

MD:Well, first of all, I do mean that with a certain amount of affection.

RB:I took it that way. I grew up in the Midwest (area). I’m assuming the positive.

MD:I moved around a lot growing up, so I’ve seen a lot of places, but just kind of landing there after 11 years in New York, it was a real culture shock, and I think that it also speaks to just how strange it was going from being kind of constantly at the ragged edge of financial disaster and debt. We rented an apartment in Chelsea that we had no business renting because we really couldn’t afford it, but it just was where we were living. We had a child, and moving was just–and 2008–I mean, I know it was rough on everybody, but I mean our industry died. I mean, the life of the hack writer where we got a lot of our money just ended, and it’s not coming back. And so–

RB:Wouldn’t you prefer to say Grub Street writer?

MD:Grub Street, right. Well, I use both. Do you know Robert Danton–I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at his stuff, but he’s one of my favorite writers. And I love–it wasn’t actually until I started reading his books that I took a certain amount of pride in being this kind of pen for hire. I rented a tiny little office on 28th and 5th in New York, and it’s the old Tin Pan alley, and I love–this was like the last rough block in Manhattan. –So we did a lot of work for money just to— it was our livelihood. And that just ended.

RB:There’s a picture that I get when you say that, is of a Latin American train station, where a man is sitting outside the entrance of the train station, and he is a pen for hire [escritor]. He will write letters. He will write anything for anyone that they need. And because so many have the people don’t know how to write. And I think that may still true here!

MD:Or you wish that maybe sometimes it would be better if it were true if people were hiring out their work rather than believing they can actually manage it themselves!

RB:Well, I would seriously consider it I was actually thinking about creating sort of a website or business card saying that I would write love letters, personal letter, business letters,story synopses, anything that requires some competence in the English language.

MD:Yeah, I think you should do that. The problem is that you need a client who knows what a good product looks like, which is–you’re going to have a hard time finding that.

RB:You’re not decrying the competence of modern magazine editors, are you?

MD: Um–uh–well, you know–uh–no. Well, actually, there’s so little work in that world now that it doesn’t matter. Most of my work came–I have a special talent for writing for boys who hate reading, so I wrote a lot of stuff, a lot of books, under pennames, or parts of reading series for intervention programs. Basically, talking to fourteen-year-olds who’re reading at a 5th grade level. And the problem is that–and the reason why I say, at least my industry’s never coming back–after the collapse, so many of these houses used that opportunity to scale back the wages, and at the same time that the blogging world was entering the field, and suddenly, people were willing to write for 5 cents a word. And I mean, I’m sorry, but a lot of the education people have pedagogical backgrounds–they’re experts in education–but they’re not storytellers. And when you’re writing for a kid who hates to read, the story is the thing that’s going to keep them hooked in or not.

RB:When you talked about having a client that appreciates a good product, you see, I would aim much lower than you were going. I would aim at people who clearly understand they can’t write, but they need to communicate something in a text. And I guarantee that I would charge more than 5 cents a word.

MD:Well see, the thing is that then you’d have to explain to them why you’re not the 5-cent person because they’re going to go cheap if they can’t discern–

RB:They wouldn’t even know about that. I would be the first person that they ever met who would offer them this opportunity.Anyway, tell me about life in Indianapolis, though. You didn’t really explain to me.

MD:Our first house that we rented from a couple that teaches high school abroad, so they were gone nine months out of the year, and they were looking for people to sublet who would give the house up for the summer. They also didn’t want college kids. I think they figured that a couple with a two-year-old at that point was a safe bet. And it was just a gorgeous–I mean, I’ll never live in a house this nice again. It was gigantic, and it was arts and crafts built in 1912, and everything was meticulously restored. I was paying $1200 for a rent there, and we had five gigantic bedrooms and five–I mean, let’s see, I mean I have to actually think about this–three fully finished, beautifully tiled bathrooms, and a beautiful kitchen, huge yard on a double lot, and we were paying a third for what we were paying for a 500-square apartment in–

RB:Did that change your sort of idea of upkeep and cleanliness? Were you more inclined to maintain the museum-like quality of–?

MD:I always loved the line in–it’s the famous line in “Alice’s Restaurant” about the couple who had the–did they live in a lighthouse? –I’ve forgotten most of the details except the one, which is they had that gigantic space which, rather than meaning they could have this beautiful space to sit and live in,that, rather they didn’t have to take the garbage out except for once a year! So that’s a little bit–we had so much space that we just kind of spread out in this, chaotic way.

RB:That was your first house. How long have you been there?

MD:We were there for two years.

RB:You were there? You’re not there anymore?

MD:No. We bought a house. There was never any real-estate bubble in Indianapolis, so nothing really ever got crazy inflated, and–

RB:And you’re teaching school at Butler University?Which is–which is in Indianapolis?

MD:It’s in the city. Right in the city.

RB:And does Indianapolis sort of represent the typical Midwestern, northern big city? I mean, it is the biggest city in Indiana, right?

MD:Yes, it is. It’s a little over a million, and I think it’s like 17th in the nation in terms of size.

RB:And is it overcrowded or not?

MD:Well, it’s definitely–it’s one of those cities that has enough farm space on either side of it that it just kind of grows out and out and out. They could have done with a little more vertical planning, but–

RB:You know Chicago, yes?

MD:Yeah, I’ve been there a bunch, but I don’t–

RB:This is a city that I think, past maybe a mile from the lake, you don’t see things over three or four stories, you know. Thus, the horizon looking west is, and thus the city spread out over a nice grid.

MD:Yeah, it is a weird–there is some kind of line–you know, I lived in St. Louis for two years, and it was the same sensation that, somehow, look to the west and God knows what was there.

RB:Do you have any feelings about the phrase “flyover zone”?

MD:Well, like I said, I was born in Minneapolis, but I lived there ‘til I was eight, so I don’t have too much–

RB:Let me just recap–Minneapolis, New York, Wellesley, Paris–

MD:I lived in London for four years. Jersey. Lived in Switzerland, Geneva, for a year. Lived in–I went to college in Colorado. I went to graduate school in Wisconsin. And then, I went to another graduate school–


MD:Yeah, Madison. Then Washington University.

RB:What is the longest you’ve been in (one spot)? Butler? Right now, where you are?

