By Christopher Hitchens
Verso; 320 pp.; $25
Over the years, Christopher Hitchens has earned a reputation as a sharp-edged polemicist who cannot resist savaging the powerful -- Reagan and half his administration; Bill Clinton, whom Hitchens attacks with almost as much gusto as he did Reagan; even Mother Teresa, for goodness' sake. He has charged Henry Kissinger with war crimes and Sydney Blumenthal with perjury.
Like his intellectual comrades-in-arms Noam Chomsky, Lewis Lapham, and Gore Vidal, Hitchens enjoys exposing what he would call the hypocrisy of political discourse. He is always appalled by the imperfections of public men and women and plays the role of gadfly, as Bill Buckley did of yore, though from a different perspective, to be sure.
Unacknowledged Legislation, a collection of Hitchens' essays on writers, reveals a more nuanced man than the angry radical offered up periodically on news talk shows. Hitchens trains his critical eye on, among others, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Salman Rushdie, Vidal, Saul Bellow, Anthony Powell, and Tom Wolfe. He defends T.S. Eliot against cheap charges of anti-Semitism and almost comes to terms with the idea that Whittaker Chambers was telling the truth. He rips Norman Podhoretz and disputes Raymond Williams, a Marxist historian who unfairly maligned Orwell and who was less than fully forthcoming about the failures of Stalinism.
Hitchens is a rare breed: a leftist who has been refreshingly candid about the failures of socialism as practiced in the Soviet sphere. We sense that he was led to this once rarely trod ground by Eastern Europeans such as Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, and Czeslaw Milosz, though none of these writers is discussed in much depth in this book.
Unfortunately, Hitchens does not provide a unifying theme to these disparate essays. One anticipates, given the title, a deeper exploration of the relationship between literature and power. If that relationship is explored, it is only by implication. For example, students of Orwell might recall that he once penned an essay called "Inside the Whale," in which he argued that writers living amid the tumult of the 1930s and '40s (communism unleashed, fascism on the rampage, a world at war) should withdraw from the chaos so as to avoid being co-opted by the particular "ism" of the day. In 1984, Rushdie responded to Orwell in "Outside the Whale" by arguing that in the nuclear age writers don't have the luxury of retreating from the public square. As if to prove the point, a few years later, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwah condemning Rushdie to death for his alleged blasphemy in Satanic Verses. Given his knowledge of both writers, Hitchens surely is aware of this exchange, but inexplicably he does not join the debate even though it centers on one of the fundamental issues facing writers as "unacknowledged legislators." (Hitchens, though, does stand by Rushdie in the face of Khomeini's edict.)
These essays do have value, however, if only because of Hitchens' wit and style. He applauds Phillip Larkin's poetry, despite Larkin's alleged bigotry, and he writes movingly of Kipling, who, for all his chest-beating over World War I, was so devastated by the loss of his son in that war that he began to chisel away at his once-carved-in-stone assumptions. (A more detailed account of Kipling's impact on British-American foreign policy can be found in an earlier Hitchens book, Blood, Class and Nostalgia -- precisely the kind of exploration of writers I expected here.)
A theme or two does however emerge in these pages. Specifically, sexual intolerance is the one thing Hitchens cannot abide (other than poor writing, perhaps). Homosexuality is discussed repeatedly -- how it drove Oscar Wilde to destruction, how Alan Bloom never publicly acknowledged his own, how Phillip Larkin refrained from attacking the intolerance surrounding it, how Gore Vidal flaunted it, how W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood lived it. The issue is raised so often that it begs the complaint of politically correct overkill (and Hitchens is rarely politically correct). Hitchens even argues that antihomosexual hysteria is "the moral concrete" that holds conservatism together. I would have thought lower taxes and the call for small government, but Hitchens is not above caricaturing the views of the opposition.
The familiar journalistic pyrotechnics are also on display. Princess Diana is "a gold-digging air-head." Tom Clancy's writing "is to prose what military music is to music." Norman Podhoretz possesses "the soul of a cultural commissar." Conor Cruise O'Brien "made the mistake of confusing the condition of the cosmos with the state of his own liver." Hitchens opens himself up to parody, too. In praising a particular piece of writing by H.L. Mencken, he observes: "This is finely written. It shows something of the feeling for the religious pulse that Marx evinced in his critique of Hegel, and it does so without making any concessions to illusion."
I, for one, will take his word on it.
