Tag Archives: Graham Greene

Thomas Mallon: Watergate, the Novel

12 Jan

 

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

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—Henry and Clara, Two Moons, Dewey Defeats Truman, Bandbox, Fellow Travelers, and now Watergate.

This is the fifth or sixth conversation I have had with Mallon since the mid-’90s. Needless to say, he is a delightful and erudite conversationalist. Watergate, the historical event, which we both remember vividly, occupies much of what follows, including postmortems on Nixon, Kissinger, the Mitchells, John and Martha, and some others. Additionally, Mallon dedicated Watergate (the novel) to his good friend, the late Christopher Hitchens,[1] which, of course, sparks an enlightening tangent on Hitch.

By the way, it should be useful to keep in mind that what follows is a chat about both a nexus of historical events and a novel of the same name.

######

Robert Birnbaum: I keep reading that it’s the 40th anniversary of Watergate. So what? Why should anyone care?

 

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon: The [book’s] publication was not timed for the anniversary. In fact the book was ready to come out in the fall. I would have been happier if it had—it would have been an easier semester for me, traveling around. And I don’t think Watergate anniversaries have been big, generally. The problem is there is no one thing to peg the anniversary to. You could do an anniversary for when Nixon resigned, the anniversary of the break-in—so I think it’s just a journalistic convenience to mention it.

RB: Did I miss John Dean’s review of your book?

TM: Just this morning I saw—I was sent something.

RB: He mentioned the book in the context of a review of Max Holland’s book about Mark Felt [Deep Throat].

TM: That’s right.

RB: Dean suggested he wasn’t going to read your novel.

TM: He said his friends were reading it. They were asking him, “Did Mrs. Nixon really have an affair?” And he said, “No, not to my knowledge.” And he didn’t think she could have had an affair in the way she does in the book. That I didn’t quite understand. The affair she has in the book predates her husband’s presidency. It’s an affair she has in New York in the ’60s.

RB: Doesn’t she meet her lover in South America?

TM: In Brazil. He does meet her there, but while she’s First Lady they have only two fleeting and chaste encounters in the context of big public events. So I wasn’t quite sure what he [Dean] meant by that.

RB: This is historical fiction, which readers ought to be reminded of. But why create a love affair for the character, Pat Nixon?

TM: I think in some ways it’s the emotional heart of the book—Mrs. Nixon and this affair. Frank Gannon [in the Wall Street Journal] was quite nice to the book but he did not like that.

RB: Many reviewers have lauded the book.

TM: People have been very kind—I’ve been delighted. But he was left queasy by the affair. He said, “Imagine the Nixon daughters reading this.”

RB: He quoted you saying you can’t libel the dead.

TM: It’s very interesting what he tried to do. But finally, I had to disagree with him. I had once written in an essay that there are things you shouldn’t do to the dead even though they are dead and can’t be litigious. This was in reference to a movie that had been made implying that Thomas E. Dewey, who was once a character in one of my books [Dewey Defeats Truman], had actually been corrupt. To me, to say that Mrs. Nixon might have had this tender, brief affair is not an iniquitous thing. I fictionalized her life more than some of the others, but in a way this falsity or invention somehow allowed me to get inside her head in a way I don’t think I could have otherwise. In a peculiar way, I got to some aspects of the truth about her via invention.

RB: Again, the critical chorus was adulatory. One critic called the Watergate episode “vaudevillian.”

TM: It may be my own fault because I wrote the flap copy myself.

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

RB: That’s one part of the book I didn’t read.

TM: And I did write in the flap copy (picks up book), “It conveys the comedy and the high drama of the Nixon presidency.” And there definitely are comic moments in it. But I have been somewhat surprised by the reviews that have emphasized the comedic aspects of the book. More than I expected; more than I thought they existed.

RB: There are a lot of characters, but Fred LaRue becomes central to the story. He has this personal tragedy and an odd relationship. Why focus on LaRue?

TM: He appealed to me for a couple of reasons. I remember seeing a documentary that was made about 20 years ago and featured him. His soft-spokenness, his shyness, the fact that he choked up at one point. He just began to intrigue me. There are about three invented characters in the book. The tip-off in the dramatis personae is the three names in quotation marks. The woman he is involved with, Clarine Lander, is also a fiction. But the great calamity of his life, prior to Watergate, involved him killing his father in a hunting accident in Canada and inheriting a lot of money. Naturally, a certain amount of suspicion or whatever you want to call it is going to cling to a person in those circumstances. That intrigued me. He is very shadowy.I am not very good with villains generally. I think the closest I come to villainy in my books is the shadowy presence of John Wilkes Booth.

RB: Did he never find out if it was an accident?

TM: In my story he never really knows. And that gets all wrapped up with what happened in Watergate years later. He’s very shadowy. He had no title, no salary. He did a lot of things for John Mitchell, whom he really loved. And he lived in the Watergate.  There was one newspaper profile of him in September of ’72, prior to Watergate really exploding. It suggested something like, “He seems to be out of one of [Faulkner’s] Snopes novels.” And that appealed to me. I had a list at the beginning—I still have it in my files somewhere—with dozens and dozens of names that were potential point-of-view characters. And it finally came down to seven. There’s a huge cast, but only seven—

RB: And you cast Alice Longworth prominently. I lived through Watergate I don’t remember her presence. Was she interviewed a lot?