MD:Well, I was in New York for 11 years, so that was the longest I’ve ever been in one spot. But yeah, I guess I’ve been at Butler for two and a half years. And yeah, I guess there’s something strange in that. I mean, having the same job, the same sort of set of colleagues for two and a half years is–

RB:Are you on a tenure track?

MD:I am. I am.

RB:Did your coming to Butler coincide with their rise in the college basketball world?

MD:I was part of the cause of that. No,unfortunately, I had nothing to do with that, although, I’d like to claim it. It’s amazing–I have all the obvious issues about sort of the problems of college sports, but I think–

RB:It’s not so obvious. A lot of people don’t have them. I think I share them.

MD:I mean, mostly in football, I just feel like it’s such a moneymaking scam and kind of has so many intractable problems that there’s almost no point in thinking about i.t

RB:Well, no point for you and me, but, you know, like that poor kid at Baylor— Jones, Perry Jones–a few years ago was suspended because his mother was given something by someone [because she was on the verge of being evicted. ]

MD:It’s crazy. It really is crazy. But what I’d say is that Butler has none of those problems as far as I can tell because we’re kind of a small school, we have to move a little bit in a moneyball kind of mode, and what I mean by that is that–I don’t know what kind of deep statistics they’re using–but they certainly approve top flight athletes that might not be the first choice for a Duke or–but it works out great. And I think the other thing is having a small school–I mean, we were not going to get Cody Zeller–I don’t know if you know him at IU–he claimed that his final choices were us and IU and Chapel Hill and Butler, and he seems like a great guy and a lot of people really like him. And certainly everybody in Indianapolis, as much as they love Butler, they love IU just as much–

RB:IU is in Bloomington, right? It’s not in–

MD:Bloomington, right. It’s about an hour south. But the thing is that, at IU, he is a rock star, I mean, that guy is–and it’s impossible to be that kind of rock star at a school the size of Butler because it’s not the same atmosphere.

RB:–do you care what people in your neck of the woods think about the current Notre Dame story (Star footballer Manti Te’o is involved in a hoax about a fake girlfriend –is that a big topic of interest?

MD:Well, you know, I haven’t really grasped it until–I was getting ready to come out here, and I’ve been in New York, so I’ve only been figuring it out recently.I guess everybody’s only figuring out because it’s such a mysterious story.

RB:Could you write this?Could someone write that story as a short fiction?

MD:It is unbelievable, but I think the thing is that–the truth is, as unbelievable as it is, people fall in love under unusual circumstances–I mean, I’m thinking about my family in northern Wisconsin.All the Norwegian people up there–I tell you, you started writing letters to some woman that you had a vague interaction with your family.

RB:That was fifty, sixty years ago. Not in 2013.

MD:Right, but I don’t think it’s an implausible thing that someone could have some kind of deep emotional tie to–

RB:See, I share your gradual immersion of the story. I know whispers about it, but the main thing for me is why should I care? The kid hasn’t killed anyone. He hasn’t–what’s he done, and why do people care?

MD:I think that’s the thing. This is back to the guy who’s getting busted for the mother selling–old football jerseys. I think that the question is, was he trading on it? And I don’t get the sense that he was actively going around, trying to get promotional deals based on his sorrows. If he was, that might be something different, but I think he just got caught up in this–I’d be kind of embarrassed if I discovered this hoax. I’m not sure I’d want to start telling everybody that, “I’d been played. I’ve fallen in love with an imaginary person who was–.” You know.

RB:He was–let’s place him in context. He’s a twenty-something-year-old kid who plays for a midwestern university. Catholic university. Where’s the story?

MD:Right, right, right.

RB:You know, Gail Collins, I thought Collins said something great. She wrote about this story, but then she mentioned that Notre Dame has rallied around this kid, but they forgot to pay attention to this girl who was raped, and they did nothing for her except discredit her

Water break/Parking meter break

RB:Most of what you know–

MD:Is from national media.I just haven’t really kind of figured out what people are saying. You know what I mean?

RB:It speaks to something even more prevalent and maybe distressing, which is you find yourself being conscious of (all sorts of things) and you really didn’t choose.I don’t care about the Kardashians.You know? I don’t care about this particular situation.I’m sure there’s a whole host of stories, almost in a kind of suspended animation. I never cared about Michael Jackson, you know? But nonetheless, you’re [can be] imposed upon by this shit stream of information. So you have to find a way of making it useful.

MD:Yeah. Yeah, I guess there’s no avoiding it.

RB:I mean, what do you want to pay attention to?You have, again, all these choices. You can watch Netflix all day, or put together a playlist on Spotify, or you can write novels.

MD:Yeah, well, that’s one of the ways of controlling the narrative that you get, is if the narrative is the one that you’re immersing yourself in and writing yourself.It’s interesting to me that I was seeing people talk about video games–and that how one of the great advances in culture and narrative is that people are going to actually get to play a role in creating their own story. But my response is always like, look, there was always a blank piece of paper and a pen. People could have always,

RB:That reminds me of a Steve Martin quote.“Look what I did! And I started out just with a piece of paper and a pencil.”

MD:You can always participate in the creation of your own narrative. I don’t know why that people think that–

RB:Well, there is a reason. First of all, just look at–how large is the class of human beings who actually have whatever it takes–the perseverance, the diligence, the striving–to create something? How many people actually, how many people have the drive to make decisions? I mean, it’s not like these things are parceled out universally? And I suspect, or I worry–personally worry–that when you immerse yourself in–and you’re conscious of all these narratives and you immerse yourself in them–like I do; I read, I watch movies, listen to all kinds of music–that you have a really warped or you develop a warped sense of the actualities.

MD:This is something I always love in Chekov stories that two of the re occurring characters are flighty ladies who read novels and doctors who read newspapers. And the doctors who read newspapers are always talking about some far-flung issue that they don’t really understand, and the women who are reading the novels are in a sort of entranced–and basically, what Chekov is describing is the soap opera. And it’s funny coming from Chekov, right, because he’s obviously a fiction writer, but there is this illusion, I think—that somehow, newspapers used to be this bastion of high-brow learning and the thinking man read the newspaper when, in fact, before there was television and Internet, people used to talk about newspapers the same way they talk about the Kardashians. Just rabble-rousing sort of nonsense.

