Monday, November 18, 2013


A review of Colin McLaren's JFK: The Smoking Gun, originally published in The Weekend Australian, November 16-17, 2013 

Fifty years after John F. Kennedy was murdered, in broad daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses and the most famous 8mm camera ever wielded, is it possible to say with certainty who shot him? If we hesitate before replying that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, it might not be because we have too little information. It might be because we have too much. Don DeLillo, in his formidable assassination novel Libra, called it the “data-spew” – “an incredible haul of human utterance.” November 22, 1963, may well be the most documented day in human history. 

The deluge of paperwork began with the 800-page Report of the Warren Commission, the official inquiry ordered by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson. The Commission found that Oswald acted alone. From the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository he fired three shots at Kennedy’s motorcade. One shot missed and hit a kerb. A second round, the much-scoffed-at “magic bullet”, hit Kennedy’s back and exited his throat before hitting the back, wrist and thigh of the Texan Governor John Connally, who was sitting directly in front of Kennedy in the presidential limousine. This second bullet later turned up on Connally’s hospital gurney, in remarkably undamaged condition. Oswald’s remaining shot entered the back of Kennedy’s skull and blew out a gaping mortal wound above his ear. 

Convened in haste, and well aware that a lone-gunman verdict would be the best result for national security, the Warren Commission seemed to bend over backwards to reach that finding. The early cliché was that the Warren Report was a whitewash. For a long time, no self-respecting free-thinker would be caught dead believing Oswald had acted alone, or perhaps at all. Woody Allen used to joke, in the late 1960s, that he was writing “a non-fiction version of the Warren Report.” In the cracks of the official story, the conspiracy theories began to flourish like weeds. Oswald was in league with, or had been framed by, the CIA, or the FBI, or rogue or non-rogue Cubans, or the Mafia. 

It seems significant, though, that after fifty years of revisionist toil, no single conspiracy theory has emerged as the dominant one, let alone acquired the ring of truth. After a half-century of fevered effort, the assassination buffs still haven’t cracked the mystery of Kennedy's death. Perhaps it’s time to admit there isn’t one. The more you read about Oswald, the harder it is to stave off the conclusion that he was guilty as sin, a sphinx without a secret. Over time, the conspiracy theorists have failed to reach a consensus about who did kill Kennedy, if Oswald didn't. Meanwhile, the evidence of Oswald's guilt has never gone away, and in many respects has improved with age. Recently, computer enhancements of Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm home movie have confirmed that all three shots came from the direction of the Book Depository, and that they were fired in a significantly less rushed manner than was originally supposed. (Early analysis of the film suggested that 5.6 seconds elapsed between the first gunshot and the third; the consensus now is that the sequence took something like eight seconds.) The Warren Commission had its deficiencies, but its central findings look sounder and sounder as time goes by. 

None of this means the lone-gunman narrative is easy to believe. It’s merely the least unbelievable reading of the evidence that we have. The story had its weirdnesses and its loose ends, but reason dictates that we must learn to live with them. Oswald got amazingly lucky. And then Jack Ruby, the maudlin self-dramatist who shot Oswald two days after Kennedy's death, got lucky too. “Thirty seconds one way or the other,” Ruby said, and he would have missed his chance. But he didn’t. A ratbag shot the President, and then a clown shot the ratbag. 

But the assassination buffs don’t believe in bad luck or good luck on that scale, and they will not cease exploring. Since Oswald was such a poor excuse for the criminal of the century (when arrested, he instantly whined “I know my rights!”), the revisionists immediately set about seeking a culprit, or culprits, who struck them as a better fit for the part. Oswald was a cipher. His apparent motives were petty and banal, nowhere near as weighty or resonant as his world-changing deed. So the conspiracy theorists have spent fifty years burying him under a tangle of elaborate theories that satisfy their sense of proportion in a way that Oswald never has, and never will. 

The latest of these otiose theories comes from Colin McLaren, a retired Australian police detective turned crime writer. Modestly, the publishers of McLaren’s The Smoking Gun inform us that his book has at last provided the solution to history’s “ultimate cold case.” 

In truth, as McLaren freely acknowledges in the text, the "solution" he advances is not new. It was originally proposed in the 1992 book Mortal Error, by a researcher named Bonar Menninger. Menninger's convoluted theory about the assassination has never found much favour, even among other conspiracists. But McLaren is a big fan of it, and he believes that he can now offer definitive proof that it is correct. 

So here's what really happened to Jack Kennedy, according to the Menninger-McLaren thesis. Oswald, acting alone, fired two shots at the presidential motorcade. One of them missed, and the other hit Kennedy in the back, and came out the front of his neck. Kennedy was now wounded, but his wounds wouldn't necessarily have proved fatal. At this point in the proceedings, however, a panicked Secret Service agent named George Hickey, who was riding in the car behind Kennedy's, reached for his assault rifle. In his haste to shoulder the weapon, he accidentally discharged it, and inadvertently blew off the president's head. Before Oswald could complete the crime of the century, then, poor old Hickey perpetrated the cock-up of the millennium. (Hickey, by the way, is no longer around to defend himself: he died in 2001.)

If McLaren’s hypothesis seems not just superfluous but absurd, that is not sufficient reason to dismiss it. After all, the lone-gunman thesis requires us to believe improbable things too. Whatever happened that day, it was deeply unexpected and unusual. So we should be ready to accept McLaren’s startling hypothesis – provided, of course, that the evidence compels it. 

McLaren thinks it does. For one thing, he believes that an impressive number of witnesses thought the last two shots in the sequence – the shots that hit Kennedy in the back and head respectively – were “close together” or even “simultaneous.” There just wasn’t enough time between them, the argument runs, for Oswald to work the bolt on his creaky Carcano rifle, then re-aim it and pull the trigger. 

Moreover, says McLaren, the entrance wound in the back of JFK’s head was only 6mm wide, and we know that Oswald’s rounds were 6.5mm in diameter. Given that a bullet can’t make a hole smaller than itself, the diameter of the entrance wound would seem to confirm that the fatal round was fired from some weapon other than Oswald's. 

Finally, McLaren believes the exit wound in Kennedy’s skull was so catastrophic that it could only have been inflicted by “a frangible round, designed to explode on impact.” But Oswald wasn't firing frangible rounds. His rifle, as McLaren correctly points out, was loaded with fully-jacketed rounds that were “designed to pass cleanly through a target.” 

So McLaren raises three impressive-looking objections to the conventional understanding of the assassination. If just one of those objections is sound, there must have been a second gunman. Enter the hapless George Hickey, who was situated in the car right behind Kennedy’s, packing an AR-15 rifle loaded with frangible 5.56mm rounds. 

Fortunately for the late Mr Hickey, all three of McLaren’s basic arguments crumble to the touch. Take, to begin with, his claim that the two shots that hit Kennedy were fired almost simultaneously, meaning that Oswald couldn’t have fired both. This contention bizarrely flouts the evidence of the Zapruder film, the most famous resource in the whole case, which shows that a good few seconds went by between the moment Kennedy was wounded and the moment his head took the fatal bullet. 