Hitchens clearly loves literature, and he keeps his political saber at least partially sheathed in order to celebrate some of this century's finest writers, even a few whose politics he finds offensive. (Though certainly his sharpest arrows are aimed at conservatives.) He even praises The Great Gatsby and Arthur Conan Doyle -- hardly standard fare in the good radical's library. The generosity shown many of the writers analyzed in this collection would surely be coveted by politicians and government officials who have too often felt Hitchens' point. But they wait in vain until they put down the sword and pick up the pen. -- George Shadroui
By Michael Frayn and David Burke
Metropolitan Books; 144 pp.; $20
Michael Frayn is the British playwright (Noises Off ) who penned the witty Booker Prize finalist Headlong in 1999, a madcap story of a lunatic art appraiser who thinks he has found a missing Brueghel in a neighbor's fireplace. It was the sort of balancing act of comedy and erudition that one might expect from Peter DeVries or early J.P. Donleavy. Frayn also authored a play called Copenhagen, which ran in London and then New York, where it received three Tony Awards, including Best Play of 2000. One of the actors in that play was David Burke.
Now, together they have written The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue, based supposedly on some papers sent to them during production of the play, papers which shed new light on the history of the German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg and the scientist Niels Bohr, about whom Frayn wrote Copenhagen. The book is a head-spinning mix of fact and fiction.
This much is known: Michael Frayn did write a play about the true-life mysterious meeting of these two scientists in Copenhagen at a time when Heisenberg was working for the Nazis. What was discussed and how close the Nazis were to having a nuclear bomb remains a puzzle to this day. According to Frayn, England, after the war, brought the Nazis' entire team of scientists to a clandestine location, a place called Farm Hall, and held them, secretly taping their conversations to determine how much they knew. The British government was also intent on preventing the Russians from kidnapping the scientists to do much the same thing. You with me so far?
During the production of Copenhagen came a packet of papers supposedly from a family now living in Farm Hall, papers that, when translated, turned out to be instructions for the construction of a Ping-Pong table.
All this Frayn explains in the introduction to The Copenhagen Papers. What follows is the correspondence between Frayn and Burke concerning this disturbing turn of events. Are they on the verge of rewriting history? Are they privy to secrets the government would be interested in?
The first question becomes, Is this all a put-on? Is Frayn inventing or recording? And does he indeed have new news about the covert collaboration of the two scientists? Anyone who read Headlong knows that this is just the sort of mystery mixed with history Frayn loves to play with. It is also the clay with which he models this witty novella, if a novella it is. "One of the themes of my play, after all," Frayn writes, "was the baffling irreconcilability of so much of the story to the end."
Without giving away too much, what ensues is a battle of wits between Frayn and Burke along the lines of Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth. It's one-upmanship, and the reader is involved, and just how the reader is involved is half the fun.
But the question soon shifts. Are the Frayn and Burke of The Copenhagen Papers just characters created by Michael Frayn? The real Frayn (or is it the character?) says, "I realized that I was in almost exactly the same situation as the central character in the novel I had just finished writing, Headlong. There is great pleasure in inventing frustrations and humiliations for one's characters; this pleasure turns rather sour, however, when one finds one is being subjected to those same frustrations and humiliations oneself. The biter bit has more to endure than the pain of the teeth marks."
Frayn doesn't just pull the rug out from under your feet; he takes your feet. The game played, if indeed it is a game -- everything is in doubt, the reader is purposely kept off-balance -- is swift-moving and presents one precipitous transition after another. "Once the ground has shaken beneath your feet," the author warns, "you feel it go on shaking for a long time afterwards."
The wild ride that is The Copenhagen Papers is that kind of gambol. Frayn has fashioned another compelling comedy, built of forgeries, fakes, false fronts, disguises, pranks, and mysteries -- a quick sleight-of-hand which leaves you without your wallet.
In the end, is the whole book a ruse? Could be. Is there really an author named Michael Frayn? No doubt. -- Corey Mesler
Talks with Andy Kaufman
By Julie Hecht
Random House; 170 pp.; $23.95
The title is a hedge or, rather, a bet cast in full assurance that you already know the answer. Was Andy Kaufman a genius? Of course he was. Otherwise you wouldn't be bothering with this thin volume by author Julie Hecht. Unfortunately, Hecht never answers the question because she never provides tangible proof that she can. She chooses instead to present the facts as she sees them and weighs in only on slightly less lofty concerns.
True, the late comedian's brand of entertainment was never easy to figure out, whether during its apex in the late 1970s via skits on Saturday Night Live or now, as the posthumous accolades fall down on this odd, perplexing man whose humor still conjures bewilderment. Hollywood may have sent in the big guns via box-office sure-thing Jim Carrey, yet the poor faring of the 1999 biopic Man On the Moon says plenty about mainstream America's continuing reluctance to embrace Kaufman's performances in post-modern Dada, despite the celebrity achieved during his stint with the sitcom Taxi as immigrant mechanic Latka Gravas.
Was This Man a Genius? is the quintessential after-death book in that it simply wouldn't exist had its subject not expired, which Kaufman did in 1984. It's a chronicle of the year Hecht spent in search of an interview with Kaufman for a piece assigned by Harper's magazine. She spent time with him when he came to New York for work or pleasure, and like a passenger duct-taped to a roller coaster, she rode the Wacky World of Andy Kaufman long enough to finally get the interview and write the story, only to have it rejected by Harper's as being too long and "too strange to be published."
