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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: A springtime eruption of grandeur between book covers

Jeff Simon

Let's  go out on a limb here. That is where the biggest fun is after all. They are, perhaps, the two most important American fictional imaginations of the past 60 years.

One, possessed by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, certainly didn't invent the kind of fiction we've long called "magic realism," but he epitomized it. His novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude" was, quite frankly, one of the handful of most exciting books I've reviewed in 50 years of doing so for The Buffalo News.

The most influential, by far, pulp fictional imagination of our time was unquestionably 78-year old Thomas Harris, another writer who began in journalism. His first novel, "Black Sunday," had its origins in the reality of attacks against Israeli athletes at the Olympics but, horrifyingly, his fictional attack on a Super Bowl became an apocalyptic model for real world terrorism. Beyond that, Harris' masterful serial killer novels -- "Red Dragon," "The Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal" -- almost instantly became the paradigm for the serial killer stories that have, ever since, flooded movies and TV. It is genuinely frightening to think how many of Harris' fictional nightmares have influenced real world nightmares.

Before May is over, there will be -- somewhat incredibly -- hugely welcome new books by both -- "Cari Mora," Harris' first novel since "Hannibal Rising" in 2006 and what his publisher calls his "first standalone thriller since 'Black Sunday.'" It will be published May 21 and examined by me closer to the publication date.

The week before that, on May 16, the journalism of the great modern master from Colombia, will be collected in Marquez's "The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings" (Knopf, 302 pages, $27.95). Among its immensely readable essays and pieces of reportage is "The Spector of the Nobel Prize," which was published in 1980 in Madrid, two years before he won the prize and includes warm memories of dinner at the home of the "the only Nobel Prize judge who reads in Spanish."

No one would dream of casting aspersions on the prize going to such a towering literary figure. Nevertheless, the chummy content of that piece of journalism is more than enough to give us pause. (As important a prize as the Nobel for Literature is, it has always excited constant doubt.)

Those two are among the most important writers published in May (remember, too, it will also see a new memoir by Howard Stern, no less), but none of them change the fact the past month and a half have made Spring the most satisfying literary season in a long time. We've seen thus far:

"Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing"

By Robert A. Caro

(Knopf, 207 pages, $25)

A miraculously slender book by the greatest living master of Brobdingnagian biographies, Robert A. Caro, the man whose whose massive and marathon prize-winning  excursions into the lives of Robert Moses ("The Power Broker") and Lyndon Johnson (two volumes to be closed out by a third by the 83-year old writer) are the universal standard for the form.

In this book -- one of the most important anyone will read in an era where the garbageous charge of "fake news" has been slimed over some of the best that modern journalism had to offer -- readers, writers and journalists alike will be humbled by the ethic that has made Caro a unique figure in America.

In this slim discourse on his working life, he tells us, for instance, about his desire to know just how Moses' beloved highways affected those displaced families whose homes were demolished to make room for them. Those questions took him to apartment houses whose ground floor corners were so covered with urine and feces they made his eyes water.

In order to understand what it meant for the Texas "hill people" when Lyndon Johnson legislation finally brought them water and electricity, he learned what it meant for women to haul up water "bucket by bucket from a well" -- up to 200 gallons a day by a single person carrying it on the same kind of yokes people use for oxen.

What most other writers would simply repeat as a dry statistic, Caro heroically turns into a story of how struggling people were triumphantly changed radically by Lyndon Johnson's political power at the beginning of a brutal political life.

"Working" is a magnificent credo by one of the true living literary heroes of our time.

"Funny Man"

By Patrick McGilligan

(Harper, 625 pages, $40)

Let's admit this book is uninspired, but it is admirably dogged. If Caro is the exemplar of the best in working biography, entertainment writer Pat McGilligan is the example, par excellence, of persistence against the odds in the biographer's trade.

This is a book that long needed doing -- a long and thorough book about Mel Brooks. It completely lacks the jaw-dropping reinvented reality of a Caro masterwork but it is, nevertheless,  as thorough as a show business biography can be when so many sources are afraid of running afoul of the subject's litigiousness and touchy temper. It is a show business axiom that comedians are seldom models of mental health and sunny optimism.