Gerald Posner, author of the scrupulous and convincing Case Closed, times the gap at 4.9 seconds. Vincent Bugliosi, in his 1600-page conspiracy-nuker Reclaiming History, offers the slightly larger figure of 5.6 seconds. Either way, not even the hardiest of sceptics has ever denied that Oswald’s rifle could be fired twice in five seconds. The Warren Commission, on the basis of test-firings, found it conceivable that Oswald fired all three of his shots in five seconds, hitting Kennedy with his first and third efforts but missing with his second.  

You keep waiting for McLaren to explain how his views about the alleged simultaneity of the two on-target shots can be squared with the Zapruder evidence. Unbelievably, he never does.* He just keeps repeating that “forty-eight witnesses on the ground” heard two near-simultaneous sounds. Well, maybe they did. But whatever those sounds were, they can’t both have been the reports of the shots that struck Kennedy some five seconds apart. Maybe one of the sounds was an echo: Dealey Plaza was a famously echoey place. McLaren doesn't mention that. Nor does he mention that one of the witnesses in question told the Warren Commission that one of the two sounds he heard was “probably” the crack made by the last bullet when it struck Kennedy’s skull. 

What about the suspiciously small entry wound in the president's head, then? Oswald’s ammunition was 6.5mm in diameter. Yet “the entry hole width to JFK’s skull wound measured 6mm in width,” says McLaren. “A stunning fact!” McLaren derives this “fact” from testimony delivered to various inquiries by JFK’s autopsy pathologists, who apparently failed to notice that their measurements amounted to slam-dunk proof that Oswald couldn't possibly have fired the lethal shot.  

In fact their measurements established no such thing. The transcripts of the pathologists' testimony, which can easily be accessed online, make it plain that the 6mm wound that McLaren finds so "stunning" was measured on Kennedy's scalp, not his skull. As one pathologist explained, in a stretch of testimony McLaren doesn’t quote, scalp tissue is elastic, so that it is “not infrequent” that “the measured wound is slightly smaller than the calibre of the missile that traversed it.” In Kennedy's case, the underlying wound in the skull was indeed wider than the hole in the scalp, indicating the fatal bullet had a maximum diameter of seven millimetres, not six. 

Like many a revisionist, McLaren has a high opinion of his own forensic abilities. He airily implies that most of his forerunners in the field, including an impressive array of trained physicians and ballistics experts, were chumps. Repeatedly, tirelessly, McLaren asserts that fully-jacketed bullets like Oswald’s do not fragment on impact. This means, according to him, that the shot which so graphically destroyed Kennedy’s head couldn't possibly have been fired from Oswald's rifle. Self-evidently, such damage could only have been caused by a soft-nosed or frangible bullet. 

If this scenario is so self-evident, you kind of wonder why the experts have never considered it before. But the fact is that they have. They just don't happen to believe that it's plausible or accurate. “There was no frangible bullet fired,” a forensic pathologist told the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. Oddly, McLaren finds no room in his book to quote that verdict. Nor does he acknowledge that Kennedy’s autopsy pathologists had no trouble believing that Oswald’s jacketed Carcano ammunition had inflicted the head wound. One of those pathologists told the Warren Commission it was “quite common” for such ammunition to fragment after hitting “bony structures.” Another testified that a soft-nosed bullet would have left behind a “much more disruptive” entry wound than the neat 6mm hole that McLaren, in another context, considers so suggestive. 

Way back in 1964, the much-maligned Warren Commission hired an expert on wound ballistics to investigate the bullet question. The expert, whose name was Alfred Olivier, fired Oswald’s rifle into ten human skulls from an appropriate distance, in order to check whether that weapon was capable of blowing out an exit wound as large as the one found in the late president's head. On the basis of these experiments, Olivier concluded that Oswald's rifle and ammunition were indeed capable of inflicting such damage. 

McLaren acknowledges Olivier’s testimony, but chooses to find it sinister that the Olivier, in his testimony to the Commission, made detailed reference to just one of the ten skulls. “The blatant absence of evidence on the missing nine bullets strongly suggests the rounds passed cleanly through the skulls,” McLaren feverishly asserts. 

By now McLaren is sounding far more like a conspiracy theorist than a qualified cop. “Absence of evidence” has begun to strike him as evidence of absence; each little gap in the record “strongly suggests”, at least to him, that he's on to something big. But exactly how many skulls would Olivier have needed to blow apart with Oswald's rifle, to make McLaren abandon his belief that Oswald's rifle was incapable of blowing a skull apart? One should have been enough, but apparently it isn’t. “A burning fascination as to what happened to the other nine skulls remains,” McLaren says. 

Well, that burning fascination can easily be extinguished. Olivier’s written report about the skull experiment can be accessed by means of a quick Google search. Here's what it says: 

Ten skulls were shot at this range and extensive damage was produced in each instance. The bullets broke up to a greater or lesser degree in at least nine of the skulls. 

No doubt the Warren Commission thought it would be sufficient to put just one of Olivier's ten skulls into evidence. But on this point, as on so many others, the Commission didn’t know what it would be up against. It didn't know how irrational and shonky and bloody-minded its critics were going to be. 

By now we’re running out of reasons to believe that Agent Hickey accidentally shot JFK – unless of course somebody present at the scene reported seeing him do so. But nobody did, despite the fact that a pretty large crowd was looking in his direction at the time. Did anyone in that crowd even see Hickey holding a rifle at the time of the fatal shot? McLaren would like us to believe that some people did. But to create that impression, he is obliged to massage the evidence in a pretty outrageous way.  

We’re told, for example, that Clint Hill, a Secret Service agent perched on the running-board of Hickey’s car, “recalled George Hickey being in possession of the AR-15 … Their vehicle … ‘lurched forward’ and Hickey lost his footing.” 

But this is a travesty of Hill’s actual testimony to the Warren Commission. In fact Hill said nothing about the AR-15 at all, except that it was kept "between the two agents in the rear seat" of the car. From this item of testimony McLaren derives his spurious claim that Hickey was "in possession of the AR-15" at the moment of the shooting. As for the suggestion that the car they were travelling in "lurched forward", Hill did indeed testify that the vehicle “lurched forward” – but only after Kennedy had sustained his fatal head wound. Hill recalled that he lost his own footing at this moment, but says nothing about Hickey’s. 

Was McLaren so cavalier about evidence when he was working as a police detective? One certainly hopes not. Elsewhere in the book, he refers to a formal statement made a day after the assassination by a Secret Service Agent named Glen Bennett. According to McLaren, Bennett's statement “places the AR-15 assault weapon in the hands of Hickey prior to the final and fatal shot.” Again, McLaren is taking incredible liberties with the evidence here. What Bennett really said in his statement was that when he reached down to get the AR-15 off the car's floor after the terminal shot, he found that Hickey had already picked it up. 