For that, you can thank the subject himself. Love him or loathe him, Andy Kaufman was arguably the strangest, most unsettling presence to greet you from your television since ... well, maybe since the big box settled into the living rooms of America. Whether going to the wrestling mat with women or performing myriad acts of madness on Saturday Night Live -- the bongo skit, the Mighty Mouse skit, the unnervingly brilliant Tony Clifton lounge act, or the sincerely loving Elvis impersonation -- Kaufman was a guerrilla comic on a warpath no one had even thought to blaze.
Hecht held on as best she could, tolerating his late-night culinary whims, subjecting herself to the often brutal chicanery of Kaufman and his agent cum co-conspirator Bob Zmuda, enduring her subject's penchant for self-mythology and outright horseshit, doggedly pursuing what she knew was a good story. And finally, she got it, possibly the most confessional, if brief, interview Kaufman ever gave a reporter. It was all there: the domestic and adolescent complexities that prompted a young Andy to gaze vacantly from a window at an age when he should've been slobbering over Lincoln Logs; his decidedly skewed perception of romantic relationships; the roots of what seemed all the world like the most bizarre acts ever executed in the name of comedy; even the revelation that he really wasn't even trying to be funny.
Everything of worth in Was This Man a Genius? arrives in one nice, tidy package at the end of an otherwise superfluous, mildly entertaining journey through the mind of a comedian who either was or wasn't a genius. ("They could call me an absurdist and a surrealist," Kaufman tells Hecht at some point early in their year together.) The problem with Hecht's book is that she doesn't take control, harness the story, put her own damn opinion into the thing. And if you care about Andy Kaufman, that makes for an infuriating read, because she got closer to him than just about anyone in her professional capacity.
So you're left, ultimately, with a question unanswered, hanging like a half-broken branch. And somehow you can't help but believe that Kaufman -- if nothing else, a master of manipulation -- would enjoy the hell out of Hecht's disappointing, hardly revealing book. The baffling bastard. -- John Floyd
By Sally Denton and Roger Morris
Knopf; 479 pp.; $26.95
In The Money and the Power, the wife-and-husband team of Sally Denton and Roger Morris, veteran investigative reporters, use organized crime and Las Vegas as the prism through which to view a large chunk of America's social and political history of the last half-century.
Real mobsters and politicians generally don't sit down with authors for candid discussions of their mutual dependence and enrichment. To tell this story of the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and other politicians with mob connections, the authors relied on numerous books and published articles, testimony gathered by various crime commissions, as well as stacks of FBI files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with confidential sources. This is a business, the text reminds us, where mobsters don't just scare or snub snoops and snitches. They kill them. The book is complex, ambitious, not beach reading by any means, and heavy-going under any circumstances. I consider myself, professionally speaking, a casino junkie because of the Tunica story, but after reading this book, I felt overwhelmed as much as informed.
One problem: the subject itself. We're used to fictional treatments of the Mafia that focus on a single mob figure or family such as, notably, the novel The Godfather and the movies made from it. If you had trouble keeping the Corleones and Tattalias and the rest of the families straight, you'll have your hands full with The Money and the Power.
Another problem: the book's prose. Denton and Morris don't write many short sentences like this one. Instead, they pile name upon name, subordinate clause upon subordinate clause, insert parenthetical material within parenthetical material (not that the material isn't sometimes helpful when introducing unfamiliar names, since some of them are not identified until the notes at the end of the book) until sentences become as turgid as this one. Where were the editors?
The book also falls short of its promise (and its title) in one key respect. There is little here about the present state of gambling and the publicly owned corporations that run it. Mississippi, which specifically modeled its casino licensing and taxes after Las Vegas, is almost totally ignored, including, curiously, the Gulf Coast and its connections to organized crime. There is a chapter on the late Benny Binion but nothing on his son Jack, who is arguably the main man or "the juice," as the authors say, in Tunica. Nor is there much about the demand side of the casino equation, the millions of ordinary Americans who play the slots and low-dollar blackjack and enjoy it. Tying together gambling's venal past and populist present would make a nice book. The Money and the Power is not it.
What you will learn, however, is a lot about Las Vegas and gambling's sleaziest financiers, hit men, whores, and entrepreneurs, and more than you probably want to know about former Tennessee senator Estes Kefaufer and his crime hearings in the Fifties.
Having said all that, this is an important study, and the authors deserve high marks for guts, thorough reporting and research, and connecting an awful lot of dots. The notes alone fill 47 pages; the bibliography, 18 more. The Money and the Power is an antidote to simplified, fictionalized, historical treatments like the summer blockbuster Pearl Harbor. The truth, the authors note, is complicated. This book tries to tell it. -- John Branston