Brooks, who has long been the nomination of many to be "the funniest man alive" comes through this book as a neglectful first husband and father of his first family, a professional credit poacher (ask Buck Henry about "Get Smart") and more than a bit of a pretentious oaf. He has also been undeniably a crude comic genius and, occasionally, inspired film producer (David Lynch's "The Elephant Man").

A great piece of writing by McGilligan, this is not, but it is a triumph over Brooks' pawky friends and associates in its plentiful supply of information and it pyrotechnic profusion of anecdotes, many of them fresh.

"Hollywood Black"

By Donald Bogle, foreward by John Singleton

(Running Press, 269 pages, $35)

"Forbidden Hollywood"

By Mark A. Vieira

(Running Press, 271 pages, $30)

The shocking recent death at 51 of writer/director John Singleton, after a stroke, makes Donald Bogle's "Hollywood Black" even more invaluable than it was already going to be. Bogle is the great historian of black film in America. His "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films" is one of the definitive books about black film. His new book is being published in the same general period as Mark A. Vieira's lavish and splendid "Forbidden Hollywood" about pre-code filmmaking. These are books under the general imprimatur of Turner Classic Movies, whose branding has actually spread into the wine business (Robert Mitchum pinot noir, Chaplin merlot. Oy vay.). It has, in its books, found luxuriant ways to marry elementary histories of Hollywood with gorgeous books of movie photographs. The prices, all things considered, are reasonable.

These are two utterly essential and sophisticated books about specific parts of Hollywood history. They are extravagant in suitable ways. Thank heaven, you needn't worry when reading them if you're drinking the right wine. (Classic anecdote about TCM's Ben Mankiewicz's grandfather Herman -- screenwriter of "Citizen Kane," along with Orson Welles -- at a fancy dinner: He got so drunk he threw up at the dinner table. "Don't worry" he reassured the hostess. "The white wine came up with the fish.")

"The Ultimate History of the '80's Teen Movies"

By James King

(Diversion Books, 464 pages, $18 paper)

Let's freely admit that when you're talking about Hollywood subjects, '80's teen movies is not exactly up there in significance with black movies and the movies that forced Hollywood to adopt a puritan production code. While some of the movies that James King writes about here will probably make it all the way onto TCM eventually ("Dead Poets Society," "16 Candles," "Footloose"), others ("Porky's," "St. Elmo's Fire") would have a much harder time migrating out of the cultural basement. None of that changes the fact that courtesy of "dumbing down" everywhere, the '80's were a kind of Golden Age of teen movies for the wrong reasons (pandering for the sake of demographics). It also doesn't change the fact King is a surprisingly smart and readable guide to movies that don't always deserve him.

"The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns from Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins"

Edited by John Schulian

(Library of America, 432 pages, $29.95)

Devotees of newspaper sports pages have known for over a century the quality of writing they're reading is often vastly richer than the subject matter involved. Glorious pieces of prose were being produced about subject matter that was evanescent and no stranger to the trivial. We're promised "98 columns by 46 masters of the press box from Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon in the 1920's to Sally Jenkins and Joe Posnanski in the last decade." So much American sportswriting lies at the ground zero of the American language in action that a well-edited anthology like this is both a reader's fiesta and an education (But then why shouldn't all education be a fiesta? Just asking.). Don't for a second, think Runyon's "Horse Players Die Broke" is a relic until you read it.

In 2010, when Sally Jenkins asked out loud whether women should as a class, fear professional athletes, she ended her column about it this way:

"What has happened to kindness, to the cordial pleasures of friendship between men and women in the sports world? Above all, what has happened to sexuality? When did the most sublime human exchange  become more about status and power than romance? When did it become so pornographic and transactional, so implacably cold?"

#MeToo was just a few years away. Jenkins, on the sports pages of the Washington Post, couldn't have asked more pertinent -- and relevant -- questions.

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