Moreover, McLaren fails to mention, but must surely know, that Agent Bennett jotted down some hand-written notes on the night of the assassination, in which he gave a more thorough account of what happened before and after the fatal shot. "A second shot followed immediately and hit the right rear high of the boss's head," Bennett wrote. "I immediately hollered to Special Agent Hickey, seated in the same seat, to get the AR-15." That would have been an odd thing to holler if Hickey was holding the weapon already. But clearly he wasn't. So much for McLaren's smoking gun, then. This is where it was at the moment of the fatal shot: still lying on the floor of the car, not just unsmoking but untouched. 

Why, in any case, does McLaren take the statements of Hickey’s fellow Secret Service agents at face value? Elsewhere he alleges that the Secret Service knew from the start that Hickey had accidentally killed the president, and engaged in a post facto conspiracy to cover that mishap up. If we accept this proposition, shouldn't we expect the likes of Hill and Bennett to have lied in their formal testimony, instead of – as McLaren has it  making statements that "plac[ed] the AR-15 assault weapon in the hands of Hickey"? 

McLaren’s narrative is fundamentally incoherent. This is a common feature of untrue stories. On one hand we're told that the Secret Service meddled with JFK’s autopsy, stealing X-rays that showed his brain to be riddled with Hickey-implicating bullet fragments. But then, to show us just how damning those "missing" X-rays supposedly were, he quotes the Warren Commission testimony of a senior Secret Service agent named Roy Kellerman, who was, as McLaren has already told us, the very "architect" of the cover-up.

“The whole head looked like a little mass of stars,” Kellerman testified. The brain contained “thirty, forty” metal fragments. Now why on earth would Kellerman have said this if he believed that all those tiny metal fragments implicated Hickey, and if he, Kellerman, had organised the theft of the X-Rays to conceal that? The answer, clearly, is that they don’t and he didn’t. By this point McLaren is actively disproving his own case. Does he genuinely believe his ridiculous thesis to be true? Or he is clinging to it only because he knows that without the ridiculous thesis, his whole book has no point? 

By the time he reaches his final chapter, McLaren is ready to grasp at any available straw to make his case. He points out that Jackie Kennedy, in the hours after the assassination, couldn’t be persuaded to change out of her pink dress, which was stained with her husband’s blood and brains. “I want them to see what they have done,” she said. Who, McLaren darkly asks, were “they”? Was Jackie hinting the deed had been done by a plural entity, namely the Secret Service? 

No, she was not. What she meant, as any competent student of the case will know, is that she wanted the people of Dallas to see what one of their fellow-citizens had done to her husband. Dallas was a hotbed of rabid anti-communism, and many people, including Jackie, instantly assumed that Kennedy's assassin must have been a local bigot or right-winger. 

But really, you don't need to know any of those things, in order to be pretty sure that Jackie Kennedy, when she refused to change her clothes, wasn't looking to make a coded reference to the hidden truth about her husband's death. All you need to have is a sense of the way the world really works. 

This is a sense that conspiracy theorists conspicuously lack. They claim to be sceptics, but the first thing a sceptic must be sceptical about is his or her own beliefs. Alas, conspiracist theorists are not into self-scrutiny, let alone self-criticism. They are infinitely credulous about their own big ideas, and infinitely cynical about the motives and ethics of their imagined foes. 

Strictly speaking, perhaps, McLaren is not a conspiracy theorist. He doesn't contend that Oswald was part of any organised conspiracy. But he shares with the conspiracy theorists a fatal misconception – the misconception that the Kennedy assassination is a cold case or mystery that hasn't yet been solved. Having convinced himself of that much, he finds it possible, perhaps even mandatory, to believe in a scenario that's at least as kooky as any conspiracy theory. He invites us to believe that Oswald planned the assassination alone. He did all the hard things right. He successfully smuggled his rifle into the Book Depository. He built his sniper's nest without being busted. When the motorcade arrived, he loosed two bullets in the president's direction, one of which put a grave wound in his back. 

And then, a split second before the lone assassin could consummate his deed, Kennedy's head happened to get blown off by somebody else, entirely by accident. This Clouseauesque mishap occurred in broad daylight, in front of innumerable witnesses and cameras, but somehow nobody saw it happen. Nor does McLaren speculate about what might have gone through Oswald's mind, as he leered down his scope to administer his killshot, only to see Kennedy's skull mysteriously explode before he could pull the trigger. But it seems fair to imagine that this must have struck him as a very odd surprise.    

Back in 1993, Oswald’s own brother, Robert, vainly tried to tell the conspiracy theorists, and the gratuitous McLaren-style sleuths, that their efforts to solve the "mystery" of Kennedy's assassination were a waste of time, because the mystery wasn't a mystery at all. The crime of the century was solved within a matter of hours, and the answer has been staring us in the face ever since. “The facts are there,” said Robert Oswald. “There’s hard physical evidence there … Enough’s enough. It’s there. Put it to rest.” But what were the odds that anyone would listen to him, when his considerably less subtle kid brother had somehow failed to make the point stick himself?

A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, November 16-17, 2013. 

*A footnote. After this review appeared in The Weekend Australian, Colin McLaren sent a letter of complaint to the paper, which duly appeared on the Letters page. Among other things, he took issue with my comments about his selective use of the Zapruder film. Here's what he wrote: "Free criticises my lack of reference to the Zapruder film in calculating the final shot. Experts agree the Zapruder film has been doctored and is unreliable."

Say what? I found this second sentence remarkable for several reasons. For one thing, McLaren hadn't offered the slightest hint, in the pages of his book, that he subscribed to the extraordinarily loopy thesis that the Zapruder film is a fraud. If he had, I would have been even harder on his book than I was. Because pace McLaren, the experts certainly don't agree that the Zapruder film has been tampered with. The only people who say that are the most abject of conspiracy theorists. Indeed, to claim that the Zapruder film can't be trusted is the last refuge of the ratbag – the last desperate move of the person who dimly perceives that the facts do not support his theory, but would prefer to hang on to that theory anyway, even at the expense of treating reality as a hostile witness.  

There is a deep irony here. For years, for decades, the first wave of Kennedy conspiracy theorists –people like Mark Lane and Josiah Thompson – contended, on the basis of their painstaking frame-by-frame analyses of the Zapruder film, that the official account of JFK's assassination was flawed. That is to say, the earliest conspiracy theories about the case were based on the premise – the sane and valid premise – that the Zapruder film hadn't been doctored, and was in fact the most valuable piece of documentary evidence in the whole case. 

After a while, though, even the conspiracy theorists began to see that the Zapruder film, when studied soberly, didn't disprove the official story at all. On the contrary: the film is and always has been wholly consistent with that story; it's the best proof we have that the Warren Commission was right all along. To take just one example: the film clearly shows that a terrible mist of blood and bone burst forward from Kennedy's skull when he was struck by the final bullet. And this would appear to prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the fatal shot came from behind the President, as the Warren Commission said – and not from the grassy knoll, as so many conspiracy theorists would desperately like to believe. This indeed was why the conspiracists began to claim, somewhere around 1980, that the Zapruder film had been doctored: they asserted that somebody must have altered those particular frames to erase the evidence of an explosive exit wound in the back of Kennedy's skull, and to insert fake proof of a frontal exit wound.     