RB:You see that in portrayals of the old West, the West being conquered, you know. Journalists from back east, just looking to stir up a story. That’s a reoccurring theme.I forgot what I–I was going to go somewhere with that–. Well, so is that the impulse that moved you to become a writer? The interest in creating your own narrative? Just sitting there, coming up with something that–?

MD:Yeah. Yeah, I mean a lot of writers describe themselves as sort of taking to books from a very young age and being lost in them, and I was never really like that. But I was definitely a daydreamer Mostly, you know, when people would be talking to me, I wouldn’t be listening. I’d be thinking my own things.

RB:Well, that’s exactly the kind of disconnect that I’m describing as a possibility condition of being literary, you know? Have you seen Django Unchained? So in this movie, Christopher Waitz‘s playing a German-born bounty hunter in the Deep South in 1861. His diction is perfectly accurate polysyllabic English, and he realizes when he’s talking to these roughnecks on horses that he’s talking past them. But he doesn’t really quite give up, but he entertains himself with the notion that he’s tossing out pearls before swine. And I think when, and I wonder that when one spends a lot of time reading stories, paying attention to prose, if somehow that doesn’t severely shift the way you deal with people who don’t pay attention to the language, to language in general.

MD:I also didn’t really grow up in a family that cared much about books in any kind of sort of passionate way. I had a very smart family. Well, I should say my sister is a children’s book writer and pretty successful, so–
RB:The same one who is a TV producer?

MD:No. Another one. So somehow, we all ended up in a creative world, but what I would say is my dad was a banker, but in a different era than what bankers are in now. And he was the best storyteller I’ve ever known, but the entire thing was oral. I never saw him read a novel ever.

RB:You’re certainly refreshing my contention of the fact that we presume that you have to be wrapped up in books in order to be a storyteller or to be able to talk about the world. You probably miss a lot of conversations that we don’t engage in because we don’t think we’re going to have that any kind of personal take away of –it’s why I paid attention in this story to the fact that Henry is listening to others— there’s a way when you get older, you’re more inclined to talk to anybody about the world because it’s–

Michael Dahlie (photo by Rober Birnbaum)

Michael Dahlie (photo by Rober Birnbaum)

MD:I did have one kind of—my mother— has a huge family in the South. I mean like extensive, endless relatives–my father was in the Navy and my mother, she was a schoolteacher in Norfolk, Virginia, but they lived in Petersburg, so close to North Carolina border, and there just was an endless, endless stream of old people that I took the years to straighten out who was who, and they grew up —this generation all grew up in the Depression, so there was this constant sort of, “Okay, you’re going to go live with this aunt. You’re going to go live with this uncle. And then, we’re going to switch over.” My grandfather was raised by his parents in one half of a duplex and one of his sisters and brother was raised in the other half of the duplex by aunts and uncles. Just kind of a very fluid sort of world. But most of these people helped raise my mother as well. And so, every year, for at least a month, we’d kind of be traveling around in Virginia and seeing these people and visiting these people and–to some extent, I guess that that was true in northern Wisconsin where I had a lot of old Norwegian sort of relatives and Scotch relatives as well. Yeah, it’s one of the kind of shocking things about living in New York, that I really felt like my entire life was with thirty-something, some twenty-something, my sister’s friends —we were so cut off from any other generation.

RB:Yeah, again, I think that the generation–there’s a sort of the narrowing cultural windows as you get lower, as you get younger. I was always struck by a writer who taught at NYU told me–he taught freshman English–I think this was in the year 2000–and he told me his kids, his freshman kids, didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was. This was maybe ten years prior, right?

MD:This is one of the most astounding things when I teach young people that things I assume they know about–they weren’t part of my generation, but they only seemed to have happened or been important ten years ago, and–yeah, it’s very strange I’m trying to think of a good example–but I’d refer to something that just seems like it would be a touchstone of modern American culture, and I’ll have students, even smart sort of worldly students, staring at me like they have no idea what I’m talking about. I guess there’s a lot of writing these days and this sort of rapidity of our culture and how quickly things become commonplace. I’m usually distrustful of a lot of those arguments, but this one I think is true.

RB:You are teaching what subjects?

MD:I teach creative writing. We have a new MFA program.

RB:So the people in it are aspiring to be career writers?

MD:They are. The program is new, and a lot of the students who we recruit from are from the area, and they tend to be a little older than your average sort of, you know, 24-year-old, 25-year-old.

RB: How old?

MD:Well, I’d say that maybe–25% are older than I am. One of the advantages of starting an MFA program at Butler and one of the reasons this has worked really well and has been a kind of shocking success in a lot of ways — we’re the only MFA program in Indianapolis and a lot of our students have lives here.They’ve got kids in the public schools, they’ve got spouses or themselves that have jobs, and–

RB:So is this night school, or is this night and day?

MD:It’s a full proper program, but we have classes at night and we’re pretty flexible with other people’s schedules.

RB:Let’s see, Indiana University, IU, has a writing program.

MD:Yeah, they do

RB:Notre Dame has a writing program. Does Purdue have a writing program?

MD:They do, yeah; those are the 4 MFA programs.

RB:What are the expectations of the people who are taking these courses? What do you give them to–when they start asking like, you know–do they ask about agents? Do they ask about how do you get published? Do they ask about submitting to small magazines?

MD:They do, and–you know, I went to Washington University to get my MFA, which is–

RB:St Louis. Now, was Charlie Newman there?

MD:Charlie Newman was there. Charlie was a professor of mine. I loved Charlie.

A young Charles Newman courtesy of John Hopkins University magazine

A young Charles Newman courtesy of John Hopkins University magazine

RB:I knew Charlie. Dalkey Archive is publishing In Partial Disgrace.

MD:Yeah, his Onudula–this has been a project of his– this had been his mission since he got out of…The great thing about Newman as a colleague, I can see now as a professor that he could definitely drive you crazy. But you need people like that in MFA programs because he was such an inspiration! I mean, you know, he had–he would miss workshop all the time because of these imaginary sick aunts that he was always claiming to have to tend to–

RB:Did he have a drinking problem still?