TM: A little bit. She turned 90 at the time. Nixon went to her birthday party at her house in Dupont Circle. She wrote somewhere, when time was running out for him, “Oh I think the clock is dick, dick, dicking.” She had known him from the time he had come to town in the ’40s. She had marked him as a comer. She was very fond of him and Pat, and at least one of the daughters. She said to an interviewer, one time, “Tricia:  what’s wrong with her?” She was in the Nixon White House more than I thought when I began looking at the schedules. So I made her into my one-woman witches’ chorus. People have wondered why I didn’t use Martha Mitchell, who was so flamboyant—

RB: She was a drunk.

TM: (laughs) That’s the problem. She was really too far gone for most of Watergate. And she is really absent from the scene—the Mitchells decamped for New York pretty early on. She just wouldn’t have worked.

RB: From the outside, John Mitchell struck me as a gruff and unattractive person. He does come off as a more sympathetic character in your narrative—as do most of the people.

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

TM: I am not very good with villains generally. I think the closest I come to villainy in my books is the shadowy presence of John Wilkes Booth [in Henry and Clara] (laughs).

RB: Haldeman? You seemed to get Nixon dead on—a misanthrope in a flesh presser’s profession.

TM: Yeah. There are people who claim that he actually liked politics and liked campaigning. I find that kind of hard to believe. But where Nixon is concerned:  what would be the point of writing a novel about someone who’s just a mustache-twirling villain? I just wanted to see all this with a certain intimacy. You are right; Haldemnn seems sort of nasty in the book, though you tend to see him through Rose Mary Woods—he’s the man who displaced her in a way.  It’s generally that old Graham Greene term—the human factor—that interests me.

RB: George Will’s review

TM: It was actually his syndicated column.

RB: I thought he got it exactly right—that you learn so much from novels by Gore Vidal, Max Byrd, and Robert Penn Warren [“bring… men alive in ways that only a literary imagination can”]. Here’s the thing, it seems that no one knew who ordered the break-in, but what does beg for emphasis is that the real crime was the cover-up. That’s what brought Nixon down. One wonders what might have happened if he had cut his losses? Was he incapable of admitting he was wrong or mistaken?

TM: A lot of it involves Mitchell. It’s true that nobody knows for sure, to this day, who told them to go into the Democratic National Committee at that point. There is a whole kind of grassy-knoll theory of Watergate that posits something very different, which I don’t buy into.

RB: What, Castro funding the Democrats?

TM: Yeah, and then there is the whole theory that John Dean was the evil mastermind. But it’s fairly easily established that Gordon Liddy presented this plan for massive surveillance and—this crazy—you know, the Gemstone plan—in John Mitchell’s office in the Justice Department early in 1972. If only Nixon had said at the beginning, “all those people are now fired from the committee” and gotten Mitchell to take the fall!  Whether Mitchell signed off on it or not, this was not a meeting that should have ever taken place in the offices of the Justice department.  If Nixon had sacrificed Mitchell—To me the real Rosetta Stone of Watergate is the spring of 1970. It’s when Nixon goes into Cambodia and Kent State follows. There were massive demonstrations in Washington and a ring of buses around the White House. He makes that crazy middle-of-the-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The super-charged atmosphere of that—I remember this as a very young man. It was so intense.

RB: Which he had to do anyway.

TM: Eventually. If he had done it at the beginning, he might have survived. But he didn’t want to do it. Mitchell had had so much to do with making him president.

RB: How was it that CREEP was being run out of a government office?

TM: They knew Mitchell was going to run the campaign but he was still attorney general. There is a very large sympathetic biography of Mitchell called The Strong Man by James Rosen, which is very interesting. It won’t convince everybody, but it’s a full-bodied picture of Mitchell. Nixon ultimately blamed Martha Mitchell [for his downfall]. One of the things that was clear to me—the Mitchells were a love match. It was a second marriage for both of them. And Mitchell, I think, really loved Martha. But Martha was tremendously out of control.

RB: Was she always a drunk?

TM: I think so, but her problems at that point were really severe. She really needed to be in a sanitarium. Nixon used to say that it was because of Martha—John’s preoccupation with her troubles —that [Mitchell] wasn’t minding the store. That’s as far as he would go in blaming him. But he was not going to cut him loose in ’72.

RB: They ultimately divorced, right?

TM: Yes, and she ultimately became quite ill and died in ’76.

RB: The break-in wasn’t the only illegality in that nexus of events—the plumbers and the burglarizing of [Daniel]Ellsberg’s shrink’s office, Donald Segretti’s dirty tricks—

TM: He was pretty low-rent. But even Mitchell referred to the “White House horrors”—they knew they had these secrets that were really—

RB: And lots of undocumented cash.