Why then did Colin McLaren – who isn't a knoll man, and is happy to stipulate that all the shots came from behind Kennedy – suddenly decide to think or say that the Zapruder film "has been doctored"? I say "suddenly" because, as I have noted, McLaren had offered no hint in his book that he subscribed to this bizarre subtheory. Indeed, many parts of his argument and analysis clearly appear to be based on the assumption that the film is an accurate record of the shooting. 

So did McLaren, in his book, simply forget to mention his true views about the Zapruder film? Or did he change his mind about the film after his book had gone to press – or after reading my review? Your guess is as good as mine. But to me his sudden revelation about the Zapruder film had the flavour of an ad hoc move. It felt like the response of a man who, when alerted to the fact that the evidence doesn't support his theory, would sooner disbelieve or rejig the evidence than contemplate the possibility that his theory is incorrect. This in turn made me feel that I had been dead right to say, in the text of my review, that McLaren was essentially a conspiracy theorist. Because a conspiracy theorists will say anything, as long as it means he doesn't have to give up his quasi-religious beliefs.     

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Down and out

Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is a sobering book. We have a bad tendency to romanticise the figure of the alcohol-fuelled writer – the sodden but eloquent poet, the hard-drinking novelist holding court in the Parisian bar. Those macho myths begin to curl up and die of shame about a page into Laing’s haunting book, which omits few details about the pitiful realities of alcoholic life.  

Laing’s effort to strip away liquor’s allure begins with her title. Echo Spring sounds like an invigorating destination, possibly even a health spa. It turns out, far less salubriously, to be a brand of bourbon favoured by the messed-up Brick, hero of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. When Brick wants to forget something, he hits the liquor cabinet. He takes the trip to Echo Spring. 

Laing’s book is a journey too, of a much more salutary kind. Laing is English – she was formerly the Observer’s Deputy Books Editor, and has written a study of Virginia Woolf – but her subjects here are all American. Along with Williams, she considers four prose writers – Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, John Cheever – and the poet John Berryman ... [read more]

Writing with the dick

Back in 2008, when Christos Tsiolkas published his fourth novel The Slap, he achieved a result that every novelist hopes for. He tapped into something universal. For a while there, everybody seemed to be talking about the same book. You felt left out if you hadn’t read it. It was like Fifty Shades of Grey, except it was good.

Mind you, the book had a few rough edges stylistically. But at the structural level it had a tact that Australian novels don’t always possess. Tsiolkas didn’t cudgel you with his moral views. He withheld his judgment, thus encouraging you to exercise yours. To discuss the book was therefore to argue about it, sometimes ferociously. How annoying was little Hugo? How much of a pig was Harry? In 2011, when the ABC aired its excellent TV adaptation, the arguments started all over again. 

When Tsiolkas’s fifth novel, Barracuda, comes out this November, curiosity about its author is bound to intensify ... [read more]

Friday, September 27, 2013

Love and Squalor

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, September 28-19, 2013

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” said Oscar Wilde, “and that is not being talked about.” It would be an unusual writer who didn’t find that paradox amusingly true. J. D. Salinger, who was an unusual man all round, wouldn’t have found it funny at all. For him, nothing was worse than being talked about. 

After the success of The Catcher in the Rye, his first and only novel, Salinger turned himself into the most famous recluse in the world. Holed up in his cabin in Cornish, New Hampshire, he issued a trickle of increasingly sterile short stories. Finally he fell silent altogether. When he died in 2010, at the age of 91, he hadn’t published a word in forty-five years. 

As long as he remained alive, Salinger made things notoriously hard for would-be biographers. Since his death, the floodgates have opened. In 2010 came Kenneth Slawenski’s rather amateurish J. D. Salinger: A Life Raised High. In early September we had the vigorously hyped documentary film Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno. 

And now we have the biography of the same name, co-authored by Salerno and David Shields, and billed as “the official book of the acclaimed documentary film.” What the word "acclaimed" is doing there is a mystery: when the film was released, it didn't receive much acclaim at all. Indeed it was reviewed like the plague  and quite rightly, too. Given the quality and fate of the film, the tagline of the tie-in book begins to sound a bit ominous. You fear the arrival of a 700-page turkey.    

But the book is far better than you might expect – as long as you don’t expect it to be a literary biography in the classic sense. It is an oral biography, more or less, although it draws on written sources as well as original interviews. Occasionally the authors provide a bit of context or commentary. Otherwise their book is a vivid collage of third-party opinions and recollections, with plenty of pictures sprinkled around to complete the scrapbooky effect. 

There are moments when the absence of an authoritative and discriminating central voice gets you down. Also, infuriatingly, there is no index. But in other respects you can’t fault the authors’ diligence. If you want all the available facts about Salinger, including the icky ones, this biography is a big and raucous one-stop shop. 

We open with a scene right of Saving Private Ryan. The year is 1944; Salinger, aged 25, is storming Utah Beach on D-Day. Back home in New York, he has already acquired a reputation for his clever short stories. Now, drafted into the US army, he is headed for some of the most horrific engagements of the war. After Normandy he will see action in the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Finally he will be present at the liberation of Dachau, where the survivors can scarcely be told apart from the corpses.     

One of the book’s main arguments is that Salinger’s hair-raising war experiences account for most or perhaps even all of his later eccentricities. It’s hard to dismiss this thesis. The smell of burning flesh, he once told his daughter, never leaves the nostrils. While still in Germany he suffered a nervous breakdown. He committed himself to a civilian hospital to avoid a psychiatric discharge. 

Back in New York, as restored to health as he was ever going to be, Salinger completed a novel whose early chapters he had lugged with him around Europe. Entitled The Catcher in the Rye, the book was published in 1951. Its 16-year-old narrator and star was Holden Caulfield, whose slangy, profane, and unforgettable voice made young people feel that Salinger could read their minds. 

By 1961, the book was selling a quarter of a million copies a year. (Its total sales now number 65 million.) The novel's success turned Salinger into an icon, which was the last thing he wanted to be. He hadn’t even wanted his photograph to appear on the book’s back cover. Suddenly, however, he found himself hurled into America’s turbulent and frightening mainstream – the moronic inferno, as Saul Bellow called it.   

Two years after Catcher’s publication, Salinger began his retreat from society. Fulfilling a wish of Holden Caulfield’s, he bought his cabin in the woods. Then he built a large fence around it. He began to shun worldly things. He kept writing, but stopped publishing his manuscripts. Although unwell, he became averse to using any form of medicine that was known to work. He embraced Buddhism, macrobiotics, Scientology, homeopathy, Christian Science, and ultimately Vedanta Hinduism. He drank his own urine in a bid to purify himself. 