MD:Unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. Well, yeah, this–his last couple of years, he was not behaving himself more or less and he really–I think, he was kind of lost— well, he was a professor at John Hopkins at 24. His career got started really early. One of his colleagues—someone that I was friends with —had described Newman once as saying like, “He’s the kind of guy who’s too smart to get well.” In the sense that he could never go through any kind of program because he was just such a–I mean, it’s not just that he was cynical, but he was probably also generally used to being the smartest guy in the room and so wasn’t going to be willing to listen to someone who might not have been as smart as he was but who knew what was going on and what Charlie was up to. But it was–I mean, it was catastrophic by the time I knew him–but he was also very functional. He was so funny, and he was a very sentimental, charming, warm guy.

RB:Christopher Hitchens also had, by reputation, this great capacity for drink. I witnessed it at least once, so I could tell you, and, you know, his editors would be astounded how quickly he could put out copy without breaking a sweat.

RB:Do you approach teaching writing from the discussion of books or discussing the work that the students are doing?

MD:Mostly, it’s the work that the people are writing. And I had an introduction to fiction and writing class this past semester, and a couple weeks in, I abandoned using the textbook we were using just because it was so horrible.

RB:Do you read?

MD:Do I read?

RB: Do you read contemporary fiction?

MD:I do as much as I can. At this point, so much of my reading is obviously student work, but yeah, I read as much as possible. I’m really addicted to audio books–I don’t know if you do audio books at all, but–

RB: As my second take on the book.

MD:I haven’t properly formulated this, so this is just like, you know, coffeehouse chatter, not any kind of formal–but the more I do audio books, the more that I think that the printed word is some kind of weird sort of like stop gap until human beings figured out how to record the human voice. ‘Cause I feel like storytelling–it just happens most naturally orally, and it’s just amazing–I’m not sure that there are many printed books that I’ve been lost to the way I’ve been lost to books on audio, and I can’t quite explain that, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit it because I think that–I don’t know–I sound like I’m some kind of– well, illiterate fool–but–

RB:It’s interesting you’ve mentioned this to me because my mother is currently a problem for my sister, and me and I’m trying to find an entryway, allowing her to actually process certain information. I know that, in conversation, she lets very little in. She hears what she wants to hear, but she gets very, much more–she gets more detached when she reads something and/or sees something, and–you know, I think that, for some people, it’s the reverse.


RB:They don’t, can’t, don’t want to process the words on paper. I have opted for, by the way, to–you know, people ask me why I don’t podcast. It’s pretty easy, you know, just–but I sit and transcribe these conversations, but try to transcribe them in a way that has a natural–that it’s natural dialogue. That it’s the way people talk to each other. And–I don’t think it’s better, but I think–it’s because I’m inclined to think that people read, when they read, they get more. They take more in, you know?

MD:One of the bad things about the audio book is that you can’t reread sentences, and I find that, when I have the best reading experience, is in print. I can reread a paragraph.

RB:You mean it’s not the same to just go back two minutes–?

MD:Well, it’s just such a hassle to press the button.

RB:I’m sure that Suri –you can get the (Suri) on your iPhone—can help

MD:Yeah, I know. I just got to wait for technology to evolve a little bit. There is one very strange thing about audio books and–this is why I have to say that I–I hate to talk about this because I haven’t figured it out all properly in a formal way–is that you also have an actor reading the book. And I did an audio book by a guy who–I only remember the title of the book; my wife reads absolutely everything, so my reading list is largely determined for me–but he read his own book, and it’s terrible! And I couldn’t get through it, and my wife is saying, “This is one of the best books I’ve read all year.” On the other hand, I just did Russo’s Elsewhere on audio, and he reads it himself, and he does a magnificent job, and I’m not sure that an actor could have quite gotten–
RB: For some people–there are people–Richard Ford can read his stuff. You know, Charlie Baxter can read his stuff. Those are the ones that I know about, you know, for the most part–yeah, for the most part there, it takes an actor. I remember reading Louis de Berniere’s Birds Without Wings, which is this–it’s a 19th century epic that takes place in Anatolia, with all sorts of different characters with different backgrounds–religious, ethnic–and you know, one of the first things that was overcome for me was that the guy, the reader, could pronounce the names of the people–it’s like my problem with reading Russian stories. I don’t–can’t remember the names because I can’t pronounce them

MD:Yeah, yeah, I know. I just did Kurlansky’s book on the Basques, and apparently, the actor had to be really coached–

RB:Mark Kurlansky?

MD:Mark Kurlansky, yeah.

RB:He wrote a book about the Basques?

MD:Yeah, The Basque History of the World–it’s so good! Oh my God. I mean, it really is good, and it’s really fascinating, and really, really funny. He went to Butler!

RB: He’s written on fish. He’s written a book about minor-league baseball. Teaching.

MD:Yeah, and¬ he’s got this new book out on Clarence Birdseye that I’m dying to read too.


MD:Clarence Birdseye. He invented flash freezing.

RB:You’re saying he recited his own book

MD: No. He did not. Someone else read it. But Basque is one of these–it’s a totally singular language. There’s not a single language like it in the area. Finland is the only language that resembles it in any kind of way, and it’s just grammatically. But these words are, you know, just impossible to pronounce, and they sound so weird on (paper).

RB:(And he) pronounces them?

MD:The actor does, but I think the actor really had to be coached to get them right, but if they’re a good actor, they can kind of make it sound fluid. But I guess one of the things about having the actor is a little bit like having a pianist play a piece of music that–so much comes down to interpretation. It’s not the sheet music, even though, you know, Beethoven wrote it. It can sound completely different depending on who’s doing it.

RB:You face the same situation if you read and then reread a book (at some moment). Sometimes, one wonders why, you liked a book the first time, dislike it the second time, or dislike the book the first time but are convinced somehow to try it again. How does that happen? It strikes me that you may be like me in this sense–I don’t have a theory, a literary theory. And my critique is really ad hoc and simple. I like a good story. I like to watch people–I like to hear people talk to each other in an interesting way. I like interesting facts thrown in. A nice narrative arc. So when I read these critical theory attempts, I just say, “What?”

MD:The complement to this–one of the other sides of that are these how-to manuals on how to write fiction. One of the things about dealing with students is trying to get them to stop reading these things. And because they want you to tell them how to do it, and the only thing I can say is, “Look, if you want to write a novel go to your basement, and seven years later, you might have a novel.” And they laugh, “Yeah, but really, tell me how to do it.” And I say, “No. That’s how you do it!” And they don’t want to hear that because they want the trick. I don’t know if you know, if you’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir, her most recent one–

RB:Well, is it called Kids or something?