TM: Right. Well, as he famously says to Dean on that tape, “We could get a million dollars. It’d be wrong but we could do it.” People often date the point at which Nixon goes off the deep end to Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers. [2]So Nixon, like many presidents, became obsessed with leaks. And he forms this squad, “the plumbers,” to deal with them. And to some extent, yes, that is the crucial turning point:  thats what brings Howard Hunt into the White House. But to me the real Rosetta Stone of Watergate can be found a year before that—to me it’s the spring of 1970. It’s when Nixon goes into Cambodia and Kent State follows. There were massive demonstrations in Washington and a ring of buses around the White House. He makes that crazy middle-of-the-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The super-charged atmosphere of that—I remember this as a very young man, it was so intense—that was what gave Nixon a Manichean view of the world, this us-against-them view. In some ways, that set in motion everything that followed.

RB: There’s not a lot of Kissinger’s presence, but [the book] does say a lot about him (laughs).

TM: Well. It’s all there on the tape.  I refer to something like “guttural rumbling gravitas.”  I wish I could quote myself better. Any time these tapes are released, anyone who has the slightest regard for Richard Nixon has to crawl into a hole for days. You hear these awful things, these slurs and all his prejudices. Many of which to Nixon were a species of tough-guy locker room talk—he worshipped toughness. This last batch, oh my god. Kissinger comes off worse than Nixon. They are talking about the plight of Soviet Jewry. And Kissinger says something like, “If a million Jews were to perish, it is not a national security issue. It is perhaps a human tragedy.” My friend Hitchens said, when those were released, “You’ve got to love that ‘perhaps.’”

RB: You dedicated this book to Christopher Hitchens.

 

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

TM: Yes, I loved him to pieces. And admired him.

RB: I think many people did, even through the twists and turns of his politics. He was brilliant.

TM: Yes, very brave. Lived between two fires.

RB: What other journalist had himself water-boarded to ascertain whether it was torture?

 

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

TM: He was a very gentle person too. The tributes to him have been enormous and well deserved but that was the one side that they didn’t quite catch. In my novel Fellow Travelers there is a left-wing journalist for The Nation called Kenneth Woodford who is very kind to the hapless little gay guy, the protagonist Laughlin. And that was Hitchens, and he never recognized himself in it. I know he read the book—we talked about it. He even wrote something about it.

RB: Is there anyone that is like him?

TM: No, there is nobody. I remember he was debating a rabbi when the atheism book came out. And the rabbi said, “Now, Mr. Hitchens, I didn’t interrupt you.” And Hitchens said very softly, “You’re not quick enough.” (both laugh) I don’t think there was anybody who was as fast on his feet—he could debate anyone. And he was a literary man as well as a political man. I just think he was—I mean the grace with which he handled the last 18 months!  He put up a brutal fight against cancer. The pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair about that received a lot of well-deserved acclaim—a lot of people who read those pieces, what they didn’t realize was that all the time he was writing them he was still writing his pieces for Slate about Gadhafi, the election, and whatever was going on. Still doing his real work.  That was really quite heroic.

They are reissuing three of his books in the next couple of months—the book about the Clintons, Kissinger, and the book about Mother Teresa. They have new introductions; I did one for Mother Teresa. Which means another few years in Purgatory, I’m sure. He had this very eclectic mix of people around him because he was on so many political sides. You could go to dinner there and Grover Norquist would be across the table, [Salman] Rushdie would be next to you. And he had a lot of younger conservative journalists around during the Iraq War—also political operatives, people in the administration—they were thrilled to have this blue-chip intellectual backing Bush’s Iraq position, and I always used to sit there waiting for what I called “the Mother Teresa moment.”  I would think, just wait, the conversation is going to take another turn. They are going to have to deal with the fact that Hitchens is an unreconstructed socialist—he called himself a socialist until the day he died. And they were going to have to realize that he was all of a piece.I don’t intend to go on forever. People do. But not everyone has these bursts like [Philip] Roth in their 70s.

RB: So, did you have fun writing Watergate?

TM: I did. Much more than many other books (chuckles). One of the things I was amazed at was, once I really dug into it, it came back to me so quickly. Details, quotes, minor players.

RB: Meaning you didn’t have to do much research?

TM: I did, but it was all sort of there. Like dragging a file out from some drawer. It stuck with me because A) it was so vivid and B) I was so young—you absorb and retain at that age. The amount of stuff available—[the players in the Watergate drama] almost all wrote memoirs, if only to pay their legal bills. There are all the committee transcripts; there are the tapes. It’s that rare subject where I wished there was less.

RB: E.L. Doctorow says he does as little research as he can get away with.

TM: I do think that anybody writing this kind of fiction has to start writing before he completes his research–or else he falls into dissertation syndrome—“I can’t start writing until I have read everything.” And that’s a prescription for never starting.

RB: You had an opportunity to lionize Senator Sam Ervin but you ended up giving attention to Mississippi Senator  James Eastland.

TM: Well, Ervin is so familiar. Eastland was crucial to developing [Fred] LaRue.  LaRue was the one who would bring to Eastland, who was head of the Judiciary Committee, Nixon’s conservative judicial nominations.  And he was another Mississippian. So I had a few Jubilation T Cornpone scenes.

RB: In writing a book like this is there a beginning and an end? What’s next?