Salinger couldn’t have been clearer about his wish to be left alone. But many a busybody, loner, and scoop-seeker construed his silence as a come-on, a tease. They fondly imagined that he might be pleased to see them, even if he wanted to see nobody else. So they camped at the bottom of his driveway. They staked out the post office where he collected his mail. They staged bogus car crashes outside his house and lay down on the road, having smeared themselves with fake blood.  

If Salinger wasn’t paranoid to start with, such encounters must have helped him get that way. By the end of his life he could be more than a bit crabby. His former nanny recalls dropping by his cabin to collect J. D.'s annual Red Cross donation. Salinger was waiting on the porch with his gun. He threatened to shoot at the ground if she came a step closer. 

Millions of sane readers, of course, read and loved Salinger’s novel without interpreting it as an invitation to hassle him, or to do something even worse. But it can’t be denied that the book has always been a magnet for ratbags. The biggest ratbag of all was Mark Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon. Chapman managed to convince himself Lennon was a “phony”, of the kind so lavishly despised by Holden Caulfield. Chapman took a copy of the novel to the crime scene. After the shooting, as Lennon lay dying, Chapman sat down and read the book silently – and no doubt with strenuously writhing lips – until the police came. John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, was another of the novel’s more unhinged devotees.   
Shields and Salerno devote an unforgivably large chunk of their biography to Chapman, Hinckley, and other assorted freaks and nutbags who claim to have taken their homicidal cues from Salinger’s novel. Tastelessly, the authors assert that such psychopathic readers evince a “frighteningly clairvoyant” understanding of the “blood-soaked violence buried” in the text. They’d have been better off remembering Lichtenberg’s dictum that a book is a mirror: if an ape peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out. 

Salinger came to regret having written Catcher, or at least having published it. But by the time he did, it was too late. His efforts to make himself unfamous only made him more famous, until he was better known for his silence than his work. The authors quote a writer who, happening to find himself in Salinger’s neighbourhood, considered swinging by for a chat. Somebody asked him why. Was he a big fan? “No, but he’s J. D. Salinger.” There it is in a nutshell. The man was famous for not wanting to be famous. So why not drop in on him?  

Reading this new book, or indeed any biography of Salinger, you sometimes feel like an intruder yourself. Salinger made an explicit decision to stop being a public man. So how much do we deserve to know about him? Everything? Nothing? Just the early things? Among their other scoops, Shields and Salerno reveal that Salinger had only one testicle. Are we entitled to know that

Previous and better books about Salinger have incorporated such questions into their fabric. Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J. D. Salinger, published in 1988, was starved of facts, partly because Salinger sued to prevent Hamilton from using his unpublished letters. But Hamilton, making the best of things, turned his book into a self-searching meditation on the ethical questions raised by Salinger’s case. Information-wise his book is now obsolete. But it was written with a degree of tact and discernment that no subsequent biography has yet been able to match.     

In this new book what you mainly have is a babble of unfiltered voices – some of them tactful and discerning, some of them not. Before long you hear your own voice in the mix, asking questions the authors don’t try to answer, and throwing in more than the odd yelp of profane dissent.   

But the book’s weakness is also its strength. It piles up all the available data about Salinger, good and bad, and lets you draw your own conclusions. Sometimes this isn’t easy. What are we to make, for instance, of Salinger’s pronounced interest in young girls? You can’t miss this motif in his fiction: in stories like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” or “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor,” damaged war veterans encounter little girls who function as symbols of purity and innocence. 

In Salinger’s private life, the theme is more unmissable still. He was, the authors rightly say, “obsessed with girls at the edge of their bloom.” At the age of thirty, he became interested in a fourteen year-old named Jean Miller. 

Miller, who goes on the record here for the first time, reveals that Salinger courted her in an almost naively old-fashioned way. He told her parents he was going to marry her. As she got older she came to his house and slept beside him, but he didn’t touch her. Nothing inappropriate happened – apart, of course, from the whole thing. 

In the end it was Jean herself, at the age of eighteen, who took things up a notch by kissing Salinger in a taxi. A few weeks later they had sex, once. Salinger ditched her the next day. He wanted nothing more to do with her.  

Why? In any Salinger biography, there is always a voice missing: Salinger’s own. So we have to be ready to tolerate ambiguity. In this case the mystery is solved, perhaps, if we accept the authors’ contention that Salinger’s emotional growth hit a wall during his late teens. Maybe he was a case of arrested development: “no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,” as Norman Mailer called him. Maybe his later life can be read as a protracted adolescent sulk: he slammed the door of his bedroom at the age of eighteen, and he never came out. 

It should be conceded, though, that as Salinger aged, he acquired a taste for older women: not older than himself, mind you, but older than fourteen. At the age of 68 he developed a thing for the Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, who was then aged 26. A fan of trash TV, Salinger would pursue his favourite actresses by letter and telephone, using his standard pick-up line. “I’m J. D. Salinger and I wrote The Catcher in the Rye.” It didn’t work on Oxenberg, but it was well worth a try. 

Somebody complains, late in the present book, that Salinger did things that “an actual recluse or mystic” wouldn’t do. But if J. D. Salinger wasn’t a true recluse, then who was? Howard Hughes, the twentieth century’s other great shut-in, was an even more committed womanizer than Salinger. Nobody, it seems, can do without human contact altogether. Until very late in his life, Salinger made regular appearances at the local church’s weekly $12 roast beef dinners. But his third wife – who was forty years his junior – would always come along with him, and would repel any townsperson who dared to try approaching him. 

Nor, it turns out, was Salinger religiously opposed to the concept of publication. He just didn’t want to be around when it happened. Shields and Salerno, saving their juiciest scoop for last, reveal that Salinger completed five major works after withdrawing from society, including a war novel, a religious manual, and a Holden Caulfield prequel. He left instructions for these to be published between 2015 and 2020.   

Will they be any good? Only the most spirited of optimists would expect them to be up there with The Catcher in the Rye. Even before he quit the literary scene, Salinger's work was already getting pretty hard to love. The last story he published during his lifetime was the widely panned “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in 1965. Its narrator was the verbose seven-year-old Seymour Glass, boy genius, pain in the neck, and vocal champion –as it happened – of the very religion that Salinger was currently practicing himself. The fiction had become, as Shields and Salerno trenchantly say, a “wisdom delivery system.” Surely it would be idle to hope that his later work rose above that level, instead of sinking deeper beneath it.   

“He was rich, famous, and sought after: the American dream," the authors write. "And he walked away from it.” No doubt he walked away from it too far, until his renunciation began to seem a bit American too – a bit overdone, even a bit grotesque. But artists, even retired ones, test our assumptions. Salinger’s story should make us wonder if the dream itself, especially the part about fame, isn’t a bit grotesque to begin with.   