MD:Yeah, Just Kids. She’s talking about–you know, she had this long relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe — she was talking to him, being in the printing room with him, and taking the photograph is one thing but, obviously, (an enormous thing) back in the day I guess it still is today with computers. The print is just as important. And she’d say how he’d have hundreds of prints of the same photograph, and he’d say, “This is the one. That’s the one where the magic is.” And I think that that magic is–trying to–in some ways, it’s trying to–I do understand why people write literary criticism. I do think it has a value, but sometimes, it seems false in the same way that someone might describe why they’re in love with someone. I mean if they really have a specific quantifiable list, then they’re probably lying that they’re in love with them?

RB:It’s funny. I take my latest displeasure about a critique was–today, I read somebody who wrote about this new series on FX called The Following, which is, you know, serial murderer who happens to be a college professor whose fascinated with Edgar Allan Poe. This critic was, like, bombastically deriding the possibility that a TV series would violate, you know, Poe’s artistic code or something like that.

MD:You know, when I was at Wisconsin, I was in the history program there, and I was–

RB:Really? I almost went there –was George Mosse there?

MD:George Mosse was there, yeah, yeah.

RB:Still there?

MD:Well, no, he was emeritus. He was still alive, but he was–

RB:[What about]William Appleton Williams?

MD:Yeah.He was definitely gone by the time I was there. But I had this professor who I actually liked quite a bit, but he always used to deride Harpers and the New Yorker as middle-brow, which I thought was –basically, it was revealing what was, in fact, the kind of real anger that I think a lot of scholars feel, which is that, somehow, they do this magnificent work, and it’s not appreciated. And it is true that, you know, when you look at this guy’s accomplishments as an historian, it involved sitting 15 years in basements of convents in Germany going through marriage records, and–

RB:Dust.200-year-old dust.

MD:And then a journalist kind of turns it into this story, and–I forget how we got onto this, but–

RB:The value of literary criticism and whether or not theory is beside the point.

MD:Right.Oh! I have one of my colleagues at Butler is–he has a PhD and is a scholar, but he’s billed as a creative nonfiction writer, and he wrote a book about an abolitionist and also a memoir about–his name’s Andrew Levy–he wrote a book called A Brain Larger than the Sky, which is a book about migraines. It has a kind of Kurlansky aspect to it in that it details sort of the history of migraines,

RB:Mary Roach does the same kind of thing.

MD:I mean, I know the name– yeah, she’s at Norton. But he’s got this book on Twain that he’s been working on for a long time, and it’s coming out with Simon and Schuster and I think it’s going to be a big release. I think they’re excited about it. And he’s an excellent writer, so I think it should be great, but he’s doing his due diligence as a thinking man and sending it out to the proper people to get their reviews, and I think he’s had some genuinely positive reactions, but there are people who’ve devoted their lives to writing these monographs that only 300 people read and they can’t respond to any piece of culture without actually unloading this anger about the fact that no one cares about what they know about.

RB:Yeah, of course, because historians up until the last few years–well, that’s what’s created this explosion in, you know, the McCulloughs and Stephen Ambroses. They’re writing more popular history, more accessible history. And then, Ken Burns comes along and does a show —

MD:Stephen Ambrose got his PhD at Wisconsin and did a lot of his research there because we had such great World War II archives. And there was this absolute wall between the history department and Stephen Ambrose. I mean, there was no way that that department was going to allow Stephen Ambrose to teach a class! And the thing is I see both sides of it. I see the poor guy who’s devoted his whole life to going through archives that would never have been known about if they hadn’t read every single word. But on the flip side, you’ve got to cut these guys some slack. I think one of the great examples of this is–I don’t know if you’ve read 1491. It’s the book about the year before Columbus arrived, and he just came out with–I forget the guy’s name, but he just came out with a sequel, 1493, which I haven’t read. And he kind of writes about–he’s a journalist really, and he writes about how he couldn’t believe–he kind of started doing the research and he couldn’t believe that this story hadn’t been told. But the point is that the story had been told over and over in minutia at academic conferences by people who had literally spent 40 years digging through garbage heaps examining teeth!

RB:Well, they couldn’t get anyone to read or write the scholastic journal articles?

MD:Or they simply didn’t care. I promise you that at Wisconsin, you weren’t trying to get a book deal at Random House. You were trying to get a book deal at Princeton [University Press]. And I think that these scholars don’t care about Harper Collins. They don’t care about New York publishing. They just want to sit in their garbage heap and examine bones!

RB:That’s what’s opened the floodgates, you know.Dan Okrent wrote a very serviceable book about Prohibition, you know, and he did an admirable job of not only talking about the law but the social-movement context.And, of course, then Burns made the film on it. I would maintain that I’ve learned as much if not more about American history from Gore Vidal’s novels and EL Doctorow novels and Geraldine Brooks‘ novels than I have reading history texts.

MD:Right, well, that’s how I feel, how I’ve felt about 1491.I loved that book, and there wasn’t a page where my mind wasn’t blown. But he’s a journalist piecing the story together. He’s not the guy who’s done the 40 years, and you can see why there’d be some friction between the actual storyteller and the–

RB:It’s called jealousy.


RB:It’s called you’re getting more attention than I am. What about people like–what do you think about this thing that’s called creative nonfiction? You know, the Erik Larsons and the Mark Kurlanskys)?

MD:I obviously think that the term just always sounds strange to me. I do have to say that I like it more when it’s about something as opposed to, like, memoir, this self-reflective–because I think there’s a lot of indulgent, “I’m a writer, and I don’t…”¬

RB:Are you familiar with (Benjamin Anastas’) book, Too Good to Be True?


RB:The possibility of self-indulgence is certainly there. Frankly, I don’t know of anybody who isn’t a writer who really wants to read that story. It’s well told. It’s more vivid if you understand the world of writing and trying to make your living as a writer.

MD:My wife loved that book. But yeah, a lot of people do obviously.I suppose it depends on the quality of the work.


MD:And I think that there’s a lot of good stuff and bad stuff that’s trying to do the same thing.