TM: I’m going to write about Reagan next.

RB: What happened to the murder book?

TM: It’s been bumped again. If I ever do that one, it would be my tenth novel and that might be it. I don’t intend to go on forever. People do. But not everyone has these bursts like [Phillip] Roth in their 70s. I am going to try to write about Reagan’s Washington, set around the time of the Reykjavik summit, which was a thrilling, bizarre episode. I still write a lot of nonfiction and I am kind of grateful—I’m now 60, which is pretty young—

RB: It’s the new 40.

TM: It’s still young in absolute terms, but I can see reaching a point—I hope I am a few books away from it—when it comes time to bring the plane in for a gentle landing. I still love writing essays and reviews and all the rest. Maybe I can content myself with that?

RB: Well, the conventional wisdom for maintaining mental acuity is “Use it or lose it.”

TM: I do think the real challenge in writing novels and particularly a book like this is organization and structure. There is this massive amount of material to corral into some sort of discernible shape.

RB: So many choices.

TM: That’s the thing. I had lists of dozens of characters—do I go with that person or that person? Eventually you have to make a decision and narrow it down and eliminate people.    You have that nice little magazine up here called Ploughshares, and they are doing an essay issue that’s being edited by my friend Patricia Hampl, a wonderful memoirist. So she’s been putting the touch on all of her writer pals for essays. And I’m doing a little nonfiction thing about Nixon, trying to figure out my preoccupation with him.

RB: Perhaps the greatest indictment of Nixon was in Charles Baxter’s essay “Burning Down the House,” where he faults Nixon for introducing the dysfunctional narrative by employing “mistakes were made…”

TM: The irony is we will never have a president who is more real to us than Nixon–for all his unreality.  You have some tapes that Kennedy made, Johnson made, whatever. But to have all those tapes—Nixon unbound, sometimes unglued—to be able to hold those against all of his recorded public utterances:  that’s an extraordinary thing.

RB: He taped everything.

TM: But he didn’t do it for the first two years. He got rid of Johnson’s taping system at the beginning. And then they decided that the quality of memoranda they were getting from the people who were supposed to record meetings (the low man on the totem pole would be the note taker) was just too low.  Haldeman, in his efficient way, so disliked the quality of what they were getting that he said, “Let’s just tape everything. These things aren’t worth a damn when you try to refer to them.” Once he did it, he went into it in such an enormous way. There must be at least one tape of Nixon listening to the tapes too.

RB: (laughs)

TM: Before the tapes were made public, and the system was then instantly dismantled, in the Spring of ’73, Nixon wants to listen to a tape of that March 21 meeting with John Dean (“we could get a million dollars”). He has one of his aides rig up the tapes so he can listen in hi Executive Office Building hideaway—that had a taping system, too. So there has to be a tape of Nixon listening to himself.  The tapes do put you there in a way that they will never put you in there again.

RB: Do Americans want their president to be human, to be real? Mitt Romney is ridiculed for trying to be a man of the people

TM: Yeah, well, this crew that’s out there now—what he [Nixon] would make of them!  The idea that an election would be hinging on these “social” issues would just bore him. He even said to Mitchell at one point—supposedly said,  just when the presidency was beginning—“You be President, and I’ll be Secretary of State.” To him it was essentially the office from which the foreign affairs of the country were conducted. One of the reasons his domestic programs by and large were so liberal—guaranteed national income, health care, big funding for the arts, all the rest—I don’t think all that engaged him very much. He wanted to be free of that.  Ehrlichman, who was in charge of domestic affairs, felt they didn’t get enough of Nixon’s attention. Nixon said at one point—and I have him speak this line to Rose Mary Woods—“The country can basically run itself domestically.” A sort of Coolidge notion,  in a way. Even though he went in for lots of government intervention and programs.

RB: Later there were efforts to rehabilitate him based on his foreign policy expertise.

TM: He wrote serious books and he never took a fee for a speech.

RB: Was he broke when he resigned?

TM: Yes. He needed to write his memoirs to make money. But they lived modestly at the end. He still did a lot of foreign travel and he gave his advice freely to every American president that followed him. Nixon’s epilogue scene here is his last trip to Russia, just before he dies. And he reports on that to Clinton. And Clinton even says to his advisors, “Why don’t I get memos this good from my ambassadors and staff?” He was a much better ex-president than president.

RB: Clinton was particularly laudatory when Nixon died.

TM: He said something like, “The time has long passed when we should judge Richard Nixon on anything but the totality of his life.” In other words there was more to him than Watergate. I used to wonder how Robert Caro, year after year, book after book, stuck with Johnson (laughs). I still wonder—

RB: Malone wrote six volumes on Jefferson.

TM: —but I could sort of see it after just a couple of years with Nixon.  I didn’t feel as if I’d exhausted anything.

RB: I don’t know who wants to read those door- stop biographies. I like the 200-page biographical essays by someone who is simpatico—Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, or Cabrera Infante on José Martí. But I see that  biographers like Caro are good about clarifying the social/historical milieu surrounding their subjects.

