Junior or Oscar De La Mancha, The Wembling Warrior and the People I Like the Least: Not a Novel, by Macaulay Culkin (Miramax, 200 pages, $22.95). Sooner or later, this is a book that had to happen. It was only a matter of time before some superstar baby or other got it into his pathologically precocious head to empty its dubious contents in public in the most tortuously self-conscious way.
It should surprise no one that the first to do it was Macaulay Culkin who, in "Home Alone," became the uber-brat of late-20th century cinema and, in life, became the public paradigm for all the dysfunctional, family-afflicted screen pubescents who came before and after him -- all those Jackies, Coreys, Rivers, Brookes and Drews of yore and yet to be. The same Macaulay Culkin whose oppressive, obnoxious father was surely one of our time's classic stage parents.
It's an appalling book, a chaotic self-obsessed explosion of apercus, fantasies, paybacks, lists of things he loves and hates, school art projects (For a class titled "Rebels and Visionaries," he got a C-), type styles, ink colors, macabre ideas, narcissistic insults, swatches of autobiography and something that, for all its antic juvenility, approaches hard-won wisdom.
I hate to disappoint an author who is so counting on readerly revulsion but it's also a remarkable one in which one of the ,3.5i living freaks of the demographic horror show created by the current entertainment industrial complex puts us in touch with the surprisingly clever brain and aspirant spirit that fulminates inside.
"I am not a writer," he writes in the introduction to his four-year composition for God's Own Lit Class ("Anti-Social Sensibility From Villon to Rimbaud" perhaps). "I am a fraud and you can quote me on that. . . . The reviews nearly write themselves. In fact, I wouldn't be very surprised if these last couple sentences are the most quoted of any other. I'm a sham, a fraud and a failure, all at the same time."
Not entirely. A rather brilliant kid, is more like it, who was convinced before puberty that he should support a family and tolerate swooping swarms of paparazzi and that his teenage narcissism would always be justified, no matter how wildly and erratically presented.
In another era and another milieu, he might have been that eternally premature genius Rimbaud or that eternally brash egomaniac William Saroyan. In this one, he's former tyke-star Macaulay Culkin, his "father's son" with all that implies in this horrifically dysfunctional family (which, no matter what yours is, probably looks like a sitcom in comparison).
If there's shame here, it doesn't belong to the self-obsessed fragmented brainlet that produced this repulsive and weirdly fascinating book, it belongs to the life and milieu that made it possible. And Culkin -- a very clever kid, after all -- knows that.
Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism by Eric Burns (Public Affairs, 467 pages, $27.50). In the whole Fox News network, there is one, incontestably first-rate show -- "Fox News Watch," in which a quartet of press critics (from opposite political aisles, of course) sifts through the week's journalism. Its moderator is Eric Burns, formerly of NBC and quite possibly the last surviving exemplar of an era in which TV journalists could themselves be hugely engaging and sophisticated writers (think Edwin Newman). If you call him a "distinguished historian" you wouldn't even need to wash your mouth out with soap.
In this eye-opening and irresistibly readable book, Burns takes on the great primal paradox of America -- that, as Burns so nicely puts it, "the golden age of America's founding was also the gutter age of American reporting, that the most notorious presses in our nation's history churned out its copy on the foothills of Olympus." In other hands, his subjects are so compelling as to virtually write themselves -- Benjamin Franklin, John Peter Zenger, Philip Freneau, Sam Adams, Thomas Paine -- but Burns is stylistically, anecdotally and analytically gifted enough to actually add to his subjects.
It's a marvelous book -- never tedious and when the subject is great (Burr's murder of Hamilton in a duel, say) rises up to meet it. A triumph all around.
-- Jeff Simon