RB:There are gems in the book, one of which I thought said something to the effect of having seen, the downside or a certain side of the writing life, he didn’t understand what the prestige and the — it’s not such a glamorous station in life.

MD:Yeah. Especially these days. Well, speaking of Gore Vidal, did he die recently, or did

RB:A few years

MD: They were quoting him, and he said–he was talking about how he was being interviewed by someone, and he said, “Yeah, I used to be a famous novelist.” And the interviewer corrected him and said, “What’re you talking about? You know, people still read your books. You still sell really well.” He said, “No. When I say, ‘I used to be a famous novelist,’ I’m saying, ‘I used to live in a time when you could be a famous novelist.’” And this is slipping away, you know?

RB:Yeah. I was, I mean, he’s another one of those great American aphorists— I always liked his observation about the four most beautiful words in the English language: “I told you so.” Who occupies his kind of social /cultural perch, you know. Jon Stewart? Steven Colbert, I mean, who else is there? Sort of mocking, the establishment and the status quo and also, people seem not to be not paying attention–

MD:I know, and I think those are two really good examples.

RB:I mean Hitchens was close, but he was certainly very literary, but he’d spent a lot of time in television. And he was certainly a charismatic guy?

MD:Yeah, it is an interesting question.

RB:I wonder if England is really a greater repository of those kinds of public intellectuals than the United States. I mean (England) is–he’s here now–but he’s a guy who always says something worthy of attention. You know, about anything.

MD:You know of Tony Judt


MD:The book that he wrote about–?

RB:His account of dying of ALS?

MD:No, it was the reaction to Stalin by French intellectuals. You know I’ve spent a lot of time in France and there–and I often hear it in the U.S. that they have the great model of the public intellectual, the novelist who can, you know, write the great op ed or that kind of thing. But this book is–I can’t remember the name of it–but it’s basically about how–I mean people were crawling across the border out of Stalin’s Russia, Stalin’s Soviet Union with these stories, and you know, people like Sartre were saying, “You’re mistaken. It’s not true.” And what were Sartre’s qualifications? He was a novelist and philosopher. You know? I mean, and so, I mean, I do think you have to be careful about what people who have a lot of charisma deliver in–

RB:Yeah, I mean, who’s the big gun there now? Bernard Henri Levi who is referred to as BHL

MD:Right, right, right.

RB:I mean, you know, it’s like a supermodel. You get mentioned by your first name or your initials.

MD:Right, right, right.

RB:So–let’s get down to Earth here.


RB:You’re–you have your second novel. You’ve done your second novel. You’ve published your second novel. The ghostwriting thing is drying up.

MD:In the book.

RB:No, in your life.

MD:Right, well–

RB:Didn’t you say that industry is going?

MD:Yeah, I mean–my ghostwriting life–basically, I wrote for young readers, for kids, and most of my ghostwriting was pretty crass stuff. People would basically be contracted for books, and they didn’t want to write them, or they’d take on too much work. And so they’d pass it off. But yeah in a lot of ways, that work’s over. I do have some pretty more high-tone novels for young readers that I wrote myself and sold via an agent that I loved, but that–I would still do that kind of thing. The problem is that it’s–I guess that every time I think about what I want to write about next, that’s not–it’s just not on the list now.

RB:What do you want to write about? Are you writing a novel now?

MD:I’m almost done with a novel that I’ve had a bunch of sections of it published. This, also under a pen name. I think I might publish it under my real name, I haven’t decided.

RB:What would the decision be based on? Whether you liked it? Whether you were proud of it, or whether–?

MD:Well, no, I mean, I love this novel, so–. It’s just–it’s been most fun writing under a pen name for–actually, I mean it’s a very hard thing to describe because there are so many reasons I went into it. One of them is that it’s so filled with sex and drugs that I simply didn’t want my mother to know that I was writing about this kind of thing. But in some ways, the protagonist is–well, I mean, in every single way, the protagonist is the opposite of who I am.

RB:At the end of this book, Henry displays or exhibits an amazing amount of sort of relaxation and confidence that he’ll be able to write whatever he wants to write, and it’ll be at least satisfying for him.

MD:Yeah. What are–are you asking is this true in my life?


MD: One of the great things about being a Grub Street writer for so many years is that I don’t ever really suffer from writer’s block. I mean, it comes pretty easy when I have an idea. And, I’ve got a good gig right now at Butler that gives me the time to write.

RB:Do you teach every semester?


RB:Summer too?

MD:Not in the summer, but I think I’m working out a gig that I can teach in France a creative writing class, so I might teach a month out of the summer. But you know, one of the problems is–I had this job at Oscar Meyer for a year–

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile

RB:Oscar Mayer meats?

MD:Yeah. Their corporate headquarters, but that’s also where they make the bacon bits and the “Lunchables “ and everything. And I was never as productive in my life as when I worked there because I woke up every morning and thought, “Holy shit! I’m working at a sausage factory! I’d better do something to get out of here!” And this was after I’d gotten–

RB:What were you doing?

MD:Well, I had gotten my masters degree at Madison in history, and I was still in the PhD program, but I took a year’s leave of absence because I was thinking I wanted to be a novelist instead. And–

RB: Started working at a meatpacking plant?

MD:Well, it was a great gig. I mean I was a temp. I filled in for someone who was on extended maternity leave, so I had the same job for almost a year. One of the things that I tell my students a lot–

RB:Anything bad ever happened to you?

MD:When I was at Oscar Mayer?

RB:Anywhere! Because so far, you were happy with the bank job that you had after you left school. You didn’t mind living in Brooklyn. You had a job at a meatpacking plant that was great–

MD:No one’s ever asked me this question. Usually, people ask me when, after they’ve talked to me for a while, if anything good has ever happened in my life!


MD:Because, you know, I’m generally a–I’m much more of a dismal person, and I think they put an extra shot in my coffee today. But no, what I’d say, and I’d say one of the things that I channel in this book and even in my last book, where the protagonist is a 60-year-old guy who has many problems that he deals with, is that I moved around a lot, and I was a new kid a lot, and I am, in fact, instinctively shy and I also–it takes me a long time to figure out what the social cues of my social world are.And–so I spent a lot of time as a young person eating lunch alone in the cafeteria–and like I said, in England, getting my ass kicked.