TM: Yes, yes. His books are these big history paintings, these murals. But biography—I’m not tempted. It’s too onerous, too difficult.  It’s one thing to go from fiction to criticism, reviewing. But to go from fiction to narrative non-fiction… I’ve been amused by this John D’Agata book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Not my idea of nonfiction. I worked on that little book of mine, Mrs. Paine’s Garage, after a real spate of fiction—Dewey Defeats Truman, Two Moons, and I found it so difficult not to be able to fall back on saying, “Well, it’s a novel,  I can change this.” It had to go through the strainer of the New Yorker fact-checking department. And I just can’t imagine that burden in writing biography, let alone the burden of assembling all the material. I just can’t see it.Aside all the campaigning he did for people, [Nixon] was preparing himself for the presidency. [Palin] couldn’t care less. With her it’s become president or get a better deal with a reality TV show.

RB: Have you seen Game Change?[3]

TM: No.

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

RB: Do you read those kinds of books? Read that book?

TM: Not many. I read him, John Heilemann—I read him in New York magazine and I hope I will see the movie with Julianne Moore.

RB: She’s incredibly convincing as Palin. But everybody involved as a player claims it’s fiction. The end the movie has McCain telling Palin she is now a kingmaker in the Republican Party. Is she a leader of the GOP?

TM: No, no. No. No. Look, I argued in 2008 with my friends that nobody who was in the United States Senate for three years was ready to be president.  So nobody who was the Governor of Alaska for two years is ready to be president.

RB: John McCain was prepared to be president?

TM: Well, all those years in Congress.

RB: George Bush was ready to be president?

TM: Six years as governor of Texas—that’s a weak office. Probably not, ideally.  But I think Palin had been to Mexico:  that was her international travel. She may have stopped in Germany on her way to make a lightning visit to Iraq. She had never seen any of the countries we’re allied with. That strikes me as incredible.

RB: But that’s what politics has degenerated to since Nixon—commercials and advertising. Eagles and flags and all the rest of the beer commercial imagery.

TM: Look at those years Nixon was out of office.  He was an enormous foreign traveler. He would meet with whoever was in power and with the leader of the opposition too. As a former vice-president—anybody was going to see him.  Aside from all the campaigning he did for people, he was preparing himself for the presidency. [Palin] couldn’t care less. With her it’s become president or get a better deal with a reality TV show.

RB: Quitting the governorship was a telling move.

TM: Also, how hard could it have been (laughs)?

RB: Who do you think could be president? Who could do the job?

TM: Umm. Well, uh, I was alone in my peer group who thought McCain could.

RB: Not based on his values but because he knows how things work?

TM: His experience, yeah.   Even though he has been wrong on just about everything through the years, in terms of experience, Biden would be creditable. John Kerry was a creditable candidate. There are other reasons why I might not want them, but I do think people should know something. One result of 2008, and it’s a combination of Obama and Palin—in most respects there is no comparison (intelligence, curiosity, etc.)—but having both of them on the ticket, it has definitely driven down the expectation of experience. People with such thin resumes running for the top offices.

RB: That strikes me as basis for Biden’s place on the ticket.

TM: Oh sure. Once McCain put Palin on the ticket he lost the opportunity to say to Obama, “You’re not prepared to be president. You need more seasoning in the Senate.” Their obvious rebuttal would be the choice he made to be a heartbeat away. His campaign threw away a pretty compelling argument. I think a lot of people would have looked at Obama and said—here’s a very bright guy, come back in four years.

RB: Well, come back in four years with your Ronald Reagan book. Thanks again.

TM: I will. [And he did] see here

########

1. Identitytheory —(my first)conversation with Christopher Hitchens

2. The Pentagon Papers

3. HBO’s Game Change 

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La mejor carta de Cuba libro

20 Dec

The announcement this week that the Obama Administration’s initiative to normalize relations with Cuba was,with the exception of the usual pathological reactions by the Know-Nothing party and its flying monkeys, greeted with jubilation and hosannahs. And a number commentators offered to catch up curious readers with lists of Cuban books. Thus, I feel compelled to offer my own primer on Cuban culture

John Williams, a New York Times writer put together a useful list which is a good place to start:

“Telex From Cuba” by Rachel Kushner
“Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba” by Tom Miller
“The Man Who Loved Dogs” by Leonardo Padura
“Dancing With Cuba” by Alma Guillermoprieto
“Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba” by Tom Gjelten
“Cobra” and “Maitreya” by Severo Sarduy
“Waiting for Snow in Havana” by Carlos Eire
“Three Trapped Tigers” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
“Before Night Falls” by Reinaldo Arenas
“Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina García
“Paradiso” by José Lezama Lima
“Explosion in a Cathedral”by Alejo Carpentier
“Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson

Cuba by Hugh Thomas

Cuba by Hugh Thomas

Cuba: Or the Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas

This is the original seminal comprehensive survey of Cuban history from pre-Columbian innocence to Spanish conquest to American annexation to the revolutionary present.

Fidel By Tad Szluc

Fidel By Tad Szluc

Fidel: A Critical Portrait by Tad Szluc

Any book list would be incomplete with out a book on Fidel. Szluc’s biography is useful and unadorned and it only suffers from the burden that afflicts most stories of person’s life, there is too much information.