Monday, September 2, 2013

Clive James's Dante

The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri, translated by Clive James

Those of us who can’t read Dante in the original know, or ought to know, that we are missing one of literature’s main events. The calibre of Dante’s fans, and the extravagance of their admiration, put the matter beyond doubt. Edmund Wilson called him the greatest poet of all time. T.S. Eliot put him up there with Shakespeare. Michelangelo put him next to God.

There has never been a definitive English translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and it seems safe to say there never will be. The translation that excels on some levels is bound to fall short on others; so much goes on in Dante’s Italian that the English language simply isn’t up to catching all of it at once. You don’t even need to speak Italian to grasp this. You only need to know how the language sounds. Listen to this line, which clinches the fifth canto of the Inferno ... [read more]

Monday, August 5, 2013

Kafka on the Couch

Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt by Saul Friedlander

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 3-4, 2014

Reading about Franz Kafka’s life can make you wish, fervently, that you were reading one of his stories instead. His life was shot through with angst, self-torture and frustration. So was his fiction – but the fiction had an artistry that balanced out the despair. The fiction had humour, narrative verve, wicked moments of invention. The life mainly seems to have been a grim exercise in psychic agony. 

Kafka was born in Prague in 1883. His father was – as Kafka saw it – a tyrant and a philistine. Kafka lived in his shadow, all too literally: he didn’t move out of his parents’ home until the untender age of 31. He worked as a lawyer in an insurance office, and hated the way his bureaucratic day-job encroached on his writing time. His romantic life was a nightmare of inertia. Engaged three times to two different women, he could never force himself up to the plate. He was a neurotic, a hypochondriac, an insomniac. He lived, as he said in his Diaries, “on the verge of insanity.” 

When Kafka died of tuberculosis at the age of forty, only a handful of the works we now know him for had been published. He left orders for the rest of his writings to be destroyed, preferably unread. Max Brod, his friend and literary executor, disobeyed that edict. If he hadn’t, the world would have missed out on the Diaries, the letters, more than half the stories, and all three of Kafka’s novels: The Castle, The Trial, and Amerika.  

Kafka is the most readable of great writers; he has a knack for getting you in from the first sentence. At the start of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa wakes up “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” It sounds like the opening of a folk tale; but by the end of the first page we’re in a world that nobody but Kafka could have created. It is a world in which nightmarish situations are described in low-temperature, matter-of-fact prose: the fantastic is blended uncannily with the mundane. Samsa, right after discovering that he has turned into a giant bug, starts thinking about how much he dislikes his job. Then he decides to roll over and get a bit more sleep.  

In a way, Kafka’s fiction is perfectly able to speak for itself. But below their lucid surfaces, his stories are crammed with psychological mysteries. Why do characters like Samsa accept their grotesque fates with such weird docility? Do they feel, obscurely, that they had it coming? If so, why? 

Saul Friedländer has written a slender but dense biographical essay examining the sense of shame and guilt in Kafka’s fiction, and looking for its sources in his private life. Friedländer is diligent, but in the end his book makes you wonder if the quest to demystify Kafka’s life isn’t inherently doomed. The deeper you plunge into the man’s psyche, the murkier things get. It’s like Loch Ness down there. 

Friedländer spends most of his time seeking elucidation in Kafka’s Diaries and letters. These are more copious than his fictional writings, and you might expect them to be more candid about his private affairs. In a way they are. Then again, Kafka could be maddeningly imprecise about the nature of his neuroses. “I am dirty, Milena, infinitely dirty,” he wrote in the Letters to Milena. But dirty in what sense? Kafka doesn’t specify. Maybe he didn’t really know. If he baffles us, part of the reason may be that he baffled even himself. 

Still, a few things can be said with confidence. Kafka undoubtedly had some hang-ups about sex. In the fiction, as Friedländer rightly says, “Kafka’s representation of women is grimacing at best.” Moreover, his reluctance to get married went well beyond a healthy, red-blooded fear of commitment. He seems to have feared sex itself – at least with any woman he respected. 

Was he homosexual, then? Well, not exclusively, and not even mainly. “Throughout the years,” Friedländer says, “Kafka hinted at erotic feelings for a few male friends.” But he also made liberal use of female prostitutes, kept a stash of cutting-edge heterosexual porn, and habitually flirted with women he was in no danger of having to get emotionally close to.   

The plot gets thicker, and more troubling, when Friedländer quotes a handful of rather icky diary entries that have only recently come to light. In one of them Kafka describes – with way too much relish – taking a “little girl” on his lap. Other entries make it clear that he also had a thing for young boys, although there is no evidence suggesting he ever acted on it. Friedländer chides Max Brod for “systematically” suppressing such material from early editions of the Diaries. But surely that was the least Brod could do, after he’d flouted Kafka’s express instructions to torch his archives in their entirety. (A tip for aspiring literary immortals: if you really want your diaries or letters to be destroyed, destroy them yourself.)

Friedländer is an historian by trade, and the best parts of his book deal with the hard facts of Kafka’s social milieu. In Prague in the 1920s, anti-Semitism was on the rise. Kafka was ambivalent about his Judaism to start with. Courtesy of anti-Semitic “theorists” and hooligans, his burden of irrational guilt grew. When anti-Jewish riots broke out in1920, he wrote to Milena about “the unsavoury shame of living under constant protection.” (Kafka didn’t live to see the rise of Hitler, but all three of his sisters were murdered in the Holocaust.) 

Friedländer is on less solid ground when he speculates, with the aid of Freudian theory, about the contents of Kafka’s unconscious mind. Sometimes he is on no ground at all. Writing about Kafka’s story “The Judgment,” he proposes that Kafka may have named its protagonist “Georg” without ever noticing, at a conscious level, that Georg was also the name of his younger brother, who had died in infancy. When your theory leads you to suggest something as absurd as that, it’s time to wonder if the theory isn’t a bit absurd itself. Kafka himself, by the way, had a low opinion of psychoanalysis: he called it “a helpless error.”

Friedländer’s Freudian reading of Kafka’s gloriously strange “A Country Doctor” is slightly better – at least here there is some half-compelling evidence to go on. In the story, a horrifying “rose-red” wound mysteriously appears in the side of the doctor’s young patient. Friedländer argues that this represents a vagina, and a pretty scary one at that. “Kafka’s sexuality is once more barely hidden.” Then Friedländer alerts us to “the sluggish stride of the horses (like old men – after coitus).” 

Right – and after a lot of other things, too. Freudians believe, as an arbitrary article of faith, that once you have reached the sexual explanation of something you have reached the correct one. But that is no reason for the rest of us to believe it. Indeed, the rest of us are entitled to wonder if reducing a story like “A Country Doctor” to any single interpretation, sexual or otherwise, is useful or desirable at all. Rational explication always seems to diminish, rather than deepen, our understanding of Kafka’s lurid nightmares.     

Kafka’s declared aim, as a writer of fiction, was to “raise the world into the pure, the true, the immutable.” To put it another way, he tried to transcend his own peculiar psychological problems by universalising them. And he didn’t just try: he succeeded. He converted his private sufferings into stories and symbols we can all respond to. 