RB:Have you met a lot of people since you’ve been in Indianapolis?

MD:I have.I’ve met my entire department. [They’re] from Jersey or Staten Island or–and Indianapolis is a big city with a lot of industry, and so there’s plenty to do. My cultural life is really books, so that hasn’t changed much. I mean I miss my friends in New York. I miss stepping out of my building in New York and being in the center of this commercial–

RB:So do you walk a lot where you are?

MD: No.

RB:Do you live on campus?

MD:No, I’m not on campus.I’m about a mile and half away, and I don’t walk–

RB:Do you drive?

MD:I understand why people drive in a way that I didn’t in New York because in New York, I could walk to the same place every single day and it would never be (boring), and I was like, “Well now, I can walk to school with our new place” and it took me about two weeks to say, “I could just never see those–you know, I can’t go that route again.I’m just so bored by it.Unfortunately, it sounds like I’m really knocking Indiana, but it is–it’s not–

RB:Well, are there tree-lined streets? Are there interesting houses?

MD:Well, there are some, but, it’s not–I mean, again, it’s not like New York, but there’s–

RB:Are their other people walking?

MD:Mmm. Well, that’s one of the other problems.You know, there’s–it’s only 50% chance that there’s going to actually be a sidewalk. They don’t plough their streets during the winter.

RB:So actually, walking isn’t encouraged?

MD:No, but if you talk to a person from Indiana–Indianapolis–they’d say it’s one of the great walking cities–

RB:What about bicycling?

MD:Yeah, they’ve got some bike paths that are basically lines of paint in the middle of the street. I don’t understand how anyone would think that these qualify as a bike path, but–

RB:Tell me what the thing is you like best about Indianapolis?

MD:Well, I feel like–this is a hard question for me to answer because I feel like–and I think back when I started becoming sort of interested in being a novelist, you know–I’m reading Hamsun and Thomas Bernhard and Celine, and you know, having a sort of–

RB:Couldn’t you read Americans?

MD:Well, no.I had no interest in reading Americans.I didn’t know anything about American literature.My idea of being a writer was living in some dismal, 6-story, (walk-up), cold, heated apartment in east Berlin, and that’s what I wanted out of life, and when people ask me what I like about my life now, I feel like my response is so horrific. It sounds so–like I’ve sold out, but I love having a really nice house that I don’t have to pay much money for. My writing habits used to be–I mean, I was up at 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning, doing my work. I can’t get out of bed at 4 in the morning without my 4-year-old following me downstairs and–I love that! And so I feel like I’m this sort of man who’s now sort of like taking more pleasure in having, you know, chocolate eclairs with his son at a bakery than I am with having magnificent dreams of, writing essays about Schopenhauer and that kind of thing. But it is true. I mean, I have a very–I’m strangely happy in a lot of ways, which sounds–I feel very guilty about that.

RB:That’s for other people to deal with.

MD:Yeah, I know.

RB:Let me ask you–so you give it maybe a little more thought–let’s end our conversation for today by you telling me of where you think you might be in ten years.Have you even thought about the future?

MD:Well, mostly I think I hope I’m still alive.Actually, I’m a pretty bad hypochondriac, so–it’s funny but I–

RB:Hypochondria doesn’t kill you.

MD:That’s true!But in terms of planning where are you going to be in 10 years, it’s one of the things you think about. And the–I guess that I hope that I’ve written a bunch more books and still have a career and–

RB:Looking back on your life, did you–are you surprised by all the places you’ve been?

MD:Yeah, I guess.I’m actually surprised that I was in New York for so long because I think I’ve always sort of felt a little transient.Of course, New York has a feel that it’s full of transient people. But–yeah, I guess I am surprised. I used to–because I moved around a lot–I used to be really crippled with sort of feelings of nostalgia for the places that I’ve left, and I do grieve having left New York. I miss it a lot, but I don’t feel the same that I used to feel when I used to leave a place.It’s a big question, and I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s just that I’m with my wife and my son, and it just seems like wherever they are, that’s where my life is. But–

RB:Um–that wasn’t the last question.


RB:The last question is: what is the feeling that you get when you write? When you spend an hour, two hours, three hours writing?

MD:Well, usually, stories for me begin with a feeling of love for a character that I have. And it sounds kind of facile, but–and not maybe what I imagined my writing life would be like when I started out years ago–but I kind of started writing about this guy, Henry, and I wanted to, you know, sort of take care of him and see what happened to him. Again, I hate to talk about my work like this because I want to sound like an astounding, towering intellectual, but usually, after a good session of writing, you know, I feel a sense of love for the people that I’ve been spending my time with in my imagination.

RB:So when you finish a book, what is–what’s the feeling?

MD:Well, you know, there’s such a strange sort of long, sort of clerical process once a book is done that–it’s almost–

RB:Much revision?

MD:You know, I have a really excellent editor–

RB:Jill Bialosky?

MD:Jill Bialosky, right. The reason I say she’s excellent is mostly because I feel like she’s excellent for me because we share a certain kind of literary outlook, so she doesn’t ask for many changes, and when she does, they’re really excellent requests. So I wouldn’t say that that is difficult–editing–but you know, Norton really has a–I mean it’s an old-school exhaustive editorial process so they’re doing a lot of revisions, and they have a proper proofreader that only is a proofreader and is an expert in that, and so there’s just a lot of manuscript work that I’m doing and then, you know–that kind of thing. I think that that helps–

RB:You mean you get drawn into the marketing, publicizing initiatives?


RB:You don’t have time to grieve over the end of the story.

MD:Right, right. And I think that that helps in some ways. I think that maybe I feel a lot–I’d feel worse if I didn’t have this small task to keep me going. It’s like if you’re feeling depressed, doing the laundry kind of helps you feel a little better. But–so–yeah. I guess now–I mean the other thing, and this is something that is just so clear to me with my last novel is, and it’s very strange, but books really lead lives of their own. And there’s a certain point where it’s not yours anymore, and it’s off in the world, being hated or loved by whoever’s picking it up, and you’ve just got to kind of watch it. It’s like sending a kid off to college, I suppose. I don’t know.

RB:I’d expect that, as has been the case many times in my past that we may speak again.

MD:I’m up here all the time. Yeah. So–yeah. Definitely, I’d love to talk again.