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes (a novel)

Journalist Fuentes was once a revolutionary and a member of Fidel’s inner circle. As such things happen, he came a persona non grata,fleeing from a death sentence. This fiction closely adheres to the facts but is presented in Castro’s bombastic, megalomaniacal style voice (familiar for his endless hours long orations)

Mea Cuba by  Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Guillermo Cabrera Infante exiled in 1965, an important figure in the cultural battles that took place under the Triumph of the Revolution,was the quintessential Cuban man of letters and his Mea Cuba, a collection of prose miscellany, showcases his wry wit, penchant for puns, and encyclopedic overview of Cuban literary culture.This anthology is rife with the narratives about those battles its belligerents told by a gifted storyteller.I interviewed him in 1995.Here’s a snippet of that chat:

RB: Why do you write?

GCI…I was a very keen reader which I’m not anymore. So there was a book called El Senor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias[Nobel Prize winner] a Guatemalan writer…it was all the rage in 1947. A friend of mine told me about it and there was an article in a magazine and there were excerpts from the book. And I saw them and I said to him, “If that’s writing I can do it.”

And he said to me, “I bet you can not.” I said, “yes, I’ll prove it to you.” So I wrote a short story which was just terrible. I’m not going to tell you the title because I want to forget all about it. And he read it and said why don’t you take it to Bohemia, which was the same magazine the magazine that published the article on Asturias. And I took it and I met there a man who was managing editor of Bohemia, who was in charge of all fiction, who was also a Spanish exile from Franco. He was a member of the Republic, very important in those years…I gave him the short story and he said come back next week and I thought, because he had a very thick Spanish, I mean, Northern Spanish accent, you wouldn’t believe it how fast they talk and how thick they are that they actually can be, I thought that he meant that the next week they were going to publish my story. So I went back and he was there. And, of course, they didn’t publish my story so soon. They waited for the next year— for 1948. But this man said why don’t you come to see me on Saturday afternoon and I’ll give you some books to read. And he gave me mostly books by Spanish authors which, for me at the time, didn’t mean anything. So Spanish writers were not my ideal of writers at all. And this man made me his private secretary. So, he published the short story. They gave me fifty dollars, which for me was, you know, like Ali Babba going into the cave. And I just wrote another short story. They published it and again another fifty dollars. So, I made a correlation between writing and getting money. And then it became a habit. And then it became something more serious, like an addiction. And that’s how everything started.

The Mambo Kings Sings Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

The Mambo Kings Sings Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love Oscar Hijuelos

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a vivid albeit melancholy portrayal of life in mid century Cuba and in the US for Cuban exiles/immigrants.

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Many writers have attempted to write the Cuban-American exile story; with Los Gusanos SP , worms), gringo John Sayles lays out a compelling tale as illuminating as any documentary on Cuban-American relations during Fidel’s tenure.

Driving Through Cuba by  Carlos Gebler

Driving Through Cuba by Carlos Gebler

Driving Through Cuba: Rare Encounters in the Land of Sugar Cane and Revolution by Carlos Gebler

in 1988 Gebler, in an ailing Russian auto, travels the length of Cuba ostensibly in a hunt for a 1959 Coup de Ville Brougham),. encountering abandoned vintage cars, the propagandist museum of the Bay of Pugs, decaying architecture in Old Havana, and once famous beaches swamped with dead crabs.

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba
Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

I have written previously about this anthology Pardo Lazo characterizes the sum total of the eleven stories:

t is possible that this anthology is the portrait of a family that never was. The communicating vessels between these eleven stories are not bridges but circuits: affinities, violence, tensions between text and anti-text which coinciding in the same book, produce a collision that consumes its own meaning, generating light. A radiant, incandescent zero of patria-plasma

Cuba and Its Music  by Ned Sublette

Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette

Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette

Texan musician Ned Sublette, founder of Qbadisc records, taps his unparalleled knowledge of Cuban culture and music to provide the informed and impassioned history Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press). P.S.: A second volume is forthcoming.

The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball  by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria

The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria

The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria

Among other things this tome dispenses with the myth that Castro was scouted by the U.S. major leagues and was signed…well, you can guess the rest. Echevarria also does well to restore dignity to Caribbean and Cuban beisbol that suffers at the hands of other nasty yanqui habits and attitudes.

Back Channel to Cuba by Willima Le Grande and Peter Kornbluth

Back Channel to Cuba by Willima Le Grande and Peter Kornbluth

Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana by William M. LeoGrande , Peter Kornbluh

As has now become apparent Barack Obama’s promise of a “new approach” has come to fruition. This book, using hundreds of formerly secret U.S. documents and interviewing numerous negotiators, intermediaries, and policy makers presents the long untold history of efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations.