Friedländer doesn’t stress that point enough. Kafka’s stories are not just about Kafka. They are about the rest of us too. We all feel oppressed, at least some of the time; we’ve all had jobs we hate, fears we can’t quite explain. So stories like “The Metamorphosis” resonate with us: at a gut level we can identify with poor old reviled Gregor Samsa, shamefully confined to his bedroom, waving his little legs helplessly in the air. You can’t blame scholars for wanting to analyse this resonance. But in doing so they tend to de-universalise Kafka’s art. They lead us back to the heap of private psychic wreckage that Kafka spent his whole writing life transforming into something more numinous. 

“Very early on,” Friedländer says, “Kafka must have felt that he was different from most of those who surrounded him.” He was, but he also wasn’t. If he was entirely different from the rest of us, we wouldn’t find his mental atmosphere so chillingly familiar. He was like we would be if we were even weirder. “He is like a naked man among multitudes who are dressed,” his friend Milena wrote. The poor guy had his issues, all right. There was nobody else quite like him. If we say this in reference to his private life, we have to say it with a measure of pity. But when we say it about his work, we mean it as the highest possible compliment. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013


Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 9-10, 2013

“Western industrial civilization,” says the British critic Steven Poole, “is eating itself stupid.” Poole’s recent polemic against food culture, You Aren’t What You Eat, has had a sympathetic reception. Apparently Poole isn’t the only person who’s had a gutful of the food craze. Indeed, putting the boot into foodies is rapidly becoming a craze in its own right. Over Christmas, the novelist Will Self chimed in with an article urging Britons to make a New Year’s resolution to “throw up our very obsession with food itself.” Foodies have had a good run for a while now. But one detects signs that the great feast might be coming to an end. The critics are circling the table like waiters who want you gone. They’re clearing away chairs with increasing impertinence. One senses it might be time to call for the bill. 

So far, Poole’s book stands as the leading work of the anti-food backlash. It is brisk, well-written, and entertaining. It’s also, I think, mostly out of order. Of course, a polemicist is not obliged to be even-handed: only provocative and lively. Poole is certainly both of those things. But one is entitled to disagree with his findings. Indeed, one is more or less obliged to, if one thinks the food revolution has delivered benefits worth preserving. I do. Does that make me a foodie? If so, I reluctantly accept the label. There are far worse things to have crazes about than food. Yes, there have been excesses. But let’s not throw out the dashi with the dishwater. 

According to Poole, our food obsession has entered a decadent phase. Consider Heston Blumenthal’s “Chicken Testicle Jelly Beans.” Consider the website that, in homage to the repugnant horror film The Human Centipede, furnishes a recipe for “10 roast piglets, stitched together nose to tail, each stuffed with a turkey, in turn stuffed with a duck, then a chicken, a Cornish Hen and a quail …” Like Britain’s property market, the nation’s food culture has become an absurdly bloated bubble. Poole wants to stick a fork in it. 

Poole is at his best when lampooning the self-indulgence of the food movement’s zany fringe. When he points to the “authoritarianism” of Heston’s multi-course conceptual feasts, he is surely on to something. “What if your ideal of eating a meal at a restaurant is to think and talk about something other than food …? “ It’s a fair question. Unfortunately it has a fair answer, as Poole immediately concedes. Just don’t go to Heston’s restaurant. Nobody’s holding a brûlée torch to your head. 

It’s one thing to diss Heston. Heston’s asking for it, with his food lab, his pigs’- nipple scratchings, his 24-hour sous-vide steaks. It’s quite another thing to sink the slipper into the eminently practical Jamie Oliver, who embodies everything that’s best about the food fad. Jamie is enthusiastic, inclusive, a superb communicator of basic principles. When Poole goes after Jamie, he crosses the Rubicon. He declares his willingness to attack the food culture at its decent, unpretentious heart. 

But nothing Poole throws at Jamie really sticks. The kid is Teflon. Poole’s brusque dismissal of Jamie’s “book-shaped products” sounds like a good joke, unless you’ve ever troubled to open one of them. The truth is that Jamie’s cookbooks are ornaments to the genre. Yes, he’s probably published a few too many; but one is under no obligation to buy them all, or indeed any of them. I’ve got two, and they’ve had a crucial influence on my evolution from pie-warming journeyman into pestle-wielding near-genius. It bothers Poole that Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals “became the fastest-selling non-fiction book ever published in the UK.” But unlike many another bestseller, Jamie’s book is a high-quality, enduringly useful artefact, written by a man at the peak of his profession. In cooking culture, the popular stuff is also the good stuff. 

If Poole had been in a reflective mood, he might have pursued that interesting point. But he is out to excoriate, not to analyse. He scoffs at the claim, advanced by the creator of the original British version of MasterChef, that the show is about the “democratisation of food.” But unless the British MasterChef differs radically from its Australian counterpart, Poole has no call to be haughty about it. In its Australian incarnation, MasterChef has consistently been the best reality show on TV. And the fact that it’s about food is, I would suggest, fundamental to its excellence. In other departments of our culture – in the field of climate science, let’s say – it’s become quite okay for laypeople to scorn the authority of the trained “expert.” In food culture, the idea of objective standards is alive and well, probably because most of us can detect slapdash cooking just by looking at it. On MasterChef, wide-eyed aspirants sit and take notes while internationally revered professionals show them how things should be done. If all TV had a similar respect for expertise, our culture would be in considerably better shape. I wish there was a show called ProseMaster, in which Philip Roth would get flown in from Connecticut to teach aspiring novelists how to construct a sex scene. There isn’t, yet. But having a show like that about food is a good start. 

Poole, though, finds food an inherently dumb subject, “a universal solvent of the intellect.” Food obsessives, he says, “could be doing so much else with their time and creative energy.” He is oddly unwilling to believe that cooking can be a deeply creative act. He quotes people who swear that it is, for them; but he refuses to take them at their word. The poet (and home cook) Maya Angelou gets a serve from Poole for suggesting that “writing and cookery are just two different means of communication.” Poole won’t have it. “You cannot,” he says, “’communicate’ ideas through cookery.” 

Yes, but if life consisted of nothing but the exchange of ideas, it would scarcely be worth living. Perhaps Angelou chose her words poorly, but you can see what she means. Cooking for other people is a way of connecting with them. If Poole genuinely cannot grasp that, he is missing out on a lot. 

If the current anti-foodie trend keeps going, we’ll need to monitor it for signs of neo-puritanism and intellectual snobbery. These vices are far more deplorable than an excessive love of food, and Poole indulges in them freely. He doesn’t seem to like the sight of his intellectual inferiors enjoying themselves. The masses, he feels, should lift their game. They should stop indulging their bodies and start pursuing the life of the mind. 