RB:Thank you.

MD:Thank you

Currently reading Haven’s Wake by Ladette Randolph (University of Nebraska Press)

The Voice of Reason is Small But Persistent

31 Oct

Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball by Joe Bageant

With the exception of Matt Taibbi, Barbara Ehrenreich, Belen Fernandez and the Baffler cadre (Thomas Frank, John Summers, Rick Perlstein) and Tom’s Dispatch, the voices of dissent and defiance are drowned out by a mainstream noise machine and dwindling population (RIP Howard Zinn, Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, Joe Bageant) WHat you say, who is Joe Bageant?

Joe Bageant (Rainbow Pie and Dear Hunting With Jesus), who passed away last year, was one of the few American writers who wrote about the White underclass with out stereotype and condescension (see also Frank Bill, Donald Ray Pollack, Daniel Woodrell and Bonnie Jo Campbell). There is a newly published anthology of 25 of his essays Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: The Best of Joe Bageant edited by Kevin Smith that is rich with insight and humor, from a vantage point rarely voiced in our helter skelter culture. One of Joe Bageant’s last tracts, “AMERICA: Y UR PEEPS B SO DUM? Ignorance and courage in the age of Lady Gaga” begins:

If you hang out much with thinking people, conversation eventually turns to the serious political and cultural questions of our times. Such as: How can the Americans remain so consistently brain-fucked? Much of the world, including plenty of Americans, asks that question as they watch U.S. culture go down like a thrashing mastodon giving itself up to some Pleistocene tar pit.

One explanation might be the effect of 40 years of deep fried industrial chicken pulp, and 44 ounce Big Gulp soft drinks. Another might be pop culture, which is not culture at all of course, but marketing. Or we could blame it on digital autism: Ever watch commuter monkeys on the subway poking at digital devices, stroking the touch screen for hours on end? That wrinkled Neolithic brows above the squinting red eyes?

But a more reasonable explanation is that, (A) we don’t even know we are doing it, and (B) we cling to institutions dedicated to making sure we never find out.

And this gem of analysis:

Cultural ignorance of one sort or another is sustained and nurtured in all societies to some degree, because the majority gains material benefit from maintaining it. Americans, for example, reap huge on-the-ground benefits from cultural ignorance — especially the middle class Babbitry — from cultural ignorance generated by American hyper-capitalism in the form of junk affluence.

And then a somber, resonant conclusion

Still, the void, the meaninglessness of ordinary work and the emptiness of daily life scares thinking citizens shitless, with its many unspeakables, spy cams, security state pronouncements, citizens being economically disappeared, and general back-of-the-mind unease. Capitalism’s faceless machinery has colonized our very souls. If the political was not personal to begin with, it’s personal now.

Some Americans believe we can collectively triumph over the monolith we presently fear and worship. Others believe the best we can do is to find the personal strength to endure and go forward on lonely inner plains of the self.

Doing either will take inner moral, spiritual and intellectual liberation. It all depends on where you choose to fight your battle. Or if you even choose to fight it. But one thing is certain. The only way out is in.

Currently reading Wilderness by Lance Wheeler (Bloomsbury)

This Land is Our Land.

4 Oct

As this presidential election continues apace, I am regularly reminded of the paucity of fearless and insightful observers of the American Political Circus. Hitchens (no matter his current politics) was regularly informative and original. Gore Vidal was, well, Gore Vidal.Howard Zinn peeled back the sophistry,demagoguery and hypocrisy of our regnent oligarchy.Gore Vidal was, well, Gore Vidal. There are Matt Taibbi,Rachel Maddow and Barbra Ehrenreich (and to some extent, Chris Hedges and Robert Scheer). Who (what) do we have as putatively as commentators on our civilization, in or proximal to the orthodox media? Wolf Blitzer? Oy! That Gregory guy(I ‘m not talking Dick—I don’t care enough to search engine his first name)? Uh,uh, uh…

Which brings me offering some current instructional aids for the politically engaged. Hedrick Smith (The Power Game) has written Who Stole The American Dream? (Random House) which, even if you know or think you can answer that question, is a useful and well-ordered survey of the last forty years of oligarchical power grabbing. Some remarks about media complicity in this mess would have been welcome but Smith has assembled a time line that is a refresher in recalling the chicanery and villainy of the not-so- distant past.

A terrific complement to Smith’s book is the documentary produced by Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher, Heist: Who Stole the American Dream.

Watch it on an empty stomach.

Thomas Frank and the resuscitated Baffler of course are valuable spotlights on the state of the nation and Frank’s latest opus Pity The Billionaire frames the puzzling issue of how the steroid rich’s class war has continued to bamboozle the rest of America especially working men and women. Frank expiates on Democracy Now.

I Told You So Gore Vidal Talks Politics with Jon Weiner

Setting aside Gore VIdal’s indecipherable last few years, he did have a long run as a brilliant analyst, gadfly and gossip of how politics is practiced in the USA. There is no better history of the UnIted States (excepting Zinn’s People’s History)than Vidal’s Empire novels. No doubt there will be a steady stream of posthumous publications by and about him and one of the first is I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics Interviews with Jon Wiener(OR Books).The title is taken from Vidal’s quip, “The four most beautiful words in our common language: ‘I told you so.’ ”. This slim volume contains 4 interviews that took place over a 20 year period from 1988 to 2008.The following adorns this book’s website:

I exist to say, ‘No, that isn’t the way it is,’ or ‘What you believe to be true is not true for the following reasons.’ I am a master of the obvious. I mean, if there’s a hole in the road, I will, viciously, outrageously, say there’s a hole in the road and if you don’t fill it in you’ll break the axle of your car. One is not loved for being helpful.

Zinn: A Life on The Left by Martin Duberman

A steady stream of material is also amassing about and by Howard Zinn, a prolific historian and a tireless and much beloved activist. Martin Duberman has written a competent biography of Zinn, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (The News Press) and City Lights has published The Historic Unfulfilled Promise. The New Press has also publishedThe Indispensible Zinn: The Essential Writings of the People’s Historian edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy with excerpts from A People’s History of the United States and Zinn’s memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

When you’re done with this assignment, I have more…

Currently reading News from Spain by Joan Wickersham (KNOPF)