 Cuba by Walker Evans

Cuba by Walker Evans

Cuba by Walker Evans

In the spring of that 1933, Evans was asked by publisher J. B. Lippincott to produce a body of work about Cuba to accompany a book, The Crime of Cuba,by journalist Carleton Beals. It was intended to be an expose of Cuban President Gerardo Machado,yet another corrupt and rapacious American puppet. When Evans arrived in May, as he later wrote, Cuba was “in the midst of a revolution” and these images are from the end of the Machado dictatorship, who was gone by August

Transcuba by

Transcuba by

Transcuba by Mariette Pathy Allen

New York-based photographer and painter Mariette Pathy Allen has been documenting transgender culture worldwide for more than 30 years. Apparently under the newest regime the transgender community of Cuba is gaining some measure of acceptance. This tome also includes interviews and and a note from Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, Mariela Castro, who is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana (who happens to be Cuban President Raúl Castro’s daughter), and was instrumental in passage (2008)of the law to allowing transgender individuals to receive sex reassignment surgery and change their legal gender.[ed note; this was taken from my September 9 book notice]

Cuba by David Alan Harvey

Cuba by David Alan Harvey

Cuba by David Allen Harvey

Magnum photographer Harvey’s collaboration National Geographic staff writer Elizabeth Newhouse is an excellent survey of life in contemporary Cuba. See gallery of photos here

Havana by Robert Polidori

Havana by Robert Polidori

Havana by Robert Polidori

Robert Polidori‘s frequent appearances in the New Yorker, should make his focus on human habitats and environments apparent as do his monographs on VErsailles, post Katrina New Orleans, Chernobyl, Beirut (Points Between…Up Till Now his latest tome includes samples of from those series).To quote his publisher

In this city the peddler lives where the countess once resided; children dance and tumble where merchants conducted their business. Each photograph is a discovery and a fragment of the city’s biography.

View some of the Havana photos here

Before Night Falls by Julian Schnabel

Shot in the Dominican, Schnabel manages to capture the feel of the Triumphant Revolution and its not-so-triumphant aftermath. Javier Badem won an Oscar for his portrayal of poet Reinaldo Arenas.

Our Man in Havana by Sir Carol Reed

Graham Greene’s lampoon of incompetent secret services and secret police (later artfully mimicked by John LeCarre in Our Tailor in Panama) was shot in Havana with a young Alec Guiness, Noel Coward and US funny man Ernie Kovacs) Reed did leave out the live sex show that was mentioned in the novel.

Currently reading There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme (Little Brown)

The Thrill Is Gone

8 Jul
Chandler wrote thrillers?

Chandler wrote thrillers?

The term ‘thriller’ was no doubt coined to describe a certain kind of genre fiction when car chases, high body counts and unlikely crimes and perpetrators were the stuff of ‘whodunits’. Roller coaster rides may be thrilling. Fireworks may be thrilling. And there are many pleasures to be derived from reading, thrills are not some that I can identify.’Thriller’ has become a term of art that, it seems to me, has outlived its usefulness.

There is a territory of the fiction landscape that deals with espionage, so-called ‘black ops’ (when did we realize that there were such things?) and cloakroom politics that has given good reason to remove it from under the implicitly deprecating rubric, ‘genre fiction’. No doubt commercial considerations influence the perpetuation of these categories (where, for instance, various titles are displayed at your small but mighty local bookstore) — but no one should be misled about the serious import and value of these narratives.

Our Man In  Havana by Graham Greene

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana and The Comedians) was my first inkling that fiction revealed real truths about the real/practical world. But I came upon his novels after I had been fed a diet of Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate) and Fletcher Knebel (Seven Days in May) and the Terry Southern classic, Dr Strangelove. So the various plot twists and exigent conditions (the US Army drugging its men with hallucinogenics) of these ‘thrillers were improbable fictions.

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer

Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer


Years later when reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer used some purported CIA espionage gambits in his narrative—in Berlin where the US dug a tunnel attempting to intercept Soviet communiques and in Miami where all manner of tricks and games were employed in the US’s anti -Castro vendetta. These things (exploding fountain pens, CIA/Mob collaborations) no longer seemed far fetched.

Our Tailor in Panama by John  le Carre

Our Tailor in Panama by John le Carre

John Le Carre’s Our Tailor in Panama was my introduction to this master novelist (Philip Kerr avers that Le Carre is the one author guaranteed immortality based on his accurate depiction of the dark and spooky world of security and spying agencies). That book is clearly an homage to Greene’s Cuban adventure and it reifies the deluded and self perpetuating nature of the world’s secret services.And it served to change my perspective of some fictional worlds( just as I began to see Gore Vidal’s Empire series as more descriptive of American history than any history texts I had read.)

SHELLEY'S HEART BY  Charles McCarry

SHELLEY’S HEART BY Charles McCarry

Charles McCarry‘s Paul Christopher series and his stand alone Shelley’s Heart (which uncannily portends the debacle of the 2000 presidential election) depicts the tools and strategies of spy-craft as well as highlighting the amorality of spooks of all stripes. I chatted with McCarry ( A former CIA agent) a few years ago:

RB: There is a sense, and it is reiterated in your novels, that the Cold War struggle against the Russians and Communists was very affirmative for the intelligence community and that there was an absolute faith they were on the right side. And after the Soviet Union collapsed there was great self-congratulation. Somewhere in Old Boys you write, “They did a lot of good in the world, little of it except through stupidity and inadvertence.”