But the intellectual world is at least as well stocked with bores and over-rated mountebanks as the food world is. Speaking for myself, I’d sooner spend an evening cooking and eating a decent meal than waste it reading some of the authors endorsed by Poole. He peppers his text with quotes from the giants of cultural theory – Barthes, Derrida, Foucault – even when their mots look suspiciously like laboured and Frenchified statements of the obvious. Barthes, apparently, once wrote that “through his food the Frenchman experiences a certain national continuity.” If this rather lame sally had dropped from the lips of Heston Blumenthal, Poole would have been swift to identify it as a banality. Since it was penned by Barthes, Poole quotes it with reverence. 

At another point it suits him to repeat an 800-year-old definition of gluttony hailing from the work of Thomas Aquinas. Apparently Aquinas endorsed Pope Gregory’s breakthrough discovery that anyone who wants food to be “prepared more meticulously” is a glutton. Having quoted that shaft of dark-ages fatuity, Poole adds: “In this sense (whether we agree with it or not), all modern foodists … are certainly gluttons.” 

But hang on. Even Poole doesn’t seem to believe that Pope Gregory’s definition of gluttony remains valid or useful today. And who would, apart from a hairshirt-wearing crackpot? Why then are we compelled to follow the syllogism any further? Does Poole mean to imply that the age of MasterChef is more screwed up than the age of Thomas Aquinas? 

Reluctant to believe that the foodist revolution has done our culture any good at all, Poole won’t even concede that it has raised the general standard of home cookery. He takes leave to doubt that people have actually been using all those million-selling cookbooks. According to him, such publications function as mere “comfort porn”. What is Poole’s evidence for this impudent claim? Strangely, it comes from one of his bêtes noires – the Spanish avant-gardist and known Heston-associate Ferran Adrià, who once asserted that “few people cook at home any more.” Mind you, Adrià said this without offering any proof himself. Moreover, he said it while plugging one of his own cookbooks. Still, it’s enough to let Poole carry on with his argument. “If Adrià is right, then the explosion of media foodism over the past few decades really has been about porn, or snobbery, or escapism …” 

I’d prefer to trust the evidence of my senses, which inform me that Adrià and Poole are talking baloney. Most people I know cook at home all the time. And all of them, including me, are far better cooks than they were ten years ago. Why? Because good cooking has been in the air. Because experts like Jamie Oliver have been making no-nonsense instructional shows crammed with useful advice. Because exotic ingredients are now freely available in supermarkets, which presumably means lots of people are buying them. Poole would probably reply that the popularity of those ingredients doesn’t necessarily prove people are cooking with them. Maybe we’re just buying them for show, and binning them the moment we get home. At times Poole brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic – he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

If you find the taste of Poole’s text too sour, you can always spin the lazy Susan and sample some other book about food. For the moment, there are plenty of alternatives on offer. One is The Meat Fix, by John Nicholson. Nicholson’s funny but overlong book might as well have been entitled You Are What You Eat. Nicholson is a recovering vegetarian, who spent 26 years dodging meat. During that time he was plagued by headaches, tiredness, and unspeakable bowel issues. I’d call them unspeakable, anyway. Nicholson speaks about them at reprehensible length. 

After consulting a variety of useless doctors, Nicholson decided to tackle his gastric problems by trying something radical. He cooked himself a piece of meat – specifically, an ox liver. Finding that he quite liked it, he proceeded to fry up a steak for his next meal. The next day he woke up more or less cured. “In fact, for the first time in literally years, I went to the toilet just once.” 

These days Nicholson is reaping the health benefits of a meat-laden, low-carb, fat-rich diet that would scandalise any mainstream nutritionist. To give him his due, Nicholson doesn’t just argue from his own gut. He has done his research; he mounts a convincing case that the dietary values enshrined in the food pyramid do not work for everybody. “Don’t be afraid,” he writes, “to eat slices of butter as though it’s cheese …” If Nicholson is still alive in five years’ time, this might qualify as sound dietary advice. Until then I’ll stick to my current regimen, under the terms of which I don’t even eat cheese as though it’s cheese. 

Love and Hunger, a book of reflections about food by the Australian novelist Charlotte Wood, is written with a generosity of spirit that offers a warm corrective to the chilly pedantry of Poole. In addition to being a charming and intelligent writer, Wood is an accomplished home cook. She writes persuasively about the social value of good food. She uses home-cooked dishes to welcome new neighbours, to cement relationships with friends, to ease the sufferings of the sick and the bereaved. She garnishes her text with some of her favourite recipes, one of which is for a mouth-watering lamb tagine sweetened with maple syrup. Committed to my critical duties, I felt bound to whip up this dish more or less immediately. 

The passing-on of a personal recipe is a gift: provided you don’t botch the execution, you get to taste precisely what the recipe’s author has tasted. If I wanted to phrase the matter as Barthes might have, I would say that a recipe is a love-letter addressed to the taste-buds, by means of which one attains a meal-long intimacy with the distant other. One recent summer night, on a deck assailed by kamikaze Christmas beetles, I dished up Wood’s tagine to my family. It was off-the-charts delicious. There were instant demands for the recipe. There were verbally abusive squabbles over the leftovers – the ultimate salute to any home chef. I looked on, gratified, and knew that Steven Poole and his fellow anti-food crusaders have got things seriously wrong. There are more things on earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Beatles of Comedy

Monty Python's Flying Circus Complete and Annotated edited by Luke Dempsey

In 1968, a group of young English comedians made a TV special called How to Irritate People. Pitched for the U.S. market, the show was meant to get Americans excited about a new wave of British comedy. It failed in that aim, but one of its sketches retains high interest for the archaeologist of humor. Written by a couple of Cambridge graduates named John Cleese and Graham Chapman, the sketch is set in the workshop of a shady car salesman. A disgruntled customer, played by Chapman, returns his new car and registers a few complaints: The gear lever is loose. The brakes don’t work. Before the sketch is over, the vehicle’s doors have fallen off. 

But the dodgy salesman—played by a promising comedian named Michael Palin—has an answer for everything. “You must expect teething troubles in these new models,” he says. In real life, Palin had been sold a defective car himself, and he had entertained Cleese with impersonations of his stonewalling dealer. The resulting sketch, which can be dug up on YouTube, took a few comic liberties with Palin’s real-life experiences—a few, but not enough. Like a lot of apprentice work, it’s too respectful of convention and literal truth to strike a distinctive note. [Read more]

Forty-four candles

The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy
When it Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

The 1980s were the golden age of almost nothing. But to give the decade its due, it was a good time for teen movies. In the early part of the decade, the actors Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald were giants of the genre. Both were members of the Brat Pack, which also included the likes of Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. But unlike the more trivially good-looking members of that troupe, McCarthy and Ringwald had character. McCarthy was sensitive and exceedingly wide-eyed: he looked like a bush baby with a mullet. Ringwald was famous for her red hair, lush lips, and willowy frame.

Depressingly for those of us who grew up with them, both actors are now irrefutably middle-aged. McCarthy is 50, Ringwald 44 ... [read more]