CM: I don’t remember saying that. Some of it by inadvertence at least. I never met a stupid person in the agency. Or an assassin. Or a Republican.

RB: No Republicans? [laughs] Are you serious?

CM: I’m serious. They were, at least in the operations side where I was, there were wall-to-wall knee-jerk liberals. And they were befuddled that the left outside the agency regarded them as some sort of right-wing threat. Because they were the absolute opposite, in their own politics.

RB: Isn’t there something about a secret police that is inconsistent with our notions of democracy?

CM: To begin with, they are not secret police.

RB: That’s the perception.

CM: They have no police powers. They can’t arrest anybody. They can’t kidnap people.

RB: They have no domestic jurisdiction.

CM: That’s right. Except in the case of Operation Chaos, which was presidentially mandated, I doubt we have very much unless they were chasing Russians or Chinese. But, of course, the thing that drives our society and has for a long time is a kind of paranoia that everything is a conspiracy. These guys were all nice boys who went to Yale and wouldn’t hurt a fly—in their own view.

RB: Those were not Republicans?

CM: No. I tell you I literally never met a Republican in the CIA.

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

As a culminating moment in my awakening Don Winslow’s magnum opus The Power of The Dog a well wrought tale of the drug war(s) and the complicity of government agencies, the Vatican, multi national corporations, South American revolutionaries in corrupt and illegal practices removed any doubts I had that there were many innocent players in world’s geo political grand opera (except, of course, the People)

So now we are inundated with dramas (Homeland, House of Cards, West Wing, 24 Hours) that simulate perpetual war/security state world. And, if you haven’t seen the excellent BBC 7 episode The State Within you will find a “fictional” treatment of vested interests contriving to bring the USA to war with
Kyrgyzstan in manner closely resembling the Iraq Debacle.

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Of course there are also books being written, some published, that investigate and explicate the shabby nature of American Exceptionalism. Greenwald’s account of the Snowden case i sone an there is also Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

There is also a documentary of the same name that is raises important and legitimate questions to which few journalists are pursuing the answers.

Noam Chomsky, steadfast critic of the American Security State, has the last word here in an essay published at TomsDispatch

… What about the security of the population? It is easy to demonstrate that this is a marginal concern of policy planners. Take two prominent current examples, global warming and nuclear weapons. As any literate person is doubtless aware, these are dire threats to the security of the population. Turning to state policy, we find that it is committed to accelerating each of those threats — in the interests of the primary concerns, protection of state power and of the concentrated private power that largely determines state policy.

Consider global warming. There is now much exuberance in the United States about “100 years of energy independence” as we become “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — perhaps the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.

That illustrates very clearly the nature of the concern for security, certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism: the fate of our grandchildren counts as nothing when compared with the imperative of higher profits tomorrow.

These conclusions are fortified by a closer look at the propaganda system. There is a huge public relations campaign in the U.S., organized quite openly by Big Energy and the business world, to try to convince the public that global warming is either unreal or not a result of human activity. And it has had some impact. The U.S. ranks lower than other countries in public concern about global warming and the results are stratified: among Republicans, the party more fully dedicated to the interests of wealth and corporate power, it ranks far lower than the global norm

Currently reading Station Eleven by Emma St John Mandel (Knopf)

Our Jew In Havana

3 Feb


I first became aware of the sad story of Alan Gross, a 62 year old American Jew who has been languishing in a Cuban prison since December 2009, when I chatted with Cuban-born historian and memoirist Carlos Eire.This was by way of his illustrating the unceasing, relentless oppression existing under the triumphant Cuban Revolution.

Though I once a believer in the righteousness of the Cuban Revolution ,I have since come to understand that noone is on the side of the angels in the long history of Cuban-American relations. Most reports of the Gross case (previously I have only read American coverage)staunchly (if not avidly) proclaim the cruelty and injustice being visited on poor Mr Gross who, when one hears the details of his life ( heart condition,daughter with cancer,lost life savings) becomes a latter day Job.

While I do advocate the release of poor M.r Gross it seems there are some additional factors to consider—which is to say that case is not exactly the way it has previously been portrayed John Perry at the London Review of Books reviews the Gross case and points out:

It suits the US government to portray Gross as an innocent aid worker who over-stepped the mark in an authoritarian state. But USAID is known throughout Latin America as a front organisation for the State Department’s political agenda. Part of its work is genuine aid, but much of its so-called democracy building is aimed at undermining governments that the US regards as wayward or undesirable.

Perry then quotes former US NAtional Security Council staffer Fulton Armstrong:

…he poured scorn on the USAID programmes and the use of a ‘covert operator’ such as Gross. He says that the programmes are an enormous waste of money, employing people who are not fully briefed and don’t understand the country. Furthermore, Washington evidently knows what its operators may not, that the Cuban government has thoroughly penetrated the programmes and knows exactly what people like Gross are doing.

What is one to think now? Maybe its a good time to read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana or John Le Carre’s Our Tailor In Panama—both also very amusing films.

Currently reading A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Atlantic Monthly Press)